Friday, March 17, 2017

Living Water in a Dry and Thirsty Land: Reflections on John 4.5-42

Living Water in a Dry and Thirsty Land
Reflections on John 4.4-52

RCL Lent 3A
19 March 2017

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church

John 4.4-42

4.5 So [Jesus] came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.  6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well.  It was about noon.

                  7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”  8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.)  9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”  (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)  10 Jesus answered her, “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.”  11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep.  Where do you get that living water?  12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”  13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 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.”  15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

                  16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.”  17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.”  Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.  What you have said is true!”  19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.  20 Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”  21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.  22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”  25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ).  “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”  26 Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

                  27 Just then his disciples came.  They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?”  28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city.  She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!  He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”  30 They left the city and were on their way to him.

                  31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.”  32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.”  33 So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?”  34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.  35 Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’?  But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.  36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.  37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’  38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour.  Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.”

                  39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.”  40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days.  41 And many more believed because of his word.  42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.”

            Where the Great Plains meet the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, there is a strip of land running north and south that is about three hundred miles long and about fifty to sixty miles wide.  Because of the mountains to the west, any moisture-laden clouds are usually pushed up into the atmosphere and only come down further east and there drop life-giving rain.  When rain does come, the clouds often approach from the south bringing some moisture from the Gulf of Mexico.
            At an early age people living along the Front Range learn to ‘lift up [their] eyes to the hills’ during the fall and winter.  A heavy snowpack means that the reservoirs will be filled and the aquifer that serves the agricultural areas to the east will be replenished.  A low snowfall means that rationing is likely as spring and summer approach.

            Front Range folk also learn to keep their eyes on the clouds when out on the prairie.  A thunderstorm, especially one from the south, can mean a torrential downpour that can turn a dry gulch into a raging stream in minutes.  When that happens, the water moves so fast that anyone in the gulch can be caught and drowned before they know what hit them.

            Dry-land folk know the joy of having enough water and the sorrows of having too little.  They know that water gives life but can also take it away.

            What I learned growing up along the Front Range was already known by the people of Samaria in the time of Jesus.  There were few flowing streams that could provide enough water for the population, so most people relied on wells.  Wells were communal property and protected by traditions and, if necessary, force.  Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures important events often occurred at wells and cool, deep wells that provided plentiful water were a reminder of how we are dependent upon the generosity of God.

            It is no surprise that the evangelist John sets several stories in and around water.  Today’s story of the woman at the well happens to be one of my favourite stories in all of the New Testament.  What begins as a simple and not particularly unusual conversation about a cup of water ends with the reminder that the world is filled with thirsty people, people who are thirsty for the living water that quenches one’s deepest thirst.

            The Samaritans are thought to be the descendants of two distinct populations:  the remnants of the northern tribes of Israel not killed or taken in exile when the Babylonians destroyed the northern kingdom and immigrants from the Babylonian empire who settled in the north after its conquest.  To the southern tribes of Judah the Samaritans were no longer faithful followers of the covenant of Moses and ritual differences between the north and the south only intensified the division.

            What Jesus offers the Samaritans is the living water that slakes their thirst for inclusion in the covenant God made with Noah, with Abraham and with Moses.  With his words that in God’s future no earthly shrine can make an exclusive claim on God’s favour and presence.  Jews and Samaritans, women and men, Romans and Greeks, slave and free, all have a place in God’s embrace if they will but drink the living water that is the good news of God in Jesus.

            But I have to tell you, my friends, that this water both gives life and takes life away.  The life the good news of God in Jesus gives is a life lived with Jesus as its model.  It is a life that involves a constant effort to love one’s neighbour as oneself, a willingness to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, the challenge in living in the world but not being of the world.  John Bell, the Scottish hymn writer and poet, describes it thus:

Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name?
Will care for cruel and kind and never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare?
Will you let me answer prayer in you and you in me?

The water that Jesus offers us is water that gives us life but, in the drinking of it, washes away the old and familiar and replenishes us with the new and mysterious.

           As I was thinking about today’s gospel, I realized that we are like the woman at the well.  We live in a contemporary expression of Samaria.  We are surrounded by thirsty people who have sought to quench their thirst at wells that can only offer a moment’s respite.  Some drink at the well of success only to find it sours.  Others drink at the well of consumerism only to find that it runs out.  A few drink from the poisoned well of addictions that gradually destroys them, while a few others gather around a well of disillusionment and even despair.

            What they are seeking is the water that we have received here.  It is the water that creates a community that shares in God’s mission to re-create, redeem and renew relationships between God and humanity, between peoples and between humanity and the rest of creation.  It is the water that springs from the Word proclaimed and heard in this place.  It is the water that transfigures us through the sacraments into our ‘real’ selves.

              Just as the woman brought her neighbours to the spring of life that is Jesus, so we are called to bring others to this place.  Here they will find, as we have found, the living water that refreshes a dry and thirsty land, a land we know as the Lower Mainland.


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