MANY HAVE never tasted water. Someone who did was Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French pioneer aviator. He once had to bring his plane down in the Sahara desert. Days passed, and he was close to dying of thirst. At last, out of the sands, came a solitary Bedouin. From the skin he carried, the nomad - Saint-Exupéry never learned his name - gave him water. He spoke of the water he drank as the water that is "not necessary to life, but rather life itself".
Later, Saint-Exupéry wrote of another lonely pilot who had to crash-land his plane in the desert. There he met the Little Prince, who had made his way to earth from a distant star. The Little Prince told the pilot about the strange people he had met on his travels. He told him about the merchant who had invented a tablet to quench thirst.
"Take this tablet," the merchant had said to him, "and you will feel no need of anything to drink. That way, you will save 53 minutes a week."
"As for me," the Little Prince had said to himself, "if I had 53 minutes to spend as I liked, I should walk at my leisure to a spring of fresh water."
Many matters of great moment are raised by the story of Jesus's midday meeting with the woman at the well: the promise of eternal life, the status of the Samaritans, the fulfilment of what we misleadingly call "the Old Testament", the relationship of Christianity and Judaism, the role of high and holy places, the nature of worship, the Last Things, the priorities of Jesus's mission.
So we could go on and on. And so we do go on and on, forgetting that John was writing to those who knew what it was to be thirsty, and who knew the grace of water.
Our Gospel is about the gift of living water. Behind the phrase is the Hebrew expression "mayim chayim", meaning fresh water, running water, water that has not been left standing in dirty jars, and is not stale and brackish. Of course, in our text, the term is being used metaphorically. It stands for something else. Later, John will tell us that when Jesus offers living water, he is promising the gift of his Holy Spirit (John 7.37).
The Samaritan woman fails at first to see that there is a "spiritual" meaning to the "living water" being offered her. But that is not because she is being obtuse. It is because, unlike us, she values water - ordinary wet water. So much so that she cannot imagine anything more wonderful than an unfailing supply of it.
We are not to patronise the woman at the well, congratulating ourselves that we are quicker than she was to take the point Jesus makes. This woman knew how precious water is, and, in the end, she will have understood far better than we do how great a gift was being offered her.
We stay with the sign so that we can value what is signified. If water gives life, the lack of it - or the pollution of it - spells death. Each year, bacterial diarrhoea causes the death of nearly two million children under the age of five in the developing world. This illness is preventable through the provision of clean water.
The living water, of which Jesus spoke, may mean more than water that does not kill little children. But, were the lady from Sychar still with us, she might suggest that his words at least mean that. In Lent, we take to heart the truth that we do not live by water alone, but we remember, too, that we die without it.
"Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple - truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward" (Matthew 10.42). ("In the name of a disciple" - perhaps in the name, though we do not know it, of a certain Samaritan woman?)
Jacob's well is still there - or it was 40 years ago, when I was last drank from it. I arrived there, exhausted, at midday. The Orthodox monk, custodian of what had become a shrine, drew water from the well for me. That water was, as we say, life-saving - so much so that it betokened something more. The sign partook of the signified. It is not only in baptism that water is sacramental.
The well is still there. The temple on Mount Gerizim, overlooking Sychar and holy to the Samaritans, is gone. So, too, is the temple in Jerusalem, 30 miles to the south. Jesus said that the hour was near when "neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem" would they worship. Today, the two temples are no more. To that extent, our Lord's word has been fulfilled. To the extent that we have built 10,000 times 10,000 others, it has not.
Text of Readings
1From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?’ 3But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’ 4So Moses cried out to the LORD, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’ 5The LORD said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.’ Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the LORD, saying, ‘Is the LORD among us or not?’
1Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
6For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. 9Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. 11But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
5Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink.’ 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The 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.) 10Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ 11The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ 13Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ 15The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’
16Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ 17The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ 19The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ 21Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ 25The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ 26Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’
27Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ 28Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ 30They left the city and were on their way to him.
31Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ 32But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ 33So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ 34Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’
39Many Samaritans from that city believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’