St Michael’s 5th March 2017
Reading – Romans 3:21-31; John 4:1-26
I want you this morning to use your imagination. I want you to imagine for a moment it is not a dreary, wet March morning outside, but a bright, warm summer’s day. That would be nice, wouldn’t it? But imagine for a moment it’s not a pleasant and comfortable 20-25°C, but a hot and roasting 40-45°C. What would be the sort of challenges you would face? How would the heat affect your life?
So imagine in that sort of temperature your job was to go and fetch water from a well each day. When would you go and get the water? That’s right – early in the morning, or possibly late at night. The one time you would not go out would be in the middle of the day, which in Roman times was known as the sixth hour.
Yet here in our reading today is a woman doing precisely that, coming to the well when the day is hottest and the work is hardest. Why should she want to do that? Does anyone have any suggestions?
The only reason why someone would draw water in the middle of the day would be to avoid people. As we shall see later, the woman in our story had led what we would nowadays call a colourful life. Maybe she was the subject of village gossip. Maybe she was deeply ashamed of what she had done. Whatever the reason, she would rather brave the heat than face her neighbours.
Clearly this unnamed woman was a lady who had many deep-seated issues. So for her to find one day that there was strange man sitting in the shade of the well would have deeply uncomfortable. She certainly wouldn’t have been in the mood for conversation.
So how does Jesus begin break down the barriers between Himself and this woman? At this point it is important to note what He doesn’t do. He doesn’t start to preach at her, or explain to her the three steps to salvation. He doesn’t fish a leaflet out of a bag and thrust it awkwardly at her, demanding that she go away and read it.
No, he asks her a simple, straightforward question. Can anyone tell me what it was? Will you give me a drink? I think there is so much we can learn from Jesus’ opening words. So often when we go out, intent on sharing the good news, we can easily give the impression we have all the answers and we have life sorted. We have found Jesus and if only you believed as well, you too would discover all your problems will disappear.
Let’s be clear – that way of spreading the good news so often serves only to put people’s backs up and make them less likely to listen. Folk need to see real people with real needs who behave and talk as if they are real human beings. Jesus here needed water, and so He asked. In that way He gained the respect and the trust of the person He was trying to reach, and enabled the conversation to go further.
Mind you, we should not underestimate the huge barriers that existed between Him and this lady. Jesus was a Jew and she was a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans had for centuries violently disagreed with each other. Each had their own understanding of the Law of Moses, and thought the other was wrong. Furthermore, in both cultures, men saw themselves as superior to women. Every day a good Pharisee, for example, would wake up and thank God he was not born a Gentile, a dog or a woman. So for Jesus to ask for a drink was a revolutionary step and it was little wonder that the Samaritan woman was shocked. “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” And just in case we haven’t got the point, the gospel writer John adds: For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.
Yet here is Jesus a Jewish man deliberately crossing over all these barriers and reaching out to someone in need. No wonder the Samaritan woman is intrigued. And it is because Jesus has attracted her attention, that at this point He introduces something of the good news. If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.
Now many years ago, and I can’t confirm whether this story is true or not, I heard of a Christian hitchhiker. He used to get in people’s cars and ask the driver, “Where are you going?” A few miles further on he would ask, “Where are you really going?” and force the gospel into the conversation. If this person existed, I am not sure he ever got that far. Jesus’ words by contrast are a natural next step in the conversation. For us, once we have established a relationship with a friend or a neighbour, perhaps as we hear something of their story or the problems, the next step would be to mention how we pray in difficult situations or turn to the Bible for guidance. The point here is that Jesus is touching on an issue which is relevant and real to this woman.
This doesn’t mean that the woman immediately understands what Jesus is talking about. “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with (by the way, she is talking about buckets, not pencils) and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?” The woman, you see, is still thinking on a purely practical level. As far as she can see, this Jesus is just another Jewish religious teacher and she cannot see the difference He can make to her situation.
But then again, isn’t her reaction so similar to that of so many people today? They are confused about the good news simply because they have not yet understood who Jesus is. They wonder what difference a good man or a prophet who lived two thousand years ago can possibly make, and they may well wonder what on earth we are talking about.
It’s at this point I would love to tell you that there is a secret word or phrase you can use which will immediately convert everyone you meet and make them followers of Jesus. But of course there isn’t. Sometimes we can spend years pointing people to Jesus and for whatever reason they won’t get it. That doesn’t mean we have failed in our efforts, or there is something wrong in what we have said. The way God works in people’s lives is through grace alone. Our part is simply to trust and pray that one day the Lord will show mercy on that person and open their eyes to the wonder and beauty of Jesus.
And there is indeed something wonderful and beautiful in the words Jesus says next to this Samaritan woman. John 4:13-14: Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life. That’s quite some offer, isn’t it? Just imagine for a moment that you no longer had to spend your life searching for satisfaction, that you no longer had to worry whether there was a God who loved you and cared for you, that you could talk to Him as your loving Heavenly Father and know He heard your prayers. Jesus here is telling the woman she doesn’t have to imagine, she just have to believe. Because what He can offer her is the free gift of the Holy Spirit to meet her deepest desires. Through Him she can experience the presence and peace of God in a way that she never known before and receive the greatest gift of all, eternal life.
Now we don’t know how much this woman understood Jesus’ words or indeed whether she knew He was talking about the Holy Spirit, rather than literal water. But you can understand why she says: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” She is tired of her old way of life, of coming out in the middle day to draw water, of always having to stay out of the way of her neighbours in the village.
So how does Jesus respond to her request? At first glance what He says next seems rather odd. Go, call your husband and come back. And indeed the Samaritan woman is rather puzzled. I have no husband. But then comes the turning point in the whole conversation. Verses 17-18: “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
Why does Jesus bring up the Samaritan woman’s colourful lifestyle at this point? For the simple reason, as I said on Wednesday, that the gospel is not about us and our needs. Jesus could, I suppose, have simply given this lady the gift of the Holy Spirit and let her go on her way. But there would have no repentance and no change of heart. The woman might appear to have been converted, and she could have been included as another success story in His mission, but actually she was still a long way from salvation. Because at the end of the day the gospel is about coming face to face with the reality of God, of realising that you stand in the presence of the one who made you, knows all about you and has the right to judge you.
And unless you get to the point of understanding – as Paul puts it – that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God you will never understand why the gospel is such good news. You may say you follow Jesus, but if you do not know the reason why He had to die in your place for your sins on the cross you are still some way from the kingdom of God.
Now I sense that one reason why the church in this country so often seems so weak and ineffective is that we have shied away from the difficult subject of repentance. We want to be liked and accepted, and to some extent we tailor our message to what we think our hearers want to hear. There was certainly little in the way of repentance in the recent General Synod conversations on human sexuality, for instance. What we need to remember, however, is that Jesus’ demand to repent is not so that we end up feeling miserable, condemned sinners, but rather that we discover the wonderful and unsearchable riches of God’s love and mercy towards us. To quote Romans 3:23-24 in full: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. Or to put it another way, yes, there is bad news, but once you accept the bad news about yourself, then you are in position to discover the amazing good news of eternal life which Jesus offers to all who believe and trust in Him.
Of course accepting the bad news about ourselves, namely, that we have not loved God or our neighbour as we ought, is difficult. It is not surprising in our reading this morning this Samaritan woman feels challenged. So how does she try to deflect the conversation? Well, she does what an awful lot of people do, and starts talking about religion. Most of the questions we get asked, like which church we should go to, or the fate of people who have never heard the gospel, aren’t actually questions where folk are looking for answers. They are like deflector shields used to try and protect that person from the reality of Jesus.
So rather than wholeheartedly accepting Jesus, our lady raises the issue of the day, namely who is right – the Jews or Samaritans. Verses 19-20: “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” Now it seems unlikely that someone who had been married as many times as her really was interested in the question of where she should worship, but maybe she was hoping she could have a big, long discussion, at least long enough for this man who was making her feel so uncomfortable to go away.
Now Jesus does answer her question. He wants to show that He is taking her seriously and that there is a reason why God chose the Jewish people. But He also wants her to realise, and this is something we often ourselves need to remember that worship is not primarily about buildings or forms of service. It is about meeting God in the power of the Holy Spirit, as He speaks to us through His word. That is why Jesus goes on to say in verses 23-24: “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth.”
And what follows is the most wonderful and most unexpected confession of faith. Verse 25: The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Now think for a moment about all we have learnt about her so far. She seems the most unlikely kind of person to express any kind of faith in Jesus. Yet that is exactly the point. We can so often – perhaps without even realising it – judge in advance who is most likely to receive the good news, and when we do that, we show we have not really understood the grace of God. I am struck when I read the gospels how again and again it is not the rich or the respectable people who accept Jesus. It is the outsiders, the tax collectors, the lepers, the prostitutes, those who are most aware that their lives need sorting.
So in answer to this confession of faith Jesus finally reveals His identity. Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you am he.” Now our English translations let us down at this point. In the Old Testament God reveals Himself to His people as I am. That is what the name Yahweh, or the Lord means. When Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman what He is saying is I am, Yahweh Himself, is the one speaking to you. She can have no doubt she is standing in the presence of Her Lord and Saviour, and that the salvation He offers her is real and is true.
There is no doubt that the story of the Samaritan woman is a remarkable and wonderful story of someone who apparently had no interest in Jesus coming to a living faith. But of course before we finish looking at it, we need to ask how it applies to us.
My answer would be, it depends where you place yourself in the story.
Maybe you are someone who is carrying around some secret sorrow or shame. Perhaps like the Samaritan woman you have a history of broken relationships and you are worried what other people think of you. Well, whatever your past, whatever you may have done, Jesus is interested in you. This good news I have been talking about is not for other people, it’s for you. He longs to give you the living water to cleanse and renew you, and restore you to a new relationship with Him.
Maybe you are at the stage where you have heard something of the good news of Jesus and quite frankly you are confused. You can’t quite work out how the message you have heard applies to you or how it makes a difference to your everyday life. If that’s the case for you, then talk to me later about our small groups and courses. We would love to hear your questions and give you the time and space to think through the issues you are facing.
Maybe you have heard the good news but deep down you are resisting Jesus’ call to repentance and faith. If that’s the case for you, then my word to you is simple – stop resisting. Jesus already knows everything there is to know about you. Yes, you may not want to accept the bad news about yourself, but admitting that bad news is actually the first and most important step to receiving the wonderful good news of Jesus, who died in your place for your sins on the cross.
Or maybe you have heard the good news and already know about Jesus. If that’s the case, then take some time to go through the passage again and look at how Jesus shared the good news with others. Who is God calling you to reach? And how can you most effectively share the good news with them?
But wherever you stand, don’t leave this morning without considering the step you need to take. Jesus said: Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.
So how, then, will you respond to His offer?