If you look at 1st-century maps of the middle east, it’s immediately apparent that the most direct route from Judea to Galilee is via Samaria. Most Jews wanting to travel from Judea to Galilee would have skirted around Samaria to avoid it. I don’t think Jesus chose the route he took because it was quicker and more direct; rather he went into Samara with intentionality and purpose. In our life and faith, we should have intentionality and purpose too.
Jesus stopped at a place called Sychar, a place we are told was near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph (Genesis 33:19, Genesis 48:22). It was a place of significance – a place where Jacob’s well was located, but also a reminder of the common heritage that Samaritans had with the Jews since they too claimed Jacob (also called Israel) as their father (John 4:12).
We know that Jesus was tired from the journey, and in the heat of the day (it was about noon) had decided to sit and rest by the well as his disciples went into the city to buy food. This sets the scene for Jesus encounter with a Samaritan woman who had come to draw water. It’s a story of transformation and a story of redemption.
You may remember the song and quote by Noel Coward – “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” Well, in the middle east you’d be crazy to go out in the midday sun. It was highly unusual for people to come and draw water in the heat of the day and especially at midday; they would usually wait until later in the day when it was cooler. The only plausible reason that the woman might choose to do so would be so that she could avoid meeting other people because her reputation had proceeded her. It is also worth noting that apparently there were wells which were closer to Sychar she could have gone to. So it seems she really was going to extraordinary lengths to avoid meeting anyone. And yet, she met Jesus. We can often encounter Jesus in places and at times when we least expect it too.
Jesus said to the woman, “Give me a drink”, possibly because he didn’t have a container and she had brought a water jar. But in doing so he was breaking multiple cultural taboos. Firstly, Jesus entered into a conversation with a Samaritan; secondly, it was highly unusual for a man to speak with a female stranger; and thirdly, ceremonial laws would prohibit Jews from sharing the same utensils as Samaritans since they were considered unclean.
That explains her response. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Jesus’ request and the woman’s response marks the beginning of an extraordinary exchange, which quite incredibly has been captured in a work of art.
If you ever have the opportunity to visit Chester Cathedral and take a walk around that stunningly beautiful historic building, you will eventually come across the cloister courtyard which features a beautiful sculpture ‘The Water of Life’ by Stephen Broadbent which depicts so well our reading today…the woman at the well. If you get a chance, Google the image and take a look for yourself.
It is the sort of sculpture that invites us to gaze upon it again and again and again. It’s one of my favourite sculptures. It is as if each delicate part of the design has a story to tell, just as our Gospel story does. When we gaze upon the sculpture, we are presented with incredible tenderness and intimacy. Water flows continually from the shared cup, over the hands and into the pool in the dish below, from where the sculpture is illuminated, through the water. Yes, the woman is holding a bowl full of water for Jesus to drink from. But when we look closer, is Jesus offering the water of life to the woman? We find ourselves asking who is giving water to whom? The reading reminds us “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” and “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will 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.”
As believers, Jesus is inviting us too to drink deeply from those streams of living water that we might never thirst, that they will become a spring of water in us that gushes up to eternal life.
At first, the woman took Jesus’ words literally. The woman said to Jesus, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus gently and tenderly stripped away the things that prevented her from seeing the truth. The woman is seeking & searching, intrigued & fearful, tentative & hesitant and cautiously hopeful. It isn’t until we follow the dialogue further that we realise why…
“Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!””
Jesus had never met this woman before. Yet, as always, he was able to speak directly into the heart of the situation. The brokenness of the woman’s situation is laid bare. If someone comes along and speaks directly into our sinful condition, how do we respond? Indignation, anger, tears? The way we respond in such situations speaks volumes about our openness to God. Jesus offers us freedom in life, not freedom from life. We can’t be free if we live in chains. There may be times when we might feel like a child caught stealing sweets in the sweet shop; we are confronted with the harsh reality of those things that impede us and hold us back. But Jesus offers us and shows us a better way. The sweets of life might be nice, but they certainly aren’t good for us. Jesus’ better way involves freedom, truth, integrity, and life in all fulness. The Father seeks those who worship him in spirit and in truth.
The woman slowly began to understand and recognise her absolute need for the living water that Jesus and only Jesus could give. In her responses, we can almost see her stepping closer and closer to a place of acceptance and understanding. At first, she recognised Jesus as being a prophet, and a bold and hopeful statement follows. “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus then said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” Jesus’ response must have reverberated through the entirety of her being.
Lord, we thank you for your tenderness and patience, your generosity and love. Thank you that you invite us to drink deeply from the living water. Strip away all that stops us seeing, all that holds us back and impedes. Lead us to that place where we are truly free to worship you in spirit and in truth. Amen