St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

Living Water

Liv­ing Water

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, 3rd Sunday in Lent, 19th March 2017

Read­ings: Exodus 17: 1–7; Romans 5. 1–11; John 4: 5–42

The author of the Fourth Gos­pel loves to describe Jesus’ encoun­ters with par­tic­u­lar indi­vidu­als. Last Sunday we read about Nicodemus, the Phar­isee, who comes to speak with Jesus under the cov­er of dark­ness. Today, in sharp con­trast we have John’s descrip­tion of Jesus’ meet­ing with the Samar­it­an woman which takes place under the glare of the noonday sun. Nicodemus was a ruler among his com­munity, a man with status and author­ity. The woman was at the oth­er end of the social scale, car­ry­ing a his­tory of broken rela­tion­ships and regarded with scorn by her com­munity. She comes to draw water at mid­day to avoid the oth­er women who draw water in the early morn­ing or in the cool of the late after­noon.

The encounter takes place because Jesus and his dis­ciples are on their way to Galilee from Judea. The shortest route to the north was through Samaria and many Jews avoided that road and went the longer way because they did not want to have any con­tact with Samar­it­ans. The hos­til­ity between Jew and Samar­it­an was of ancient ori­gin. Sychar or She­chem, had been made the cap­it­al of the North­ern King­dom around 870 B.C. soon after the divi­sion of Israel into two sep­ar­ate king­doms fol­low­ing the death of King Solomon. It was cap­tured by the Assyr­i­ans in 721 B.C. who settled large num­bers of non-Jews in the area. Over the years there was a lot of inter mar­riage, Jew with Gen­tile so the Jews in the south forever after­wards regarded the Samar­it­ans as impure and refused to have any­thing to do with them. The Samar­it­ans in response built their own temple and rejec­ted much of the Hebrew Scrip­tures accept­ing only the Torah (the first five books) as author­it­at­ive. From these roots came the bit­ter­ness that exis­ted in Jesus’ day. The irony is that ancient Samaria is now the ‘West Bank’, occu­pied by Israeli sol­diers and locked in con­tinu­ing con­flict with its inhab­it­ants.

Jesus arrives at the city of Sychar with his dis­ciples and wear­ied by the jour­ney sits down by the well out­side the city and sends his dis­ciples off to get some food. Then unex­pec­tedly the woman appears. The bar­ri­ers that already exis­ted between Jew and Samar­it­an are now com­plic­ated by the addi­tion­al bar­ri­er of gender. The rab­bis taught that a man should not talk to a woman in the street or in a pub­lic place. Some even refused to acknow­ledge their own wives in pub­lic. There would have remained a very awk­ward silence between Jesus and the woman had not Jesus asked her for a drink. She is startled by the request and responds, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” She is very aware that by ask­ing her for a drink, Jesus is break­ing all the rules that would nor­mally be oper­at­ing in this situ­ation. Jesus then takes the con­ver­sa­tion in an entirely new dir­ec­tion by talk­ing about liv­ing water. Mys­ti­fied, she asks him where can you get this liv­ing water? Jesus tells her that those who drink of the liv­ing water that he provides will nev­er be thirsty again. The woman then asks Jesus to give her some of this water so that she will not have to keep com­ing every day to draw it. She has not yet under­stood that Jesus is talk­ing about spir­itu­al water. The use of water as a spir­itu­al meta­phor was com­mon in the Hebrew Scrip­tures and it is a recur­ring theme in John’s Gos­pel as well. In response to the woman’s request for the liv­ing water, Jesus again changes the sub­ject and asks her to go and get her hus­band.

Why does Jesus ask this ques­tion? I believe he asked it not to humi­li­ate her but to let her know that des­pite her past his­tory, which he knew all about, he accep­ted her as a per­son of worth. At this point she real­ises that she is deal­ing with a per­son of great insight and assumes Jesus must be a proph­et. She thinks, if he is a proph­et then per­haps he can answer one of the great ques­tions that divided Jews and Samar­it­ans- where should we wor­ship? The Jews, of course wor­shipped in the temple at Jer­u­s­alem and regarded it as the home of God’s pres­ence. The Samar­it­ans had their own rival place of wor­ship at Mt. Ger­iz­im. Some have sug­ges­ted that the woman’s ques­tion was a diver­sion­ary tac­tic in order to move the con­ver­sa­tion away from her per­son­al life to a safe reli­gious top­ic. But it may well have been a ser­i­ous ques­tion because the woman genu­inely wanted to know where God could be found and where for­give­ness could be gran­ted. Jesus cer­tainly treats it as a rel­ev­ant ques­tion explain­ing that the day is com­ing when God would no longer be wor­shipped in temples but could be wor­shipped any­where.

Eugene Peterson’s mod­ern para­phrase of the text takes some liber­ties with the Greek but I think cap­tures the spir­it of this exchange well: Jesus says “the time is com­ing, it has, in fact, come-when what you are called will not mat­ter and where you go to wor­ship will not mat­ter. It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your wor­ship must engage your spir­it in the pur­suit of truth. That’s the kind of people God is out look­ing for: those who are simply and hon­estly them­selves before God in their worship….Those who wor­ship God must do it out of their very being, their spir­its, their true selves, in ador­a­tion.”

Some­what over­whelmed by what Jesus is speak­ing about, the woman expresses her trust that when the Mes­si­ah comes he will explain all this in a way she can under­stand. Jesus then says plainly to her: “I am he, the one who is speak­ing to you.” This is the first time that this expres­sion appears in the gos­pel and it calls to mind the name of God revealed to Moses, “I am who I am.” At this very sig­ni­fic­ant moment when Jesus has revealed that he is indeed the prom­ised Mes­si­ah the dis­ciples come back and they are aston­ished to find Jesus talk­ing to a woman and a Samar­it­an woman at that. Trav­el­ling with Jesus there are always new things to learn. The woman decides it’s time to return home but she is so excited by what she has heard from Jesus that she leaves her water jar behind. Liv­ing water has pre­vailed over the water from the well.

She returns to the city and pro­claims to every­one she sees: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He can­not be the Mes­si­ah, can he?” At the con­clu­sion of this epis­ode John adds the com­ment that many Samar­it­ans from that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testi­mony. In fact they were so impressed by what she said that they invited Jesus, the Jew to remain with them for anoth­er two days and many more became his fol­low­ers. Good news is worth shar­ing and when God does some­thing won­der­ful for us it’s import­ant to pass it on.

So what did John want us to learn from this story, which is the longest con­ver­sa­tion­al nar­rat­ive that we have in all of the Gos­pels? First, we see Jesus break­ing down the ancient bar­ri­er of divi­sion between Jew and Gen­tile, then we see him dis­mant­ling the bar­ri­er of gender. Jesus enters into dia­logue with a woman of dubi­ous mor­als and relates to her as a per­son of value and intel­li­gence even­tu­ally reveal­ing to her his true iden­tity, which he does very rarely in the gos­pels. And he does this after reveal­ing to the woman that he knows all about her past. Every Sunday when we come for wor­ship togeth­er we say the Pray­er of Pre­par­a­tion:

Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid­den: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspir­a­tion of your Holy Spir­it, that we may per­fectly love you and wor­thily mag­ni­fy your holy name, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Like the woman in John’s won­der­ful nar­rat­ive, today we can come before God who knows all our secrets, knows all our past and yet dis­cov­er that he wel­comes us and is pleased to call us his own. That is only pos­sible because of the one who came to give us liv­ing water that will sat­is­fy our thirst, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.