The Way of the Empty Bucket
(Lent 3, 2023; Year A; John 4:5-14)
One of the catch phrases of our time is the “bucket list,” meaning ramming in activities before we die or become enfeebled. It’s a bit like our frenzied health efforts or fears. We seem to have lost track of the idea that we are mortal, and that we cannot possibly do everything possible in one lifetime. It’s there in the movie Moonstruck, as a somewhat cynical wife says that men have affairs to ward off the fear of death.
Sometimes religion looks like that too. If we pray hard enough, if we are careful enough, or repentant enough, or pious enough, we will live forever. When people tell me they are not religious, it’s usually about having come to terms with their own mortality. If God cannot give us immortality, or invulnerability to suffering, then what good is God? When we take the idea of reward and punishment out of the equation, what is the point of faith? What use is God or faith?
In excerpts from the passage from John, we read:
Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
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, and you would have been given living water.”
The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” 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.”John 4
This woman who comes to the well by herself is a person who has passed from fear to challenge. She is not afraid of this stranger. Perhaps she has given up on hypocritical social norms. She is not afraid to contest Jesus’ right to be there or his status as a man, a Jew. Jesus engages in this challenge with her. I imagine Jesus laughing at her audacity and her enjoying trying to put him in his place. He asks for a drink, but it will be at her service, from her bucket, by her grace and generosity. Together, they are sitting in a moment of wilderness, a moment that both satisfies tradition and breaks with it. Peace in community belongs to settlement. Injustice and disharmony break the sacred bonds of creation/God/humanity.
So you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him. For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey.Deuteronomy 8:6-8
What bucket does Jesus bring to this encounter? I think he carries his traditions and history, but he wears them lightly, not as prison, but as foundation. And the traditions and history he carries are about covenants of justice and trust, prophetic curiosity, creativity, a sacred story that has called men and women out of their comfort zones for millennia. The Divine calls people in and out of wilderness, in and out of settlement. The impetus for movement is justice.
Jesus constantly fills this bucket with new relationships, new ways of understanding generosity and mercy. If the woman had known that the encounter would call her also to review her heritage, her experience to date, she might have been less bold, less sure. How could she have seen that the water of the well would not be as deep as the springs of spirit and hope that Jesus reveals and that are part of his heritage? How could she have guessed that morning, that her life would be changed by a chance encounter — except that she was daring and maybe desperate.
The “water” in Jesus’ bucket is not the property of anyone or any tradition, but the free gift discovered by anyone who chooses to live in harmony: justly, mercifully, compassionately. In this discovery, we find that the water is more than a metaphor, but a profound sense of unity with all that lives. Perhaps eternal life is not the right phrase. Perhaps a better way to describe this peace would be homecoming; it is a reminder that our consciousness is more than this moment, but at the same time, intensely this moment. And at the moment of encounter, Jesus and the woman create a circle of life, of peace.
So what do we have in our buckets? What needs to be emptied so that we can be filled with the water of life? Are our buckets full of regret or anger or shame? Will we create a shelter of peace where we can recognize Jesus? Do we want to receive what Jesus is offering, not as a reward or a punishment, but as a way to perceive reality, a way to be water and light, life saving and protecting? And other than the peace for ourselves, perhaps then we, too, may carry a bucket of love to be shared to those hungry for hope and blessing.