This is a shocking and surprising Gospel reading. It would have been unexpected for a Jewish man at that time to allow himself to be alone with a woman – leaving himself open to temptation, or perhaps just in danger of gossip! And this particular woman was a Samaritan - the hated neighbours of the Jews, the ultimate ‘others’ – to the extent that Jews and Samaritans would never dream of talking to each other, much less sharing a drink. And finally, the woman is of dubious character. Jesus himself points out that she has had five husbands, and now lives with someone she’s not married to – even by today’s standards, five husbands is quite a lot, and in those days, living with someone without being married to them was just not the done thing. She probably went to the well at the hottest part of the day when all sensible folk were indoors so that she could draw her water on her own, and not have to endure the hostile stares and tutting of her neighbours.
If Jesus had been anyone else, he would not have struck up a conversation with this woman. And, of course, we know all about him from the rest of the gospel stories of his life and ministry and teaching: that he was quite happy to touch lepers, to name tax collectors among his best friends, to eat with sinners, outcasts, and other misfits. We know that he said ‘the first will be last’ and made no attempt to curry favour with the influential leaders of his own Jewish faith.
What we end up with is this chance (or not-quite-chance) encounter between Jesus and the nameless woman of Samaria; this woman is not looking for him, but she does seem to have a deep thirst that goes beyond the needs of her physical body, and right into her soul. Maybe her personal life and history are symptoms of some kind of seeking, longing, for meaning, for a relationship that will work, for someone who will be faithful to her.
She seeks meaning in worship, too – is it right to meet God here or there? This mountain or that temple? Again, this is a kind of seeking, but it’s one that misses the point. Perhaps it’s even an excuse – if we can’t even agree on how to go about meeting God, then maybe there is nothing of substance there to meet. Again, Jesus gently knocks this one on the head: the place isn’t important, but the integrity is.
For that woman, encounter with God is happening right then, by the well. She did not come to find Jesus, but she encounters him, in spirit and in truth, and recognises him because Jesus comes to where she is, because Jesus breaks down the first barrier by starting the conversation, because Jesus speaks the truth with compassion, because Jesus accepts her hospitality and because Jesus offers her something amazing.
She then responds and goes out and carries the good news to others. In that act of mission, the living water that Jesus offers her starts to bubble up and overflow. And Jesus is so excited about it that when the disciples come back he can’t even eat. He has eyes only for all that newly revealed potential for the gospel outside his own Jewish nation – outside of the chosen people, the ‘usual suspects’. So what about us?
This story challenges us to think about the way or ways that we encounter Christ. When was the last time you met God not just in church, but wherever you found yourself? Even if you didn’t think you were looking for him? When was the last time you’ve been aware of God making the first move, starting the conversation, even if he used someone else to do it? When is the last time you had the courage to ask God to gently speak the truth to you, to see you for who you really are? When is the last time you were aware of the hospitality that you offer to God, in your life, in your home, in your priorities, in the way you spend your time?
This gospel story also challenges us to think not only about how we encounter Christ, but about the ways that we enable others to meet him too. What if we add to the list of questions: ‘when was the last time that your encounter with Christ made you want to go and tell your friends and family and neighbours the good news of who Jesus us and what he offers us?’ That’s a tough one for most of us.
Jesus came to where the woman would be – he came where he would find the rejected and despised, showing them the love and acceptance of God. What would it mean for the church to act like this kind of Christ? If we are to be this kind of Christ, what would it mean here, and who would we meet and how would we meet them?
Jesus broke down the first barrier by starting the conversation with the woman. How confident do we feel about starting a God-conversation with others?
Jesus spoke the truth with compassion. This is a really tricky one! But is it something about speaking out on the global moral issues of each era, being a church that is not content to turn a blind eye to corruption and institutional sin.
Jesus accepted the woman’s hospitality – he drank the water she drew for him, and stayed in her city, as a foreigner. How confident are we in our own identity as Christians so that we too can risk stepping outside our comfort zone into what can feel like the ‘foreign territory’ of the world around us?
Finally, Jesus offered the woman something amazing – something she realised would fill the void in her life. This season of Lent is a chance to celebrate what God gives us, and in the midst of Lent’s bright sadness, to rediscover a joy in Christ so great that our faith overflows to those around us. Amen.