Sermon for Third Sunday in Lent, Sunday, March 19 2017, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Ex 17:1-7; Ps 95; Rom 5:1-11; Jn 4:5-42
We live on the shore of a lake, and for the most part, those of us here have reasonably easy and cheap access to clean, drinkable water. We take water for granted, most of the time. We assume that it will be safe, that it will be hot when we want it to be hot and cold when we want it to be cold. We leave taps running without thinking about it. We, the relatively privileged citizens of the modern developed world, are the only culture in history that has been able to be so cavalier about water; and we are the exception even now, an exception which cannot last forever. Most of the world does not have anything like this unlimited access to water, including many people in this country. I remember reading that passage from Exodus during the crisis in East Timor, when thousands of people had fled to the mountains, and we were trying to figure out, among other things, how we could get clean drinking water to them, and it was the first time I’d thought of the children of Israel, not just as a bunch of whiners, but as a people in genuine crisis, angry because their lives were at stake. A few years earlier, a huge number of the civilian casualties in Sarajevo under seige had been people who’d had to put themselves in the line of fire to collect water, because the alternative was that they or their families would die of thirst. People die of heat and dehydration in this rich city every summer, in cramped overheated apartments with shared and inadequate water facilities. About one out of every six First Nations communities in Canada is under a drinking water advisory at any given time, and people in these communities do not have, and cannot assume they will have, anything like consistent access to safe water. Some have not had clean drinking water for a generation.
Our scriptures emerged from a desert culture, vividly aware of the preciousness of water. Every well was a small miracle, every rainy season a new salvation. Drawing water was a tiring daily necessity, a core work of survival. Water could never be taken for granted. Visions of abundant water—of water streaming from rock, of great rivers flowing out of the Temple, of a city at the fulfillment of things which has a river actually running through its streets—are visions of something amazing. We can only really understand today’s Gospel if we can regain that understanding of water, its rare value, the theology and politics of who has water and what it means.
We begin the story under the full sun of noon, blazing hot and very dry, and Jesus and the disciples are walking through foreign territory, because to get from Judea to Galilee, they must go through the territory of the Samaritans. The Samaritans and the Jews shared a common heritage, but had broken apart hundreds of years ago, and like most family schisms it was bitter; Jews regarded Samaritans as unclean, and would have nothing to do with them. Jesus, tired from the long walk in the heat, sits down by the well, and a woman approaches. She’s come to draw water in the mid-day heat, a strange time; most women would come to collect water in the morning, when it was still cool, or maybe in the evening. Coming to the well at noon was a particularly unpleasant, exhausting chore. Scholars have speculated that she must have been an outcast in her own community, that she was either choosing to avoid the other women, or was not welcome among them. But, like the people in Sarajevo, she had to go and get water. She had no real choice about that.
And in the blazing sun, the man at the well speaks to her. A man speaking to an unaccompanied woman who was not a relative. A Jew speaking to a Samaritan. It is scandalous, inappropriate. She probably suspects at first that this man is aiming to proposition her. A woman with a reputation, she may have been used to fending off men who assumed she was easy. We don’t know why she’d had a series of husbands and was now living with a man to whom she wasn’t married—given the culture of the time and place, she’d probably had very little choice about it. Perhaps handed from relative to relative, perhaps repeatedly divorced because she couldn’t bear children, in any case probably a woman who’d borne the weight of powerlessness and then been blamed for the way her society had manipulated her. The first thing she says to Jesus is, effectively, “Okay—so what’s your game?” What does this one, supposedly asking for a drink of water, want from her now?
But this man is someone, perhaps the only one, who has no game, who is not treating her as a means to an end. He doesn’t want to engage in a Jews versus Samaritans contest; he is talking about something beyond that. And, perhaps disappointingly for those who treat sexual behaviour as the single measure of Christian morality, he mentions her history of husbands as fact possibly interesting, but entirely neutral, simply a thing he happens to know. Indeed, it is precisely this which he offers to her, an outsider among outsiders—that she is recognized, known, invited, in this perfectly straightforward manner, which simply walks across all human judgements and boundaries as if they did not even exist. Not ignoring her particularity, her history and her truth, but acknowledging them as a part of the truth of God.
We are thirsty for this as we thirst for water. We need this to live, this informed and inclusive love, as rare and precious as a spring in the desert. We need to be seen, to be known, to be called as ourselves, to be offered a place. To be given the hope and the courage to go back to the places of our suffering and to speak. And to become sources of that love, that hope, that courage for others.
“I thirst,” Jesus will say on the cross, almost his last words before death in John’s gospel; the water of life fully poured out, emptied for us into the wastes of this world as the river flows out of the Temple in the visions of the prophets. We cannot pour ourselves out so entirely, it is not within our human scope. But as we allow the love of God to enter our lives and transform us, so we are made partially able to bring the living water to others.
This does mean, in part, taking seriously the politics of real, literal water, offering our time and our resources and our energy to try to ensure that none of God’s children will die of physical thirst, of dehydration, of dystentery from tainted water. That might be set as a sort of absolute minimum of what it means for us to be carriers of the water of life.
But there are other thirsts. Like the woman at the well, without quite being aware of it, we long to be recognized, to be known, to be loved as our real, complex selves, with our own histories and our own truth. We long for the challenging love which will call us, lead us into the fuller being for which we were created, make us partners in God’s work. We long for community and inclusion in those places from which we have been cast out, told we are unworthy, unclean, unwanted. And at the same time, we long to be saved from our own misguided powers and privileges, to know that in all our human failings we are so precious to God that we are worth God’s very life.
And as we know all these complicated longings in ourselves, we must see them, know them, in others. We must become able to be the water-bearers, who can offer that knowledge, that challenge, that community, and that forgiveness to each other. Sometimes it is a thankless task—this woman, again like Mary Magdalene, is more or less dismissed as a witness by those who hear her, though remembered at least by the author of John’s gospel, who seems to have had an unusually keen awareness of the invisible labour of women. But it really doesn’t matter, in the end. She has been known, she has been called, she is eternally precious and beloved. She has spoken as she was bidden, and she has been heard or not been heard, and on that far horizon we will all rejoice together—Jew and Samaritan, clean and unclean, sheep and goats and every ambiguous one of us, called and calling, forgiven and forgiving, our lives like water, held and carried and outpoured.