Christ meets us in our most vulnerable, sore and wearied spaces
Liz Stuart, 12 March 2023
Exodus 17:1–7; John 4:5–42
‘Well, here I am. What were your other two wishes?’ I got that from an article about chat-up lines. Other classics include: ‘I hope you know CPR because you take my breath away’, ‘Are you a parking ticket, because you’ve got fine written all over you?’ and ‘Is your name Google, because you are everything I have been searching for?’
As chat up lines go, ‘Give me a drink’ might seem to us a little lacking in sophistication. But we miss the point of our gospel story today if we do not read Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman in that way. In the biblical imagination wells were places where you went to meet a mate, where you went to do a bit of courting, a bit of wooing.
Both Jacob and Moses find their future wives at wells. In biblical cases where this happens the story follows a similar pattern: the man journeys to a foreign land, he meets a woman at a well, one of them draws water from the well, the woman dashes home to bring news of the stranger; a betrothal is arranged, followed by a celebratory meal. Furthermore, in the book of Proverbs and elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures, to drink water from a well is a euphemism for sexual relations. This whole scene then in our gospel today is highly sexually charged. Jesus travelling in foreign, Samaritan, territory, alone at the well, meets a woman and asks her for a drink. We know where this is going …
But it doesn’t go there. This story does not follow the ‘man meets woman at the well, weddings bells follow’ narrative. First, the woman does not give Jesus a drink. She is not having any of this. She confronts Jesus with the fact that she is a Samaritan and therefore he should not be talking to her at all. She does not want to be flirted with any more. She has come to the well at the least popular time, in the blazing midday sun, to avoid all this. She has had enough.
Now, here is a thing about Jesus, and this is good news for lots of us: he likes bolshy women; he responds to women who are at the end of their tether and bite back. Think of the Syro-Phoenician woman and the woman who touches the hem of his garment. He likes to debate theology with them.
Here is a thing about Jesus, and this is good news for lots of us: he likes bolshy women; he responds to women who are at the end of their tether.
He uses this woman’s refusal to play along with the narrative he probably anticipated from his observation of her, to follow her lead and to talk theology. He offers her water that will fulfil all her desires, and she is grateful for the offer because she does not want to keep coming back to the well. She is fed up with what happens there.
Jesus knows why. The conversation about her husband is often interpreted as Jesus calling her out on her sinful behaviour, but why do we read it like that? Prejudice. The fact that the woman had five husbands and was living with someone who was not her husband was highly unlikely to be her fault. Like the woman described by the Sadducees in Matthew 22, she is likely to have been either caught up in Levirate marriage (marrying the brother of the deceased husband) or the victim of successive divorces. Women had very little agency in such matters.
She is emboldened by Jesus’ understanding of her situation to dig deeper into the theology of true worship, and in the course of debate he reveals to her that not only is he is the Messiah but also the new temple of God’s presence, transcending both Jerusalem and Mount Gerizim – he is the one who is God’s spirit and truth.
He treats her as an equal, and she treats him so too. He pokes fun at his own people and the animosity between Jews and Samarians and teases her: ‘You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews’. This must be a joke because his whole point is that neither Jew nor Samaritan is now worshipping in the right place.
Jesus treats this woman with the same theological seriousness and respect as he did Nicodemus the Pharisee, who we met in our gospel last week. Unlike Nicodemus, though, this woman does not appear and disappear into the night. In the brightest hour of the day, she leaves her water jar, goes back into the city and testifies to Jesus and brings people to him. She has become an apostle and an evangelist.
She left her water jar – the large, heavy, cumbersome water jar. What did that water jar symbolise to her? Perhaps all the assumptions and expectations about being a woman in her culture. Perhaps it symbolised those desires that could never be truly satisfied, only sated for a while, then to return to gnaw away. Perhaps it symbolised her life up to that point. Perhaps it was all of these things to her. The point is, she left it behind. She is free of it. She is now an apostle and evangelist. The story does not end with a betrothal banquet but with Jesus staying with the Samaritans, a very different sort of feast.
I want to ask you a question this morning: what is your water jar? What do you do compulsively or addictively, or because you feel you are expected to do or our culture tells you that you have to do, which does not give you life but burdens and exhausts you, ultimately fails to satisfy, and acts as a barrier between yourself and God?
Lent is a good time to contemplate our water jars and what we need to leave behind to be free to enjoy the fresh springs of life that Christ brings. If we really want it to be, Lent can be a time when Christ meets us, as he met the woman at the well, in our most vulnerable, sore and wearied spaces, at the end of our leash and heartily fed up. He meets us with humour and engagement and, above all, with himself and the promise that he and only he can fulfil our deepest needs and desires.
We pray for the Church, that all its fresh springs may be found in Christ and that it will be a source of life, refreshment and joy for the world. We pray for the world, parched and tired, full of division and misunderstanding, that it may be soaked with the love, mercy and justice of God.
Lord, we lay our water jars before you. Give us your living water. Amen.