All our desires have only one real end and fulfilment, and that is God
Liz Stuart, 15 March 2020
Exodus 17: 1–7; John 4: 5–42
I wonder where you used to go when you were in search of a bit of romance and wanted to meet someone new? Was it the tea dance, the local palais, or weekend disco? These days many people go online. My romantic life is ancient history – I keep expecting someone to find it buried under a car park – but in the course of my job my PA has had to explain to me the intricacies of online dating apps. You look through photos and profiles, swiping right if you find someone palatable, left if you suspect they may be a serial killer.
In the ancient Near East, when people fancied a bit of courting, as we used to say, they went to the local well. Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, Moses and Zipporah – they all found each other at wells. We miss the point of our gospel story today if we do not understand that it takes place in a sexually charged context.
And it is Jesus who makes the first move, asking the woman for a drink. He knows who he is talking to; Samaritan women had distinctive auburn hair. The woman is shocked, because Jews and Samaritans at that time hated each other with the passion that only people with a common heritage and similar beliefs can. A hundred years before, the Jews had destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim and banned Samaritans from worshipping in Jerusalem. The Jews of the day regarded Samaritan women as perpetual menstruants, so perpetually unclean. Hence the astonishment of the disciples when they return from the city to find their teacher literally flirting with the enemy. The discussion that ensues between the woman and Jesus about water is about desire: the longing of the thirsty for water and the lonely for love and physical intimacy. We may take a nice long drink but we will be thirsty again. We may make our way through a ton of husbands or relationships but our desire for love and sex is not sated. Jesus suggests that desire can only be fulfilled by something he can give – by him, the living water struck from the rock by God.
We may take a nice long drink but we will be thirsty again. We may make our way through a ton of husbands or relationships but our desire for love and sex is not sated.
Then into the sexual tension enters religious tension as they confront the primary issue of contention between their peoples, of where God is rightly worshipped. Jesus transcends the question and says that true worshippers will worship neither on Mount Gerizim nor in Jerusalem; true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. A lot of ink has been spilt on what it means to worship in spirit and in truth, but I think the key point might be what comes next: ‘The Father seeks such as these to worship him’. The Greek word translated ‘seek’ means both to search and to desire. To worship God in spirit and in truth, whatever else it means, involves being willing to be sought and desired by God. The Samaritan woman’s desire for romance, for water, for whatever, brought her to the well. She could have grabbed the water and turned away, she could have got up and left when the conversation became uncomfortable and intimate, which it did – but she didn’t. She allowed herself to be found, and scrutinised; she allowed her preconceptions of what it meant to be a Samaritan and a woman, and indeed to be a man and a Jew, to be deconstructed by Jesus. She allowed her desire to be deconstructed and she allowed her very concept of God to be deconstructed … and in the process she found the divine. Jesus reveals himself to her as the manifestation of the divine ego eimi, ‘I am’ (echoing God’s description of himself to Moses as Ehyeh, ‘I am’). She in turn is transformed by this encounter; she leaves behind her water pot, the symbol of all the cultural expectations of her as a woman, including that her desires can only be fulfilled by a man, and she becomes a disciple.
Lent is a time when, traditionally, we recognise the desires that drive us but that can never ultimately satisfy us, and we pause them. That is the whole point of giving up things we like. The purpose of that pause is to remind ourselves that all our desires have only one real end and fulfilment, and that is God. So during Lent we allow our desires to propel us not towards the usual temporary fulfilment but towards God. The pause is to allow ourselves to be found by the divine, to allow God to have a good look at us, to feel the desire God has for us and to let that desire deconstruct all the cultural nonsense that enslaves and dehydrates our souls. Jesus waits at the well for us – for you and me. He waits with the water of life which cannot be contained in any human construction or expectation. Put down your water jar and run to him.