Water of life

Lent 3 – 2011

John 4:4-42

Marian Free

In the name of God, source of our life, centre of our being. Amen.

As many of you know, a few years ago Michael and I had the privilege of travelling to South Africa and Tanzania. The trip was truly wonderful. We saw the most amazing variety of bird and animal life from the statuesque Marabou stork to the cheeky little splendid starlings. There were giraffes and zebras in abundance, elephants and lions only feet away from the vehicle and my favourite – the hippopotamus doing somersaults in the too shallow water. Even as I recount the adventure, I can’t believe how lucky I was to have that opportunity.

However, if you were to ask me about the first picture that comes to mind when I think about the trip, I would have to say that it is not the wildlife or the birds, or even the people or the beautiful scenery. My strongest memory is of the men, women and children ignoring the heat and hurrying along the road after the water truck – apparently anxious lest they miss it.

So that is the picture that most stays with me – a vivid reminder of my position of privilege and a heightened awareness that water is a precious commodity, essential to life and yet not everyone has equal access to it. Millions of people around the world do not have access to running water, let alone clean drinking water.

The now-broken drought has made even us aware that water is not a limitless resource yet, despite our drought-related restrictions we could still turn on a tap to obtain clean drinking water, enjoy the luxury of a four-minute shower and, on occasion, water plants which were not necessary for our survival. It is almost impossible to imagine going without such (to us) basic necessities. However, recent weeks have shown us that even in the industrialized west, access to water is not assured. In Christchurch, thousands of homes had no water for weeks– nothing to drink, no washing facilities, no sewerage. Hundreds queued for hours to fill containers with water to drink – showers for a time becoming an unnecessary luxury. Similar scenes are currently playing themselves out in Japan, only worse. Today we can only be too aware of how essential water is to our existence.

Without water we die – no wonder the Israelites complained in the desert, no wonder water was such a compelling topic for the woman who met Jesus at the well.

In first century Palestine water was only available from wells. Residents, usually women had to come to the well each day to water the animals and to fill their water jars for the home They would come in the morning while it was still cool. On this particular day when Jesus is passing through Samaria, he meets a woman coming to the well in the heat of the day. This is unusual, but the nature and number of her relationships with men mean that those of her community hold her in contempt and her shame makes her come to the well when no one else is about.

Today, she is lucky – someone else is at the well, and what is more he speaks to her, asking her for water. She is surprised that he should ask her – after all a, Jewish man should not be speaking to a Gentile, let alone a woman and a woman with a bad reputation at that. Jesus doesn’t explain himself to her – instead he takes the conversation in a new direction. If she knew who he was, he says, the situation would have been reversed and she would have asked him for living water.

The woman fails to understand what he is getting at. She knows that it is impossible for him to get water – he has no bucket and the well is deep. Is he greater than their ancestor Jacob that he can do such a thing?  Again Jesus doesn’t respond her question – he continues with his own line of thought – the living water that he will give will ensure that the woman will never thirst again! In a dry and thirsty land, this is a seductive offer – imagine never have to come to the well again! The woman can’t wait to get this living water!

The problem is that the woman is taking Jesus literally when Jesus is speaking figuratively. Her physical needs blind her to the deeper meaning of what Jesus is saying. The water to which Jesus refers is a relationship with him, a spiritual existence not bound by human limitations. Jesus wants to free her from the constraints of her current existence, to move her understanding from the superficial and material to the inward and the spiritual.

Using water, a necessity of the physical life, Jesus tries to open the woman to the possibility that there is another dimension in which she can live, a dimension that will not measure her by her past but by her present and her future, a dimension of existence that will ultimately be more meaningful and more satisfying than her current life. The woman tries again and again to bring the conversation back to the situation that she knows, but Jesus refuses to be distracted from the message he wants to share with her.

Jesus will not get caught up in a discussion of mundane, everyday things. He is using the situation, the context of life-giving water, to point to deeper realities. He wants to move the woman beyond the physical and the external to the spiritual and internal. He wants her to discover a relationship with God that cannot be bound by time and place, a relationship with God that detaches one from the concerns, demands and ambitions of earthly life and frees one to live according to the values and ideals of the kingdom of God. What Jesus is offering the woman is more satisfying even than water in a desert. He is offering her a gift that will not only sustain her in the present but that will also assure her of eternity.

At the well Jesus meets a complete stranger, and engages in discussion a woman shunned by her own people. He challenges her to reconsider the way she sees herself and the world, to stop measuring her happiness and sense of satisfaction according to the values of the world. He shows her another way, a way that is not reliant on the material world, a way that will fulfill her deepest longings and meet her every needs and will take her out of her mundane human existence into a world that has no beginning and no end. He offers her the life of the spirit, a relationship with himself that is a relationship with God.

It is easy for us to be bound by what we can see and touch and feel. It is tempting to get caught up in and bound by the values and expectations of the world. It is only human to think that we can work things out for ourselves. Jesus shows us a different way, he opens the door to a new reality and shows us that if we place all our trust in him instead of in the transitory things of this world, we will discover that we no longer hunger and thirst for what we do not have, for in him and in him alone we have all that we could ever need or could ever want.

 

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