When Life is Dry. John 4: 5 - 42
We are in an arid place. A place of scarcity. A place where suddenly we are lacking. The supermarket shelves have been cleared of toilet roll. People are stealing hand sanitizing gel from the hospitals. There are no doctor’s appointments. Football matches have been cancelled. There are no biscuits at coffee time. The world feels anxious. And when the world is anxious, the danger is that almost inevitably we become anxious, we turn in on ourselves, we think about only ourselves. In our arid place of scarcity, we hold on tight to what we have. That is the danger of Coronavirus, not only that it brings illness but that it lessens us.
The long Gospel story read today is told about a landscape of aridity, of self-isolation and scarcity. Literal scarcity. Israel has a semi-arid climate, and before the days of reservoirs and taps and water treatment, access to clean, fresh water was a pressing, daily concern. No wonder that water is such a potent image in so many of Jesus’ teachings; it was precious stuff. No wonder that one of my very favourite encounters between Jesus and a stranger happens at a well. This story reveals all sorts of things about what Jesus is like, about what God is like, about what humans can be like.
In the middle of an arid landscape, a landscape of rocks and scrubby plants, of shimmering midday heat, Jesus is sitting a well. He shouldn’t be sitting by that well in the first place. Jesus and his friends have travelled through Samaria. He shouldn’t have travelled that way; even to step into Samaria was to risk defilement. Yet Jesus defies this unwritten travel ban, he risks going to Samaria despite it making him ritually unclean.
Jesus sends his friends off to buy food and sits in the heat of the sun on the capstone of the well. Ridiculous. Wells were a female domain; drawing water was woman’s work. Jesus, a Jew and a man, is all out of place. He shouldn’t be there, it’s not his concern, not his job. Yet here he sits and here he waits. Next, the figure of a woman draws near, uncertain, hesitant. She shouldn’t be here either. No one draws water in the heat of the sun; she is self isolating, avoiding social contact. Now, on her approach ,Jesus should beat a hasty retreat. A Jewish man wouldn’t look at, speak to, God forbid, touch, Samaritan woman. But Jesus stays and talks. This is deeply, scandalous behaviour, absolutely incongruous and astonishing.
The words he speaks make matters even worse. It sounds innocuous enough to us, but those words: “Give me a drink”, were just bonkers. The woman would have been carrying her own leather bucket to lower into the well; to any Jew that vessel was defiled, unclean. But this is exactly what Jesus asks: “Give me a drink.” They are sharing a common cup.
In this encounter, Jesus steps away from everything he is expected to do. He is smashing the accepted rules for social contact. He is risking his own status and power to encounter another person in their scarcity. The woman is socially out cast, looked down on for her personal life, she is isolated. She is thirsty. And the last person in the world she would expect breaks through her isolation and offers not a cup of water but the water of life.
This winter has not seen a scarcity of water in Bedfordshire. Our Friday dog walks have become a matter of choosing been walking in mud or organic soup. And you may remember another very wet winter in the UK, winter 2015, when widespread storms and floods hit the country. Recently on TV there was a rerun of a fairly trashy documentary from that winter called “The Floods that Foiled New Year”. It wasn’t much more than a series of video clips of the floods rolled into an hour long package. But there was one sequence that really struck me, an image which tell something of what God is like. The clip was about bore holes. A bore hole is a pipe about six inches across, drilled deep into the bedrock to allow water levels to be measured. So, the idea is that you take the cap off the bore hole and lower a measuring cable down to see where the water level lies to assess the available water supply. In this particular clip, the reporter unscrewed the cover to the bore hole and swung it to one side. Immediately, a great gushing spout of water came roaring out of the pipe, pouring out and spilling onto the ground below. Water from the depths of the earth being poured out in a never ending supply. The rock was so full of water that it could no longer be held. Incredible depths of pure water held in the rock far below the surface, were being made visible and available in abundant supply.
That is a wonderful image of God’s love; an overflowing bore hole in an arid land.
So, my friends, please look after yourselves. Please look after those who are vulnerable in your families as Coronavirus spreads. But do not allow yourselves to become arid. Instead, allow the God whose love is extravagant, unceasing, to fill you as you continue to pray, study and keep Lent. Allow Jesus, the God-man, who broke through isolation, who made radical social contact, embolden you. Embolden you to overcome your social anxiety and pick up the phone to speak to those who are self-isolating. To knock on the door of neighbours and check on them. To break into your supply of hand gel, toilet roll, pasta, and share it with those who are vulnerable or cannot afford to prepare. My prayer is that at this time, this Church family may be like the water in the bore hole, gushing up and out and watering this community for all we are worth.