3rd Sunday of Lent, 12 March 2023, St James Colwall
Exodus 17: 1-7; John 4: 5-42
To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:
Water – we take it for granted, don’t we, that it will flow from our taps and satisfy our thirst whenever we want. But that wasn’t the case for the Israelites on their journey through the wilderness. So is it any wonder that they were unhappy with Moses when they pitched camp at Rephidim? Of course they needed water at the end of a day of travelling through the desert – for themselves and for their livestock. Nothing can live without water: it is an essential component of life.
Moses took the people’s complaint to God and God responded. In obedience to God’s instruction, Moses struck the rock with his staff, and cool, fresh water flowed from it. God provided for them in their need with water for life.
That image of water flowing from the rock resonates with us, living as we do in this area blessed with so many natural springs. I give thanks for that gift of life every time I go to collect the spring water.
No doubt it was this abundance of water flowing out of the rocks of the hills which enabled the Benedictine monks to settle in Great Malvern. Later, of course, the Victorians made much of their healing properties as people flocked her for the water cure.
Throughout history settlements have grown up where there was access to a water supply and this would certainly have been true in Biblical times. Wells were places where people from the nearby village gathered at different times of day, to draw water for the home and for their livestock. They were meeting places for the community where news was exchanged and relationships established. Many significant events in the history of God’s people are recorded in the bible as having occurred at the local well.
Some that come to mind are betrothals, and all that implies of intimacy in relationships. Remember how Abraham’s servant found Rebekah, a wife for Isaac at a well.
A generation later, Isaac and Rebekah’s son Jacob, on the run from his family, encounters his future wife Rachel at a well. He rolls the stone from its mouth and draws water for her. She hurries home to tell her father what happened and Jacob comes to stay at their house, eventually marrying Rachel. A similar story tells of Moses finding his wife Zipporah. Wells are places where love and intimacy begin.
Wells are also noted as places of encounter with God. When Hagar, Sarah’s slave girl, ran away because she was being harshly treated in the household, she was found in the wilderness beside a spring by an angel of the Lord. God sent her back to Abraham and Sarah with the promise that she would bear a son, Ishmael.
Tradition around the annunciation has it too that, contrary to the scenes we are used to seeing depicted in medieval art of a devout Mary at prayer or reading, the angel Gabriel actually met Mary at the local well in Nazareth with the news that she was to bear God’s son.
If you visit Nazareth today, the Greek orthodox Church of the Annunciation is built over the underground spring which was said to serve Mary’s well. The news which the Angel Gabriel brought there was to be good news for the whole world.
All this preamble is by way of suggesting that we come to this story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well near Sychar, with many layers of meaning already in place. Wells are places where love and intimacy begin, where hospitality is invited, where community develops, where God is encountered and from whence good news is carried. Above all, they provide water, the source and sustenance of life. We find all that and more in this story.
Jesus comes to this well outside the city of Sychar in Samaria looking for rest and refreshment, but also conscious of his mission to show God’s love for the whole world. Samaria would generally have been thought to be off limits by the Jews, but not for Jesus on this occasion. Contrary to all the current societal norms, Jesus, a Jew, asks the woman, a Samaritan, to draw water for him to drink.
By presenting his need for a drink to her first he draws her into a wide-ranging conversation. After her initial misgivings, the woman’s trust in this stranger deepens so that she is willing to ask him for the gift of living water that he offers.
When he offers it to her household as well, she discovers that Jesus has an intimate knowledge of her and her circumstances. We don’t know the reason for her unusual marital situation, but it suggests much pain and grief are part of her experience. There is no sense that Jesus condemns her; rather the woman is experiencing what is to be intimately known and loved.
As they talk, the woman (don’t you wish she had a name?!) moves in her understanding from initial shock and incomprehension to first identifying Jesus as a prophet and then tentatively as the expected Messiah. Jesus’ response is to reveal himself as no less than I AM – unmistakably identifying himself as the Word, God, made flesh. The Samaritan woman has encountered God in Jesus.
Just then the disciples return and the woman hurries away filled with the new life she has received in this encounter, leaving behind her water jar - the reason that she came to the well in the first place.
Better than that she now carries within her the water of life, the gift Jesus has given her, a spring of life-giving water which flows from her, a fountain which bubbles over into the lives of her fellow townspeople. She hurries from the well with good news for them – for a community from whom it is often presumed that she was estranged because of her marital situation.
The transformation they see in her is enough to persuade them to meet Jesus and invite him to stay with them, and as he receives their hospitality, so they come to know him for themselves, to believe in him.
Sychar’s well has been a place of where knowledge, love and intimacy with Jesus has begun, where God has been encountered, where community has been restored and hospitality given. The living water which is God’s gift of the Spirit has filled the woman, transformed her and spilled over to the people of Samaria. The thirsty are satisfied.
What resonates for you in this story I wonder? It might be a good one to spend time with during Lent – there is much to reflect on.
How might we grow in love and intimacy with Jesus? Where do we encounter God? Do we have the thirst to drink deeply from the living waters of God’s life of love and compassion which he freely gives us, that we might become fountains ourselves of that love and compassion for which the world also thirsts?
To the thirsty Jesus gives water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.
Lord give us that living water, Amen.