John 4.5-42 & Exodus 17.1-7
I know how Moses feels with all those people moaning at him. I know because I used to be in the Scouts and I took on the burdensome responsibility of being a Patrol Leader. Most of the time I didn’t have to do much other than line the chaps up for inspection. But then came the annual night hike, across the wilds of East Anglia with an Ordnance Survey map, a compass and a 2p coin in case of the need to make an emergency telephone call. No satellite mapping on the device in your pocket, no phoning a friend. Perhaps that’s why I got lost, in the mud and cold in a bleak country landscape with howling wind and pouring rain.
The scouts in my patrol were tired, hungry, cold, wet, fed up with me for not reading the map correctly and making them walk further for longer, though thankfully I don’t recall anyone threatening to stone me. Eventually we got back on track, things seemed OK again, the crisis had passed.
Anyone who has ever set out to do something for others only to end up being moaned at by them will know a little of what Moses must have felt.
Of course there was a bit more at stake in Moses case. The Israelites were on a journey from slavery to freedom, from Egypt to the Promised Land. God has already met their need for food providing manna when they were hungry but that crisis has passed and now they fear that lack of water will cause them and their animals to die. Thirst, dehydration, heat, hardly a combination that inspires patience and understanding in those suffering.
We all like to blame someone else when things are not as we would like them. Politicians are probably the favourites, sports selectors, train operators and the NHS are among many others. "Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?" No sense of ‘all being in this together’ here is there. Hey Moses how can we play our part, how can we help – no chance.
The people of Israel found fault with Moses and with God. Maye this is because deep down they still find fault with themselves. They are not yet in a place where they can appreciate what has been done for them and respond with thankfulness and humility.
The people are testing Moses, questioning his leadership but also questioning God. Real faith is hard to maintain when you are physically depleted, mentally exhausted or broken hearted. It’s not surprising that there are times when all we can do is focus on our immediate need, all I want now is pain relief, sleep, my loved one back. But mature faith builds on our experience of God, giving us something to cling to when all seems lost unlike the Israelites that treat each challenge as if they’ve started afresh again.
Water is also at the centre of our Gospel reading as Jesus meets the Samaritan woman come to draw water from the well.
Most women would come to collect water early morning or late evening in the coolest part of the day but this woman came in the heat of the day, when she was least likely to bump into others, probably she was an outcast, deliberately avoiding the other women.
Devout Jews would not allow themselves to be alone with a woman for reasons of impurity or gossip about their intentions, so no wonder we heard that the disciples were astonished that Jesus was speaking with a woman. Clearly Jesus isn’t bothered by this, he knows what his intentions are and they are not swayed by the expectations of others.
Some commentaries on John’s gospel assume that the woman is of ill repute, that she was responsible for the fact that she had got through several partners or husbands. This disappoints me as it seems to be the same judgmental route that the people in the woman’s village had gone down and why she was likely to be avoiding them.
I expect we have a view or theory when we see someone with a problematic life. When you see the person selling ‘The Big Issue’ what enters your head? He probably got himself in this mess because he blew all his money on booze? She shouldn’t be in our country in the first place, I bet she’s illegal, we don’t want her here?
Are the people in this woman’s village leaping to conclusions rather than supportive? There is one thing that is for certain, being judgmental is one hell of a lot easier than holding your hand out to try and help someone with complex problems. It easy when you can say ‘it’s all of her own doing, I’ve got no time for her’, you can then get back to putting yourself first and running your life as you planned.
I don’t think we should be thinking Zsa Zsa Gabor or Elizabeth Taylor when we think of this lady (9 husbands and 8 marriages, & 7 husbands (Richard Burton twice) respectively). It must have been interesting if you were a regular on the wedding guest list.
The woman lived in a time when religious law meant she had to marry her husband’s brother if he died and a woman without a husband would struggle in Jewish society. You had to have a husband, a father, or a son to take care of you, or you could end up a beggar or a prostitute, or both.
Jesus skillfully guides this quite long conversation allowing the woman to be offhand and cheeky at first, in modern language she says’ why would a Jewish man ask a Samaritan woman for a drink’ and ‘how are you going to get that living water you talk of out of this deep well without a bucket? You can just imagine the wry smile on her face. But the conversation gently and incrementally challenges her until she effectively says ‘when the Messiah comes he’ll sort everything out’, I expect she thought this would enable her to end the conversation without having to seriously contemplate or act upon Jesus’ comments but she couldn’t have been more wrong as Jesus replies ‘I am he.’
Jesus already knows of her situation, senses the pain and disappointment in her life, her exclusion and the day to day drudgery., Jesus does not say “Go and sin no more!” as he does to the woman accused of adultery instead he tells her that the time has come for a life enhancing relationship with God. The time is now.
I expect we are all guilty of putting off some of the really hard things we have to face up to. Things that require serious thought courage, commitment and change. When we take time to acknowledge the depth and grace of God’s love for us it’s impossible not to respond in some positive way. Now the Messiah the woman talks of stands before her how will she respond?
We heard that she runs off to tell others who come to faith as a result but frustratingly we are not told how it ends for her.
Has John done this deliberately, so we have to think for ourselves, maybe even find ourselves in the story? Is the gift she is offered by Jesus so good and so readily available that it’s hard to believe it’s true?
We are left to wonder, which ending do you choose? Was she still stuck in the desert where thirst will always be a problem, or was she able to accept the living water and never be thirsty again?
23rd March 2014