Sunday 6th August 2017
We are working our way through John’s gospel and today we start off the story of a woman who met Jesus. The story starts with Jesus leaving Judea and heading back to Galilee through Samaria.
Samaria is the name given to the land in between Galilee to the north and Judaea to the south. If Jesus and his followers were travelling from one to the other, then through Samaria was the natural route. Natural, geographically; but sometimes the Samaritans would attack travellers on their way between Galilee and Jerusalem, and many therefore would go a different way – down the Jordan Valley to Jericho and then up the hill from there to Jerusalem. In fact, that’s what Jesus and his followers did on their journey to Jerusalem.
I have a couple of pictures to show you and when you notice what’s wrong with the picture would you please raise your hand rather than shout out the answer. When newspapers or magazines run a feature entitled, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’, they don’t mean it’s a bad photograph. They mean that there is something in the picture that is very strange. The picture John presents to us in this reading today has a number of things that have been considered wrong. These are not necessarily things that would look wrong to us today, but they would have been out of place to the people in Jesus time.
Jesus was already known as a holy man, leading a movement to bring Israel back to God. In that culture, many devout Jewish men would not have allowed themselves to be alone with a woman. If it was unavoidable, they would not have entered into conversation with her due to the risk of gossip or ultimately of being drawn into a morality. Later in the chapter John shows how startled the disciples were that Jesus would engage in conversation.
Secondly, there had been a couple of hundred years of animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans but that fact was probably little-known by the people to whom John was writing the gospel, and so he explains it in verse 9 as ‘they did not associate’.
Thirdly, compounding both of these problems the woman appears of dubious character. The normal time for people to visit the well would be in the cool of the day, either morning or late afternoon. This woman has come a time which is least likely to meet anyone. As the conversation with Jesus progresses we see that her lifestyle would have made have an outsider. She would have been considered a threat to the other women because of her propensity to get a man. She would not want to be with the other women of the town and they probably felt the same about her.
It becomes clear that Jesus knows all about this and yet still engages her in conversation – a kind of teasing, double meaning conversation. This is typical of the kind of conversation John reports. Again and again in this gospel Jesus is seen talking to people who misunderstand what he says. He is talking at a heavenly level, and they are listening and thinking at an earthly level. Jesus, in asking for a drink, tells the women that actually she should have asked him for one. Of course, she is bound to think that he means it in the ordinary sense. The clue that he doesn’t is found in the phrase living water. That’s the phrase people used for what we call running water – water in a stream or river, rather than in a pool or well. Running water is more likely to be fresh and clean than what has been standing around. But Jesus isn’t referring to physical water at all, whether still or moving. He is referring to the new life that he offers: as this conversation shows, anyone at all, no matter their gender, their geography, their racial or moral background is welcome to receive the life Jesus offers. What Jesus says about this living water makes it clear that he is talking about something quite different, something for which all the water on Earth is just a signpost. Not only will what he is offering quench your thirst so that you will never be thirsty again, it will become a spring bubbling up inside you, refreshing you with the new life which came into the world with Jesus, and overflowing from you into the world. Later (ch 7) Jesus will say something like this again, and John explains then that he is talking about the Holy Spirit.
The woman doesn’t know exactly what he’s talking about, but her interest is stimulated and she wants to know more. However, as everyone who starts to take Jesus seriously finds, she’s in for a shock. He has living water to offer, but when you start to drink it, it changes every area of your life.
Often it is when people bring their lives into the light of Jesus that things become clear. Our surrounding culture tries to brainwash us by persuading us in many subtle, and not so subtle ways, ways that the present world is the only one there is. It is suggested that we should simply conform and it seems so much easier to go with the flow. What the gospel does is to shine a bright light, to kickstart the brain to see things as they really are. Often, when people are introduced to Jesus, the reaction is just like it was with the women here. She was intrigued by Jesus and his offer of living water. So intrigued, in fact, that she asked to have some – not realising that if you take Jesus up on his offer of running, pure, living water bubbling up inside you, you need to get rid of the stale, mouldy, stagnant water you’ve been living off.
Jesus saw straight to the heart of what was going on, just as he had with Nathanial in chapter 1. This woman has had a life composed of one upheaval after another, with enough husbands coming and going to keep all of the gossips in the village talking for weeks. We assume her various marriages ended in divorce and not with the death of her husbands. However, it may have been that she was an obnoxious, vicious harpie and the men divorced her because they couldn’t take any more. We don’t know whether she was equally sinned against as sinning. We don’t know what traumas in her background may have made it harder for her to form lasting bonds, but she knew her life was in a mess, and she knew that Jesus knew.
Her reaction to this is a classic example of what every minister pastor knows very well. Put your finger on the sore spot, and your direction is immediately pointed somewhere else, and the best subject for distraction is of course religion. “Why does God allow suffering?”; “I don’t believe in God because of all the evil in the world”; “Why are there so many different churches?” So, what she does is ask the question: “We think this mountain in Samaria is God’s holy mountain but you think yours is God’s holy mountain, which is it?” The implication is, we can’t both be right, maybe nobody knows, maybe nothing is that straightforward, therefore, maybe what I’m doing is not as straightforwardly bad as everybody thinks. These distraction questions tend to be excuses, and not at all relevant. God’s claim on every human life is absolute, and can’t be avoided by questions about good and evil; which church to attend; how much worse somebody else is than I am; or, which mountain is the best.
In fact, part of the point of Jesus mission was that from his time on holy mountains wouldn’t matter that much. Jesus is quite clear that the true and living God isn’t contained geographically or architecturally. All this is a bit much for the women and she probably couldn’t make much sense of the idea that true worship would one day have nothing to do with territory and everything to do with spirituality and truth.
So, she tries a different tack to put Jesus off. She says brightly, “One day the Messiah will come why don’t we wait until then and see what he says?” Is very much like a football player kicking the ball enthusiastically towards his own goal without realising the goalkeeper isn’t there. Jesus’ response is, “That would be me!”
Next week we’ll see the effect of that conversation on her, and her community. For now, let’s notice a couple of things:
Jesus was willing to break the rules to bring life to someone. What rules might we need to break to do the same?
Jesus was willing to speak to someone other people would ignore. Is there someone you have been ignoring, or think wouldn’t respond, who needs to be introduced to Jesus?
If you have the living water of Jesus in your life, where is it overflowing to others?