Wells in the ancient Middle East were associated with life and joy and community. Dr. Julye Bidmead points out, “Almost every aspect of daily life in ancient Israel involved water: agriculture, animal husbandry, cooking, personal hygiene, and of course drinking…. Young women typically had the daily chore of drawing water from wells to supply the family household…. Although the primary function of wells in ancient Israel was to supply water for the household, the centralized, open location of wells allowed them to serve as social gathering places. Travelers stopped to water their camels there…. Wells were also places of betrothal scenes. As the young women likely went out to collect water, young men of the village realized that this event gave them a perfect opportunity to socialize with the women away from the watchful eyes of the girls’ fathers and male relatives.”
A trip to the well may have been the highlight of the day for most of the women in the Samaritan city of Sychar, but for one particular woman in town the trip to the well did not seem to be such a delight. Perhaps she did not feel that she fit in with the typical conversation of the married women, and perhaps she tired of the young women flirting with the young men at the well. At least on this day, she shows up at the well at a time when no one other than Jesus is there.
It seems that much of this woman’s life had been filled with sorrow, pain, and rejection. Kendra Haloviak Valentine comments, “Modern western readers typically think of her as a loose woman with a sinful past—because of her five marriages and because, at the time she met Jesus, she was living with a man who was not her husband. However, in the world of Jesus’ day, men decided issues of marriage and divorce, not women. Unlike today, only husbands could get a divorce, abandon their families, and kick out their spouse. Also, in the world of Jesus’ day, women could not survive unless they were attached to a man. After this woman’s first abandonment (through death or divorce), if she did not have a father or brother or adult son who would take her in, she had to attach herself to another man in order to live. Going through this experience five times is tragic beyond words.
“Given the world of Jesus’ day, her story is probably more of a discarded woman with a painful past than of a loose woman with a sinful past…. Since her current living conditions were based on her own survival, she was living with someone who refused to acknowledge his responsibility to her. We should probably see her more as a slave who had to do whatever he wanted than as a secret lover having an affair. She was trying to survive. He should have married her.” (Ministry, January 2014, p. 17-18)
When she arrives at the well and finds a Jewish man sitting there, she expects further rejection, and more pain. There was great animosity between Jews and Samaritans at the time. The strictest Jewish rabbis argued that if the shadow of a Samaritan fell upon a Jewish person, that Samaritan’s shadow would make a person unclean. Moreover the strictest rabbis forbade a rabbi from greeting a woman in public. What might this woman expect to receive from this Jesus at the well that day?
To her amazement, rather than chasing her away, Jesus asks her to draw for him a drink from the well.
What is going on here?
Consider it from this perspective: Each of us has been designed by a loving God in the image of this loving God to love others. Because of that, there is in each of us a capacity for and a leaning toward caring for others. This woman in particular had been trying to give love to others but had experienced rejection over and over again. Five different husbands had died or deserted her. The man she is now living with is not open enough to receive her love to marry her. Jesus knows this woman. He knows that she was made in the image of God with the capacity for and the longing to care for others, and he knows that this God-given longing has been thwarted over and over again. So Jesus begins his interaction with her by asking her to extend to him a kindness, “Give me a drink?”
As the conversation continues, and as she grows interested in the living water Jesus speaks of, Jesus asks about her husband.
Why does Jesus poke at that sensitive spot—that ache in her heart?
Jesus wanted her to know that he knew her for who she truly was. Darrell Johnson explains, “Had she returned to her village without Jesus bringing up the husband problem, she would have wondered if he would have bothered with her had he known who she was. ‘Go call your husband’ is Jesus’ way of saying, ‘Woman, I am offering the gift of living water to you—to the real you. I know who you are.’”
There is something deeply life-giving in finding someone who loves you as you truly are. That’s what this woman found in Jesus. That was the beginning of the life-giving water that was beginning to gush up in her soul. For this, she rushed back to town to tell everyone what she had experienced.
I never met the man, so I don’t know for sure. We are not given many personal details, so I cannot say for certain, but my impression of Nicodemus (in John 3) is that he was a good person, deeply religious, and knowledgeable about the Scriptures and about spiritual matters. But it also seems to me that he was keenly aware that something was missing in his life, and that what was missing in him was alive in Jesus.
When he listened to Jesus speak and when he watched Jesus in action, he recognized a spiritual vitality that was not present in his own life. He wanted those things to come to life in him, so he went to Jesus one night to talk it over.
He began the discussion in a tactful manner: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Reading between the lines, what Nicodemus seems to be saying is: “I am curious about who you are, and about what is going on inside of you, and about how you are able to do the things that you do. But most of all, I am curious about the apparent intimate connection between you and God that is missing in my life.”
That certainly seems to be what Jesus hears coming out of the heart of Nicodemus for that is what Jesus addresses in his reply: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Jesus addresses Nicodemus’ desire for spiritual vitality by telling him that the way to get it is through a new birth.
Jesus’ suggestion of a new birth confuses Nicodemus. It is not the concept of new birth that confuses Nicodemus. The Pharisees looked upon a gentile who converted to Judaism as having been reborn. The rabbis taught, “A proselyte who embraces Judaism is like a new-born child.” So thorough was their perspective of a new life beginning that any sins committed prior to one’s conversion were now forgotten. One’s old life was gone; a new life had begun. Some even argued that a man who converted to Judaism was free to marry his sister—or even his mother—because even his old family connections were now considered obsolete. He was a brand new person.
But Nicodemus did not understand how the concept of a new birth applied to him. He belonged to the nation of Israel—the people of God—since the moment he took his first breath. What could it mean for him to be born from above?
Nicodemus seemed to recognize that the spiritual vitality that was alive in Jesus was missing in his own life, but he had always assumed that the key to spiritual vitality was found in such things as a life of devotion, compiling enough good deeds, and establishing a solid record of sacred service. He had thought that the way to gain spiritual vitality was by hanging out long enough in good spiritual places and by doing enough good spiritual things.
But it doesn’t work that way. That kind of thinking is as foolish as it would be for a woman who wants to have a baby thinking that she will get pregnant if she hangs out long enough in a cabbage patch, or if she sleeps in a stork’s nest, or if she volunteers in a maternity ward. She will not get pregnant by hanging out in prime “pregnancy areas.” Nor will Nicodemus gain spiritual vitality merely by hanging out in the top religious environments.
Something as wild and extreme as a new birth is needed.
In response to Nicodemus’ confusion, Jesus replies (in verse 5), “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” Jesus’ words here hearken back to the opening words of the Bible: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind [Spirit] from God swept over the face of the waters.”
What Nicodemus needed in his life was something as wild and extreme as a new creation!
Nicodemus had been discovering for himself that spiritual vitality does not come from strict religious discipline. What Jesus wanted him to know is that it comes from being born from above; it comes from the Spirit of God bringing life into a person’s soul.
Rachel Held Evans puts it this way: “The Spirit is like wind, earth’s oldest sojourner, which in one place readies a sail, in another whittles a rock, in another commands the trees to bow, in another gently lifts a bridal veil. Wind knows no perimeter. The wildest of all things, it travels to every corner of a cornerless world and amplifies the atmosphere. It smells like honeysuckle, curry, smoke, sea. It feels like a kiss, a breath, a burn, a sting. It can whisper or whistle or roar, bend and break and inflate. It can be harnessed, but never stopped or contained; its effects observed while its essence remains unseen. To chase the wind is folly, they say, to try and tame it the very definition of futility. ‘The wind blows where it pleases,’ Jesus said. ‘You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit’ (John 3:8). We are born into a windy world, where the Spirit is steady as a breeze and as strong as a hurricane. There is no city, no village, no wilderness where you cannot find it, so pay attention.” (Searching for Sunday, p. 163)
That’s what Nicodemus needed for spiritual vitality. It’s what we need as well.
If you were God, and if you decided to enter our world as one of us, what would you choose as your first miracle to show people who you are and what you are capable of doing?
Would you choose for an opening miracle to walk on water? Or to miraculously feed thousands of people? Or to give sight to a blind man? Or to heal a paralytic? Or to raise a child from the dead?
As impressive as these miracles were, not one of them was chosen as the first miracle Jesus performed.
In John 2:1-11 we discover that the first miracle Jesus performed was to turn water into wine.
As it so happens, Jesus is at a wedding in Cana when the wine for the wedding celebration runs out. Jesus’ mother brings the problem to Jesus’ attention. He replies, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.”
It almost sounds like Jesus is groaning inside, “Darn it, Mom, I had something more dramatic in mind for my first miracle!” But the truth is that this miracle did not catch Jesus by surprise. It was not pushed upon him, depriving him of a better start to his ministry. This miracle is actually like a ‘theme statement’ for all that Jesus intended to do with his time on earth.
Let me explain….
This ‘theme-statement’ miracle took place in the midst of a wedding. It took place in the context of a celebration of love and joy. Jesus came into our world to bring about such a reality between us and him. Listen to some of the things he said toward the end of his life to summarize his ministry: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10); “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love” (John 15:9); “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11).
Writing about Middle Eastern weddings at the time of Jesus, William Barclay points out, “In a life where there was much poverty and constant hard work, this week of festivity and joy was one of the supreme occasions.” Wine was a vital part of the celebration. Drunkenness was looked upon as a disgrace, so the wine was watered down. But the provision of wine was considered a sacred duty, The Rabbis taught, “Without wine there is no joy.” With the wine having run out, Jesus provided that which kept the joy and the celebration going (while also protecting the newlyweds from disappointment and embarrassment).
For the making of wine, Jesus used the jars that were set apart for the religious requirements of hand washing. By the time of Jesus, the Pharisees had carefully detailed the various laws of Scripture. In the end they had a rule pertaining to every aspect of life. For example, they had broken up the issue of work on the Sabbath into 39 distinct categories. One category dealt with the type of burden one could “carry” on the Sabbath. It was decided that no brooch could be worn on the Sabbath, and that one could not even carry a needle in one’s robe. Some things were not so easy to decide upon, though. At the time of Jesus, they were still arguing over whether a person could wear his artificial teeth or his wooden leg on the Sabbath. Jesus came into our world to replace rituals and religious requirements with something much better—a loving relationship with God (like the intimacy of the marriage that was being celebrated that day)
Strict religious requirements have the tendency to make us feel that we are never good enough and that we never quite measure up, so we had better keep trying harder. By using those particular water jars—displacing the water that was intended for religious ritual with wine that was used for the joyous celebration of love—Jesus was making a ‘theme statement’ about his reason for coming to earth.
In The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey through Anguish to Freedom, Henry Nouwen writes, “Keep reminding yourself that your feelings of being unwelcome do not come from God and do not tell the truth. The Prince of Darkness wants you to believe that your life is a mistake and that there is no home for you. But every time you allow these thoughts to affect you, you set out on the road to self-destruction. So you have to keep unmasking the lie and think, speak, and act according to the truth that you are very, very welcome.” Strict religious requirements (like the required hand washing) spread the message that we are not welcome; Jesus came into our world to stress that we are welcome (like wine at a wedding)!
When Jesus’ mother told him about the problem with the wine running out, he told her, “My hour has not yet come.” She understood that he was not insisting that it was not yet his time to do miracles. Instead, he was stating that the hour had not yet come for the celebration of restored love and joy and intimacy between God and us. The miracle performed here (providing wedding wine) looked forward to what would be accomplished at Jesus’ death, when he would make it possible for us to come into the joyous celebration of his eternal love!
We are living in a time in which many people have hearts that feel very heavy—heavy with the loneliness of social isolation, heavy with the confinement of being sheltered in place, heavy with worries over contagious disease, heavy over daily reports of a rising death toll, heavy with the disappointments of disrupted plans, heavy with economic worries, heavy with job loss, heavy with the tumult of children stuck at home, and heavy with increased tensions with one another.
What are we to do when our hearts feel so heavy?
Sometimes we feel the pressure to maintain a “positive attitude.” People tell us just to look on the good side, to keep a smile on our face, to ignore our worries, or that everything will work out. But when our hearts are heavy, simply maintaining a “positive attitude” is not always or exclusively the best approach.
The Bible offers an alternative. The Bible suggests that we lament. It’s what Job did despite the criticism of his friends. It’s what David did in many of the psalms. It’s what Jeremiah did with an entire book titled Lamentations. It’s even what Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane. When our hearts are heavy, it may well be the best thing we can do.
I appreciate Mark Vroegop’s perspective on this. In an article entitled “Dare to Hope in God,” he writes, “We step into this world with a cry. Although none of us remembers the moment, the first sound we uttered after leaving the warm and protected confines of our mother’s womb was a loud protest. We enter, wailing. To cry is human….
“We don’t stop crying after birth. It continues because the world is broken. While tears and sorrow are part of our humanity, there is an often-neglected prayer language in the Bible for our travels through a broken world: lament….
“Lament is not the same as crying, however. It’s different…. The Bible is filled with this song of sorrow. Over a third of the Psalms are laments. The book of Lamentations weeps over the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus lamented in the final hours of his life.
“But lament is different than crying because lament is a form of prayer. It is more than just the expression of sorrow or the venting of emotion. Lament talks to God about pain. And it has a unique purpose: trust. It is a divinely-given invitation to pour out our fears, frustrations, and sorrows for the purpose of helping us to renew our confidence in God…. Laments turn toward God when sorrow tempts you to run from him.”
In his book Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, Vroegop adds, “Too many Christians either are afraid or refuse to talk to God about their struggles. Whether because of shame, a fear of rejection, anxiety, or a concern of being irreverent, pain can give rise to a deadly prayerlessness. Lament cracks the door open to talk to God again—even if it’s messy.”
Ryane Williamson adds, “When we lose the ability to lament, we lose an opportunity to share with our God the things of this world that are breaking our hearts, and we risk becoming a quietly cynical people.”
If your heart is heavy over all that is going on, try lamenting; try pouring out to God your pain and sorrow and fear—even if it’s messy.
Have you ever lost that which was most dear to you? That which filled your heart with joy and hope and love? That which gave your life a sense of purpose and significance?
That’s where Thomas found himself following the death of Jesus. For three years, Thomas had followed Jesus wholeheartedly. For three years, Jesus had been the focus and the center of Thomas’ life. Everything that made life worth living, he found in Jesus.
Suddenly, Jesus was gone. He had been executed in horrible fashion. Nails had been driven through His wrists, impaling Him to a wooden cross. For six hours, Jesus hung upon that cross until, at last, a soldier drove a spear through Jesus’ side to guarantee that Jesus was dead.
What do you do in the midst of overwhelming loss and grief? What do you do when your world comes crashing down?
Some people find solace in the company of others. They turn to those who can share their grief. Others run away from the company of others. They feel a need to be alone in their despair.
Thomas seems to have been one who needed to be alone. The other disciples sought each other out. They found solace in each other’s company. But Thomas went off by himself.
While Thomas was away, though, something incredible happened. As the other disciples were huddled together in a locked house, Jesus suddenly appeared with them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
Though Jesus had been crucified, He was alive again! He had risen from the dead! They saw Him, and their hearts were filled again with joy and hope and faith.
They found Thomas and told him the good news. But Thomas was too overcome with despair to receive their good news. The floor had been pulled out from under him when Jesus died upon the cross. Thomas was not about to get his hopes up again if their story couldn’t be proven to be true.
He asks for evidence. He knows what happened to Jesus. He knows about the nails in Jesus’ hands and feet. He knows about the spear driven into Jesus’ heart. If he is going to believe in some report of Jesus’ resurrection, he needs to know that anyone who presents himself as one risen from the dead is truly the one who died upon the cross. That is a natural response from one who has been crushed by despair.
I am struck by what transpires from here. We do not find a report of Thomas taking the initiative to search for evidence to prove or dispel his doubts about Jesus’ resurrection. Thomas is too full of despair to do that.
It is Jesus who takes the initiative.
Seven days later, the disciples are together again. This time Thomas is with them. (I wonder whether it took a full week before Thomas felt ready to hang out with friends whose grief had turned to joy.) Though the doors are shut, Jesus appears in their midst and announces to them, “Peace be with you.”
Jesus extends to them a peace that comes from the presence of a Savior whom death cannot hold down and who will always be with us. Because we are loved by a Savior who overcame death, we can live in the hope and the peace of Deuteronomy 31:8: “The Lord Himself goes before you and will be with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” And because we are loved by a Savior who overcame death we can live in the love and peace of Romans 8:38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Then Jesus addresses Thomas in particular. The initiative He takes toward Thomas is loving. He does not cross His arms, with His fists buried in His armpits in petulant anger, preventing Thomas from seeing the marks in His hands. He does not take away Thomas’ voice for expressing doubt, or remove his sight for wanting to see proof. He doesn’t scold or ridicule Thomas. He graciously holds out His hands and reveals His side, saying to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”
Jesus took the initiative not just in showing Himself to Thomas but also in drawing Thomas to Him. It’s what He keeps doing. In His love for us, Jesus keeps reaching out, revealing His closeness to us, and drawing people to the love and to the peace of God.