Third Sunday of Lent

19 mar 2017

9am and Choral Eucharist

Preacher: Canon Gilly Myers, Precentor

Readings: Exodus 17.1-7; Romans 5.1-11; John 4.5-42 


If you have been following the Lent groups that having been meeting on Sunday mornings over the past two or three weeks, then you will know that today’s gospel passage is the basis of the Lent course, in which we are invited to read the Bible through the ‘Eyes of Another’.

And whether or not you have been thinking about this passage for a few weeks, you may well know that it is immensely rich in meaning and depth, and that we, between us all, could preach all day – or longer - on a variety of points drawn from it and from numerous perspectives. This is simply my own short contribution to the conversation. 

It is some time since I have been to Africa; I last went with a group from the Durham Diocese to our link diocese of Lesotho, and the best way for us to get there was to fly to Johannesburg in South Africa and travel by road from there.

As we were cruising high above the African continent, I have a memory of looking down over hundreds of square miles of desert, which lay far beneath us for seemingly hours of our journey. Vast swathes of dry earth, and the distinctive gullies of empty river beds. Occasionally there would be an outcrop of greenery by these parched trenches, suggesting that a rare spring or store of water might lie beneath the ground – but the general impression was that water was a rare and precious commodity. This is something that peoples who live in drier climates have to bear in mind constantly.

And when the water is under the ground, then they have to dig for it.
We don’t need to live in a desert, of course, to know that a well can be a significant feature in a local community, and that even in our well-watered land, wells have been important and natural meeting places – a coming together as people draw water for their essential needs.

So it has been also in the Middle East, and it is probably no surprise that a well might sometimes be the ideal location for wooing, too. In this narrative we find echoes of wells from the Old Testament stories:

Jacob, himself – whose name is given to this well - met his future wife, Rachel, at a well.(i)
Jacob’s mother, Rebecca was also at a well when she met the servant searching for a wife for his father, Isaac.(ii)
Moses met Jethro’s daughters at a well.(iii)

Earlier in John’s Gospel we read of a wedding feast in Cana(iv) after which Jesus is likened to a bridegroom(v) - so we might well expect this to be a wooing narrative of the Old Testament type. It certainly presents as a wooing narrative, but it has a twist and an unexpected ending.

Until recent decades, we have inherited a particular reading of this passage as a conversation between Jesus and a sinful woman. A woman who is clearly sinful because she has no business being out in the heat of the day to draw water, unless she is trying to avoid other people and who, it might be concluded, is promiscuous because she had not only made her way through five husbands, but is now apparently living in an immoral relationship with yet another man.

In actual fact, the text does not say any of this about the woman’s morality. We do not know why the woman has had five husbands. Has she been widowed five times, perhaps? Or divorced and abandoned by these men? Is the man with whom she is living the kin of her deceased husband, who has taken her into his own household because she is a widow? We are not told the answers to these questions.  At the very least she must have faced a great deal of emotional trauma in her life – but we cannot automatically assume that she is the sinful woman that some would make her out to be.

So, as the Lent course is encouraging us to consider, we find that there may be many alternative readings of this passage: and one of these is to read it as a contrast to Jesus’ conversation, only one chapter earlier in John’s Gospel, with Nicodemus. This is an approach that I would like to consider with you, now.

In this interpretation, we might suggest that the Gospel writer has the woman collecting her water in the middle of the day not out of shame, but in contrast to Nicodemus who came to visit Jesus by night. The Gospel writer is using the contrast between the day and the night as a conscious device.

In further contrast, we know that the woman met Jesus in a very public and open place; Nicodemus came to Jesus, however, apparently in secret. He was, after all a Pharisee and a teacher, and we know that the Pharisees in general opposed Jesus and his teaching. Nicodemus was swimming against the tide in wanting to find out more about Jesus from the man himself, and probably wouldn’t have wanted to risk his reputation at that stage.

So Nicodemus was a Jewish man with status; he is also given a name - the woman, on the other hand (like the woman caught in adultery, about whom I was preaching just a couple of weeks ago) is not given a name. She has neither identity nor status and, even worse, she is a Samaritan. A race looked down upon by Jews ever since the division of the kingdom after Solomon’s reign.

There is some similarity between the narratives – both have a conversation with Jesus at cross purposes which seems to be a common feature in John’s Gospel.  But whereas Nicodemus misunderstands what Jesus is saying and then apparently goes away quietly, the woman keeps pressing on with more questions.

She gets the wrong end of the stick at first, but stumbles upon a profound truth when she mentions the long-promised Messiah, the anointed one, to whom, she then discovers, she is actually talking!

And rather than avoiding other people in the city (as we might have supposed) she goes directly back there to spread the news about Jesus to everyone – she is the model of a missionary, an evangelist; bringing people to Jesus; encouraging them to come and meet him for themselves.

And all of this while the disciples, in the mean time, are off buying some lunch!

This is really quite ground-breaking – it is the woman without status, without a respectable religious background, without the conventional Jewish family line, and without even a name…  it is the woman who is wooed into this unexpected relationship with Jesus at the well, who becomes the evangelist to her city.

It is at this point that we hear echoes of Mary’s song in the Gospel of Luke – The Magnificat – the humble and meek will be lifted up, and the mighty will be cast down from their thrones.

For in God’s kingdom, the values of the passing world are turned topsy-turvy; on their head.

And in this surprising turn of events, we discover once again that Jesus  meets with people of all backgrounds and experience; he invites us all to share in the eternal, abundant and Spirit-filled life that he has to offer;  and fills us with such joy that we cannot help but want to share it with others.

The good news of Jesus’ message and his calling into discipleship and ministry is for all people; whoever we are.

As I said a few moments ago, this is my own short contribution to a much broader conversation about this passage and our reading of Scripture in general that we are having this Lent. There is so very much more that can be gleaned from its riches.  So, if you would like to enter or continue that conversation – do consider joining one of the Lent groups after the service today.