Notes from the sermon by Dr Jan Betts on 15 March 2020
Our readings are two stories which seem to be connected by water. In the wilderness are the people who God has redeemed from Egypt, who God miraculously and marvellously brought through the terror of the water of the Red Sea. These people, who are really special to God, are now facing a different encounter with water. They are thirsty and it’s not hard to imagine how tough that was. We flinch at the thought of not enough loo roll…what’s it like to have no water coming out of your taps!
In the second story a lone and lonely woman in Samaria also needs water.
Water has significance in the history of the Jewish people. it means chaos when it’s broad and formless and threatening. Water is implacable when it’s sea. It means things are falling apart. It may well bring death but water is also a gift of life. The psalmist walks beside still waters. In Eden there were rivers, not seas. Jesus calls himself living water. Water washes the disciple’s feet, in its cleansing capacity, as we need to be washed symbolically. We need to remember these symbols when we hear Jesus interacting with water.
Both these stories are about a need. However these aren’t stories so much about how those needs were met as of the way of getting the water which is wanted and the attitudes which surround the two stories.
In the first story, the children of Israel, the descendants of Abraham are wandering, we are told ‘as Yahweh told them’. They were trying to obey God. But when they were desperate, they forgot all about their protector and turned on Moses, who then redirected them to God. ‘It’s God who gives water not me’ says Moses. Moses was furious for God’s honour and worship. The necessities of life will come to you…..when you honour God. (Which incidentally was a lesson he forgot later, when something similar happened and he was excluded from the Promised Land because of his arrogance.) I love Moses, he’s such a fiery impatient flawed character. He must have been totally fed up with the people he led, moaning and groaning and expecting him to do it all, to be the one who always had to be the one saying it’s not me, it’s God you need. The people shamelessly forgot God and demanded that he do it all.
Now let’s think about the woman at the well.
We know about this woman. She has typically been portrayed as no better than she ought to be, in that funny phrase, a woman who had no husband which was a shameful thing to be. But more recent thinking suggests that she was an abused woman, a woman who may have been simply passed from man to man for all sorts of reasons, as women were in those times. She had had five husbands, legitimate relationships but probably not relationships of her choosing, and was now under another man’s charge. Relationships enough to make her unacceptable in purity terms to the other women who came to the well when it was cool, not in the heat of the day. Relationships which excluded her from simple friendly everyday interactions by pointing the finger at her shame.
But she’s not stupid, she’s lively, she’s not afraid to hold her own. I like her. Whether I would have liked her if I’d been born then I don’t know: we all exclude people not like us, who break our codes.
Jesus the Rabbi, who is not supposed to teach women, meets her as she’s alone at Jacob’s well, at a time when she wouldn’t expect to have to face anyone. It has historic references: Jacob met Rachel at the well, much more properly with her maidservants: Jesus is signalling that times have changed in the new kingdom, that these excluding customs are not needed any more. Because he too is alone. It must have been a strange tense meeting: a man, and especially a rabbi was not supposed to be alone with a woman and vice versa. This woman was already an object of shame, probably to herself as well to the rest of the town, and she was desperate for water. So, importantly, they both break the code of purity. As Jesus so often does he joins the woman in her shame, in her vulnerability and openness to criticism, in the same way as he touched the woman with an issue of blood, as he refused to condemn the woman in adultery. Jesus says if there is excluding shame around I’m in there too, taking the same shame, not one bit superior. He had to presume this would get back to the Pharisees and be one more black mark. Jesus was quite wonderfully and gloriously shameless in his inclusion.
He began by asking for something, always a good way to break the ice. And the woman effectively says ‘how shameful’. She has the upper hand: she’s already bad so she can challenge. ‘you’re a Jew, you don’t associate with me, so because you are asking me for something I’m going to challenge you back. Why are you asking? Does she suspect an ulterior motive of some kind?
Jesus gives her an answer that in some way speaks to her: ‘if you only knew what God is offering…you’d be doing the asking and you’d get living water’, meaning himself as the water of life. Puzzled but intrigued, she challenges him again: she claims connection with Jacob, – that Rachel meeting again! – saying I’m as good as you in my ancestry and you are an arrogant Jew claiming to be greater than Jacob! This serious intrigued banter goes on: Jesus insists on his point about living water. ‘Well Ok then’ she agrees,’ let me have some. No more well visiting at midday for me’.
Jesus really wants her to understand. He’s so loving to this woman. He’s drawn her interest and trust by speaking directly with her and she’s intrigued. So he goes for the jugular. God can do this: we become intrigued, we go along to church or have conversations or whatever and then we are by God’s mercy faced with the real, the terrifying and wonderful consequences of our interest in God. ‘Go get your husband and then come back’ he says. Ouch and ouch again! It’s such a slap in the face. She must have thought she was doing quite well talking to a rabbi on equal terms, then he suddenly reminds her that she’s scum. It’s outrageous to our ears. It must have rocked her right back to the sense she came with, of being an ashamed outcast.
But Jesus has already shared her shame. It’s so important. Jesus doesn’t approach us as someone who is trying to make us feel bad. We are loved beyond measure as Becky reminded us so powerfully last week, but she also reminded us that wisdom doesn’t come without effort, it can’t just be picked from the tree. God walks with us in the gaining of that hard wisdom, through the desert temptations, through the terrors and challenges. Here’s another person facing a tough challenge.
The woman meets it, she doesn’t scuttle away, she answers back truthfully, and in return gets another shock. Jesus knows her history, and commends her for being truthful. Jesus loves it when we face up to the truth about ourselves because only then can the spirit begin to work. AA knows about this – we have to see the truth of ourselves, however beautiful that often is – before we can be open to receiving. No short cuts. Our shames have to be named and transformed by the love of God. When we are known we can be loved and God knows us and loves through and through. There is no point in anything but truthfulness before the love of God.
The Israelites were shameless. They just demanded, with no recognition of their own relationship with God. But with the truthful receptive woman Jesus shares the knowledge that she has met the Messiah they both look for. She is no longer excluded: she’s known, and to be known can be to be healed. But she has to be inclusive too because Jesus tells her that salvation comes from the Jews.
And finally nothing Jesus does is about or just about individuals. Scripture is always pointing us to the spreading of the word, and the woman belts off to tell everyone about her meeting. The Samaritans were – although much less so now – a group who had an uneasy relationship with the Jews. Jesus is accused of being a Samaritan and demon possessed at one point. He’s not ashamed of that. He talks about the good Samaritan and the one leper who came back to thank him was a Samaritan. He was softening up the disciples’ excluding prejudices through his stories and now they didn’t dare challenge him but meekly followed him to stay in Samaria for a few days.
So a conversation with one ashamed excluded person becomes a way into an excluded community. The healing of one is the healing of many. I’m still thinking about how that works here, among the people who come to All Hallows. How can we too meet them wonderfully unashamed or superior, seeing the face of God looking back at us.