God’s gift of living water

Mary Copping, 19 March 2017

Romans 5: 1–11, John 4: 5–42

Last Sunday we heard about someone having a personal encounter with Jesus – a very private one, at night, so no one knew. It was the Pharisee Nicodemus, desperately wanting to find out who Jesus really was. This led to the conversation that must have surprised him, about being born again. He hadn’t asked about this, and yet Jesus knew what was in his heart and what he needed to hear.

This week we have another personal encounter with Jesus: the meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well. Her conversation with Jesus also took an unexpected turn, as with Nicodemus. The talk turned from Jesus asking for a drink of water to Jesus speaking about the living water that only God can give.

Jesus had been travelling from Judea to Galilee. He was going this way to stay clear of the Pharisees, who were not happy at his attracting so many followers. He stopped at the well, weary from his long journey, and waited there while his disciples went off to get some food.

Thus the conversation with the woman, whose name we don’t know. The woman was very uneasy about having this conversation – firstly because she knew that Jesus was a Jew, and Jews weren’t supposed to speak to Samaritans, as there was then a lot of animosity between Jews and Samaritans; and secondly, in their culture men were not allowed to address women without their husbands present. But Jesus allowed none of this to stop the conversation. His concern was with what this woman most needed spiritually. Not water to drink but living water, the gift of God. She focused on the law, but Jesus focused on the love and grace of God.

This is the longest recorded conversation that Jesus had with another person. One wonders how it was relayed to the apostle John to be written down, but we are so fortunate to have this recorded. Jesus was tired, thirsty, and yet he patiently answered all the woman’s questions, and the woman was determined to get to the truth of what Jesus was talking about. And Jesus always came back to what was important: God’s gift of living water.

Recently I went on a retreat day led by Malcolm Guite, the priest and poet, and he spoke about the woman at the well. He said first that he wished he’d written a poem about this event. I wish he had as well – it would have been very useful for this sermon! But he then went on to say that in her conversation with Jesus, the woman at the well had lots of excuses for not engaging with what Jesus was saying.

Malcolm said that he could imagine the woman thinking, ‘I’m having a spiritual awakening. How can I stop it? It doesn’t make sense and I might lose control. I’ll have to start a religious conversation.’ So she began talking about where people should worship, the ancestors worshipping on the mountain. And Jesus said, in future people will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. But Jesus wasn’t sidetracked and continued to speak about the gift that God was willing to give her – and all people then and now – the gift of living water, a fountain of water gushing up to eternal life.

I wonder how much of our discussions about God are ways to avoid being touched deeply by him. How do we open ourselves up to this gift? How do we allow this fountain, which is constantly there for us, to fill us, to quench our thirst? There is a sense sometimes that if we risked opening ourselves to God, saying to him, ‘Not my will but yours’ – if we made ourselves vulnerable, lost a bit of that control we like to hold on to – we don’t know what might happen, what God might do.

I wonder how much of our discussions about God are ways to avoid being deeply touched by him.

I was privileged to be with each of the Sunday groups as they did their meditations last week. The leaders, children and young people responded so well and there was a lovely, deep stillness, even with the very young. They weren’t asked for their response, but one child offered that they had enjoyed it and felt much more peaceful. We can learn from them. They were as children often are: open, responsive, willing to try it. Can we, in our busy lives, respond similarly: take that time of quiet to meditate before God, to listen to and receive from him as the woman did, so that we can go out into the world taking his living water and saying, ‘Come and see’?

In his book called Being Disciples, Rowan Williams describes what a disciple is and is not and says, he is not there to jot down ideas then go away and think about them. The first disciples were expectant in the sense that they took it for granted that something was always going to break through from the master in different situations. We are post-resurrection, so perhaps understand a bit more about Jesus than the first disciples, but are we expectant of what the master will do? Are we willing to follow the master, with the Holy Spirit to guide us, even when it may feel uncomfortable?

How do we each listen to Jesus, and how do we respond to him?

Imagine a fountain of living water here in this church; and as we meet together, hear God’s word, sing hymns of praise and come to his Eucharist we drink from his living water and are refreshed. We can then take that living water out to a dry and thirsty world. A world that doesn’t even realise its need of God’s living water. A world that doesn’t realise what can be received from God. If only they knew – as Jesus said to the woman at the well – if you knew the gift of God and who it is saying this to you, you would have asked him.

As she speaks to Jesus, the woman at the well hears the actual name of God: ‘I AM’ (John 4: 26, in her question about the Messiah – I am he). The Samaritan woman did have the spiritual awakening she was trying to avoid and went to her many friends and neighbours, telling them to come and see Jesus, and we’re told that many Samaritans from that city believed in him.

This world needs God’s living water today, and only through us can he bring his fountain of living water to the world. Are we trying to keep God at a distance, not wanting to engage with him, as the woman turning the conversation to religious talk? If we knew what God was offering, not fearful of what he might do if we open ourselves to him, perhaps we would become more and more responsive to him. The woman was wary of allowing herself to be drawn into spiritual conversation with God. Are we wary of that; do we give God a chance?

God loves us unconditionally, is always with us and always wants the best for us. As we meet here today, and as we go through this time of Lent, let us ask God to help us to open ourselves afresh to receive his living water, his Holy Spirit. For Lent, people have given up chocolate, crisps, wine. Perhaps we can give up something which enables us to spend more time with God, to receive from him his living water, his love and his peace to take into a broken world.

Jesus said, ‘Everyone who drinks of the water that I give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ Amen.

Listen to the sermon here