St Andrew’s Parish of Indooroopilly
Lent 3: Sunday 15 March
No life that is not shared life ©Suzanne Grimmett
Water is more than a metaphor. We all know that, and with the reality of the world facing a pandemic, panic buying of water is happening despite the fact that there is no threat to our water supply. We know that water is life. In a culture that has, particularly for the last fifty years, cultivated the rise of the individual over the communal, hoarding and competing for the necessities of life in a time of crisis is disappointing but unsurprising. The toilet paper panic buying has resulted in many hilarious jokes, but is of course not funny if you are the mother with four young children who has tried three supermarkets and has none left in the house. Water may not be at risk in this crisis, but we know that a shortage of it is what leaves us most vulnerable and prone to aggressive behaviour. In today’s reading from Exodus, the thirst of the people in the desert leaves Moses pleading with God in fear of being publicly put to death by the people whose recent enslavement in Egypt had at least included having enough to drink. Who we are – our courage, our character- is revealed with devastating clarity in any time of fear.
So, with an understanding that our spiritual vocabulary is so much more than just words, we turn to this conversation about living water. There are layers of meaning in this story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman that begin with the meeting place: Jacob’s well.
In the meeting of Rachel and Jacob, Jacob rolls back the stone over the well so that Rachel’s sheep could drink, despite the warning of the other shepherds that they should wait until all the flocks are gathered together before uncovering the well. When so often the moral of a tale is to patiently wait, this story, just like the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, was about not waiting for the end of time when all would be together before drinking the water. The message is that the wellspring of eternal life is available in the here and now.
The narrative of the Gospel story echoes this idea of some being held back from drinking at this well of life. The Samaritans were considered a mixed race with an equally “mixed” religion. The writer of the Gospel says it very matter of factly. “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans” Or, in other words, they did not associate with them at all. So for Jesus to be asking this woman for a drink from Jacob’s well is astonishing, and the woman is just as surprised as Jesus’ disciples.
“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
For many of the Jews of his time, the Samaritans were quite simply excluded from the favour of God. Women also could be considered unclean. Jesus is making a deliberate move here to reopen the well of life to all those who had been excluded by religion and the violence of its purity laws and sacrificial systems.
And if we think that sort of exclusion belongs only in the ancient world, we need to think again. In working as a Chaplain in schools I was frequently warned not only of those who were considered immoral and a bad influence but also of local church communities who “weren’t really saved” or a pastor who we should be aware was “not one of us”.
While there are thousands of years of human history dividing us, where any one group claims the exclusive possession of the Spirit we seem to be in the company once again of small-minded religion which seeks the moral high ground and strives to retain power and control. But the Spirit can never be controlled- it blows, (or flows), where it wills. And the flowing of the Spirit always leads us to acceptance and forgiveness, unity and communion and away from tribalism and separation.
Everywhere human beings have tried to develop a religion for the God they own, rather than surrendering to a God who owns us. Jesus meets this woman and does not judge her or seek to coerce her into converting to anything new. It seems clear that whatever has been her history, there has likely been tragedy and suffering. In her culture and time her situation as a widow, or one who had been divorced by her husband and passed down between men, would have been a vulnerable one.
Jesus makes it clear that his mission transcends all divides of culture, race, class and gender- and whatever else constitutes a reason for social exclusion. His is a call to all followers to worship not in tribal and exclusive ways but together in spirit and in truth. This water that Jesus offers comes with the compassionate understanding of the human thirst for life, love and connection and the knowledge that its healing flow does not allow itself to be claimed or wholly possessed by any one group or another.
John Shea illustrates this idea with a parable about the living water Christ brings for all peoples;
The water of life, wishing to make itself known on the face of the earth, bubbled up in an artesian well and flowed without effort or limit. People came to drink of this refreshing water and were nourished by it, since it was so clean, and pure and
invigorating. But humankind was not content to leave things in this Edenic state. Gradually they began to fence the well, charge admission, claim ownership of the property around it, make elaborate laws about who could come to the well and put locks on the gates. Soon the well was the property of the powerful and the elite. The water was angry and offended; it stopped flowing and began to bubble up in another place. The people who owned the property around the first well were so engrossed in their power systems and ownership that they did not notice that the water had vanished. They continued selling the non-existent water and few people noticed that the power was gone. But some dissatisfied people searched with great courage and found the new artesian well. Soon that well came under the control of new property owners, and the same fate overtook it. The spring took itself to yet another place- and this has been going on throughout history.1
So much of our culture confirms the desire in us to hoard, to compete, to possess. It is oh so easy to draw dividing lines that separate us from one another, encourage scapegoating of individuals or groups and to confirm our natural tendency toward tribalism. The power in this world for life and love has never been owned or contained. In this time of anxiety, we are called to be people who know that the living water offered defies all cultural assumptions of individualism and satiates our deep thirst for love and connection. It is a time to seek again where the life-giving spring may be found and rediscover its power.
We are in this together. If nothing else, the mere fact that a microscopic particle such as the Corona virus can disrupt the complex economic and social systems humans have created should remind us of the vulnerability of life. We should be acutely aware that we live in a global village where when one member suffers, we all are affected. Perhaps it might remind us that we all have a responsibility for one another, and that the ethic of “every man or woman for him or herself” alongside a model of unstoppable consumerism is doomed to destruction.
So in this time of crisis, may we gather together with Jesus around the well of life. May we who have drunk from this well that never runs dry be able to hold the spaces in our communities of love and courage as we honour our precious, entangled life on this planet. And may we promise our love to one another, in sickness and in health, so all may know that they are never alone in the beautiful fragility of this life we share.
1 John Shea, On Earth as it is in Heaven, (Liturgical Press, Minnesota, 2004) pp.295-296