(Exodus 7, 1-17. John 4, 5-42)
In the gospel today, John paints a picture.
It’s one of those situations you dread, isn’t it? You pop out on a domestic errand, in a hurry, perhaps, or feeling low, so you deliberately choose a time when nobody much is about – and some stranger starts talking to you. It starts off relatively innocuously, with pleasantries, but, before you know it, you’re into the really deep stuff – discussion about the ultimate questions – what ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ calls the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything.
That’s what John’s story tell us happened to the Samaritan woman who went to draw water at Jacob’s well at Sychar. We don’t know why she went to the well at noon. Most women went early, while it was still cool; and they went in a group, for safety, because the well was about a mile out of town. So, the woman was putting herself at risk by going alone in the middle of the day.
And when she gets to the well, she finds someone already there; an unknown man, who starts up a conversation with her. She has got herself into a situation where she could be in real trouble. So begins an encounter that will change her life.
We hear of this encounter only in John’s Gospel. We don’t know why John includes this story. Perhaps because his community included Samaritans and Gentiles as well as Jews, and other Jewish Christians disapproved; perhaps because his community allowed women to act as missionaries to both men and women, as other communities did not; perhaps because his community had the reputation of welcoming people with doubtful pasts, and were criticised for it.
We also don’t know whether it really happened or not. Just as Jesus told parables to talk about the Kingdom of God, so John uses stories to tell us about who Jesus is, and what his teaching means.
The encounter between Jesus and the woman is obstructed by misunderstandings, as are many of the conversations recorded in John’s Gospel. This is because the conversation is full of ‘double entendres’ – not of the rude kind, but because it is being carried on at two levels, the spiritual as well as the practical.
This encounter is obstructed by the preconceptions and prejudices the woman brings to the situation. We don’t know the full details of the woman’s past, but it is clear she has not had an easy life. She has had 5 husbands already. This doesn’t mean she was immoral; life expectancy was short, particularly for young males in an occupied country, and few women could exist on their own, so remarriage was necessary for survival; but even if she had been widowed 5 times rather than divorced, she would be regarded by others, and would regard herself as unlucky. Now she couldn’t find anyone else willing to risk marriage to her, so she was in an extramarital relationship. No wonder she was wary of men.
And this man was a Jew. She knew the longstanding hostility between Jews and Samaritans, so she probably went into the encounter expecting problems. Perhaps, if she had thought, she might have realised this man was different. Most Jews would not have travelled from Judaea to Galilee through Samaritan territory. They would have taken the long way round, along the Jordan valley, to avoid having had to buy food in Samaria on the way, as observant Jews would not eat Samaritan food, or drink Samaritan water, or use crockery touched by a Samaritan. But Jesus had come into the area, and sent his disciples to buy food in her village.
Most Jewish men, particularly respectable rabbis, would not have spoken to a strange woman, let alone asked for help from them. Yet Jesus treated the woman with courtesy, and opened the conversation by asking for her help. The woman should have realised from the way he treated her that this was no ordinary man.
But the woman is so hidebound by her own lack of self-esteem and her own preconceptions that she answers his polite request with a rude question of her own “How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan, for a drink?”
Then Jesus moves the conversation onto a new level, by saying if she knew who was talking to her, she could ask him for living water. This is one of those moments when the conversation is on two levels; Jesus could just mean running water, like that from the mountain streams in his native Galilee; but on another level, he is talking about spiritual water, the water of life.
The woman however, is stuck in the practicalities. ‘You don’t have a bucket’ she objects, ‘and the well is deep. How can you get water without the right equipment? Are you greater than our common ancestor, Jacob, who had this well dug for us?’
What can we learn from this story?
We can learn first of all from Jesus, from the fact that he approached the woman at all, and from the courteous way he treated her. She was three times over an unsuitable companion for him – a woman, a Samaritan, of doubtful reputation. Who are the outcasts of our society? Do we, as Christians, always approach such outcasts with a similar courtesy? Jesus began by asking the woman for help, before attempting to give his teaching. Do we approach those we wish to evangelise in that way? If our Lord could ask for help before rushing in with his message, why can’t we?
But we can also learn from the woman. She came into the encounter blinded by her own prejudices and trapped in her own lack of worth. Because of this, she was unable at first to receive the grace that Jesus was offering to her.
The Catholic writer, Gerard Hughes, suggests that we all have our ‘well moments’, and our ‘bucket questions’. We are constantly laying down criteria for God to measure up to if we are going to listen to God’s voice.
Hughes suggests we make a list of all the ‘You have no bucket’ phrases we employ to avoid hearing God’s word to us when it comes from unexpected quarters. How about, ‘How can a gay person be a minister of the Church?’ ‘Why should I accept teaching from a woman?’ What have we got to learn about faith from Muslims, or Jews, or Hindus?’
Then, says Hughes, we should pray to be delivered from the prejudice, bigotry and snobbishness, the attachments to religious traditions and personal preferences which blind us to the gifts God is offering to us, and which make us reject the people God chooses as messengers.
But we can also learn from the woman about how not to receive God’s free gift of grace. On the outside, she was a strong woman, who engaged in witty chat with this stranger. But she was hiding behind strong defences; when he started to get personal, and talked about her marital situation, she quickly changed the subject and started a conversation about the relative merits of the Jerusalem Temple and the Samaritan Temple on their holy mountain. It didn’t matter how gentle and gracious Jesus was; she had been hurt too much in the past to risk opening up.
We too often hide behind our defences and refuse to accept the gracious forgiveness and unconditional love that God offers us in Christ.
There are no preconditions to an encounter with the Living Word, no price on the reception of the Water of Life. It is offered to us through Christ in love, and we receive it in faith, and allow it to do its healing and inspiring and transforming work in us. Once we let down our defences, the Living Water which Christ offers us will become part of our very selves, and as it bubbles up out of us, will bring life and salvation to others.