Ten years ago, in this church, we raised the money to drill three deep water wells for villages in West Africa. In late September of that year Willard Metzger from World Vision visited us and explained to us the significance of those wells. In villages with no wells of their own, the women sometimes spend most of their day walking back and forth between their homes and the nearest supply of fresh water, sometimes a distance of several miles. It isn’t possible in one trip to carry enough water to cook the evening meal; two or three trips might be necessary, just for that one job.
Obviously in a community with no well of its own, all the fresh water for drinking, cooking and washing has to be carried from somewhere else. The scarcity of water has a direct negative impact on health in the community. But what a difference when a local deep water well is drilled! The plentiful supply of fresh water has an immediate positive effect on the physical health of the community, and also on the quality of family life; when people don’t have to spend so much time walking to get water, there’s time for so many other family activities not even imagined before.
Water is essential for life. For people who live in places where it’s scarce, their entire lives become consumed with searching for it and transporting it. Behind every waking moment there’s this nagging worry: “Will we be able to find water?” Not surprisingly, in the lands of the Bible, where water is often scarce, it became a powerful symbol for true spirituality, for the reality of a living relationship with God.
Today’s Gospel reading is the story of the woman at the well. Jesus met her in Sychar in Samaria. Samaria was in central Palestine, between Judea in the south and Galilee in the north. Historically this was the heart of the old kingdom of Israel. When that kingdom was destroyed in the eighth century B.C., the King of Assyria deported many of the local inhabitants and brought in foreigners to take their place. These foreigners married into the local population, and the result was the Samaritans. Their religion was a blend of Old Testament Judaism with pagan beliefs and practices. The Jews of Jerusalem looked down on them as half-breeds who didn’t follow the pure religion of Moses, and there was a lot of bad blood between them.
It seems such a simple thing, for Jesus to sit down and have a conversation with this Samaritan woman, but in fact he had to cross at least three barriers in order for it to happen. The first was the one we’ve already mentioned, between Jews and Samaritans. The second was a male/female barrier: in those days a man and a woman who were not married to each other just didn’t speak to each other in public; it was very questionable behaviour. But as Jesus is sitting down by the well in the heat of the day, a woman comes up with a water jar on her head, and Jesus starts a conversation with her.
The audience who first heard this story would have been suspicious about that woman right away. Why was she coming for water at noon? Respectable people were all off having their siestas at that time of day! Water jars were filled in the morning and evening; why wasn’t she coming at the usual time? Was she being ostracized or something? The original audience wouldn’t have been surprised at all to find out that the woman’s sexual life was in disarray – married five times, and now living common-law with someone. So this is a third barrier Jesus is crossing: he, a respectable rabbi, a ‘holy man’ if you like, is chatting with someone who was looked down on as a sinner.
But despite all these barriers, Jesus initiates a conversation with the woman about what he calls ‘living’ water. That was a figure of speech; it meant water bubbling up from a spring, in contrast to stagnant water of the sort you might find in a cistern. That old stuff isn’t much good, Jesus says to the woman: you can drink it if you want, but you’ll soon want another drink! But the living water – ah, now, that’s a different story! “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give them will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (13-14). Obviously he’s talking in metaphors here – but metaphors for what?
I think that when Jesus came to live among us as one of us, the last thing he had in mind was to create another religious system. ‘Religion’ often deteriorates into a control mechanism to try to domesticate a relationship with the living God. ‘Religion’ is all about holy places, holy people, and holy rituals. ‘Religion’ said that Jesus and the Samaritan woman should not be speaking, because she was a Samaritan and he was a Jew, and because she was a woman and he was a man, and because she was a sinner and he was a rabbi. ‘Religion’ said it was a really important issue whether you worshipped God on Mount Gerazim, as the Samaritans said, or in Jerusalem on Mount Zion, as the Jews said.
‘Religion’ still does the same kind of thing today. It assumes that some places are holier than others, so churches are houses of God and if you want to meet God you need to go there. In religion, you can’t meet God in the middle of your ordinary life; you have to go off somewhere different to find him.
Religion also assumes that some people are holier than others. Priests and pastors have the inside track, and bishops and archbishops are even better! So instead of praying for ourselves, let’s get the professional religionist to speak to God on our behalf, because God’s more likely to listen to him or her than to me.
‘Religion’ assumes that some people start at a disadvantage – in our gospel for today, the Samaritans, the women, and the particularly sinful. So religion can’t understand someone like Jesus who hangs around with all the wrong people, like tax collectors and prostitutes. Doesn’t he understand how dangerous that is? They’re going to drag him down to their level!
Jesus didn’t come to make us more religious; he came to break down the barriers between religion and ordinary life, so that the living water of true spirituality could flow out into every part of our lives. He came so that every human being could have within them ‘a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ (v.14) – so that every human being, wherever they worshipped God, could do so ‘in spirit and truth’ (v.24).
What is this ‘spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ that Jesus wants to give to everyone who comes to him? A few chapters later in John, we read these words:
‘On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water’”. Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive’ (7:37-39a).
Connecting these two passages together, we can find an answer to our question: the spring of water is the Holy Spirit, who comes to live in each of us.
In the traditional religious approach to God, if you wanted to meet God you had to go to a temple, because temples were the places where God lived. But Jesus turns the whole thing around. Jesus doesn’t send you to a temple – Jesus makes you into a temple yourself! God doesn’t live in houses made by human hands; no, God’s Holy Spirit comes to live in human beings, so that each of us becomes a temple, a place where God lives.
We see this in the story of the Day of Pentecost in Acts chapter 2. One hundred and twenty ordinary followers of Jesus were filled with the Holy Spirit in a dramatic explosion of praise and testimony. This was the thing that bystanders found so astonishing about the early church; ‘Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed’ (Acts 4:13). Early Christianity was a lay-people’s movement: it didn’t depend on religious organization or ritual, but on the powerful experience of the Holy Spirit which each ordinary believer had received and continued to receive.
Those early Christians didn’t feel like they had to gather in holy places to meet God either; instead, they were conscious that the Holy Spirit was joining them together into a holy community, so that any place they met became a holy place. That’s why the question of where we worship God is irrelevant. As Jesus says in verses 23-24, “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth”. To worship God in truth is to worship him as he truly is, as he has been revealed to us in Jesus. And to worship him in spirit, or in the Spirit, means to have that well of living water bubbling up inside us – God the Holy Spirit living in us, guiding our words and actions in worship, so that the worship we offer is pleasing to the Father.
This sort of thing is contagious. Toward the end of our gospel, we read that the Samaritan woman went into Sychar and told a whole crowd of people about Jesus; “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (v.29) The people were intrigued by this story and came out to see Jesus for themselves, and so he stayed in their city for a couple of days. What was the result? ‘And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world”’ (vv.41-42).
In other words, the Samaritans had moved on from having a second-hand faith to having a faith that was based on their own experience. Their ideas about God and Jesus were no longer based on hearsay, but on their own personal experience, and that experience led them to say, “He’s the Saviour of the world”. This is the promise of God to every one of us: we won’t just know him by hearsay, but by our own personal experience.
So let me conclude by urging you not to be satisfied with that old stagnant water. Jesus did not come to make us more religious; he came to fill us with the Holy Spirit. And as he reminded us in last week’s gospel, the Holy Spirit is not under our control; he’s like the wind, blowing where he wants to blow. All we can do is make up our minds to be satisfied with nothing less than his presence in our hearts, and then come to God in prayer and ask for the Spirit to be poured out among us.
Sometimes we have to wait for a while for that prayer to be answered. For some reason, the infilling of the Holy Spirit seems to be a blessing we have to persist in prayer for. Jesus told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem after his ascension until they were clothed with the power from on high. They waited ten days, meeting constantly and praying together, until the Day of Pentecost when the blessing was given at last. Since then, many ordinary Christians have talked about having to keep on praying, waiting patiently, until at last they sensed the touch of the Holy Spirit. I have no idea why this is so. Perhaps God wants to know how serious we really are; perhaps he wants us to experience the desperation of spiritual thirst to the full, before we experience the living water of the Spirit.
I know from my own experience that while we’re waiting, there’s a tendency to settle for less – a tendency to pretend we have received what we asked for, and to go away with lowered expectations. There’s a tendency to take that empty place in us where the Spirit will live, and fill it with the stagnant water of religion. There’s a tendency to give up; ‘God obviously hasn’t noticed my prayer; there’s obviously no blessing of the Holy Spirit waiting for me’.
Don’t give up. Jesus encourages us in several places in the gospels to persist in prayer and not to get discouraged. And in Luke’s gospel he tells us that if we human beings, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to our children, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (Luke 11:13). So let us ask, and keep on asking, and not give up, until we experience the quenching of our thirst, as Jesus gives us ‘a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ (John 4:14).