Lent II, 2019
Weathermen call it a “3-H day”: Hot, Humid, Hazy. At their mountainside home they just say it’s “sizzling, sticky, sultry.” If not for the chores, it’s a good day to sit on the veranda and catch the light breeze that slips past. June is caring for her ailing mother. A few yards down the hill, in the garage, Dad tinkers with a small motor. The brick house and garage, hold the heat.
A bicyclist approaches. He is peddling hard, working his way up the steep mountain. His bicycle is loaded with bags and satchels, a cook pot, bucket and tightly rolled mat. He is intent on ascending the mountain, but seeing the open garage door, he stops. Asks for a cup of water.
At dinner that night June asks, “Why do you think he was working so hard to ride up our steep mountain when there are easier roads to take?”
A few days later, in the heat of a Sunday afternoon, as Dad cared for his ailing wife, and June walked down the hill to the garage, two girls stopped their bicycles at the garage. June gave them a cheerful hello and offered each a cup of cool spring water. She noticed one had a small poodle in the basket on her bike. By the time she had a bowl of water for the dog, a dozen more riders had stopped. All in need of water.
June asked where they were headed, “Oregon,” was the astonishing reply. They were part of a group called Bike Centennial and they told June there would be more riders. Indeed there were. All that summer of 1976 groups of riders made their way up and over Afton Mountain, stopping at the cluster of brick houses and garage that offered a cup of cool mountain water, and soon, home baked cookies.
Abandoned by her husband after he came home from the WWII, June was left to raise her only daughter, and care for her aging parents in the house where she grew up. She lived a life of nurturing, caring, and giving of herself. Years later, when bicyclists began stopping by the watering hole, it was second nature for her to begin to care for them, to offer them her cup of Southern hospitality.
As she later said: “We feel proud that God chose this unusual way for us to witness for him, to care for the hurt, the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, those who have no place to spend the night, and those with any other need we can fulfill. It has been the most rewarding and wonderful experience of my life, to give love and care freely, and to expect nothing in return but the wonderful reward of being able to help someone who needs it.”
Of all the stories about Jesus, I think the story of Jesus and the woman at the well shows us the most about who Jesus is. It is a rich well of insights where we may fill our empty buckets with the water of life.
The walk through Samaria is long and tiring. Jesus is hot, dry, parched. In the mid-day sun, Jesus stops by Jacob’s ancient well for a drink of cool water.
Noon is not the time to visit a well in the Middle East. Morning and dusk, when the sun is low, the air cooler, that’s when the women come to fill their jugs, gossip about the village, swaps stories about their lives and families.
A village woman at the well at mid-day is avoiding the crowd, keeping away from others. She has been ostracized, not for any sin she has committed, but for her bad luck. Locked in a Levirate marriage, she has been passed from one dying husband to another. So she comes to the well when no one else will be there. Except this day.
It ought to be easy for a thirsty man to get a drink at a well. But Jesus does not help himself. Instead, he asks the only other person at the well, a Samaritan woman, to give him a drink.
For five hundred years, Jews and Samaritans cursed and avoided each other. The shortest route to travel from Galilee to Judea, was through Samaria. Yet so intense was the animosity between the two people, devout Jews usually went the long way around.
In travelling through Samaria and talking to a woman, Jesus is showing us a new way. Yet more than that, in asking her to quench his thirst with a cup of cool water, Jesus is giving her the chance to recognize the face of Christ in a stranger.
In its elemental form, the scene is merely this: Jesus is thirsty at the well, and we are the ones with the bucket. The deep level of the subsequent conversation makes no sense until we recognize this first step. Jesus welcomes the Samaritan to see Christ in a stranger, Jesus welcomes us to the same. It as if a cup of cool water, offered in love, is beginning of a salvation journey.
This story teaches us that until we can meet the stranger and tend to human need, we cannot begin to grasp the meaning of living water and true worship.
To contrast the story of learned Nicodemus, who came to Jesus under the cover of darkness, with nothing to offer, and was stuck out of the gate with the metaphors Jesus used, with this unnamed Samaritan woman who met Jesus in the light of day and offered a cool cup of water for his thirst, is to see the door of love for all that Jesus opens for us. We must step through that door first, before we can understand the meaning of his love for us.
As the longest conversation Jesus ever had with one person turns to the Messiah, Jesus says, “I am he.” It is reminiscent of the seven “I am,” statements in the gospel. Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr notes: “Light is not so much what you directly see as that by which you see everything else. This is why Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world.’ Are we then to understand that the way we see others and our world is by the light of Christ? I believe it this…and if we see others…by the light of Christ doesn’t this transform the way we act towards others as Christ would…with care and respect?”
June Curry, the cookie lady of Afton, like the woman at the well, offered a cup of cool water to weary travelers, and in doing so, as the Samaritan woman, taught us how to see the Messiah in each traveler we meet, loving and caring for human need.
Eventually June converted the old garage into a bunk house for cyclists. Among the things she stocked it with were bibles, Christian literature, anti-drug and alcohol articles and local meeting times. People said there was an aura around June. She never forced her beliefs on anyone, but everyone knew how she believed, without her saying a word. In her own unique way, she touched the lives of everyone she came in contact with, just by the way she conducted herself and lived her life.
The woman at the well was so struck by what she saw and heard from the parched rabbi, she became the first evangelist, running and telling the village all she knew. By offering a cup of cool water to every stranger she met, the cookie lady of Afton saw others by the light of Christ, offering Christ’s love to transform the world, one bicyclist at a time. Are you ready to offer a cup of cool water to the stranger you will meet today?