Sermon for Third Sunday of Lent – Year A

John 4.5-42 

“…… 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.”  (John 4.14)

In Somerset this year of all years we may find it hard to imagine life in a land where water is in short supply and every drop is precious, not to be spilled or wasted carelessly.

And as we think again of people whose lives have been devastated by flooding on the Somerset levels and elsewhere we might think that we have little in common with a Samaritan woman living 2000 years ago in a culture and a climate very different from our own.

But let’s see if her story can speak to our story.   Let’s join her, unseen, and walk alongside her on the dry and dusty track that leads to Jacob’s Well, the only source of water for her and all who live in her village.

She walks alone carrying a water jar which weighs her down.  Coming back it will be heavier and the journey will be even more tiring.

We don’t have to use wells and water jars.  But maybe we do know what it’s like walking through life carrying a heavy load on our shoulders.  A weight that holds us back and wears us out, draining our energy and strength.

Maybe it’s a serious illness, redundancy, financial insecurity, bereavement.  A great many things in life can be hard to bear and rob us of joy, happiness and peace of mind.

Maybe like the Samaritan woman, we know tomorrow will be the same, and the next day and the day after that.  We can’t imagine how or when this grinding daily routine will ease.

The woman walks alone.  Her lifestyle separates her from other village woman.  She’s not welcome in their fellowship.  They might tolerate her presence on this daily walk for water but she avoids their company.  She’s had enough of the disapproving looks, the whispering behind hands held up to mouths.  She’s given up on ever finding someone who tries to understand how and why she is where she is today.

Perhaps we too sometimes feel isolated.  We may hear insensitive remarks from people who don’t understand us or our circumstances.  Maybe we’ve been aware that somehow our tragedy or unhappiness discomforts or threatens others so they keep their distance.

Still from quite a distance from the well our companion sees a solitary man at the well.  We sense her sudden tension and fear.  It’s happened to her before.  Men who know that if she’s coming to the well at this time of day she’s vulnerable, an outcast, maybe used to being assaulted or free with her favours.  Men like that will take what they think they can get and who would care?

We may not fear a physical threat from others.  But we might fear something as painful and difficult to evade: the insensitive remarks, the judgmental criticism or even the failure to recognise that something is amiss.  We steel ourselves for whatever may come our way and somehow that defensive barrier never really comes down.  We get trapped behind our own security bars.

We’re now close enough to the well for our friend (and somehow we’ve come to think of her as our friend) to know that the man apparently waiting for her is a stranger, no-one she recognises and moreover is a Jew.  A fresh wave of tension breaks over her because the enmity between Jew and Samaritans is deep rooted and sometimes bitter.

We, of course, know who it is sitting, waiting.  We know it’s Jesus and that the woman beside us will be transformed by him.  Perhaps we too are aware of feelings of tension and apprehension.

It’s one thing to believe in Jesus, to learn about him and to try to walk in his way but what will it be like actually to stand in front of him?

He speaks, holding his hand out in a gesture of friendship, “Give me a drink” he says.

Nothing more, yet we have the strangest feeling that he has seen us, invisible to the woman from the village but already known to him.  From now on we are not bystanders.  We are part of this encounter.

The woman questions him,
“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”

How can we relate to each other like this when so much lies between us.

Maybe we too are aware of all that lies between us and Jesus: the loads we’re carrying like jars filled to the brim with stale and stagnant water; the self-loathing and shame that keep our heads bowed; the half-truths and self-deception that compromise our integrity; maybe we feel we have nothing pure or good enough to offer Jesus.

Jesus speaks and once again we have that unnerving sense that he is speaking to us as well,

“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”

“Living Water”: water clean and clear; water flowing swiftly; water cooling, refreshing, cleansing, life-giving; streams, brooks, rivers, waterfalls, always on the move, never resting, the energy of life itself.

We let the words and images wash over us and we feel the beginning of something new stirring in our hearts and minds.

Now Jesus is saying:

“…… 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.”

“a spring of water gushing up to eternal life”.  The thought of that wonderful energy excites us.  It reaches into the deepest places of our hearts and clears a way through the defences we built to keep at bay the risk of being hurt, of failing or of feeling pain in any form.

Jesus reaches through it all, knows it all, understands it all, forgives and heals it all.

Why would we not want to receive that sort of water of life?  Like the woman of Samaria we want to ask,

“Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

She and Jesus continue their conversation but we’ll leave them now and return to today, to the here and now.

The Samaritan woman will have to continue going to the well each day but Jesus has transformed her isolation, her loneliness, her sense of shame.  He has restored her to fellowship in her own community as she brings them also to meet Jesus, the Messiah.

And we too will continue with our daily lives, still carrying some heavy burdens.  But perhaps we too have in some way been changed, healed and refreshed by encountering Jesus at Jacob’s Well.  Perhaps our feelings of isolation and loneliness have been eased.  Perhaps we feel more connected with the people around us and able to take our place among them.  Perhaps we also will bring people with us to meet Jesus, the Messiah, the source of Living Healing Water.