In last week’s sermon, I began to tell the story of my granddad, Jim Dalzell, who spent his 22nd birthday crashing a plane into the ocean near the Jaluit atoll in the Marshall Islands at the beginning of World War II. He and 5 other guys floated to an island, where they met a kindly older man who could speak English and put them up in an abandoned missionary house. While floating in the ocean, they had been spotted by a Japanese plane.
I don’t know what happened the second day they were there, except a Japanese plane flew around again, in the morning and at night, making sure they didn’t leave the island. I do know what happened the second night. About 2 or 3 in the morning, my grandfather was lying awake, just wondering what was going to happen next. Powerless. Lost. Dependent on the mercy of God and neighbor, even enemy. But what did happen next was not a scenario that had gone through his mind. The door to the house where the guys were sleeping just opened, by itself, and this light flew in, looked like a lightning bug or something, wasn’t sure. Six guys in the room, three on one side and three on the other. The light proceeded to go, one by one, to each guy’s feet. It would stay at one set of feet for a minute, then move on to another set of feet. After it had spent time at each pair of feet, it left the room, and then the door closed.
The next morning, February 3rd, 1942, while cooking breakfast around the fire, Jim asked if anybody had seen anything strange the night before. Wyndham, the radioman from the other plane that had crashed, saw the same thing. Had no clue what it meant – strange behavior for a bug and a door, but there are a lot of strange things in the south Pacific.
It was a foggy morning. Couldn’t see out into the ocean at all. While they were still chatting around the fire, a woman ran up from the beach where she was doing her laundry. She was yelling and pointing out at the water, but through the fog, there was nothing the guys could see. My granddad went down closer to the beach, and the marine layer of fog was beginning to burn off, revealing two barges full of Japanese troops approaching the island. The next thing the guys knew, the villagers had completely disappeared, and the guys thought they should do the same. About 60 Japanese soldiers marched up the beach and moved up the island. Hiding in the bush, the airmen watched as the Japanese came closer. There was no way they wouldn’t be found. Lieutenant Harlan Johnson, in a gutsy move that would forever earn him a rank in my grandfather’s mind as one of the bravest men he ever met, said to the other 5 guys, “I’m going to walk down and surrender. If they shoot me, you guys are on your own.” Johnson proceeded to walk down the beach with his hands lifted high. When the Japanese did not shoot him, the guys figured it was all right to surrender as well. My granddad quickly buried the .45 they still had. Then they also walked down with their hands held high. The soldiers surrounded them, tied them hand and foot, then brought them back up into the missionary house, positioning them on their knees in front of a firing squad.
Suddenly, a superior officer burst into the house and began barking orders at the firing squad, who put their guns down. Then, in perfect English, he says to the soldiers, “It is by the graciousness of his majesty, the Emperor of Japan, that you are being kept alive. The Imperial Japanese Navy has never before taken prisoners of war.” This is true. That was their policy up until that point. Take no prisoners. But now that the United States was involved, diplomacy needed to be a part of the equation.
The Americans were brought to Japan where they were separated to different camps. History tells us that a third of Americans in Japanese POW camps died in them. Six guys, separated to different places. Who’s going to make it back and who isn’t?
To hear the final part of the story, well, you’re actually going to have to wait two weeks, because I have to make it work with the texts, and I have a different idea for next week that’s not unrelated, but sorry.
But early 1942, my granddad being shipped off to Japan as slave labor, mining salt, irrigating crops, moving bags of rice from here to there, marching and counting off in Japanese – you don’t know the future. You don’t see the battles being waged out there, you don’t know what’s going on. All you know is that today is not a good day. And even your definition of what is a good day is quite different now, like you only got hit with a cane twice or something, or you ate an extra handful of rice that the cook smuggled your way. How long is this going to last? Who’s going to win this war? Am I ever going to see Albany, GA again?
We don’t have days like that, but we still know what the toilsome slog of life is. And so did the Israelites in the desert. They had been freed from slave labor in Egypt, but what they were experiencing now was not quite what they had hoped for. Life in slavery with regular meals was better than wandering in freedom with no one taking care of you and not knowing where your next meal is coming from and not know when you are going to get to wherever it is you are supposed to be going. You have been assured that God is with you, but you don’t see much of God in the day to day slog. Freedom is hard.
They end up camping in a spot where God directed them to camp, and they find that there is no water in that spot. No water. So they quarrel with Moses about this problem.
When we are in the toilsome slog of life, or of church, what we do have at our disposal is: other people to blame. We turn on each other. We quarrel with each other, with our leaders, because that’s an easy thing to do. And we don’t have the energy for the harder but more important thing to do, because we have no water.
And when someone is quarreling with you regarding something that may or may not be your fault or responsibility, you do what Moses did. Cry out to God. The Israelites at one time cried out to God, just three chapters earlier, when they were at the banks of the Sea and the Egyptian army was closing in. They cried out to God, and God opened up the Sea for them to cross.
They aren’t doing that now. They are quarreling with Moses. But Moses cries out to God and says, “What do I do?” Maybe if everyone in the community had been taking it up with God instead of Moses, the people of God would have learned their lessons quicker and solved their problems better. But it’s so much easier to go after Moses.
And God gives Moses a solution to give the people water in a way that no one could have anticipate. Strike a rock with your stick and water will come out. God can do things like that. Fighting with each other does not produce life giving water that will quench our deepest thirsts. The text in Exodus reveals the core question at the heart of this quarreling. It’s not about water. Now, water is important, and sometimes water issues are the result of bad leadership and people should be angry. Just talk to folks in Flint, MI and Jackson, MS about that. There’s nothing easy about watching loved ones languishing because of needs. But in our text today, the deeper question at the heart of the Israelites’ struggle, and our own as well, is “Is God among us or not?” Does God care? Is God going to come through? Is God going to get us through this toilsome slog? In Jesus Christ, God’s answer to those questions is a big fat gushy wellspring of Yes! This is the year of Yes, and God gives us a Yes way before there is any expectation of a Yes from us.
There was a woman who knew the toilsome slog of life well, as well as the question, “Is God with me or not?” And this woman was sitting alone by a well. In the heat of the day. “Is God with me or not?” No one is with her. No one except this strange Jewish man who happens to be here too. And he wasn’t going to speak to her, she was mostly certain. Hopefully certain. One of those old ‘us-vs.-them’ quarrels that happen when we look for someone to blame rather than cry out to God. So, he’s alone. She’s alone. And that’s the way it ought to stay.
Most women come to a well with company. Everybody and her mother, and God, are there, and it’s a joyful time of catching up on gossip and talking about the kids and the husbands and there is no question of whether or not God is here. There is plenty of water, plenty of people, plenty of joy, plenty of domestic activity, and certainly plenty of God.
But this woman is here alone, and it’s possible that even God is not here with her. Only this Jewish man. Who has the gall to ask her if she would mind bringing up some water for him to drink. Awkward. A Jewish man wouldn’t be talking to a Samaritan woman. And they were all alone. This was certainly not the first time in life where she did not feel safe. This is not the first time where she had to strategize in her mind how to avoid danger. Coldness? Politeness? Humor? Charm? Deceit? Intellectualizing? She eventually engages in all of these in trying to discern this guy’s angle.
We’ll start with a gentle-yet-direct reminder about social mores. “Sir,” she said, “I should remind you that Jewish men don’t ask Samaritan women for water. You know, because I might ‘contaminate’ it.”
“You’re right,” the stranger replied. “You should be asking me for water so you can finally get something pure – especially if you knew who I really was.” Wink, wink.
Okay. This guy’s got a secret he’s just dying to tell someone out here alone. Who is this guy?
“Where you gonna get the water? You don’t have a bucket, dude?”
“Oh, trust me. You drink this well water and you’ll just have to come back again tomorrow, because you’re still thirsty. I’ve got water that will make you Never. Thirst. Again.”
“Okay, get me some of that.”
“Sure. Why don’t you go get your husband?”
Gulp. Is God with me or not? “I actually don’t have a husband.”
“I know. You’re actually had five husbands, and the man in your life currently – he’s not your husband.”
Pause for a second to explain something. I’ve heard so many sermons say that Jesus here is telling her he knows all about her sinful lifestyle. No. The woman’s situation in life is not one of immorality, but most likely infertility. Where man after man after man keeps not bearing fruit with her body and then casting her off. In which case, she has had no choice in any of this.
And now all of the sudden, talking with Jesus, she isn’t thirsty anymore. And yet thirstier than ever in a different way. She’s had five husbands, and the man in her life currently is not her husband, but she’s now met someone new. And things are going to be different this time. She may not know what tomorrow holds, but she knows who’s going to be with her. This will last forever. This will bear fruit. And she knew, she knew, she’s not the only one who knows what a toilsome slog this life is, even if she has felt it most acutely. There’s a whole village of people who are thirsty. Who are quarreling. Who are wondering, “Is God with us or not?”
She leaves her water jar behind. She walks toward the village. The fields are ripe for harvest. I can’t quench their thirst. I can only tell them to come and see what I have seen. A man who has told me everything I have ever done. A Jewish man talking with a Samaritan woman. Water coming from a rock. The Emperor of Japan sparing the enemy. A lightning bug opening the door to a house, landing on my feet and reassuring me that I’m going to be okay. Come and see, invite others to come and see, the answer to the question, “Is God with me or not?”
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water, and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do for this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “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.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming and is now here when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They left the city and were on their way to him.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word.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.”
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