By Rev. Amy Butler
I’ve been on the hunt this week for denatured ethanol. Turns out we need it to fuel our ecogreen fireplace in our new house, and I didn’t, frankly, think it was going to be too hard to find the fuel for the fireplace. Alas, so far my hunt has been grossly unsuccessful, in large part because, when I started looking, I had no idea what denatured ethanol, in fact, was.
Sarah Leismer tried her best to explain it to me . . . something about oxygen and protons and heat, but I realized as she was trying, in vain, to demonstrate by arranging Hershey’s chocolate kisses on the kitchen counter (this is a proton, this is a neutron, etc.), that it’s really embarrassing how very little I retained from Chemistry class in college.
Later I was thinking about it. I may not have retained too much, but in my defense, Sarah is a little closer to her college chemistry class than I am—like, 20 years closer. Also, in that particular chemistry class I was wholly distracted as I found myself sitting next to a very interesting young man who commanded most of my attention. And, honestly, I don’t have any interest in chemistry at all. I guess I never expected to be hunting for denatured ethanol, that’s for sure. I tried to think: is there anything at all I retained from chemistry class, aside from the person I married?
Yes. I remember one thing from chemistry class that I’ve carried with me all these years: the axiom that “water is a universal solvent.” I remember learning that water dissolves more substances than any other liquid, that the hydrogen and oxygen molecules attract each other and that it’s a “sticky” substance that naturally picks up all kinds of chemicals and minerals wherever it goes. Tuck away THAT piece of trivia for future use!
I don’t know why that information stuck with me and all the other important stuff did not. And who knows why Jesus chose the metaphors he did to explain his work in the world, either.
Did he learn in chemistry class that water is a universal solvent and so choose to call himself the “living water” that day at the well? I doubt it. But I do know that Jesus had a good sense of the power of water that day as he approached Jacob’s well at the noon hour.
Yes, it was about noon when Jesus approached the Samaritan city of Sychar and made his way to the well. Jacob’s well was a famous well, the site of history-making Bible stories, like the story of Jacob and Leah and Rachel.
Jesus went to the well that day and encountered a woman there, a Samaritan woman. What follows in our John passage is the longest and most in-depth personal conversation between Jesus and another person ever recorded in the biblical text.
Jesus starts things off by asking for a drink of water, and before your know it Jesus and the woman are talking about things too personal for polite company. One minute the objective was a drink of water; the next minute everything changes; someone’s life is on the line; all the preconceived ideas held by the Samaritan woman, Jesus’ disciples, the Samaritan citizens of Sychar . . . all of them were suddenly being dissolved by a power much larger than they had ever seen before . . . the power of water, living water, like a universal solvent, dissolving the callous shells of their hard, hard hearts and opening their lives to new, life-giving possibility.
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If you’ve been around church for any length of time you may have heard the Samaritan woman at the well story before, but you and I wouldn’t automatically know how very shocking this passage of scripture is. In fact, in almost every single verse, this story flies in the face of convention, breaks rules, challenges social morays and violates preconceived standards for behavior.
First of all, we might not automatically know that Jesus’ travel into Samaritan territory was unexpected and totally inappropriate. Samaritans and Jews were living in the middle of an ethnic division that had started hundreds of years before, after the death of King Solomon. When the Northern and Southern kingdoms of Israel split, the 10 tribes of Israel who banded together claimed Samaria as their capital. When the Assyrians took the nation of Israel into captivity, it was the strategy of their king to import back into the captured land settlers from Babylon to intermarry with the Jews left there. As a result, a hybrid race developed, called Samaritans.
When the Jews returned from exile in Babylon, sharp ethnic divisions became apparent. Samaritans looked down on the Jews who had gone to Babylon while they stayed and kept things going. The Jews were horrified that the Samaritans would even call themselves Jews, as they had intermarried and modified religious practice because of these varying cultural influences.
The bottom line is that there was great animosity between the groups, with each considering the other to be corrupt. In fact, Jewish law maintained that a righteous Jew would hold nothing in common with a Samaritan, and while passing through Samaria to reach Jerusalem was the quickest way to travel, religious Jews would go far out of their way to avoid even passing through Samaritan territory.
That’s the first thing that’s strange here. Jesus should not, unless he was completely desperate, be anywhere near the region of Samaria. In doing that he risked exactly what happened next: an unlawful encounter with a Samaritan.
But there’s more that’s strange here.
There was a woman at the well, drawing water in the heat of the day.
We don’t live in an arid climate, and we certainly don’t draw our own water, so we perhaps would not know that drawing water was a regular event, twice a day, done by every household in the city. If you didn’t draw the water you needed for the day’s tasks, you wouldn’t be able to complete essential tasks for daily living.
The well, as you can imagine, was the hub of community life, like our Starbucks on the corner, where everyday without fail everyone could get caught up on the news of the village, hear the latest gossip or conduct necessary business. And, given the heat of the region, you’d want to go to the well early in the morning or at dusk when the sun was not so hot. Lugging water is hard work, you know. And it was the women who had the responsibility of carrying the water from the well to the village, every morning, every evening, every day.
We don’t know much about this Samaritan woman. We don’t even know her name. But we do know that she was at the well drawing water in the heat of the day, the worst time possible, either avoiding folks or being avoided by the crowd in the village. For whatever reason, she was an outcast among her peers.
Jesus in Samaria; a woman at the well. It only gets stranger, though. Jesus walks right up and talks to the woman, who talks back to him. You understand, of course, that convention would have frowned on Jesus talking to a strange woman in general. But here he is, talking to a woman who was a Samaritan and who was, for whatever reason, an outcast in her own community.
Their conversation is life-transforming. Jesus knows everything about her; confronts her pain; offers her living water and dissolves the hard heart that weighs her down. But it’s the rest of the characters in the passage who have a harder time making the leap, whose hearts were set a certain way.
And, can you blame them, really? You just heard all the explanation of why this conversation should never have taken place to begin with. The disciples, who had gone to find food, were baffled when they returned to find Jesus talking with a Samaritan woman. The people in the village, with whom the woman shared her good news, were dumb-struck. Everybody had the obstacle of hearts that were hard; set in their ways and firmly planted in their understanding of God.
But then God showed up, a God who sat at the well in the hot sun of that Middle Eastern village and poured a trickle of water . . . living water . . . onto the hard-packed hearts of the woman, the disciples, the village people . . . and began God’s eternal process of loosening our grips, opening our eyes and softening our hearts, until we can begin to catch glimpses of life the way God offers it to us: new life, full of promise, possibility and unlikely relationship.
It was water, living water, the universal solvent that can dissolve even the hardest of hearts.
On September 4, 1957, Elizabeth Eckford got ready for her first day of school. She put on the new pleated skirt she’d sewed, along with her white bobby socks and new white buck loafers, gathered her books and boarded the 7:30 a.m. bus for the ride to Little Rock Central High School. There were eight other African American students scheduled to attend Little Rock Central High School that day, but Elizabeth was the first one to arrive. Fifteen years old and painfully shy under normal circumstances, Elizabeth was an unlikely representative of what came to be known as “the Little Rock Nine,” the first group of African American students to integrate a major Southern high school.
But Elizabeth Eckford became a symbol of the struggle for racial integration because she happened to be the first to arrive, and because she arrived in the path of photographer Will Counts, who was taking pictures of that morning.
As Elizabeth Eckford slowly made her way through the press and the protestors, Will Counts shot a picture that would be a haunting representation of the hard hearts that resisted integration in Little Rock that day. See, in that picture, right behind Elizabeth Eckford, there is another young woman, a white woman, whose face is contorted in hatred. Her whole body is protesting; she’s leaning toward Elizabeth Eckford screaming something . . . and you can tell it’s not something nice. That white girl’s name was Hazel Bryan, and spectators reported: she was angry. Benjamin Fine, a reporter from the New York Times, was standing there. Shouts of “two, four, six, eight, we don’t want to integrate!” echoed, while Hazel Bryan shouted, “Go back to Africa!” and Will Counts shot a picture that would define the movement for civil rights in Little Rock. Forever.
Elizabeth Eckford’s experience, along with the other eight African American students at Little Rock Central High School, was filled with fear. Over and over she and the others were harassed, and records of their experiences remain, containing notes like this one from Elizabeth’s principal’s records: “[Elizabeth] said that except for some broken glass thrown at her during lunchtime she really had a wonderful day.”
As the attempts to integrate the high school continued, Hazel Bryan was adamant that she would never attend an integrated high school. She’d learned those standards at home, with a father who refused to be waited on by anyone of color. After Will Counts’ picture ran in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, then all over the world, becoming the visual image of hatred in Little Rock, Hazel was called into the principal’s office where the principal asked her to reconsider her position, admonishing, “hatred only hurts the hater.” But Hazel remained stalwart and gave interview after interview maintaining her position.
Time marched on. Elizabeth Eckford, along with the other members of the Little Rock Nine quickly each made their ways out of the South after graduation. Hazel Bryan dropped out; got married; raised a family in a rural section of Little Rock. Both of them left the moment when that picture was taken with heavy burdens of pain and hearts hardened by their experiences.
So it was a shock during the summer of 1963, when Elizabeth was home visiting family in Little Rock, that she received a telephone message from someone she’d never heard of before. Someone named Hazel Bryan. When Hazel finally got Elizabeth on the telephone she explained: she was the girl screaming hateful things to Elizabeth in that picture that was all over the papers. She was the one, and she was calling to say she was sorry . . . sorry for all the pain and hatred, sorry for the fear, sorry for all the hardness of heart that that picture illustrated. (“Through a Glass Darkly,” Vanity Fair, September 2007)
The story of Hazel Bryan and Elizabeth Eckford is a story of redemption, a story of the softening of hearts that was not unlike the invitation Jesus extended to the Samaritan woman at the well, to his disciples, to the people of Samaria, to you . . . and to me. Samaritan, woman, outcast: the appropriate response is to turn away, to build a wall of separation and indifference, to live with a hardness of heart.
But Jesus never lived that way.
No matter who he encountered, Samaritan, woman, Pharisee, Roman ruler, Jesus always offered the possibility, well, actually, the probability, of the parts of your heart and my heart that are hard in such a way that they cut us off from other people and from the grace and love of God, hard parts of us that can be softened, softened by the powerful solvent of the living water.
This third Sunday of Lent, we confess: sometimes our hearts are hard. Sometimes we see the world in ways that do not allow for the upending of convention, much less the ever-creating work of God’s Spirit. And our hard hearts can lead us to lives of isolation and disconnection, to opinions that cut us off from people who are different than we are; to positions that leave us all alone at the wells of our lives; to hearts that are dried up and shriveled into hardness, unable to beat in time with God’s great love for the world.
We confess: like the people Jesus encountered in Sychar that day, sometimes our hearts are hard.
Today we ask for the universal solvent of the living water to rush over our hard hearts, to begin the process of bringing us a little further along the road to reconciliation with each other and with God, to engulf us and heal us and give us hearts soft enough to absorb into every pore of who we are, the living water.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2008, Amy Butler. Used by permission.