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  • Dr. Bruce Havens

When Thirsty

message by Dr. Bruce Havens

based on the theme: “Where Will You Go?”

Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.

March 15, 2020

John 4: 5-42

5So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The 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.) 10Jesus 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.” 11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but 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.” 15The 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.”


I picked the theme, “Where Will You Go?” for the season of Lent never imagining this. A world of Coronavirus, self-isolation, cancelling of virtually all public events including sports, and store shelves emptied of toilet paper, water and more. Where will you and I go when we cannot go to church? Well, we are trying to do this – offer at least some who are at least digital-savvy enough to go on FaceBook – this morning’s message in lieu of a full worship service. Where will you go when you cannot go anywhere?

The Scripture I read a few moments ago captures the story of someone who is the definition of “other,” in our current stranger-fearing culture. We fear the Asian, the brown-skinned Latino, the woman who speaks up for herself, people of other genders, religions, and every other “other” that causes our “fear-meters” to go up in this day and age. She came to the well to get water. By virtue of being a woman she was a second-class or lower citizen. Her only economic security was a father, and once she reached marriable age, a husband, or if a widow, a son. She had rules to obey – don’t go out without being covered head to toe, don’t speak to a man in public, don’t speak with anyone of a different race, religion, or anyone but the other women of the village who went to get their water at the break of day. The fact that she was there at noon suggests she went specifically at a time when she wouldn’t meet other women. Why? We don’t know but perhaps she was shunned by the women of the village because of her marital situation. Yet that day she met a man who changed her life because he didn’t see her or treat her as “other.”

In this time when our fear of “others” because of so many reasons, I am inclined to think back to a not-too-distant time when another epidemic brought fear to our nation and every nation in the world. It was almost 40 years ago now that the emergence of a new disease caused people to victimize the victims of that new disease even as the medical world moved to deal with the epidemic.

Dan Clenendin, [ “The Woman at the Well,”, March 12, 2017 ], shares the story, written by a friend of his, about that time when a sudden, rapid spread of a disease had everyone in a frenzy. The writer, Arthur Ammann, in 1982, was the Director of the Pediatric Immunology and Clinical Research Center at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco. Art treated a woman who was a prostitute and intravenous drug user and three of her children. All four presented with unusual deficiencies in their immune systems that were aggravated by opportunistic infections that did not fit normal medical models of disease — the same patterns that he had been studying in gay men after Michael Gottlieb of UCLA identified AIDS as a new disease in a June 5, 1981 publication. 

Art determined that the mother and all three children had contracted AIDS.  This was a tragic diagnosis because the disease was at that time fatal. Equally devastating was the terrifying conclusion, hotly contested and very controversial at the time, that HIV-AIDS was not limited to adults. He had determined that the disease had passed from the mother to her children as an ‘acquired’ and not an ‘inherited’ disease. Art thus documented the first cases of AIDS transmission from mother to infant. 

On December 10, 1982, in a separate case of an infant who had received more than twenty blood transfusions from nineteen different donors, Art identified the first case of AIDS transmission by blood transfusion.  This too was a tragic and controversial discovery that many people denied.  The New England Journal of Medicine refused to publish his results, as did the British journal Lancet, until it relented and did publish the article on April 30, 1983.  And not until 1985 was there a test approved for HIV for use in blood banks.

Since then, Art has been not just a leading expert at the center of the AIDS crisis, but also a tireless and vocal activist, especially for the women and children who have been impacted by HIV-AIDS. Women and children have also been the most ignored especially in the poorest parts of the poorest countries of the world (like war zones).  Indeed, ‘all the scientific advances, tools, and knowledge necessary to begin the process of eradicating HIV in infants and children were in place by 1996’ (p. 272).  ZDV, to take just one important example, was the first antiretroviral drug approved by the FDA, in record time, in 1987.

But consider Art’s stark reminder — today ‘an estimated twenty-one million (59 percent of) HIV-infected individuals are still not on any treatment (UNAIDS 2016)’ (p. 277).  If you are lucky enough to live in a wealthy country, you have access to state of the art drugs that now control HIV.  In parts of Africa HIV is still a ‘hyper epidemic’ (p. 281), and treating children with the highly effective ZDV has been mired in needless controversy.

Art explains how this radical disparity came to pass.  Looking back, he now sees ‘how difficult it can be, in spite of scientific evidence and personal tragedy, to move large and cumbersome institutions and the individuals working within them into action to protect the public from dangers.’ (p. 26).  His book includes two separate chapters on ‘denialism’ even within the medical-scientific community. The many manifestations of bureaucratism loom large.  Turf wars, research funding, government gridlock, drug development, issues of confidentiality and liability, gender based violence, self-interest, conflicts of interest, and counter-productive treatment guidelines by WHO — all these combined to create a perfect storm of a catastrophic epidemic. The good news is that we have had the means to treat every individual infected with HIV. Art’s story reminds us that there’s no excuse not to do exactly that. The reality that we haven’t isn’t just the fault of those who have it. Any comment directed towards blaming someone who hasn’t been treated is just wasting time sitting by the well, while someone dies of thirst and we have the bucket to give them a drink from.

Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well reminds us that the community he inaugurated calls for us to be a people of inclusion not exclusion, dignity not denigration, empowerment rather than exploitation, and affirmation rather than marginalization. His simple request for a drink of water provoked a dialogue with a marginalized woman that teaches us that God does not desire any human being to shrivel and die from a broken body or a parched soul. Rather, he longs to quench our deepest needs and desires with the ‘living water’ of his Spirit.

When you connect the dots of her story, you realize that this woman epitomized the many ways that society marginalizes people. Jesus shattered all the taboos that held sway then (and now)—gender discrimination, ritual purity (sharing a drinking cup with a Samaritan), socio-economic poverty (any woman married five times was poor), religious hostility, and the moral stigma of serial marriages.

The Samaritan woman displayed spiritual thirst, candor about her many problems, and genuine insight about her real needs. She longed not only for literal water, but for the ‘living water’ (4:11) that Jesus offered her, so much so that in her excitement she forgot her water jar when she returned to town (4:28). Spiritual nourishment suddenly became more important than material sustenance.

This marginalized woman made such a powerful impression upon Jesus and her own neighbors that John included an interesting eyewitness detail about Jesus’s itinerary: upon the neighbors’s request, ‘he stayed two days’ in Sychar (4:40). The woman embraced Jesus as the Messiah, her witness converted many other fellow Samaritans in town (4:39), and she became the cause of the story’s punch line: ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we really know that this man is the Savior of the world’ (4:42).

As in so many gospel stories about God’s alternative community, John 4 subverts and reverses conventional human wisdom and power relations. Jesus not only engaged a disreputable, ostracized, foreign woman; he cast her as the hero of the story, a symbol of life in his kingdom, and as an ardent witness to his universal lordship.

As Co-Chair of the North East Florida World AIDS Committee this current pandemic – slash – virus reminds me of the one with AIDS. With AIDS we blamed the victims, we denied our common humanity, we dehumanized those suffering instead of seeking to heal, to treat, to at least show common human compassion or even decency. Did you note that there are still an estimated 21 million suffering that have not received any treatment? Our culture of “personal responsibility” would say that is their fault, there is plenty of treatment available, overlooking the way that politics, governments, corporate profits, and sheer human prejudice influences who gets what in this world.

Here’s the thing for me. If we are thirsty, we know where to go to get water, or a coke, or martini – if that’s your thing, and we are pretty sure we can get it. A lot of the world can’t say that. Even water is becoming a scarce commodity. As a pastor I am supposed to urge you to go to Jesus, to be like this woman. Well, I do. A lot of us who are very privileged yet who seem so often dissatisfied with our privileges need to go to Jesus. Nothing and no one else will ever slake our thirst. Nothing and no one else will ever help us to understand how to respond to this current crisis and the 21 million brothers and sisters still suffering, untreated, from AIDS.

Jesus Christ came to show God’s compassion and complicity with the suffering of the world. He gives us the example of this shunned woman. She found the Messiah, the true Savior, the true Lord of all Creation. All others are fake news. They are false Messiahs. They will leave us dying of thirst, and sadly we will take many with us if we don’t learn the compassion to share a cup of water with a stranger, a foreigner, a person of a different gender, a powerless person, someone who is dying of thirst, just like us. When we do we will suddenly see who is actually with us at that well of compassion. It is the one who is Living Water. It is Jesus Christ. AMEN.

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