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The Water of Life

Fr Dennis Smith, Sunday, March 19th, 2017

St John records only two requests by Jesus in his gospel, both for the same thing: ‘Give me a drink’ and ‘I thirst.’ One is at Shechem by Jacob’s Well, and the other at Calvary from the cross. One is when he talks to a Samaritan woman about living water which brings life to a dead and thirsty world, the other when he is dying for us so that the living water of the spirit can pour into our parched lives.

When the soldiers pierce his side ‘There was a flow of blood and water.’ John says ‘living water as a sign of the sacrificial love which is at the heart of the gospel, and which superseded all our previous fumbling efforts in this temple or that, one church or another, to find God. He has become God with us, made flesh, living and risen, giving us the living water of the spirit to make us free partners in the divine story of God’s creation and Christ’s Kingdom here on earth.

It is in bread and wine and water that we remember him, in our baptism and our communion that we encounter him – wine and water to slake the thirst of the world. In these two elements we are purified and cleansed by his forgiveness, healed and washed by his love. We are given a living hope in a world that can otherwise seem like a threatening desert.

Jesus never got that drink that noon day at Shechem, but he kept his appointment at Calvary. What was Jesus doing that dusty day, in Samaria of all places? Not a good place for a young Rabbi to be found. Sitting alone, at noon, by the well, in the full heat of the day; he was as out of place as a ham sandwich at a Jewish wedding. To make matters worse, a single woman appears to draw water: something odd about that, surely. The other townswomen would have been there earlier in the day, gossiping and socialising. This woman wasn’t a socialite – or she was someone to be avoided. Not a good place for Jesus.

To make matters worse, the disciples have gone off to the town to do the shopping. Jesus is alone, hot and thirsty. Judas has probably got the Tesco card with him at the Shechem Supermarket down the road. ‘That’ll be thirty pieces of silver, Mr Judas, but I’m afraid you’re not eligible for any loyalty points. No-one thought to leave Jesus a bucket to draw some water.

Whatever was he up to? What is this story about? There’s no crowd here to teach, no sick to be cured, no sinner begging forgiveness, so it’s not like the usual gospel story. No miracles, just talk. But it’s full of pointers to who Jesus is and what he means for us. It’s a story of how he turns our lives round, when the one who is thirsty brings the water to slake any thirst.

The woman is surprised. Jews and Samaritans don’t mix, although the truth is that they probably shared more in common than they were prepared to admit, rather like Celtic and Rangers, but without the football. It’s not any old wll either, where Jesus and the woman meet.

It’s Jacob’s well. The one he gave to Joseph along with the land he’d bought. Jacob’s bones lie buried close by. This is a special place for both Jew and Samaritan. The woman is nervous: she didn’t expect to meet anyone, that’s why she came at noon when, apart from Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and Jesus, everyone is dozing in the shade.

What does the man want? ‘Give me a drink,’ he says. He’s thirsty. But if he is a Jew he can’t drink from her bucket; it’s against the rules and as a lone woman she shouldn’t be talking to a strange man. Nor should he be talking to her – she is unclean to a Jew.

The it all starts: a conversation that turns everything on its head, and at the end of it, it’s the woman who’s thirsty and realises that this is the man who will satisfy her thirst. It happens in stages. Jesus says that she should ask him for ‘living water’: once drunk, no more thirst. That’s fine by her – no more water-carrying every day. Good idea, Jesus. But then he changes the conversation and asks something which throws her.
‘Fetch your husband.’ She hasn’t got one. ‘I know,’ says Jesus. ‘You’ve had five already but the man you live with now is not your husband.’ So now we know why she has come along to the well. Now she knows that this man is something special. A prophet. So she asks about religion – Jews and Samaritans. Who worships in the right place? ‘Neither,’ says Jesus. What is necessary is to worship in spirit and in truth.

The story all falls into place. It’s a story about water – that element which can be as hard as iron or as soft as clouds. Without it we die, too much and we drown; as calm as a millpond and as ferocious as a tsunami. There are three elements which belong to our worshipping lives as Christians: bread and wine - and water. It flows through our valleys and hills and it runs all through John’s Gospel from beginning to end.

It’s living water that Jesus has in mind. The water of the spirit, but as John tells the story, it’s water which is the element to which Jesus constantly returns. It begins with the water of baptism by John in the Jordan; and as he is in the water, the spirit descends on him. It is the water of purification which becomes wine at the wedding because the presence of Jesus is enough to make anyone clean. It is water and the spirit, he told Nicodemus, that are needed to be born again.

The lame man waits at the pool of Bethesda when Jesus gives him new life. The blind man goes to wash in the Pool of Siloam and sees the light. On the last day of the Festival of Tabernacles, when water from that same pool is brought to the temple to clean the ritual vessels, Jesus cries out, ‘If anyone is thirsty let him come to me; whoever believes in me let him drink.’ It was with water that he washed his disciples’ feet at the table and turned their lives around by showing how the master must be prepare to be the servant of all. The woman learns that this is not just another prophet – this is Him; the one Jews, Samaritans and the whole world have waited for: God with his people, in Spirit and in Truth.

‘I am he, I am the one speaking to you now.’ No wonder she runs off when the disciples come back, not in terror, but surprised by joy. And Jesus, who started the story hungry and thirsty, neither eats nor drinks. His thirst is forgotten as he pours out the living water to friend and stranger alike. 
This, today’s Gospel, isn’t a casual story, or some kind of interesting Jesus anecdote. The clue is in the time: John emphasises the time in each circumstance – at the well and at the cross. The timing is no coincidence for John. It’s significant because it brings the two stories together and sets the story of the encounter with the woman at the well in its proper place and gives it its proper ending.

Jesus is thirsty. It is noon, the sixth hour. The request is once again for something to drink: ‘I thirst.’ In the second story he drinks the cup to its dregs. At Calvary he also thirsts; so do we all.

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