3rd Sunday in Lent (Year A)
Exodus 17:1-7; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42
Of all God’s good gifts, water is surely the most important. It is an absolutely basic requirement for life; indeed, without water there would be no life.
Water is an important part of us: our bodies are about two-thirds water.
Here are some more facts about the water in our bodies:
- The longest a person can survive without water is about 10 days. The body needs about six pints of water a day to operate efficiently.
- Water is essential for digestion; it helps to break up and soften food. Nutrients from the food we eat is carried to every part of our body by blood, which is 90% water.
- As a cooling agent, water regulates our body temperature through perspiration.
- And without its lubricating properties, our joints and muscles would grind and creak like old rusty machinery.
As well as being an essential ingredient for life, people have found an enormous variety of uses for this remarkable substance. We use water for drinking and cooking, for washing and cleaning. We use water to heat our homes and cool our car engines. Both the most primitive and the most technologically advanced forms of power generation – the water wheel and the nuclear power station – need water to work.
In this country, we take water for granted. All we have to do is turn on a tap, and out it comes. Occasionally we have a drought and for a while we may not be able to water our gardens or wash our cars. But generally we are well blessed with a plentiful supply of water. In fact, more often than not, we complain that we have too much of it.
It is not so for the majority of people in the world. As the world’s population rises and growing demand causes water tables to fall, the shortage of water is an increasing problem. Worldwide, it is estimated that over a billion people lack access to clean drinking water. Some predict that in the future, wars will be fought not over oil, but water. For this reason, last July the United Nations passed a resolution declaring that access to clean water and sanitation is a fundamental human right. When water is in short supply it is easier to appreciate its importance. Water is quite literally water of life.
When we read the bible, it should come as no surprise to find that it contains many stories to do with water – or the lack of it. Much of the land of Israel is desert or arid wilderness and in such marginal places water is in short supply. Of course in Biblical times there were no taps and no mains water – there weren’t even any pumps. The people of the Bible knew only three sources of water.
Firstly, there was water from a spring or river. This was the freshest and purest water, and therefore much valued. But springs and streams can be unreliable; in many parts of Israel they flow only during the winter months, in the rainy season. For the rest of the year the land is dry, marked only by the scars of wadis, or dry river beds.
The second source of water was from a well, by tapping into the water in the ground. Water from wells can be very clean, though there is a danger of contamination from minerals in the earth, such as naturally occurring arsenic. And of course, hauling up the water can be hard work – never mind the difficulty of digging the well in the first place.
The third possibility was to catch rainwater and store it in chambers called cisterns. Many ancient cisterns still survive to this day. Carved out of solid rock, the largest could store thousands of litres of water. In some places, particularly in the mountains, this was the only way to ensure a continuous supply of water all year round. But there was always a danger that cistern water could become stagnant, dirty or contaminated.
Of these three sources, the best and cleanest water came from rivers and springs. This was described as “living water” to distinguish it from the still and sometimes stagnant water in cisterns and wells.
So people in Biblical times never took water for granted. They knew from personal experience what it is like to go without fresh water. But they also knew that it is not enough simply to have water to drink, or for that matter, food to eat or clothes to wear. As people of faith they knew the human need for God, which is as fundamental as our need for water. Indeed, the need for water became for them an analogy of our need for God. So in the scriptures water is frequently a symbol of spiritual refreshment. The psalmist wrote:
As a deer longs for flowing streams,
So my soul thirsts for you, O God,
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. (Psalm 42:1-2a)
And Isaiah spoke of God’s future blessings for his people:
Joyfully you will draw water from the springs of salvation and that day, you will say, give thanks to the Lord and call on his name. (Isaiah 12:3-4a)
To a thirsty people, the prophet extended God’s wonderful invitation:
Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters! (Isaiah 55:1a)
And yet the prophets were frustrated by the people’s refusal of God’s living water. Jeremiah wrote:
Be appalled O heavens… for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water. (Jeremiah 2:12-13)
This Old Testament background gives context to the conversation that takes place in our Gospel story.
John presents a touching account of Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman. This is how it came about. Jesus was travelling with his disciples from Jerusalem to Galilee. (In 4:3) John tells us that to make this journey Jesus had to travel through Samaria. In fact this is not strictly true, for he could have by-passed Samaria by travelling the longer, more easterly route up the Jordan valley. For many Jews the Jordan Valley road would have been the way to go, because of the history of conflict between Jewish and Samaritan communities. If Jesus was compelled to go through Samaria, it was not because of the demands of geography but in response to God’s will.
It was a long and tiring journey and at one place Jesus sat down by a well, whilst his disciples went into the nearby town of Sychar, to buy some food. It was midday and it was hot – not a time a woman would normally venture out to fetch water. Did she go late in order to avoid the village gossips? Traditionally commentators have suggested that she was a woman of evil repute, although there is not much to support that in the text, apart from the enigmatic comment about having five husbands. Intentionally or not, she probably expected to find herself alone at the well. When she got there she noticed a Jewish man who was a stranger. Well, at least she wouldn’t be expected to make small talk – she could get on with the reason she was there, which was to fetch water.
So there she is, drawing up a bucket of water from the well, minding her own business, when the stranger speaks “Give me a drink of water.” To us this may seem a reasonable request, but the woman is taken aback – “how can you ask me for a drink?” She was a Samaritan woman and he was a Jewish man. And she knew well that religious regulations forbade him to handle a vessel that had been passed to him by a Samaritan. Between them there was a double barrier of race and gender.
But Jesus is unafraid to break social and religious conventions when something bigger is at stake. Jesus never let prejudice and convention trap him into silence, and neither should we. And so the Samaritan woman finds that here is one who is not intimidated by traditional barriers of race and gender but who addresses her as a person.
Jesus immediately turns the conversation around. “If only you knew what God gives and who it is that is asking you for a drink, you would ask him.” What Jesus is offering is God’s life-giving, living water. At first the woman doesn’t understand what he means, and takes him literally. (Just like Nicodemus in last week’s Gospel story!) No doubt with a note of sarcasm in her voice she observes that he has no bucket. He’s not able even to draw water from the well, never mind supply fresh, running water. But her curiosity is aroused – living water is an attractive proposition.
Sir, she says – and notice how a note of respect enters her voice, as if she senses that the stranger is no ordinary man. “Where would you get that life-giving water? It was our ancestor Jacob who gave us this well; he and his sons and his flocks all drank from it. You don’t claim to be greater than Jacob, do you?”
Well, we know the answer to that question. And it’s clear that Jesus isn’t talking about the H2O in the nearby well. He’s talking about the spiritual refreshing and resourcing that we receive through a worshipful relationship with God. The woman is saying, in effect: what was good enough for Jacob is good enough for me. But Jesus promises something far better:
“All those who drink this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring which will provide him with life-giving water and give him eternal life.”
The Samaritan woman may not fully understand what Jesus is talking about, but it sure sounds inviting: “Sir, give me that water!”
At this Jesus abruptly changes tack. “Go and call your husband.” Jesus suddenly homes in on her personal circumstances. He goes from the general to the uncomfortably specific. Notice that Jesus does not tell the woman to repent, but rather helps her to face the crisis in her life. You get the feeling that this is someone who doesn’t need to be told to repent of her sins, because she lives with the pain of her personal situation every day. Here is a deeply hurt and needy person. Later the Samaritan woman will say to her neighbours: “see the man who told me everything I have ever done.” Honesty and self-awareness is often the first step towards healing and transformation. Thus the Samaritan woman becomes open to God’s gift of life and a thirst-quenching relationship which meets her particular need.
And what about the needs of women and men in our own time?
We live in a world that is hungry and thirsty – thirsting for fulfilment, satisfaction and meaning.* The world is searching but coming back unfilled. We go to the many wells of the world looking for sustenance only to find that our buckets are not overflowing but empty.
We look to food, finances and friends and we end up wanting. We look to popularity, possessions, and politics and yet we find no contentment. We look to the church, our careers, and our children and still we thirst. We go to the health club, the hobby shop and the horoscope page only to end up lacking. We look to electronic devices, entertainment industries and educational institutions to complete us but find they are inadequate.
The fact is, that only Jesus can quench our deepest thirsts. He satisfies longings and desires that no possessions can fulfil. When the world is searching for that thing that will satisfy Jesus says, “whoever drinks the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.” (John 4:14).
Malcolm Muggeridge, whose own spiritual journey brought him from agnosticism to Christianity, reflected on his experience:
“I may, I suppose, regard myself as a relatively successful man. People occasionally stare at me in the streets; that’s fame. I can earn enough to qualify for admission to the higher slopes of the Inland Revenue; that’s success. It might happen once in a while that something I said or wrote was sufficiently heeded for me to persuade myself that it represented a serious impact on our time; that’s fulfilment. Yet I say to you and beg you to believe me, multiply these tiny triumphs by a million, add them all together, and they are nothing, less than nothing, a positive impediment, measured against one draught of that living water Christ offers to the spiritually thirsty, irrespective or who or what they are.”
Jesus offers water of life; and what a wonderful gift this is! So precious and yet so abundant, if we will only accept it. A limitless resource, given freely to all.
We can search and search for meaning and purpose but we will always come back wanting unless we enter into a personal relationship with the living God who provides the living water. As our Gospel reminds us, no person has sunk so low, no individual is so lost or so broken or so despised or so lonely or so thirsty that Jesus cannot and will not provide sustenance and abundance of life.
In our story today we have seen how Jesus crossed the barriers of convention and culture and in weakness and vulnerability spent time in conversation with a Samaritan woman. Patiently and gently he touched those parts of her life in need of healing and helped in her understanding of God. And patiently and gently he continues to work in people’s lives today, in power and in gentleness. In those times when we feel spiritually arid and dry, Jesus can bring refreshment and fulfilment.
Details of time and place are not important. For the Samaritan woman it was a hot midday by a dusty well. What does matter is that we recognise that Jesus comes to us with words of understanding and reassurance; not just there and then, but here and now, offering living water and pouring his Spirit into people’s lives.
Our lives are dependent on the gift of water. All water is water of life, for it sustains us and gives us life, and that is good. But Jesus’ life giving water gives us eternal life, and that is the very best.
*With acknowledgements to ‘Pastor John from CT‘ for a comment on which this part of the sermon is based.