OK, I’ll fess up, up front…. I spoke about this at a community church yesterday. But because, when I give a talk, I always say only half of what I intended and only half as clearly as I meant to say it, I’ll try to put it into a blog, and to do it a bit better, with a few new thoughts. Here goes;
This isn’t an immutable law of story telling, but usually if a narrative starts with someone, and that same someone is the catalyst for change, and the narrative even ends with that person, then it’s a fair bet that the whole shebang is about that person. Other characters may weave in and out of the account and they will be pertinent, but they’re not the centre of the story. So, having said all that, how come we always refer to John 4:4-30 as the account of ‘The woman at the well’?
It jolly well isn’t. It’s the account of the man at the well. It starts with him and ends with him and the outcome, a woman rushing off to tell everyone some amazing news, is in response to him. He is the catalyst. He gave the news. The man at the well is who we should be looking at, not the woman who comes across him.
You probably know the story – Jesus is walking in Samaria, not a place friendly to a Jew in those days (it’s telling that the text says ‘he had to go through Samaria’). His disciples have headed off into the town to get supplies, and he sits down by a well in the hottest part of the day, a tired, thirsty, dusty, itinerant preacher. Penniless probably. Below him there’s fresh water, cool in the shadows of the deep well, but it might as well be a hundred miles away because he can’t reach it. That’s the man. A solitary unarmed figure in an alien landscape. Without a cup.
Up comes a woman, and we know nothing about her except that she’s a local. Some have hatched a whole new narrative around this woman – that while most of the village women draw water in the cool of the morning or evening she’s there at noon because she’s an outcast. Well, I don’t know about that. It seems to me enough of a shock that she’s a woman and a Samaritan, and the man is a Jew. And they’re alone. Wowser. And if she lends him her cup or allows him to drink from her water jar, or accidentally brushes against his hand, he has made himself unclean. Double wowser. (I must stop saying that)
The thirsty man asks her for a drink. And she’s startled – he’s a Jew! They look down on people from Samaria. They certainly don’t mix with them. And then he says that if she knew who was asking for a drink, she’d be asking him. Maybe at this she starts to smile “Yeah? Really? Much good that would do me – you haven’t got anything to draw the water with.’ ( I’m rewriting the story, you can get the real dialogue in the Bible)
She had a water jar. A pretty basic requirement. And he had nothing.
Some of the most ancient artefacts in the museums of the world are water jars, scoops and cups. First we drink from cupped hands, and then from a shell or piece of pottery, or a hollowed out chunk of wood. When I lived in Egypt we knew a fearsome old shepherdess who drove her goats past our house nearly every day and she had a cup, on a sort of stick, dangling from her waist. I wonder if the Samaritan woman had one just like it? I wonder if she was veiled and hidden like our shepherdess? Maybe not. (Here she is. I’ve probably told you before, but we would wait for her, hiding in the corn around the bungalows, deliciously scared, and she would raise her veil and wiggle her blackened teeth at us, making a hideous noise and waving her stick, so that we screamed and ran away. She would laugh and walk on, and wave at my mother sitting on the verandah, but somehow we ignored that, so that she remained, in our minds, a figure of terror)
What was I talking about? Oh, yes. A water jar. The man at the well.
When I think of the word ‘humility’ I think of the man at the well. Humility, like meekness, is one of those virtues that’s quite hard to define, to place in the modern world. How do we make a word like that seem relevant and more than a vague and pious wish? How to define it? Jesus defines it, waiting at that well: the God of all creation, the great and the omnipotent, stepping into our humanity, fully human, fully God, needing – yes, needing – that most basic of human resources, water. And unable to get it.
When you’re really thirsty and you’re in a dry climate under a blazing sun, and you come across a well, you can almost smell the water. It’s as if your skin can sense it, the air changes, the hairs on the back of your neck prickle… water! The God of all creation could see the water in his mind’s eye, taste it in his longing, smell it in his need. And he couldn’t drink it. He couldn’t! Not without the help of a sinful woman. Someone like you and me. What humility! Next time you struggle with humility, think of that – the God of all creation, master of the Universe, placing himself in a situation where he had to ask a sinful woman for help.
Maybe his lips were cracked, certainly his mouth was dry, maybe his muscles ached. The God of all creation. And he wanted a simple drink of water. But he had no way of reaching it. God? Really? And he couldn’t magic up a basic kinda cup? No. He couldn’t. Because he had chosen to be one of us. He was human. Completely human alongside completely God. He wasn’t Superman or Batman or any other super hero, able to use his superpower to satisfy his selfish whim. He was our servant God, our fully human Creator. He was you and me.
When I was a youngster reading the comics my father banned (but friends smuggled) I was never interested in the stories of the girl or boy who had a magic wand, or a time transporting belt, or an invisible-making cloak. They were all cheats. I didn’t have a wand, or a time belt, or a cloak, so these stories were, to me, utter rubbish. A waste of good paper. How could I admire anyone who just waved a magic stick and so made everything come right? Where was the achievement and the struggle and the victory in that? Where was the truth?
The mystery and the miracle of the Trinity is that God is Three in One. Three natures, one God. God the Divinity, God The Spirit, and Jesus His Incarnation. And so Jesus, the Man, came to us. He didn’t come to us clothed in flesh and blood, he came to us fully flesh and blood. Not ‘as human’ but truly human. He didn’t come with magic powers to overcome the enemy. It wasn’t a cunning disguise, a pretend human with crossed fingers and a secret weapon. He was a simple, poor, vulnerable human being, born to a teenage girl, in poverty and need, and he grew up without posessions, in an occupied land. As far as we know he owned nothing and he preached poverty and simplicity, so that when he sent out the 12 disciples, who were to become apostles, he told them
“Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt.”
And that’s him at the well that day, one shirt, a pair of sandals, and nothing else. The God of all creation.
That means that he doesn’t despise us, he doesn’t recoil from us, he embraces who we are, accepts who we are, became one of us. And here’s the thing – Jesus, the man, is alive now just as he was at the Resurrection, just as he was when he came to Thomas and showed him his wounds, inviting him to touch them, just as he was when he lit a fire for his disciples’ breakfast, weeks after his death on the cross. Just as then, he is both God and Man right now.
In 1 Timothy 2:5 we read ‘For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus’
Jesus didn’t stop being man when he was resurrected, and he is as real and as approachable and as present today as he was 2000 years ago. Which means that we can meet him, daily. Just like that Samaritan woman.
He told her about the living water, the eternal life, that he offers
“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.“
And she said ‘Sir, give me this water.’
Well, you would, wouldn’t you?
If you were that woman, wouldn’t you?
Sometimes, when the day is long and the work seems thankless, when the water we draw will simply leave an empty jar that needs to be filled again, and again, when the walk to the well is lonely, and nobody knows the trouble we’ve seen… we can be so lost in our thoughts that we hardly notice the man sitting at the well, waiting. That’s just the way we are. Christmas has gone, the grey days of January are here (in the UK), and the world is in trouble. It’s all too easy to dip down into the glums.
But, listen, that Samaritan woman, when she woke that morning, wasn’t expecting to come across the God of all creation, she didn’t imagine that the great Messiah who was to rescue Israel would be a dusty, weary, hot and thirsty penniless wandering Jew just down the road from her home. She had no idea what the day would bring to her, a day that we are remembering now, all across the world and two thousand years later. Our friend the Samaritan woman said to that penniless man
“I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
Maybe that’s the greatest line of all the lines in the miracle that is the Bible. “I am he.”
The message didn’t come to a king, or a dictator, it didn’t come to Rome in all its pomp and wealth, or to a powerful general at the head of a conquering army. It came to people like her, simple people, to the you and me’s of this world. From another human being. A gentle man.
Maybe that became the turning point in her life, just as it became the turning point for me. It can become the turning point in every life. And for those of us who already follow Jesus, well, we can have little turning points in every day. Whenever we turn to the man at the well, and whenever we say “Sir, give me this water.”
Because he will. He has. He is giving it to us now.
What a God. What a man!