St John and St Stephen’s Church, Reading, March 15th 2020, Lent 3
Psalm 46, John 4:5-42
What a strange time. We can’t go anywhere, talk to anyone, turn on the TV, radio, internet or look at your smartphone without a blaring mention of coronavirus. Now let’s add to that the now visible effects of global heating – flooding, Antarctic melt, rising sea levels, and then the uncertain impact of Brexit (which we’ve almost forgotten now!). I’m feeling a bit like I’m on a ship going through very choppy waters: the ship has been sailing pretty steadily, got a bit rocky in the last couple of years, now it’s going crazy, the deck is shifting under my feet. Where are we going? Which coastline are we sailing to? We have got used to safety and security in our little island for years. But it’s changing. I want to acknowledge all of this, as we are, I am sure, all feeling and thinking it. What do we do? Well, we do the right things – handwashing, reducing physical contact and so on. We also continue to trust in God, that’s why we are here this morning. Not just a pie-in-the-sky hope but trust in his presence here and now.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. (Psalm 46)
This Psalm reminds us that the sensation of uncertainty and fear is not a new one – in fact, it is normal. The Psalm directs us to God. That is exactly where we need to go. To find him, let us go to a small corner of the near East, to a country under a brutal occupation, whose kingdom has indeed tottered and fallen, to Samaria, whose people were neither Jewish nor pagan, but a mixture of the two; to a well at midday; where we can find a woman in her middle age or maybe a bit more, who has lived perhaps a bit too much. She’s feisty, spirited, ordinary, and she has come to draw water: but not at the usual time, in the morning, but at midday, because she’s a bit of an outcast, a pariah, so she has to come when the other women aren’t there. She is a bit socially isolated. She’s ritually unclean to observant Jews: they wouldn’t touch her. Ring any bells? She finds a man sitting on top of the well, a Jewish man, without a bucket, who speaks to her and says, simply, ‘Give me a drink’. She’s amazed. Jewish men don’t talk to Samaritan women, especially women like her. In shock, she blurts out, ‘What? You’re talking to me, a woman from Samaria, and you’re a Jew?’ Then the strange man begins talking about living water, if you knew who it was that asks you for a drink, you would ask him for one! She’s lost. Confused. Thrown off balance. She begins to babble that you haven’t a bucket, it’s a deep well, what are you talking about? where do you get that living water? But the man, (BTW it’s Jesus) goes on – he’s raving now – about how if you drink the water I will give you, you will never thirst again. What, can that be true? Surely not. Well, now I think about it, that would be handy, I’d like some of that! Then, out of nowhere, he asks me to call my husband. I haven’t one just at the moment of speaking. And he goes, no, you haven’t, you’ve had 5 husbands, and the man you live with now isn’t your husband. How did he know that? This is getting embarrassing. Seems like he’s some sort of prophet. Let’s change the subject. We have a bit of a back-and-forth about where the best place is to worship God. At least it stopped him talking about my crap life. To cap it all, finally, he claims to be the Messiah, the Christ. Can that be true? My head is spinning!
Last week Claire spoke about Nicodemus the Pharisee, who came to Jesus by night to try and understand him. He ended up being more confused than when he started, when Jesus told him that he needed to be born again, and poor Nicodemus, this learned teacher, took it all too literally and just couldn’t get his head around the idea of entering into his mother’s womb a second time. Who could? He could not comprehend the metaphor, the idea of re-birth. Jesus was talking, as Claire reminded us, of the inner life. This story of the woman at the well, which immediately follows the Nicodemus story, is also one of confusion. Only this time the character is an unnamed, ordinary woman, not an important man with a name; a Samaritan not a Jew; it’s daytime, not night; and instead of Nicodemus, who came to Jesus deliberately, this woman comes to Jesus ‘by chance’. But the confusion is the same. The woman cannot understand what Jesus is talking about when he offers her ‘living water’. Only when Jesus touched on the matter of all the men she had lived with in her life, she got that pretty quickly, and tried to change the subject.
There is so much that could be said about this wonderful encounter. I am struck by how Jesus asks for help because he is in need – he is thirsty. It is very human. It’s midday, it’s hot, his disciples have gone off to find food and taken with them the leather bucket that you would need to get water. Wells in that part of the world didn’t have a bucket attached to them, you had to have your own. So Jesus asks this woman for help. Quite often, we Christians in an effort to do good like to give help – which puts us, subtly or not-so-subtly, in a position of power; we have something for you. Your job is to receive. In this story, it’s the other way around. The unnamed, socially outcast Samaritan woman holds the cards: or more accurately, the bucket. She has the power to help Jesus. The dynamic of the encounter is inverted.
And what happens? How does this apparently chance meeting play out, in its essence? An unnamed person with a messy life, a social outsider, receives, in exchange for a bucket of water and some conversation, an offer of a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. It’s no wonder she had trouble understanding. Whoever spoke of anything like that to her before? She could not understand the metaphor, the symbol. Why did Jesus use this kind of language? Why couldn’t he be more literal, more concrete, black-and-white, easier to understand? Well, how could he? This is heart language, it’s about something that takes place in the heart, the soul, the inner life: the springing up of living water, gushing up to eternal life, refreshing the spirit, cleansing the soul, bringing joy. When the Spirit of God moves in our hearts, there will be some kind of felt experience. The mind doesn’t really get this, and our Samaritan lady was stuck firmly in her mind with literal thinking about water that you put in buckets and drink. Then, perhaps surprisingly, Jesus asks her to call her husband and she’s on the spot. Her personal life is a wee bit messy. She changes the subject, opening a theological conversation about where the best place to worship God is – this mountain or Jerusalem? Again, this is all in the mind, and she is resisting where Jesus is going. I wonder whether Jesus, in saying what he did, was trying to open up her heart by going directly to an uncomfortable area of her life. A bit of self-examination. Did it work? Maybe it did! He goes on to answer her theological question by telling her that ‘God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth’ (24). Again, this is heart language. Then in response to the question about the Messiah, Jesus tells her straight, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you’ (26). Wow. Well, something has moved her, quite literally. The woman who came to draw water actually leaves her own water-jar behind (28), in her excitement to get back to the city of Sychar and tell people she has ‘met a man who told me everything I have ever done! He can’t be the Messiah, can he?’ (29). Seems like something touched her quite deeply. She becomes the first female evangelist – the story tells us that ‘many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony’ (39).
This encounter is one of sheer, undeserved, unsought-for, unexpected grace. It is so like God. Here are some lovely words written by St Ignatius in his spiritual exercises that ring very true, considering all of this: ‘It is characteristic of God and His Angels, when they act upon the soul, to give true happiness and spiritual joy, and to banish all the sadness and disturbances which are caused by the enemy. God alone can give consolation to the soul without any previous cause…It belongs solely to the Creator to come into a soul, to leave it, to act upon it, to draw it wholly to the love of His Divine Majesty’ These moments come to us often when we are off-balance, surprised. Something catches us – a piece of music, poetry, a beautiful sunset or a plant, a word of scripture – and we are touched, moved and drawn to God.
Much to ponder on here. Jesus speaking across so many barriers to this woman. Jesus in need, thirsty, asking for help. The promise of living water to quench another kind of thirst. The awkward question. Her messy life. Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. The move from the mind to the heart. Her excitement. Leaving behind the water-jar. Rushing to tell people.
Are you thirsty?
 The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, #329, 330