From time to time I find myself in what I call conversational monologues. They usually happen when one of the people in a conversation unconsciously miss the point of the other completely. It is not that you are aware that you don’t understand, you think that you do, but it is simply that you are on a different level of understanding. People use words and language differently sometimes and it takes often takes a while before the light dawns; that “Oh that’s what you mean” moment.
For a long time in Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, that was what was going on. The woman could not see beyond what she could touch, see or hear, whilst everything that Jesus said was from a deeper spiritual sense.
It is surprising that Jesus was talking to the woman at all, firstly she was a Samaritan and there was a deep historical bitterness between Jews and Samaritans. Furthermore, the barriers of race and creed were complicated by gender divisions in Jesus’ time. The rabbis taught that a man should not talk to a woman in the street. Some even refused to acknowledge their wives in public. What is more, this woman has come to the well in the hottest part of the day, which can only be to avoid others, implying that she is immoral as well.
Yet despite all the issues of race, creed, class, sex, profession and status that divided people, (and still do,) Jesus asked the woman for a drink. Her sharp response showed her astonishment, she emphasises the gulf between them – “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Jesus reached across the gulf between God and the world, but also the human barriers that we create.
At this stage, the woman thinks that Jesus is simply a Jewish man who ought to know better than to talk to her, or can only be doing so for some ulterior motive. Jesus’ response that if she knew who she was speaking with, he would have given her “living water”. Unsurprisingly this went straight over her head, but clearly she was intrigued by this strange man and gave him some respect in calling him “Sir”. However, surely he cannot be greater than Jacob, who does he think he is! How does he think that he is going to get to the source of this living water?
The theme of water in this story reflects the critical importance of water, going back to the Old Testament scriptures as in Psalm 42 where the psalmist’s soul is as thirsty for God as a deer for flowing streams. It also projects forward to Jesus’ promise of never thirsting in verse 14. Jesus turns water into abundant wine at the wedding at Cana. If people drink the water that he is offering, they will never be thirsty again; the still water of the well will be replaced by a “spring of water gushing up to eternal life”. The woman is still going along with Jesus, intrigued but still thinking in the literal sense.
I don’t find that in the least bit surprising. Although Jesus was teasing her with clues as to his identity, he didn’t even come close to what her idea of a Messiah must have been. This stranger didn’t seem to pose her a threat, he was certainly a bit odd but harmless enough to play along with this strange game of question and answer. How would we react if somebody that we had never seen or heard of started making claims about this dubious stuff “living water” down at the mill pond? You might think that he was a poet from his lyrical description of water, or you might wonder how safe you were; but you don’t expect the Messiah to turn up on his own with no army and simply ask for a drink. Moreover, if you don’t expect something to happen then you don’t see it when it does.
When Jesus suggested that the woman brought her husband to the well, she admitted that she did not have one. Jesus then surprised and shocked her by revealing that he knows about her dubious marital background. Jews were only permitted three marriages at the most but she had had five husbands in the past and was living with another man. Little wonder that she has been slinking about the well at the quietest, but hottest, time of the day.
At this point, the woman began to understand that this man was different, and addressed him in the words “Sir, I see that you are a prophet”. Jesus then talked more directly to her, explaining that the time was coming soon when God’s heavenly future was going to break into the earthly world. The woman apparently knew that the Messiah was coming, and said so to Jesus, at which point he revealed who he was in the words “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” I can only imagine the stunning impact of this to the woman.
The disciples returned from their shopping expedition, only to be amazed and shocked to find Jesus, on his own, talking with a Samarian woman, and a sinner to boot! Confronted by the confounded disciples and astonished by Jesus’ words to her, the woman went back to the city to tell other people about this man, daring to believe, but doubting all the same, that Jesus was actually the Messiah.
Once the disciples recovered their wits they urged Jesus to eat, but when Jesus said to them that “I have food to eat that you do not know about”, they simply responded to his words in a literal way. They understood no more than the woman at had done, indeed it could well be said that she actually had a better grasp of things than the disciples at that precise moment. What was more she had gone into the city to talk about Jesus with other people, and when they returned with her they asked Jesus to stay with them for two days.
As a result of his stay, many more people came to believe, not because they had been told by the woman, but because they heard for themselves.
The earthly barriers of sex, class, status, profession and creed were smashed aside when the people of the city listened to the woman, and then followed her.
Our faith is not a corporate faith that is imposed on us by a regime or other people. We have freedom to accept the gracious invitation from God, or not. We are not driven into faith. Our faith is a personal faith; we each find our own way, in our own time, with our own understanding; just as the woman at the well found her way. We choose to follow when and how it is right for us.
When we come to believe, like the woman, we reach out to others in joy, happiness and love, bridging the barriers that still exist in our society.
We are human, and perhaps it is in our nature to think literally, to trust only what we can touch, or see in our material world. Let us find the courage to set aside the literal sometimes, if not all the time, and open our hearts and minds to the infinite possibilities offered to us when we accept God’s invitation.