Dirty water kills more people worldwide than war and other violence.
                                                                                                                               The United Nations

In the Gospel reading for the third Sunday in Lent, Year A, Jesus encounters a woman of Samaria at Jacob’s well. It’s a familiar story to many, and many familiar (and false) readings have worked their way into the telling of it: she’s a “loose” woman, for one (all those husbands); she might even have been a prostitute–a false charge that Mary Magdalene has also had to endure through the centuries; at minimum, this is a woman with a troubled past, a dubious sexual history.

But none of this is supported by the text. What is remarkable and what is often unacknowledged in sermons is that this conversation is the longest Jesus has with anyone in the four gospels; that this woman can hold her own in a theological debate; that she (unlike the learned Nicodemus in last week’s lesson) understands Jesus enough to invite the people of her city to “come and see” this One who has changed everything for her.   

Yet even when good exegesis challenges bad interpretation there’s always more to see, more to learn (the inexhaustibility of great texts). In our own time it is instructive to hear the familiar story of the woman at the well in light of a global water crisis of catastrophic proportions. While it is “living water” that Jesus offers the Samaritan woman, and we understand this to mean the gift of himself (Word, Bread, Life, Truth in St. John’s other favorite idioms), drinking deeply of this living water nourishes and sustains a people whose lives are linked to those who struggle daily to find clean drinking water for themselves and their families.

Tuesday of this week was World Water Day. It’s easy to be skeptical or cynical about such observances–to assume that the sloganeering and symbolic do-goodism will overshadow the need for long-term, radical political change and overlook the corruption at the heart of much of the world’s water crisis. But these kinds of events provide sobering statistics which are themselves a summons to justice for those who believe, as Herbert McCabe once said, that “we find the risen Christ in the poor, the oppressed; not in their goodness but in their need; in their hunger and thirst.”

  1. Every 20 seconds a child dies from a water-related disease.
  2. In just one day, more than 200 million hours of women’s time is consumed for the most basic of human needs — collecting water for domestic use.
  3. Three jerry cans of water weigh as much as a baby giraffe.
  4. Thousands of sixth-graders will drop out of school this year for reasons of water insecurity.
  5. The poor pay more. Someone living in an informal settlement in Nairobi pays 5 to 7 times more for a litre of water than an average North American citizen.
  6. And on and on . . .

“A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink.'” (John 4:7)

He’s asking still.