The Middle East, like South Australia, is a dry land with a few good rivers whose ﬂood plains are relatively fertile but with large areas of land where it is difﬁcult to ﬁnd water.
The area between Egypt and Sinai which is the setting for this morning’s Old Testament reading is typical of the parched countryside and there would have been very few sources of water along the way that the Israelites were travelling.
As the people become thirsty they compare their present condition with the situation in Egypt where the Nile provided a plentiful supply of water and even express regrets about following Moses.
However, led by God, and perhaps using his knowledge of the local geology, he breaks through the outer crust of a porous rock which is ﬁlled with water and thus provides drink for the people.
As we read the stories of the patriarchs who had preceded Moses we also ﬁnd that obtaining water and the digging and preservation of wells is an important part of their daily life. In Genesis 21 we can read of a dispute between Abraham and Abimelech about ownership of a well and in Genesis 26 his son Isaac gets into quarrels with local herdsmen over wells which his servants have dug.
Because of its scarcity water with its life-giving quality was highly valued, especially if it was ﬂowing from a spring or in a stream. This was known as living water, by contrast with water from a tank or cistern, and could be used as a symbol of the life-giving grace of God as well as being an important feature of the prophetic depictions of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Turning to the Gospel for today we have the story of Jesus’ meeting with a Samaritan woman beside Jacob’s Well which compares the gift of life-giving water which is so necessary for our physical survival to the life-giving properties of God's Grace which is essential to our Spiritual survival.
The story is set beside the Well of Jacob which historically had been an important source of water in the district since the time of the patriarchs and in fact still exists in the Palestinian West Bank but as was the case with many wells going back to the time of Abraham is now the centre of tension and conflict, being claimed by Israeli settlers.
There were tensions in the area in the time of Jesus too as Sychar was part of Samaria which was situated between Judah and Jerusalem to the south and Galilee to the north. The result was that most Jewish travellers going from Galilee to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple would travel around Samaria in order to not risk becoming ceremonially unclean by coming into contact with any Samaritans.
The woman is, of course, surprised that a Jewish man like Jesus should have spoken to a Samaritan woman and asked her for a drink. However, Jesus looks beyond the differences which existed between the two peoples and speaks to her about the water of eternal life.
Then, when she realizes that he is a religious person she introduces a topic close to the heart of the Samaritans — the rightful location for the worship of God — he proclaims that the time is coming when the present mode of worship, both of the Jews and the Samaritans will be superseded and the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.
Just as Jacob’s well was known for its sweet water which far surpassed that which could be found in the local springs, so the worship of God in the coming Kingdom would be on a higher plane than anything experienced in the past.
No longer will it be necessary to participate in a system of sacriﬁces and other rituals which have to be performed according to precise rules and which are in the main part directed from man towards God. Instead, as a result of our life in Christ which is the gift of God's grace offered to us, we can have direct communion with God in spirit and truth.
God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (NRSV Jn 4:24)
Jesus then reveals to the woman that he is the Messiah and she immediately goes back to the city and tells everyone, bringing them to see Jesus, with the result that many of them believed in him.
There are two sets of questions you might ask about this story. (1) What happened to the woman's water jar? Why did she leave it behind? (2) Did Jesus get a drink? Did he need a drink or was it a ploy to engage the woman in conversation?
I have been referring to “the woman” in this story because she is not named in the Gospel story but in the Eastern Orthodox Church she has been given a name, Photini, which means “the enlightened one” and is celebrated as an apostle and martyr of the early church. There is even a story about her travelling to Carthage in North Africa with her five sisters and two sons to preach the Gospel and then going on to Rome where she tried to convert the Emperor Nero to Christianity.
I suspect that this is creative writing rather than an historical account, but it does spring from the fact that in the original story her first impulse after meeting Jesus was to share the Good News with others and that example is one which we could do well to emulate. We could also take note of the strategy which Jesus employed to engage with the woman in the first place.
What is the contemporary equivalent of the water hole where you might expect to engage with other folk and share your story? Is it the local pub or the shopping centre? I recently heard that hundreds of English pubs are closing down because people are now being someone's “friend” on facebook or some other form of social media and have no time to share a pint with a person at the pub.
And how are we going to share that living water which springs up in us to eternal life? This is a key question because Jesus rejected the idea that the answer was to be found in arguing about where and how you should worship but that “God is spirit, and the people that worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
I haven't got any good answers but Lent is a good time to ask the questions, however there is some action which we can take to help those folk in South Sudan and Kenya who at present have no water hole around which they can gather.
Through ABM we are asked to help the local churches in East Africa to respond to the situation where it is estimated that 4.9 million people are food insecure and 100,000 of those are facing famine conditions. There will be a retiring collection this morning. Please help if you can.