Piped water direct to our homes is something we all take for granted, a perfectly normal ‘necessity’ of life. Some of you may have memories of country dwellings perhaps inhabited by elderly relatives where it was still necessary to pump water from a well. You may have experienced a time when water was cut off for repairs or during a time of severe drought and you had to get water from a tanker in the street. Going camping is another time when you may have had to use a communal tap in order to get water.
All of this sets the scene for today’s gospel reading. (John 4.5-42) Jesus is tired because he has been travelling presumably on foot. This reminds us at the outset of the story of Jesus’ humanity, that he felt the pains in his body as we all do. John records the memory of how Jesus rested by a well, a significant well for it was on a plot of land that Jacob had given to his son Joseph and the well was known as Jacob’s well. It’s the middle of the day and Jesus sends his disciples into town to buy food. As Jesus sits in the shade by the well, a woman emerges to draw water. She is a Samaritan, a member of that race of half Jews particularly despised by true Jews. It has also been suggested that she arrived at the well at noon, in the heat of the day, to avoid the crowds who would have gathered in the morning and evening to draw water…and no doubt gossip. Things in her past and her present life style which emerge from the conversation she has with Jesus probably made her feel ostracized by the other women.
That Jesus should talk with her at all is amazing. Women, apart from those who were high born, were generally poorly regarded in the society of the day. Their only security was marriage which often began when they were teenagers and the man was in his thirties. Thus after rearing a family, they could find themselves widowed with little or no income at an early age. Divorce was easy and this particular lady had had more than her fair share. Jewish men would thank God they had not been born a woman. The culture of the day would dictate that they did not speak to women in public. Women would not expect to converse with a rabbi or teacher. The fact that this woman was a Samaritan would have made talking with a Jewish man even more of a no no.
Jesus is being thoroughly radical if not a little risky as he strikes up conversion with her and asks for a drink. The woman recognises that as she expresses to Jesus her astonishment that he has asked her for a drink. Jesus responds by saying that if she understood who he was, she could ask him for a drink and he would give her ‘living water’. Rather like Nicodemus last week in his conversation with Jesus about rebirth, so this woman continues to concentrate on the material and practical concerns such as the depth of the well and the availability of a bucket while Jesus has moved on to talk about relationship with God.
As the story unfolds, so we see Jesus teaching this woman more and more about himself often in response to her questions. Jesus makes it clear that his living water is much more satisfying than anything she might get from the well at which they are sat despite its historical association with Jacob. In accurately telling the woman about her marital history, he shows himself to know every hidden secret of the heart. The conversation then moves to a discussion of the proper place to worship God, in Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim, a mountain near today’s city of Nablus on the West Bank which Samaritans regarded as the place where God wanted his temple built rather than Jerusalem. Jesus teaches that geographical location is not important. A relationship with God is an affair of the heart and can be entered into anywhere.
The woman then states her faith in the coming Messiah. ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ She asserts. (John 4.26) Being a Samaritan rather than a Jew, her understanding of the Messiah was more likely to be that of a teacher or prophet rather than the ruler of Davidic line for whom the Judean Jews waited. Jesus is more ready to accept this idea of the Messiah and so he responds: ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’
So we are presented with an incredible spectacle at this well. The declared Jewish Messiah, the most significant and long promised of all Jewish males discusses theology with a marginalised Samaritan woman. This mission of God in Christ blows apart all the cultural norms of the day. When the disciples return, they are astonished but appear to know better than challenge him directly.
The woman then goes back to the town to tell everyone who will listen about Jesus; that they should ‘Come and see a man who me everything I have ever done!’ (John 4.29) She leaves her water jar behind. In the light of the conversation she has had with Jesus and the transformation it is bringing to her life, the water jar is somehow redundant. It won’t hold the living water which will nourish and enrich her life forever. The water it contains will only sustain the body for a few hours.
Meanwhile, the disciples are now the ones fussing over the material and the practical. ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ They urge (John 4.31) Jesus then speaks of other food that they do not know about and they interpret this to mean that someone else had bought him food while they were away in the city. In response Jesus says: ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and complete his work.’ (John 4.34)
Food and drink are necessities of life. We are in the good place that we do not have to worry about them. But I guess that we will spend quite a lot of our time thinking about food and drink, reading articles, watching programmes or seeing what’s on special offer at the supermarket. There is nothing wrong in this. Jesus in his prayer encourages us to pray for our daily bread, what we need to keep body and soul together. A significant part of our ministry at St Mark’s is concerned with providing food for those who find themselves short through Food Bank and the Holiday Hunger scheme. That is a practical and loving way to show our love.
But the encounter of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well and the conversation with the disciples which follows teaches us the important corrective: ‘That man does not live by bread alone but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God.’ (Deuteronomy 8.3) As the woman discovered for herself, that ‘word’ had now taken flesh and was beside her at the well in the form of Jesus. To know Jesus and be in relationship with him is to know God, to be fed watered and nourished in the deepest parts of our being with food that is not transient and passing but endures for eternal life. That food is laid out for you and me. We must ‘come and eat’ and encourage others to taste. Jesus has come, the waiting is over. The one who sows does not need to wait for the harvest before rejoicing. May our message as a church be not just around the material and practical but focus with enthusiasm on Jesus the bread of life, that like the woman, we may speak of the man who told me everything we have ever done.
Lent 3 19.03.2017