The Living Water
John 4:5 - 42
Congratulations to all of you who made it here this morning having remembered that the clocks went forward last night!
It’s a great privilege once again to be with you here this morning doing something that I don’t believe that I’ve ever done before – preaching on census day (and something that I may well never do again if the suggestions that this is going to be the last ever census in traditional form do, indeed, turn out to be true). We should remember that it was of course a census 2000 years ago that was responsible for fulfilment of the centuries old prophecy that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem as Mary & Joseph travelled there to be counted as part of that census (and perhaps we should be thankful that we can complete the census forms from the comfort of our own homes rather than having to travel to our home town or the town of our birth for the purpose).
But now to water, the universal requirement for life. If we think that present conflicts over oil are serious enough, they are nothing to what is to come as water becomes ever shorter as a consequence of climate change, an ever growing global population and a seemingly insatiable demand for water. Indeed the conflicts between India and Pakistan over Kashmir have at their root not land but control of the headwaters of the great rivers of the Indian sub-continent.
Turning now to the passage we have just read from John’s gospel – on a superficial level at least, it is seemingly quite straightforward– and in our eyes, for the most part pretty unremarkable – we could summarise what happens as Jesus arrives in the heat of the day after a long walk, is thirsty, and asks the first person who comes along to the well that he is sitting by if they could fetch him some water for a drink before they have a discussion about her marital status.
However, there is much more to this account that at first sight meets the eye which if we take a few moments to explore in a bit more detail, gives us a much deeper understanding of the significance of the events that were played out by the side of the well in the Palestinian sunshine.
The first thing that is critical to our understanding of the significance of these events is where they took place. Jesus was heading back to Galilee from Judea. Galilee was way up in the north of what is modern day Israel whilst Judea was the southerly region that included Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
In order to travel between the two, it was necessary to pass through the region of Samaria which was, as the name suggests, home to the Samaritans.
What we need to understand is the deep seated enmity that existed between Jews and Samaritans. A little later on in the passage John adds almost as a footnote the comment that, quite simply, Jews do not associate with Samaritans although he has just told us that Jesus’ disciples had gone into town to buy food so clearly the separation was not quite that rigid.
But however you looked at it, there was a very deep division between Jew and Samaritan that had its roots in the events that followed the division of the kingdom of Israel in 930 BC following the death of King Solomon so almost 1000 years previously.
After king Solomon’s death, the kingdom of Israel split in two. The northern kingdom – Israel, after a series of ill fated alliances and mis-adventures, was eventually invaded by the Assyrians in 722 BC. The Assyrians were, for those of you who have ever read Sellars & Yeatman, top nation at the time and were ruthless conquerors who systematically deported the able and capable from each territory that they captured leaving just the uneducated peasant farmers behind before resettling the territory with people captured and similarly displaced from other parts of their rapidly growing empire.
The strategy was ruthless but effective as it prevented the growth of local resistance to Assyrian rule by dispersing the native population from each territory they conquered as they swept through the Middle East.
The Assyrians established a new capital in the former kingdom of Israel and called it Samaria which lead eventually to the whole region being known by that name.
Whilst all this was happening, the southern kingdom of Judah managed to retain its independence (just about) until 586BC when it was subjugated by the Babylonians thus starting the 70 year long exile of Israel (but in reality Judah) in Babylon.
The enmity between Samaritan and Jew stemmed from the fact that in the aftermath of the Assyrian invasion and subsequent resettlement of the land, those Jews who were allowed to remain in the land progressively inter-married with those who were resettled into the land, leading inevitably to a progressive dilution of Jewish religious custom and practice in Samaria.
By contrast, the southern kingdom of Judah saw itself as the bastion of true religion – holding fast to the traditions of Judaism. To the devout Jew, the people of the world could be divided into three groups - Jews, Gentiles and Samaritans, with the latter being looked down on even more than Gentiles for having prostituted their birthright and inheritance.
This then was the root of the deep seated enmity between Samaritan and Jew (for the feeling was pretty mutual) and in some ways a fore-runner of the enmity between Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland or between Sunni and Shi-ite traditions in much of the Arab world. As I was driving down here this morning, I was struck by the words of a teenage girl from Derry who was interviewed on the radio. She was from a staunchly Protestant area but had struck up a relationship with a lad from the neighbouring Catholic estate. The sheer level of hatred expressed by both their communities at what they were doing was unbelievable. He was unable to visit her home at all for fear of what would be done to him and she was only able to visit his home by taxi – walking would have been far too dangerous and she was protected from physical violence only by virtue of being a woman. Whilst not as extreme, the enmity between Samaritan and Jew was on a par with this.
Having understood something of the background to the relationship between Jew and Samaritan that underlies this whole passage, there is one other little piece of detail here that could pass us by un-noticed and that is that not only did this take place in Samaria, it took place at Jacob’s Well - sunk on land purchased by Jacob as he returned from exile in Paddam Aram to where he had fled after deceiving his twin brother of their father’s blessing. The well though was not one that was fed by a fast flowing spring but rather one that rainwater seeped into slowly and accumulated at the base, the significance of which we will come back to in a few moments.
And so we have the deeply symbolic link back to Jacob who wrestled with God, was renamed Israel by God, who had the vision of the ladder stretching from heaven to earth in the dream now replaced by the person of Jesus who was God made man.
Finally though, there was the huge and deep significance in the fact that it was a woman that Jesus was speaking to. Although not as draconian as the practices found today in strict Islamic societies where women are only allowed out in public if fully veiled and accompanied by a male relative, there was a tradition amongst strict Jews that “One should not talk with a woman on the street, not even one’s own wife and certainly not with somebody else’s wife because of the gossip of men” and “It is forbidden to give a woman any greeting”. Thankfully times have changed significantly but by even talking to this woman, Jesus was breaking just about every social convention of the time.
Given the time that we have available to us, I just want to pick up on three points – firstly the living water that Jesus offers, and then secondly and much more briefly, the response of the woman to her encounter with Jesus, and finally, Jesus’ reflections on his mission and ministry.
Firstly then to Jesus’ offer of living water. Despite the fact that he is breaking every social convention, Jesus asks the Samaritan woman for some water as she comes to draw water for herself from the well. As is so often the case, especially in John’s gospel, we have the contrast between the physical and the heavenly. The woman is somewhat taken aback by Jesus’ request for he is both male and Jewish whilst she is female and Samaritan.
She (not unreasonably), focuses on Jesus’ request for something to drink but in return Jesus offers her something far greater – the living water that only he can provide. Which brings us to the well for the woman, still firmly focussed on earthly things, thinks Jesus is talking of fresh water drawn from a well fed by a fast flowing rather than the water taken from the slightly brackish well beside them and worries how he will draw on such supplies if he has nothing with which to draw it in but Jesus is firmly focused on the spiritual living water that only he can provide, water that will permanently assuage our thirst.
Jesus is, of course not speaking of what to a chemist is H2O in the liquid state but is speaking figuratively, of the spiritual water that he alone brings that permanently satisfies our thirsting after God that becomes that spring of water welling up to eternal life in those who partake of it.
The Old Testament often speaks of individuals and nations thirsting after God – the Psalmist writes for example
In the opening verses of Ps 42
As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?
Here then was that meeting
As is so often the case in John’s gospel, there is another spiritual parallel here for the comparison Jesus is making at a deeper level again is between the living water that he offers and the stagnant water of the old religion characterised by the water found in Jacob (aka Israel’s) well.
- Faced with this offer – the woman accepts (although she still doesn’t fully understand as she sees Jesus offer as a means of avoiding the need for the daily chore of coming to draw water at the well rather than as the means of her salvation).
As with the discussion about the water, the verses that follow, when Jesus sends the woman away to fetch her husband need to be understood on two levels. At the human level, Jesus exposes the woman’s somewhat complicated matrimonial arrangements with five marriages behind her and the fact that she is not married to the man she is living with at that time, although without, we note, condemning her.
We can though, interpret these verses legitimately through theological glasses in similar vein to the way we are able to interpret the living water that Jesus offers by comparison to the still waters found in Jacob’s well.
In referring to the woman’s many husbands, Jesus is drawing an analogy with the many (false) gods the Samaritans have chosen to run off with, leaving behind the true God of Israel. This deeper meaning is completely lost on the woman but is there for those with the eyes and ears to understand.
We haven’t time to address the issues raised by the discussion that follows on the place where worship should be offered but I want us to focus this morning on our response to the living water that Jesus offers. Do we know what it is to thirst after the living God and to drink deeply and fully of the living water that wells up to eternal life within us or do we thirst but seek to quench our thirst on the brackish water to be found around us, water that can never satisfy or do we rely for solace on water diluted with a good helping of ethanol that can numb the pain of this present life but destroy us in the process?
Jesus’ offer of living water is for all to take up although sadly the old adage about horses and water holds just as true for humans as well as horses.
Secondly, and much more briefly, we have the response of the woman to her encounter with Jesus. The woman regards the words of Jesus and his insights into her private life as truly prophetic and rushes off into town leaving her water jar, probably one of her most valuable possessions behind at the well such is her enthusiasm.
The woman is desperate to tell everyone about what she has heard, how she may have encountered the Christ (although she’s clearly not convinced about this) but her enthusiasm more than makes up for her lack of deep understanding. This is the wonderful zeal to share the good news of Jesus of those who have discovered him for the first time and something that should serve as a challenge for those of us who have known Jesus for many years. We all need to rekindle that desire to share the good news about Jesus with those around us with renewed vigour. The dreadful events in Japan just a couple of weeks ago have demonstrated once again the speed with which disaster can overtake each one of us for I’m sure none of the victims of that earthquake and tsunami had any inkling about what would happen as they left home on the morning of the 11th March.
Finally, we have a complete shift in focus as the woman heads off back into town and Jesus is rejoined by the disciples who have come back with some food. The disciples urge Jesus to have something to eat but he baffles them by telling them he has food to eat that they know nothing about – the disciples think he has a secret stash of butties somewhere they don’t know about but Jesus is talking in spiritual not physical terms, about his calling to utter obedience to the will of him who sent him and to finish his work.
The work that Jesus is to accomplish is the great work of salvation that Jesus accomplished on the cross as he defeated sin and death and that in a few moments we will remember as we share in the bread and wine of communion.
The harvest that is to be gathered in is the harvest of believers through the ages, a harvest that begins with the Samaritan women as she brings her friends to meet with Jesus.
By this encounter with the Samaritan woman, Jesus demonstrates once again in a deeply personal way that no-one, not even the hated Samaritans are excluded from the love of God but to find the salvation that Jesus offers, we must believe in the work that he and he alone accomplished on the cross and drink deeply of the living water that he alone can offer.