Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Lent: The Water of Life – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 12 March 2023 by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes. (Exodus Ch 17: v 1 – 7; John Ch 4: v 5 – 42)
Jesus to the Samaritan woman: “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.” (John Ch 4: v 10). Picture the scene: Jesus is walking from Judea in the south to Galilee in the north, and he takes the direct route through Samaria. Hot and tired, he stops at midday by Jacob’s Well, which relied on underground sources and therefore was extremely deep; but he has no bucket or travelling flask to lower into the water. So he is pleased to see a local woman turn up, properly equipped. But instead of getting on with drawing the water, they start an animated conversation about its significance – completely at cross-purposes. By “living water” Jesus is making the point that he could give her spiritual sustenance. She persists – not unnaturally, given the circumstances – in assuming he is referring to actual water to drink and that he can magically summon a never-ending supply of it; so she would not have to keep coming to the well.
Gradually she begins to be aware that this is no ordinary man. For a start, she points out that it would be highly unusual for a Jew to engage a Samaritan in conversation. The Jewish people despised the Samaritans, for various historical reasons considering them to be of mixed race and their religious beliefs and practice to be distinctly un-kosher. In return, Samaritans loathed their Jewish neighbours. Hence the shocking twist at the end of the tale of the ten lepers whom Jesus healed, only one of whom returned to give thanks – “and he was a Samaritan” (Luke Ch 17: v 16). Jesus of course, in his parable of the man who fell among thieves, deliberately cast his rescuer as a Samaritan when various Jewish priestly types didn’t feel able, or motivated, to stop and help.
Our woman at the well next begins to perceive, and wonder at, Jesus’ kindness and compassion, and his positive disregard for convention (and probably his own reputation) by being seen talking to a woman in public: it verges on the disreputable. As we heard, this leads to a frank but sympathetic conversation about her personal life and marital status; at the end of it she declares Jesus to be a prophet. We see here Jesus breaking down barriers, very deep and entrenched ones, foreshadowing the Early Church’s spreading the gospel beyond Israel and national boundaries – indeed ultimately to the ends of the earth. In this he has also provided a model for Christians ever since – not always acted upon – that we should not discriminate but deal fairly with all those who cross our path.
It is easy to think of this as simply a social obligation. But throughout this conversation Jesus is talking about water and its spiritual connotations. Like water, the Holy Spirit purifies and transforms what it comes into contact with. In John’s Gospel there is a close link with baptism, which enables a new and fresh spiritual life. John the Baptist says he was sent to baptize with water whereas Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit; and it is that spirit who bids us share God’s glory with all people unreservedly.
In his poem celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost – as at Jesus’ baptism, taking the form of a dove, – the poet John Bennett expresses the spirit’s universal and eternal gathering influence:
On wings of subtlest flame, the Holy Dove
Flies through the human world and offers love:
It teaches Heart and Mind
How to transcend their kind
And praise the God who lets all being move.
So free, so bright, so beautiful and fair,
The Holy Dove flies through the mortal air:
Always there descending,
Always there ascending,
It brings the Glory that all men may share.
Most of us feel – at least from time to time – that the here-and-now is not the whole story; in fact, that there is a spiritual dimension to us and our lives. Sometimes that horizon recedes, but without it we feel life to be incomplete. Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that her real thirst is for God, and he says, in effect, “This is no abstract dream, but the reality, if you grasp it.” And at the end of their conversation she declares she is looking for the Messiah, who “will show us all things.” Like Augustine she realizes that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee, O God.”
Jesus replies to her, “I who speak to you am he.” Finally, after her fellow townspeople have also encountered Jesus, they too perceive the truth: “We have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Saviour of the world” (v 42).