The fabulous story of Jesus meeting the woman at the well….
And the script (bearing some resemblance to the original is here)
Woman At Well
Indian buses are crazy, crazy things.
There are no rules outside of them,
Inside, they are a strict environment.
It begins in the heat of the day, standing at this bus station, desperate for this thing to arrive, scanning the destination signs on the front of the buses. Then when the bus is seen people run towards it, and all rules are broken the desire to get a seat. People hang on to the pole going up to the steps as it pulls into the rank. Once it’s stopped, People jump through the windows, which don’t have glass in them, at the back door, everyone shoves, and that includes pushing grandmothers out the way.
When you get on to the London Underground, what counts is a subtle move of the shoulder, but imagine just shoving old ladies out the way, that’s what you do on an Indian bus, because otherwise they will do it to you, and they are carrying an open container of fish.
But once you are on the bus, there are strict rules about who you sit next to. The front of the bus is for me, the back of the bus for women, and under no circumstances do you ever sit next to a woman, even if the bus is crammed, you don’t sit next to a woman, it is tantamount to an advance on her honour. Only if you are married is such a thing permitted.
Three years after first living there, I returned for a fortnight with my mother. I tougher her all the rules of buses, but someone decided to take advantage, and on a bus journey, some man, some impudent, unconstrained, indecent man decided that he would sit next to my mother, and I was sore affronted, keeping an eye on him through the whole journey, even communicating with my mother in broad Scots to make sure she was okay.
And you have to keep the sense of outrage, of shock, of suspicion,
When you come to this story of the woman at the well, speaking with Jesus.
This is something incredibly suspicious, dangerous… Something that is known to both Jesus and the woman and the speak.
People who read this stories from other countries, spot this much more quickly.
When we read it, we think it’s like an innocent discussion in an Edwardian drawing room,
But when other cultures, with their segregated buses read this,
This is a shocker.
Even more of a schocker when you recall that just about every male/female encounter at a well in the Bible, leads to something more than water being drunk and exchanged.
And even more of a shocker, when you remember that this woman has been married five times, and the sixth relationship has yet to lead to marriage.
So when she says to him
“Give me something to drink”
Is she thinking – Oh this must be the son of God, we’re about to engage in a polite theological discussion, which will one day enter the sacred text of the world’s great religion,
Or does she think
“What’s he after?”
What’s he after?
“How is that you a Jew, ask for a drink from me a woman of Samaria” – suspecting this is more than a drink, bringing up the gender, and the danger of the encounter.
“If you knew God’s gift, and who it is that you are talking to, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water”. – I am God’s gift – male swagger
Living water – what kind of code is this?
She pushes back on him….
Sir – you have no bucket, are you greater than Jacob who dug this well, and he drank here, and all his livestock.
And there is something that happens in John – that people inadvertently, in being themselves, utter things, which have a deeper meaning in the world of John, that themselves do not know. People utter deep theology without always understanding it, people are prophets with insights that Jesus will bring to light.
Are you really as great as you say you are? Prove it.
So Jesus says, whoever drinks the water that I give will never be thirsty again, and this will become a well towards eternal life.
And she goes with this – Sir, give me this water, that I will not be thirsty or draw water.
And this I find a deeply poignant statement.
Because it testifies to this woman’s deep deep thirst
And because it is uttered so quickly, in what she thinks is a romantic encounter,
Shows, that easily she will give herself to a man,
Too keen, too open, too vulnerable,
Just so so fortunate that for once, she is with a man who is more than worthy of her.
But the game gets played for two more lines,
And Jesus must know that he is playing it
“Go, call your husband”
- Which he uses to bring this into the story of her life.
- But also which is a classic variation on “What does your boyfriend do?”
And she says “I don’t have a husband”. Not “I’m divorced”, or even “I don’t have a husband, but I’ll go and get my boyfriend”, but “I don’t have a husband”.
And then Jesus, uses this moment to open the door, or slightly tilt the conversation into something completely new, revolutionary in this woman’s life….
“You are right in saying you have no husband… you have had five husbands, and the man you have now is not your husband.”
There are three things that strike me with this encounter:
- The first is that Jesus crosses boundary – of ethnicity, of gender and of morality. All of this is that God’s gift is without precondition, is not put off by the things that we think God wants to put off by.
Actually what is happening is that a whole mess – a messed up culture (the gap between Samaritans and Jews), and patriarchy, the exploitation of women (because when you keep two groups separate, what you are usually also doing is putting one group beneath the other), and the mess of this one’s life… does not put off God.
And these things are not allowed to define.
There was a missionary called Elisabeth Elliot whose husband Jim went as a missionary to an Amazonian tribe in Ecuador, and was killed by the tribe he went to. Elisabeth wrote two famous books about this, which have become classics in missionary later. She then went to live with the tribe, leading some to Christ. A decade later she married a lecturer in New Testament and who himself died four years later. Then in the late 1970s she married a third time, to Lars Gren, a hospital chaplain. She then embarked on a further career of writing and teaching as well as a radio program.
Twenty five years later… In 2002 I mentioned the name of Elisabeth Eliot to one of my theology lecturers, and he said “Aaah, Elisabeth Eliot, the husband killer, not only did she lose one, but a second husband” and married a third time. The point I am trying to make is that even with Elisabeth Elliot, whose virtue was unimpeachable, whose character was close to sainthood, 25 years later had a reputation. How much more this cohabiting woman who had had five husbands in a village. These things hang round you.
Later the woman will say “Come and see the man who told me everything I ever did”. That lie lives with her. This is all I did, have five husbands. In this story five husbands, is the set-up, but the story takes place elsewhere.
- The second is that the well honed humanity of Jesus, that he communicates with this woman in a way that matches her personality, he is no pushover, there is a joy in this kind of adversarial discourse; it’s like the way that you watch Franny speak with guys in Aberfeldy, there is a banter, a joyful push and push back, much of it very clever, which goes on and God goes with, that God engages in verbal jousting, even the chat up encounter of which this woman is very familiar.
Richly inhabit your humanity.
- This is a story about human thirst. Beneath the bravado, in the pain, in the seeking of the answer to pain. Is deep human thirst for communion, for water.
And what Jesus does now is take the conversation to the depths, to the place where communion can happen. This is the substance of the next verses, a conversation about worship, and about intimacy, and about being together.
What is interesting is that we only at the eleventh verse of a 31 verse story.
And the tragedy of this woman’s life, is that every story in her life has stopped at verse 11. She goes on to verse 31. Into the depths here, and the great thing is that she is well able.
Just over a third of the way through. That we are society obsessed with first impressions, – our clothing, our hair, the way we look is often about making a good first impression. There is thrill of initial. Of the ego boundaries being rolled back. This is the world of the sales, and of advertising, being good at initial. The internet is full of videos of people unboxing products, seeing something that is young and new.
And the juice of life, the way of thirst being quenched is learning to live in a deeper, more profound way. It is going on past the thrill of initial, something that this woman had not learned to do.
**** Kenneth Steven ****
In a fortnight Kenneth Steven will be reading at our evening service. The front of his latest book is a picture of a shed, which is partly about a story he writes of going into the arctic to be alone, and also resonates with the shed that he goes to in Alma Avenue, in his mother’s house, to write. Our humanity, our spirituality is met in the deep place, the place that we go to because there is nothing there, almost nothing new there.
You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.
And in this woman’s transformation, lies the transformation of a whole village
In our transformation, becomes the transformation, the finding of faith of those around us.
It is no coincidence that she who is most transformed, brings the greatest transformation in those around her.
When we move to worship, to the thrill of communion, let not this be nothing to us,
Let this be intimacy with the one who made us, who knows us, who will walk with us, who will transform us.
“whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.[b] The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.
Communion, worship, when we move from the initial thrill to the depths,
Communing with God who is with us,
Finding our home in God,
Loving God, and being loved. AMEN