March 3, 2002
Third Sunday in Lent

from the Revised Common Lectionary
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

The underlined text will take you to a sermon on the gospel.

Losing, Seeking and Finding - III. Finding - Water as Life

"You Can't Get Blood Out of a Turnip"
Exodus 17:1-7

We live in a world where water covers more than three quarters of the earth's surface.  Most of the water on Earth, 97% to be exact, is salt water found in the oceans -- in other words, only 3% of the water on earth is fresh, drinkable water. Yet we live in a world where water is in short supply. ¹

Remember these words from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's, "Rime of the Ancient Mariner?"

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.
   Samuel Taylor Coleridge - 

Though there is a world full of salt water - fresh water is an increasingly diminishing resource. There is no more fresh water on the earth than there was 2000 years ago. There is no more fresh water available today than there was when Jesus spoke to a Samaritan woman at Jacob's well. And even then, water was a precious commodity which was in short supply in many places.

And get this. The world's population in Jesus' time was only 3 percent of what it is today. Each year 80 million people are added to the earth's population. Ninety five percent of these new fellow human beings are born in developing countries where water shortage is already an issue.

There has been struggle over water since the earliest days of the biblical drama. Abraham's son Isaac struggled with local shepherds in what was known as the land of the Philistines over fresh water wells. Isaac had to keep moving until the sheep herders of Gerar stopped complaining. [Gen. 26:20]

The fact is that the impending shortage of fresh water on planet earth is one of the larger security issues facing the world. This shortage can bring about much more devastation that a few shepherds pushing each other around in a middle eastern desert! One journalist from the Inter Press Service, an international coalition of journalists writes, "'Water crises in more and more countries will present obstacles to better living standards and better health and even bring risks of outright conflict over access to scarce freshwater supplies. Finding solutions should become a high priority now.'' ²


The words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge spell out a chilling reality. One could die of thirst in the midst of water. The problem of the Ancient Mariner was that the water which was "everywhere" and yet would yield, "not a drop to drink."

Have you ever been thirsty?

I don't mean thirsty as in wanting a cool drink after exercise or a short break while working on a hot summer day. I mean thirsty where your mouth was dry, your lips parched and your mind began to obsess about water. 

Here's real thirst -- Eugene O'Neill's bizarre one act play, "Thirst" is all about the hopelessness and despair of three hapless victims of a cruise ship disaster. All values change as dehydration slowly claims the victims who are adrift on a small raft. There is a telling exchange between a dancer and a gentleman:

THE DANCER—This necklace...  is worth a thousand pounds. An English duke gave it to me. I will not part with it. Do you think I am a fool?

  THE GENTLEMAN—Think of a drink of water! (They both lick their dry lips feverishly.) If we do not drink soon we will die. (laughing harshly) You will take your necklace to the sharks with you...  For my part, I would sell my soul for a drop of water. ³ 

I can't say I have ever been thirsty enough to think I would sell my soul for a drink of water, but I have had the experience of being lost with a childhood friend in a Northern Ontario woods. It was eight hours before we found our way home and the primary thought that dominated our minds by the time we got home was water. We have not had anything to drink all day and nothing in all of creation had ever sounded so beautiful as the sound of water flowing from the kitchen faucet. 

There is a spiritual parallel to the universal thirst for fresh water and the notion of being surrounded by water that can not heal the dry throat and parched lips of a thirsty person. One our culture, we are surrounded by all kinds of material things that promise fulfillment -- things that promise to quench the thirst of our searching and yet...  in spite of all that is offered, our spirits are still parched.


Our reading from the book of Exodus today is about a group of really thirsty people. So thirsty, in fact, that they threaten  their leader Moses who goes to the Lord and says, "These people are ready to stone me." Responding to Moses'  pleading, God provides water for the people when Moses strikes a landmark rock at Horeb and water comes flowing from the rock.

"You can't get blood out of a turnip," the old saying says... but God can bring water out of a rock!  If this is all we knew, it would sound like a straight forward story about a bad circumstance that had a happy ending.

The story of Moses and the people of Israel in the desert is a story about how God is able to provide everything that is needed for the fulfillment of the promises God makes. Mortal beings can not get blood from a turnip - or water from a rock, but God can. The issue is trusting God's ability when our ability obviously comes up short of what is needed. The insurmountable barriers we confront are opportunities for faith to point to God's promise keeping power.

On the one hand you can't blame a mass of thirsty people wandering around in the desert for becoming agitated after a long journey on foot with the blazing sun beating down on them. Yet...  on the other hand, no people in the history of the world had ever witnessed so much incredible action taken on their behalf.

God made a promise to them that they would come to a promised land - a land that, "flows with milk and homey."  When they escaped the land of Egypt and found themselves at the Red Sea's dead end - God opened up the sea in front of them and closed it on their enemies behind them.  When there was no food, God provided their "daily bread." In other words, God demonstrated at every turn that even when the promise encountered an impossible barrier, the power of God on their behalf was greater than the obstacle.

Now when they are in need once again, they focus on the problem instead of the Provider. Rather than call on the God who had seen them through every major difficulty they had faced, they complained to Moses.

There is a strong lesson here for people of faith today. No matter how difficult the way may seem or how impossible the circumstances, when we choose faith instead of fear and trust in God above the tyranny of the crisis, the Lord will be there for us.

The water we need for our spiritual thirst is available if we will but turn our hearts to faith in God more than we turn our anxious hearts to the trouble that lies before us. Faith is stronger than fear and trust in God is more powerful than the barriers we face.


The gospel reading gives a more direct connection between physical water and spiritual life.

The story told in John chapter four is the story of the physically thirsty Savior who comes to Jacob's well and encounters a spiritually thirsty Samaritan woman. Jesus asks her for a drink of water and in so doing, smashes through several cultural barriers. Jesus ignores the animosity that permeates Jewish - Samaritan relationships. He ignores social status and class and in the end sends a socially unacceptable woman to become the first missionary to the Samaritan people.

Before he even receives a drink from the woman's bucket, she is asking him for the water he offers. Although she misunderstands what that water is at first, Jesus leads her through the process of discovery of who she is. She rushes off to her Samaritan village to share an incredible question with her fellow villagers. "He can not be the Messiah, can he?" 

Amazingly, the people of the village rush out to see Jesus at the well of Jacob and discover there the spiritual water they have been seeking for a lifetime. Listen to their witness:

They said to the woman, "It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world." [4:42]


There is an intimate connection between water and life in the scriptures. The fact that water is life is a very real physical reality. Moses has a rebellious nation on his hands when they find themselves in the middle of a desert without water. But their journey is about much more than physical water. Thought they need physical water for their physical well being, they also need the "gift of God" for their spiritual well being. They are on their way to a promised land where there is peace and security -  and God is very much present in their life together.

In the gospel of John, Jesus comes as the "Savior of the world," bringing a gift. "Those who drink of the water that I give them will never be thirsty. The water that I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life."

Whether Israelites wandering in the wilderness, a group of Samaritan villages seeking the Savior or people like you and me who wander in the spiritual wilderness of our contemporary world...  water is life!

The epistle reading from Romans summarizes the enduring new spiritual reality that Jesus brought to the world. "...since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."

How's that again?

In the gospel, Jesus tells the woman that she need only ask for the gift of living water. In the Old Testament reading, the people are given a dramatic demonstration of what it means to have faith in God.  In other words, it is by our faith and trust in God that we receive living water and the gift of this living water which Jesus spoke of with the Samaritan woman is Paul's, "Peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."

So you see - while it is true that you can't get blood out of a turnip and generally true that water is not found in the desert wilderness -- God can get water out of a rock and the Savior came to bring life out of death!

¹ There is a wonderful educational web site sponsored by the Missouri Botanical Gardens > here <    [Give this site a visit it is worth publishing in your parish newsletter as an educational resource for your school children.]  The particular information for the stats we've quoted on water is > here <

² See the article on Inter Press Service web site > here <

³ The entire one act play is available > here <  [A great site for those who appreciate the work of Eugene O'Neill]


Reflection on the Texts

Exodus 17:1-7

 Exodus 17:1-7  This passage presents a great opportunity to talk about learning dependence upon God.  The people are helpless and they are dependent.  (Yes, they are also fickle and ready to blame anyone for their trials.)

The passage is linked to the reading from John's gospel because of the theme of water.  God literally save the people from perishing of physical thirst.  Jesus meets the woman at the well and offers the water that saves from spiritual death.

The whole point of both passages is a "Declaration of Dependence."  Physically or spiritually, we are dependent upon God.  Self-sufficient is a genuine myth! 

John 4:5-42

Choose the NIV reading at Bible Gateway for IVP commentary on these texts

The gospel reading is rather lengthy ... the narrative in our text today is the longest conversation in the gospel of John.  With this and other narrative stories in John, it is important to keep John 20:31 in mind.  "These things are written that you might believe." As Matthew is a "teaching" gospel in many respects -- so John's story narratives are aimed at bringing us to believe. (have faith or trust)

v. 7-8 The hostility and religious differences between Samaritans and Jews is well documented.  Most Jews would rather go hungry or thirsty than share a Samaritan's bread or water.  The woman came to draw water, so she must have had a vessel with which to draw.  She assumes Jesus, a Jewish male, would not drink from her vessel.  

v.10 Jesus "leapfrogs" the Samaritan-Jewish division and goes directly to offering her the gift of "living water."  (See Jer. 2:13 - God is the "fountain of living waters")  He smashes false barriers.

vv.11-15  The woman has difficulty getting past the physical plane.  That's a whole sermon by itself.   What does it take to get past the physical?  Jesus does not throw up his hands or scold her.  He stays with the topic.  When she does ask for the water -- she is still at a very mundane level.

v.16-20 "Go call your husband.."  This gets her attention.  She would rather talk religion than hear about her personal life. Jesus' insight into the details of her life spoke to her of the gift of prophecy.  Since the Samaritans recognized only the five books of Moses.   Jesus might have been the Moses-like prophet of Deut. 34:10. ("There has not arisen a prophet since in Israel -- like Moses.")

vv.25-30 Some commentators suggest that Jesus had some previous knowledge of the woman perhaps from the townspeople where he had sent his disciples for food. But this would make the remainder of the story a psychological "slight of hand" on Jesus part and the "I am he.." of verse 26 a sham.

In v.27, the disciples are surprised that Jesus is talking with this woman at the well.  It is hard for we moderns to understand just how much Jesus challenged the New Testament world's view of women.  Even St. Paul, who is regularly criticized for this view of women,  was quite ahead of his time.   Additionally, a Samaritan woman would have been even more disdained -- to say nothing of her life situation.  A comment by the second century AD rabbi, Jose ben Yohanan gives insight into the male perspective on women at that time. "Prolong not conversation with a woman."  The editorial comments of the rabbi who preserved the words goes, "That is to say, even with one's wife; how much more with a neighbor's wife.  Hence the wise men say, 'He who prolongs conversation with a woman brings evil upon himself... ' "  [Quoted in FF Bruce:  The Gospel of John, Eerdmans - 1983 p.112]  Consider Jesus' actions in light of that mentality and you see how radical he really was.

v.39 The simple narrative of the woman going back to town and the townspeople coming out to him is one of the best reasons for listening and reflecting between the lines.  Obviously this woman got in touch with "living water" -- in a way that made those who knew her best want to know more.

vv.40-42  The invitation to Jesus to stay speaks volumes. He penetrated centuries of hate and mistrust.  How painful to stop and reflect on how difficult it is for Christians to break down the barriers within their own ranks!  Philip would return to preach the gospel. (Acts 8:5)


More on the Gospel Reading

There is a great sermon in the personal experience of this woman from a town in Samaria who goes out in the heat of the day (a social outcast in her town and a religious outcast to Jesus' disciples) to draw water.   She returns to town with such a powerful change in her life that the townspeople go out to the well to see for themselves if Messiah has come.  Not only that, the people invite Jesus to stay.  That a Jewish rabbi would be invited to stay in a Samaritan village to teach is more than amazing.

You might explore this lengthy narrative in terms of the principles of evangelism Jesus embodies.

1. The work is "out there".   The task of evangelism is something that takes place as we move out into the world.   It is way more than asking someone to go to church with you.  Can you imagine Jesus saying... "You should come back to Capernaum with me and go to synagogue."   (Tongue is in cheek!)

2. Join them where they are:  The Pharisees and their desire for ritual purity kept them from associating with anyone other than their own kind.  They were hyper critical of Jesus for his associations with "sinners".  Jesus told them in effect, "I go where the need is!"   Effective evangelism will require that we examine the Pharisaic attitudes that sneak into our own spirits.

3. Take time to build relationships:   Jesus didn't argue with the woman.  He didn't impose upon her.  He took the time and had the patience to stay with her -- even when she was "dense" about the spiritual things he was pointing to.  In other words -- be ready for the fact that they might not "get it."  Nicodemus was a highly educated guy and he didn't "get it." (John 3)

4. Don't avoid the spiritual:   Finally, the whole episode is about the "living water" Jesus can give.   A point comes when we have to talk about the meaning of Christ for our lives.   "I am he!"  It doesn't get any more plain than that.

5. Connect the truth with their lives:   "Come and see a man who told me everything!"  How does the good news about Jesus Christ apply to this person's life!  That's the key -- isn't it? It does not matter if I encountered Christ in church, and you encountered Christ during an illness, and my mom encountered Christ at a women's bible study, or Zacchaeus encountered Christ in a tree -- the important thins is that the good news get connected with my life where I am today!  Get it folks! If Zacchaeus had started his own denomination, we might have a group who goes out to the city park every Sunday at 11:00 am to climb into the trees where they expect to experience God!

Additional Homiletical Directions

John 4:30-38  There is a bit of an interlude in John's long narrative when the disciples talk to Jesus about eating.  As the woman didn't "get it" with the water, the disciples don't "get it" with respect to food.

Jesus says that his "food" is pleasing God -- doing God's will.  He talks of God's harvest -- a harvest that is even now happening right under their very noses.  A Samaritan harvest.  They can't see it because they don't see Samaritans as a part of God's concern. (Big mistake! -- Then and now!)

You might take this interlude and develop a sermon along the lines of how it is that we need to teach ourselves to see the spiritual dimension of life all around us.  We are spiritual creatures who have been "bought off" by the physical / material dimension of life.

Romans 5:1-11

The text from Romans this week builds on last week's discussion of how it was the Abraham was made right with God because of his trust in God's promise to make him the father of a great nation.

This is one of the foundational truths in Paul's theology - "Justification by faith." Now Paul comes to the central new spiritual reality that is the gift of God to those who are made right with God through faith.  This is one of the best known verses in the epistles. Though most people may not be able to quote chapter and verse, they are more than familiar with the concept...

"...we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."

Paul details in this passage some of the tremendous gifts that come to those who trust in Christ. This is the spiritual equivalent of the "water" thirsty people are seeking. As the Israelites were promised a physical homeland, so Christian people discover the qualities of their spiritual homeland, namely: [a] Peace with God,
[b] Hope in sharing God's glory, [c] Hope for living, and [d] God's love poured out in our hearts.

One homiletical approach for this week would be to use Paul's exposition of what it means to have peace with God as an exposition of Jesus' words to the woman at the well, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." [4:10]

 Worship Helps

A Call To Worship   (Adapted from Psalm 95)

Leader:    O come, let us sing to the LORD;
People:   Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!

Leader:   Let us come into God's his presence with thanksgiving;
People:   Let us make a joyful noise to the Lord with songs of praise!
Leader:   O come, let us worship and bow down,
People:   Let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!
Leader:   For we are the people of God's pasture --  the sheep of the Lord.
People:  O Let us hear the voice of the Lord today!

A Prayer of Confession

We confess, O Lord God, that we have strayed from your ways and find ourselves wandering in the wilderness of our world. We miss the gift that you have to give because we fear the obstacles before us more than we trust your ability to redeem us. Forgive us Lord, and renew a trusting spirit within us that we might walk in your ways and bring honor to your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

May your faith give you righteousness and peace, may God's Spirit give you love. May the grace of God give you hope and may the love of Christ give you strength to live a new life.  Amen.

A Prayer of Thanksgiving

We give you thanks and praise today, O gracious God, for your mercy toward us is more than we could ever deserve and beyond what we could conceive.  Even in our best attempts to be your children, we come so far short of all that we could be if we would but attend more carefully to your will.  How much you must love us! We can not begin to fathom just how deeply we are loved. 

O God, it is in our experience as parents that we more fully understand Your love for us. How it must break Your heart when we persist in doing the things that finally erode the meaning and the joy of our lives. When we see our children heading in directions that will be their undoing, it worries us so. Yet, we can not control the what, where, how, when, or why of their living without doing damage to their persons. As we do with our own children, you patiently lead us, teach us and guide us with the fond desire that we embrace all that will make of us worthy servants of our Lord Jesus Christ.

God... help us to listen today. Not only with our ears. We've seen the faces of our children when they are listening with their ears alone. Help us to listen with our hearts. And hear with our souls. And act with our wills. O loving Lord, give us the joy of knowing the light of Your Holy Spirit breaking into the dark recesses of our spirits, that we might faithfully give ourselves to the service of your Son Jesus Christ and so bring glory, honor and blessing to your Holy Name.  Amen.


Prayer of Dedication

Every good gift is from your hand, O Lord.   May we become more fully aware that the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat are from your hand. The gifts we bring are but a portion of your gifts to us.   Even in our giving, we proclaim that you are Lord of all. Amen!