A large family tree, that’s what God had promised Abraham and Sarah, but Sarah had died, and Abraham was getting old. So, if it’s going to happen, now’s the time for Isaac to take a bride, so Abraham sends out his servant to find him one and where does he find her? At a well.
It’s what Hollywood calls a “meet-cute” but in Biblical studies we call it a “well-meeting narrative,” a meeting at a well. This one reads more like a romance novel than typical scripture, and spoiler alert it has as much drama and scandal ahead as a telenovela; but this first scene is more sweet than salacious.
It’s the first of three well-meetings in the Old Testament, this one between Isaac and Rebekah, the next between one of their son, Jacob, and Rachel, and then later in Exodus there’s a well-meeting between Moses and Zipporah. From all of these there emerges a pattern. Each of them has more or less the same form.
First, there’s a journey, usually it’s the man who journeys, or in Isaac’s case the man’s representative. Then there’s the encounter at the well with a woman. Then there’s the drawing of the water, often accompanied by some cheeky, even flirtatious banter, and in this case feats of strength as Rebekah hauls what would have been a couple hundred gallons of water for the camels.
Then there comes some form of union. Here it’s marked not by a gold wedding band but by a nose ring and some bracelets. Finally, there’s a celebration as one or both parties run off, yes usually running, to tell the news of this union and celebrate with a feast.
Well, as I mentioned earlier in the church it is still very much the holiday season. Just two nights ago we celebrated our first (and hopefully not last) Epiphany Party and today is Epiphany Sunday. That’s why we sang “We Three Kings” today. But today is also another holiday on the church calendar, Baptism of our Lord Sunday. So many holidays, so little time!
Notice with me, though, how both the story of the 3 kings or the Gentile Magi, and the story of Jesus’ Baptism are stories of meeting. One of them happens to also have camels!
The three Gentile Kings don’t meet Jesus at a well but at a manger after a long journey, and it’s not water but gifts that are exchanged. Nevertheless this story, in addition to fulfilling prophecy, is a sign of Christ’s union with the Gentiles and his promised work of reconciling, uniting, all peoples to himself, even those who are far off.
Jesus’ baptism is also a meeting of sorts. Many people got to meet him that day, and learn who he is for the first time. It’s like a coming out party. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke those who were there to witness it saw Jesus not just drink from the water but enter the water and then as he emerges the skies open up and the voice of the Lord announces the news that “this is my Son,” that the Father and the Son are one, wed, their union is announced, declared openly, not at a well but over the living waters of baptism.
It’s telling that a similar moment in John’s gospel happens not at Jesus’ baptism but at a wedding in which Christ consecrates a union by turning water to wine.
The pattern speaks to us the good news that the God of the Bible is in the business of bringing people together for divine, creative purposes which are worth celebrating. This is the basis for both Christian marriage and the sacrament of Christian baptism, that the same God that unites Isaac and Rebekah at the well is united with humanity in Christ, and through Christ is uniting all flesh with one another, reconciling all of us to God’s own self.
But here’s the thing… If you ask any married couple, or better yet any divorced person, they will tell you. In Hollywood or in the Bible, these “meet cute” stories might mean well, but a real marriage rarely stays cute. At some point things get ugly. It happens for Isaac and Rebekah, it will happen for Jacob and Rachel (in fact Jacob and Rachel get the Bible’s first “meet ugly” and her name is Leah).
Our marriages, our families, our faithfulness, our unions, our unity, it’s never like the Hallmark movies or the rom-coms. We cannot rely on these alone to sustain let alone redeem our lives. What we need is a deeper love, a union with something, someone which cannot be broken.
She had been married five times, and the guy she was with now was not her husband. She couldn’t quite figure out if she was the victim in all of this, or if she was part of the problem. Regardless, it left her feeling alone, even in a crowd. She avoided crowds. She had taken to fetching water from the well at midday when most people were staying out of the heat. At least that way she didn’t have to overhear the gossip and wonder if it was about her.
It was a particularly hot one that day. As she neared her journey’s end what she saw up ahead almost made her turn around. There was a man up there, sitting by the well, alone.
Not only was it uncouth to be seen alone with a man other than your husband, she could tell from a ways off that this man was a Jew and she was a Samaritan. Let’s just say that Samaritans and Jews were like oil and water.
Water. That’s what he asked for. Just like Rebekah was asked to fetch some water for some man, so was she. Well, this woman was no Rebekah. She wasn’t about to just do his bidding, so some banter ensued.
“Why would you, a Jew ask me for water?” she asked.
“Woman,” he replied, “if you knew who I was you’d be asking me for living water.”
“Where would you get this water?” she asked, “Are you greater than Isaac and Jacob whose well this used to be?”
He didn’t answer that one. Instead he said, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. The water I give them is a spring of eternal life, a bottomless well of living water.”
“Sir,” she said, conscious now of her deeper thirst, “Sir, give me this water.”
“Go fetch your husband first,” he said.
“I have no husband,” she replied.
“I know,” he said. “It’s okay.”
She changed the subject, “Our ancestors worshiped here on this mountain but Jews say the Messiah will come from Jerusalem, that we must worship there.”
“Woman,” the man replied, “The day is coming when you shall all worship God together, united by God, regardless of where you’re from or what you have or have not done.”
The woman said, “I have heard a Messiah is coming to do just that.”
“Yes,” Jesus said, “I am he.”
It’s the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the Bible. It’s also the first time in the Gospel of John when Jesus tells someone who he really is, and it happens in a meeting at a well.
With that she runs off to tell the news of who she had met at that well. Soon he joins her and he remains with the Samaritans for a few days, feasting with them as they come to believe in him.
A couple final thoughts:
I love this sanctuary, this place called Grace. It’s beautiful, but there’s one thing that (if the Lord lets me stay here long enough) I may try to change about it and that is this: the baptismal font is beautiful, but it may be too small.
I don’t know when they started making them small, but I’d love to get a bigger one, the kind you could fit a grown man in. But I wouldn’t put it up front like the Baptists do. I’d put it near the back like the Orthodox do so that it’s the first thing you’d encounter as you enter the worship space. That way you’d begin every Sunday with a meeting at the well, and be reminded that every Sunday for us is another well-meeting narrative. Every time we show up, a well springs up to welcome us, so that no matter how long or arduous our journey, whether it’s been cute or ugly, we have a chance to meet this man here again, and again, and again, to splash our faces with a little of his Living Water and be reminded that we belong to him, that regardless of our gender or orientation, our faithfulness or infidelity, that he is our groom, eternally oriented to us, united with us by water and by blood in ways that no man, including us, can put asunder.
My friends, my fellow Isaacs and Rebekahs, hear the good news. Christ has come again to meet you here today. He is your long awaited groom. What’s more, he is the Well. He is the bottomless well of your salvation, the Living Water, come to wash out our wounds, wash over our dysfunctions and divorces, wash away our sins, and remind us that he has joined himself to us in ways that cannot be broken, even by death.
Welcome him. Worship him. Be wed to him. And trust that the well of his grace shall never run dry.