Gathered At The Well

Sunday, 15 March 2020 12:00

The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) (John 4:9)

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I drink a lot of water during the service. but I’ve stopped bringing bottled water and I’ve started bringing a refillable drinking bottle. This is partly to avoid using unnecessary plastic but also because bottled water is such a rip-off. We really have nice drinking water in Lockerbie - especially when I compare it with the tap water in Coventry where my Mum lives which is so hard up I can feel my mouth furring up like a kettle when I drink it. Then there are the various mineral waters. I spend half my life getting kids to understand that these are not better because they’re ‘pure’ water. They’re mineral waters. The clue’s in the name.

Water from different places can be different because it’s flowed over different rocks over different distances to get to the wells or reservoirs or springs that we get it from, just as we are different because we have lived different lives. Wherever it comes from, though; whatever it tastes like and wherever we draw it from, we all need it. Every man, woman and child in the world needs water to survive.

Which, in a sense, should make the Samaritan woman’s question seem odd. Why would Jesus not ask for a drink. One imagines he was thirsty. Surely she understood that. If, part way through a service in Gretna: St Andrews, I said,  “Look, could someone get me a glass of water?” you wouldn’t wonder why I was asking for one, would you? It’s such an odd question that John has to explain it to his readers - mostly Gentile Christians living about fifty years after this took place when things had changed radically.

“Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans”, says John. No, they certainly didn’t. There was bad blood between the Jews and the Samaritans that bordered on visceral hatred to the extent that when pious Jews from Galilee in the North travelled to Jerusalem in the South they would go miles out of their way to avoid the Samaritan towns that lay in between; to avoid the possibility of encountering Samaritans; to avoid encounters like this one. That’s why the Samaritan woman asks the question she does. Here’s this pious Jew actually initiating an encounter with her rather than going miles out of his way to avoid her.

But Jesus asks her for water - for something that binds them together; something they both need to survive; something that each of us, however different we may be from each other, needs to survive; something that every man, woman and child, regardless of the differences that so often divide us, needs to survive. We, all of us, one way or another, have to gather at the well.

There’s something else that’s important here, particularly for us as Christians. According to John this wasn’t just any old well - this was the Well of Jacob. Jacob, the common ancestor of all of Israel, including the tribes that had split off from Judah and formed the Northern Kingdom sometimes called Samaria. This forms an important part of the conversation between Jesus and the woman. Both Samaritans and Jews claimed descent from Abraham through Jacob. They both believed in the same God. They had different traditions of worship and the Samaritans didn’t adhere to the scriptures that the Jews codified and compiled during the Exile, apart from the Pentateuch, but they were two branches of the same ancient faith. 

There have been times when Christianity has divided over matters of tradition and interpretation of scripture. Sometimes bitterly. There have been times when we have thrown up divisions between the various branches of the one Church that is the body of Jesus Christ that have been every bit as visceral as the divisions between Jews and Samaritans; when we have not sat down to drink with one another. In so far as those divisions still exist, this passage is a challenge to all Christians to set them aside and gather at the well.

“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” The Samaritan woman was a woman. And a woman with a rather dodgy past. She has had, Jesus knows, five husbands. It’s hard to believe that all five died and now she’s living with a sixth without being married to him. At that time, and in that culture, that would have marked her out in many people’s minds as a serial adulteress - possibly a prostitute. But here’s this pious Jew, a Rabbi no less, not just avoiding her as unclean but actually engaging her in conversations: taking an interest in what she has to say and treating her as a human being rather than labelling her.

There have been times when we, as Christians, have been quick to label people - especially women when sex has been involved - as sinners; to look down on them and to want to stand apart from them as if they were unclean. In Victorian times they were sometimes denied the food and shelter they needed from the only social security system of the time - the one run by the Church - if they were ‘fallen women.

That, though, is a denial of the Gospel: the Gospel that recognises that we are all sinners but that we all have the hope of redemption through the water of life that is Jesus Christ - the Jesus who reached across boundaries that are more about respectability than faith; in whom God came into the world to offer a hand to those who fall for the lures of temptation by walking beside them. The challenge of the Church is to communicate the idea that in this place and in the love of God it doesn’t matter what you’ve done in your life. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve messed up; it doesn’t matter how broken your life is or how you came to be here. Here you are loved with a love that reaches out to the human being you are, rather than the label. Here we can all gather at the well.

Which brings me back to where I started. Jesus asks the Samaritan woman for a cup of water - for something that we all need - that all humanity needs. It is something that binds us together and which reminds us, at a primal level, that we are all alike; that the borders and divisions and barriers we throw up between us as human beings are superficial: at our roots we are all - all humanity - alike.

The Jews and Samaritans of Jesus’s time; the Romans and the Greeks, the Persians and the Barbarians wouldn’t have understood that idea at all. Maybe that idea starts here at a well with a conversation between a Jewish Rabbi and a Samaritan woman; with God coming into the world to remind us that all of humanity is meant to be one and to begin the process of healing the rifts that divide us.

When we, the Church, have contributed to those rifts we have forgotten our calling, When we have contributed to the healing of humanity we have done the work of God in the world. A cup of water for someone who’s thirsty. Something as simple as that can be the work of God because when we hand it over it puts on the same level, bound by a common need. That’s the way it is with doing the work of God - it’s about sharing things we all need: food, shelter, kindness, warmth, forgiveness; something as simple as a smile or a touch. Things which transcend all the boundaries we throw up between us. Things in which we gather at the well as children of God.

Lord, may we gather at the well. May we cast aside the differences that divide us and recognise that we are all your children. May we share that understanding with all we meet and share your love with them