Lent 3 (A)
St Andrew’s Church, Lismore
12 March 2023
What a feast of Scripture we have been served by the lectionary this week!
It may just be drinks, but living water is still a powerful theme for us to reflect upon in this third week of Lent.
John says that Jesus rested by a well on his way north to Galilee after a stint at the southern end of the Jordan River where John had been drawing crowds for his religious renewal project.
Jesus, of course, was among the crowds drawn to John.
That detail is not in the portion of John 4 we just read, but it puts the episode by the well in context.
The religious renewal project led by John was calling for people to do more than attend major festivals at the temple in Jerusalem. In that context, baptism in living water (that is fresh water running down the river) was a key symbol.
Living water was on the mind of Jesus as he rested by the well, and not just any well. This was the well that people believed had been first dug by Jacob, the father of the famous twelve sons of Israel who purchased land at this location (Genesis 33:18–20).
Again, as an aside, notice that the ancestors purchased the lands they came to possess, in this part of the story. The concept of conquest and ethnic cleansing derives from the Joshua traditions.
“Israel” was the name given to Jacob after he spent an anxious night wrestling with a divine figure prior to his reconciliation with Esau. See Genesis 32:22–33:17.
So there is a powerful back story to this well and to the encounter with the local woman.
In fact, throughout the Bible, wells feature as the sites for important encounters, and often ones that have a critical role in the story of salvation:
- God reveals a hidden to Hagar (Genesis 16)
- Abraham has a well at Beer-sheba (Genesis 21)
- Abraham’s trusted servant goes to a well when seeking a wife for Isaac (Genesis 24)
- Isaac digs his own well at Beer-sheba (Genesis 26)
- Jacob will meet Rachel at a well (Genesis 29)
- Moses famously meets his future wife at a well (Exodus 2)
- In early Christian tradition Gabriel meets Mary at the well
Here in John 4 Jesus rests by a well and the informed audience knows that he is about to meet someone and that something important is about to occur.
As we still see in many developing societies, collecting water from the community well was women’s work, and usually done early in the day or late afternoon.
The well—like the Furphy & Co water cart in WW1—was not just the place to get water. It was also the place to share news, hence the expression: a furphy (informal information and possibly false news).
The woman at the well
Jesus rests at the well around midday, while the disciples go into the city to look for something to eat.
Then the woman comes out to draw water.
Why at midday?
This is usually understood as a sign that she was not on talking terms with the other women from Sychar, but we can never know why she turned up at the well at the hottest time of the day.
Jesus does what men often do: he asks her get him a drink!
She is happy to do that, but notes that he seems to be Jewish and that people like him would not normally even touch a cup that has been handled by a Samaritan.
She is not inclined to cross cultural boundaries.
But Jesus is a repeat offender in that score.
He is talking with an unrelated woman, and he is asking a Samaritan to serve him a drink!
The story is a long one, as is often the case in the Gospel of John. It goes all the way to verse 45! (I have spared you the joy hearing me read the whole thing.)
In this opening scene, Jesus opens up a conversation about living water.
In the sentences that follow directly after our excerpt ended, we have this exchange:
Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but 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.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” [John 4:13–15 NRSV]
A few chapters later, in John 7—when we find Jesus in the temple that will feature in later parts of his conversation with the woman at the well—we find Jesus saying:
On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive … [John 7:37–39]
That, surely, is our request as we gather around the Table of Jesus today.
- Open a spiritual well deep within us!
- Let us drink from the water of eternal life; life that reflects eternity, not life that lasts forever.
- Quench our innermost thirst.
- May your Spirit surge within us and become a stream of living water for others.