I bet most of you didn’t know that Wednesday 22nd March is world water day. It is a day each year that is sponsored by the United Nations and that focuses attention both on the importance of fresh water and advocates for the sustainable management of fresh water resources. Water is a matter of life and death – no fresh, clean drinking water leads to the death of many on the planet, especially in developing countries. Access to fresh and clean water is something that we take for granted, while for others it is a daily toil to find it
Water appears in the readings today. The people of Israel wandering in the desert, in search for the promised land, are thirsty. Not thirsty in the sense of being parched and dry, but really thirsty, it is a life and death kind of thirst, if they don’t get water soon, it will be curtains for them. Moses turns into a water diviner and with his staff strikes a rock and water gushes out. Would that finding water was so easy for many in the world, it is a daily journey to find it and carry it back, a daily worry that the well might run dry..
The well, that place which even today is the place where many in developing countries find water, is the place that Jesus finds himself with the Samaritain woman in the Gospel. She like many women in our own day and through the ages travels to the well with her jug. An onerous and yet important task. Jesus like many others sits at the well, tired and thirsty, he symbolises here the link between many human beings who have to find that water to survive.
I think most of us might realise that although the readings speak of water and thirst they are in actual fact speaking of water in a different sense and thirst in a different sense. The deeper thirst in human beings for God and the need to find that living water whereby we might not be thirsty.
There might be a few things that strike you about the reading of the Gospel. The woman whom Jesus meets for instance. She appears to be alone when she comes to the well. She is involved in a task which is onerous and time consuming. She will have to come to this well several times in the day, it is a task she is doing alone no man is helping her. She lives in a village that has maybe grown up around the well, it is the life-line of their survival. She comes from a tribe in which she has maybe had to marry a number of times, because of the death of other husbands, to survive in this patriarchal society, maybe she is a pawn in the family married off in a kind of servitude to help the others to survive. She is on her 6th man and she hasn’t even got round to marrying him. She deserves our sympathy, much of the daily grind of life falls on her, water, preparation of food, raising of children and marriages that are not her choice. This woman comes to the well, maybe broken by the daily drudgery and servitude of her life. In many ways she might symbolise many woman who are also put upon, who shoulder many of the back-breaking tasks of life and in many ways are the slaves of male dominance, male configurations in society, male concepts in religion.
She meets at the well someone who breaks every custom. This man speaks to the woman, not unusual in our own culture, but breaking a number of taboos that would have made it forbidden in Jesus time, especially for a teacher and prophet. They are from different parts of Judaism that normally never speak and certainly would never even ask a cup of water from their adversary. There is also a wall between him as the conventional rabbi and the woman of many marriages. Yet he strikes up a conversation with her and even asks her for water. Two strangers who shouldn’t talk begin to speak. A conversation which may have been about banalities of life quickly turns to important things.
Instead of walls between these people there are bridges. Instead of customs that ties them up knots, these are untied and unravelled. A woman speaks to a man, foreigners overcome differences, a conventionally holy person speaks to an unconventional woman - strangers break down barriers.
Is there not plenty to take on board here. The message that we bear in the Gospel is not common place, mundane or unimportant. It is life changing, society changing, world changing.
In this deeply conservative religious society, if the Apostles were seeking to convince people about the Christian message, and to sign them up for their cause, this story would not have been one to tell. About a woman, a foreigner, a person who had 5 husbands and now has someone else. A prophet who should have known better not to speak to a foreigner, a woman, a person whose life wasn’t right. It would have been better for them to choose something more respectable, something that would have been less challenging and easier to swallow.
Unashamedly John tells the story of Jesus who meets alone a woman at the well and strikes up a conversation with her about water but which turns out to be about much more.
We have made often our Christian faith easy, unchallenging, bland and weak. But looking at this passage it knocks down walls, builds bridges and asks questions.
We began Lent by listening to Jesus’ 40 days and nights in the desert - hungry and thirsty, and like many, he would have been driven mad by that thirst. The only thing that would have been in his mind would have been to get the water, just like the Israelites in the first reading. Again we see the same Jesus in the Gospel today, tired and thirsty. He knows what it is to be thirsty; but he also knows also a deeper thirst that sees round about him. This thirst in the Samaritain woman and the people he meets. The thirst of those with incurable diseases, those with sick children, those who are cast out to the margins like the lepers, those who are driven made by grief, those tortured by mental illness, those who have stepped onto a road of shame and can’t find their way back. He knows that thirst and identifies it as the deepest thirst and longing for God.
He knows that he is the only one that can quench this thirst, that can satisfy this yearning in the hearts of the people he meets.