“Jesus’ foreign bride”
In the olden days—the real olden days—wells were where the patriarchs found their wives. And not just any wife, either: a foreign bride.
When we think about how things might have been back then (no bars, no televisions, just the desert and the watchful eyes of families) foreign wells would have been an attractive place to meet a bride. Women went to wells to draw water for their families. And men who wanted to meet them hung around wells hoping that someone would—ahem—offer them a drink of water.
When Abraham sent his servant Eliezer of Damascus off to find a wife for his half-witted son Isaac, for example, Eliezer went to a well. And not just any well, a foreign well, far enough away that the woman would have never heard about Isaac. Point is, Eliezer found Isaac a foreign bride, Rebecca, at a well. You can read the story in Genesis 24.
Isaac’s son Jacob found HIS foreign bride Rachel at a well, also. When Jacob and Rachel met, Jacob was running away from his murderously angry twin brother Esau, who Jacob had tricked out of his birthright. You can read THAT story in Genesis 28 and 29.
Even Moses found HIS wife Zipporah at a well, per Exodus 2:15-22.
So when Jesus was resting at a well today—a foreign well at that—all by himself, we make excuses for him. This is JESUS we’re talking about. HE wasn’t in search of a foreign bride (was he?). No, he was TIRED. Yes! That was it! And his disciples? Ah, they were off buying food. It was noon, after all, lunch time. Jesus just happened to be sitting near a Samaritan well. Thirsty, too.
And there came a woman. Scripture doesn’t record her name, but the Eastern Orthodox Church calls her St. Photine, which means “the luminous one.” Of course, when Photine approached Jesus at the well at high noon on this day, she wasn’t a saint yet, and she probably wasn’t shiny, either.
Jesus said to Photine, “Give me a drink,” which the woman charitably interpreted as an “ask.” She pointed out to Jesus that Jews generally didn’t ask anything of Samaritans. In other words, she wasn’t the kind of foreign woman of whom his mother would have approved. But then, Jesus surprised Photine by offering her “living water.”
Stop, wait one, I’m confused. “living water?” What’s that? To Jews, living water meant “running water,” like in a fast-flowing stream. (I looked it up.) But this was a WELL, 100-foot deep. (I looked this up, too.) When Photine questioned Jesus about living water he told her that living water sustains us forever. Living water so fills us with life that we never thirst again (spiritually speaking, although Jesus didn’t say this). Living water flows through us and moves our very being into eternal life. Starting right now.
Notice that here Jesus did not say HE is living water, but that if the woman asked, God would give her living water. Elsewhere in John’s gospel (John 7:37-39, to be exact) we read that living water is the Holy Spirit that would be given by God later to those who believed in him. So living water is a metaphor for the Holy Spirit which would later reside inside Christians and prepare them for eternal life, change their very being, and seal them as God’s own forever.
What an odd story! Ahead of its time. A foretaste (foredrink?) of things to come. A lot of people think John means us to compare Nicodemus’ reaction to Jesus (which we heard about last Sunday) with Photine’s reaction. Nic was the ultimate religious insider who should have known who Jesus was. He came at night and left confused. Just as the prophet Jeremiah had foretold (Jeremiah 2:13): “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” Photine was “as outsider” as a Samaritan woman (who had been married five times and living in sin) could be, yet she understood she was speaking to the Messiah and went and brought her whole village to Jesus.
There is another comparison we are meant to make, though, and this one is about baptism. Just a few verses before today’s gospel lesson begins, we learn that Jesus’ disciples were baptizing more people than John the Baptist, but that Jesus himself didn’t do the baptizing. And yet I wonder if Jesus didn’t baptize Photine at the well? Not with water in the ritual way we are used to seeing, but baptized with living water, baptized with the Holy Spirit. How else could she have recognized Jesus as the Christ, when those who were closer to him, and better equipped to have recognized Jesus as the Messiah, were so blind?
In fact, I think that Jesus DID find a foreign bride at the well in Samaria. Christ Jesus’ bride was not Photine, as you might expect, but the Church. If Jesus gave Photine salvation, gave her eternal life:
- IN a way, Jesus confessed Photine’s sins, and then apparently absolved her of those sins. At least he didn’t shrink in horror and disgust at her deficiencies. There’s a sacramental act, if I’ve ever seen one.
- Jesus baptized her with living water, giving her new life, eternal life, life from above. She was so energized by the experience that—luminous with the Holy Spirit—she did what all disciples do: She ran off to tell others, leaving the tools of her former work behind, in this case leaving her water jug behind. Baptism is one of our Church’s two sacraments.
- Christ Jesus then told his disciples he had food to eat they didn’t know about. THEY were mystified, but WE know what he meant, don’t we? We will eat some of that food in just a few minutes, food that has lasted forever, food which will sustain our forever bodies. Isn’t the Eucharist the second of two of our Church’s sacraments?
Christ Jesus found his bride at this well all right; he founded his Church right here in Samaria. And, in case you hadn’t noticed, this was a foreign bride. As for Photine, the Eastern Orthodox Church says that she became a martyr for her faith. Ironically, she died in a well. You won’t find that story in scripture, but you can look it up.
The question for us today is whether we are Nicodemus in this story, or Photine.
- Do we know who Jesus is and live righteously enough as “good people,” but never speak Christ’s name in public? If so, we need to ask God for living water, need to ask Christ Jesus to send the Holy Spirit to live in and work through us. If so, we need to repair the leaky cistern of our being, and of our Church.
- Or do we give a thirsty Christ something to drink, and then—leaving the water jug behind—run to tell everyone we know about living water?