Priming the Pump


John 4:13—14: Jesus answered the Samaritan woman, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever pumped water by hand. I first encounter this at my grandmother’s house in the mountains of west Tennessee. She didn’t have any of the usual amenities such as running water or a flush toilet, but we loved going there to spend some time with all kinds of relatives who treated my brother and me as special creations, unlike the way our parents saw us. I think you know what I mean.

I remember clearly the day my grandmother asked to come out onto her back porch. She said she wanted to show me something. I thought it might be a pony, but all I saw was the cast-iron pump protruding from the concrete. I was puzzled. I knew about the pump which spouted water as if by magic, but I knew nothing about how it did this.

My grandmother took a nearby bucket which was half filled with water. “I’m going to show you how to pump water.”

I thought, that’s no big deal. You pump the handle and water comes out.

“I know how to do it already,” I said, but I didn’t.

“All right,” my grandmother said. “Show me.”

I took a strong grip on the handle and worked it up and down in a flurry of action.

No water came. I pumped harder. Still no water. And a third time with the same result. “Granny,” I said. “This pump is broken. No water comes out.”

She didn’t say a word but poured some water from her bucket into the pump. She studied the place where she had poured for a few seconds and then began pumping, slowly and deliberately.

Then I heard something. It was—no, it couldn’t be. I watched in disbelief as water gushed from the spout.

“What’d you do?” I demanded. “How’d you get the water to come out?”

“I primed the pump.”

“You what?”

“I poured a little water in to soak the gasket.”

“What’s that?”

“A little piece of leather in the shape of a doughnut that allows the water to come up.”

I tried it and was astounded that I could duplicate her work. I also saw that I didn’t know as much as I thought. That was a valuable lesson.

We had a pump because water was so important to us, just as it was in the scene at Jacob’s well. Jesus acknowledges this when he asks the woman for water, but he takes it further when he tells her about living water, his message that brings new life and salvation. Thanks be to God for water, for being able to learn new lessons and for our savior Jesus Christ, the living water and saver from all our sins. Amen.

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