Today in this series of homilies which are looking at the Person of Christ with the help of the readings through Lent and the Church of England’s Lent Course, Dust and Glory, we think about Christ as the Living Water.
Now matters of thirst and water come into the first reading from the book Exodus. The people of Israel under the leadership of Moses have arrived at a place which we cannot identify named Rephidim, which probably is a word from the Hebrew rpd meaning support, or help, or carry. And once again the people start moaning about their leader. This time because they have no water – and of course that is a very serious matter. They have been in the desert heat and the danger of dehydration is all too real – and with it the possibility of hallucinations and dangerous behaviour, not to mention death.
And in addition to this lies a deeper existential question that lies behind the moaning. How can we know if God is really in our midst? What signs are there of God’s presence and providence when we are here dying of thirst? Whether or not this part of the Exodus story is about an actual lack of water or whether it is a story about the people’s suffering during their 40 year journey to the land of promise, what is clear is that Moses gives them an answer. It is not impossible to think that his staff was like a divining rod, and that he found a hidden spring of water. Equally it is not impossible to think that this story has a deeper meaning, and one that resonates more with us. The way to find refreshment in the face of suffering is not by moaning. Rather it is to strike the hard rock of suffering face on with confidence that God will see us through it, will support, help and carry us in ways that are not immediately apparent. But more of that later.
Thirst and water also come into the long Gospel reading which we have just heard. From very ancient times, almost from as soon as John’s Gospel came into being, this reading and the two that we shall have next Sunday and on the Sunday after that, were always used during Lent to help candidates for baptism and confirmation at Easter to prepare. Today’s story of the woman of Samaria at the well follows on almost immediately from last Sunday’s Gospel about Nicodemus who came by night. There is, however, a significant short episode in between these two where Jesus is baptising and John the Baptist’s disciples, a bit miffed by this, are reprimanded by John the Baptist. The Bridegroom’s friend, he says, has to make way for the Bridegroom himself.
This short episode may well provide a kind of opening resonance with the sacrament of Baptism which is in the background of the encounter with the woman of Samaria.
As always in John’s Gospel, there are many layers to this story. But again, as in the Nicodemus episode, first of all there is misunderstanding. And at several levels. First, that Jesus should speak alone to a woman. Let alone a woman of Samaria. Let alone this woman whose reputation goes ahead of her. Let alone ask her for a drink. Not least when faithful Jews would never even share the same cup as a hated Samaritan. So first of all, she is understandably rather surprised! And answers Jesus’ request for a drink with a quip.
But the banter between them is not over, and Jesus responds If you had the gift of God. That phrase has a variety of meanings, too. In Rabbinic Judaism, the gift of God meant the Torah – the Jewish Law. In early Christian thought however, the gift of God meant the Holy Spirit, a mark of the messianic days. Then come the words about the promise of Living Water which will quench all thirst for ever..
Understandably the woman is now well and truly confused. First of all she points out that he has no bucket. She is still thinking of the kind of water which is a material resource necessary for sustaining biological life. But Jesus has a different kind of life in mind – that quality of life which is translated as eternal life. Like the life of God. Something in the Greek that appears as zoh (Zoe) rather than bioV (bios).
Now the woman begins to think that there must be something rather special about this person, even though she is still confused and is still thinking about physical water. Then comes the moment of truth. Go and fetch your husband.
The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was to be martyred in 1944 by the Nazis for his opposition to Hitler, was an outstanding young academic and in 1933 gave a series of lectures at the University of Berlin on Christology – our understanding of the person of Christ. It was to be a pivotal moment in his life and work, but alas, thanks to the circumstances at the time, his own lecture notes have not survived and have had to be pieced together from a collection of students’ notes that remain. At the beginning, though, Bonhoeffer expressed something of his frustration with those who sought to speak of how Christ could be God and man. Rather, he said, the question is who is Christ? Who is the Christ who confronts us? And even more provocatively he says ‘When a human being confronts Jesus[,] the human being must either die or kill Jesus.’
This does not sound like the Jesus who offers the woman at the well Living water! Yet there is profound truth here – as the woman will discover shortly. Elsewhere Bonhoeffer says We have always already been met and judged and called to account where Jesus is present. And that is certainly the case for the woman of Samaria as she faces the Lord’s command to go and fetch her husband.
She now is faced with Bonhoeffer’s alternative – die or kill Jesus. No, of course not literally. But her ego must die in the presence of Jesus, or else she will ultimately side with those who clamour for Jesus’ death. For her now, the penny begins to drop. Light has entered her dark world – unlike, for the moment at least, that of Nicodemus who arrives and departs in the dark. She leaves her bucket and goes off to find others – ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ Though not before there is another intriguing discussion in which first she recognises Jesus as a prophet. The Samaritans’ expectation of a messiah was not the same as the Jewish expectation of one from David’s line of descent. The Samaritans expected the Taheb – the one who returns or a Prophet-like-Moses. (The fifth article in the Samaritans’ Creed.)
Jesus doesn’t stop there, however, and speaks of the time when worship will be in Spirit and in Truth, no longer focussed on the Temple in Jerusalem (for Jews and already in John’s Gospel Jesus has been seen as the new Temple in himself – the meeting place of God and humanity) nor on Mount Gerizim – the Samaritan holy place. This passage – frequently misinterpreted – does not advocate some kind of internal worship in the recesses of one’s own psyche – this would be totally out of character with the rest of John’s Gospel and the life of the early Church communities for whom he wrote. It is not the ‘spirit of man’ but the (Holy) Spirit of God that is meant here – the Holy Spirit who animates our worship by bringing us into the presence of Christ, the New Temple of meeting with the Father, as adopted daughters and sons of God in Christ.
So back to the woman at the well. Her meeting with this Jewish stranger has taken a very strange turn. And yes, it has meant for her a death of sorts. Death of the pretence under which she was living, yes. But another death too. Jesus offers her life – and death to her inner turmoil and guilt and isolation. Jesus shows her a kind of love and respect to which she was seriously un-used in her community. He offers her Living Water.
What is this Living Water? Of course we know that water is essential to life. But in the Old Testament, and in the writings between the Testaments, some of which we find in the Qumran scrolls, there are particular references to the symbolism of Living Water. This is the symbolism of revelation and of the Holy Spirit and grace.
So, in the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus we find Wisdom compared to a bubbling brook (Proverbs 184) and in Ecclesiasticus (Sirach 2421) he who drinks of [wisdom] will thirst for more. Later in his Gospel, John has Jesus echoing these words He who drinks the water that I shall give him shall never be thirsty. The Qumran texts evidence Living Water describing the Jewish Law, the Torah, and as we have already seen this is described as the gift of God. Jesus as the Living Water is Divine Wisdom made flesh and replacing the Law.
Secondly the OT has a connection between water and the Spirit – particularly in the prophetic books, where God’s spirit is seen to be poured out or sprinkled on God’s people. The Qumran Manual of Discipline has Like purifying waters, He will sprinkle upon him the Spirit of truth. Later in John’s Gospel (John 737-39) we hear Jesus at the festival speaking of giving out of (his) heart rivers of living water and S. John explains that this he said about the (Holy) Spirit…for as yet the Spirit had not been given because Jesus was not yet glorified. This is a very strong echo of the words to the Samaritan woman (John 414) The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. The gift of the Spirit is a mark of the coming of the Messiah.
Alongside this interpretation of the Living Water is that which came from the early part of the second century, which saw this pointing to the gift of grace. This would certainly resonate with the background suggestion of the sacrament of Baptism which we thought about before. And in fact, one of the earliest known Christian paintings in the catacombs of Rome is of the woman of Samaria as a symbol for Baptism.
All of this finds its place in today’s second reading, from S. Paul’s letter to the Church at Rome, where he speaks of what was much later in Christian history to become a most controversial issue – Justification by faith. The Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth put the matter very succinctly. By Justification, he wrote, we are what we are not. That’s to say it is all about relationship. We cannot make ourselves ‘right with God’ This comes as God’s free gift of grace. Grace – the Living Water that flows from the heart of Jesus – not works brings us true life as sons and daughters of God. And as Paul puts it in this reading, peace and joy and hope come through the faith that God loves us.
Just as – we believe – that peace and joy and hope came to the woman of Samaria despite all her failures and sins. We find ourselves, often enough, alongside her – confused sometimes, weighed down by the knowledge of our failures and of our sins. But here in our midst comes the Risen Christ with his gift of Living Water – his revelation, his grace, his Holy Spirit, all making real his Presence here in the Eucharist. A gift of new life, though one achieved only through Christ, like Moses, smiting the hard rock of suffering with the staff of his Cross.