This sermon was given by Rev Caroline on 19 March 2017 – the third Sunday of Lent.
Today’s beautiful encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well is the second of four personal encounters with Jesus during Lent from John’s gospel – each showing a particular gift that he brings to us and written so that we, too, can engage in that personal encounter with Jesus that will reveal that gift to us in the way that God seeks to uniquely touch our own lives.
Last week we heard about the encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus and the reminder of God’s love being so great for us that he gave us the gift of his only Son. We heard of Nicodemus wanting to but struggling to understand Jesus’ teachings. This week, we see the gift of the Holy Spirit pouring out into the lives of those who believe and transforming them. We see how the Spirit shifts the struggling of our heads to understand, to the transformation of our hearts to know that gift within our souls.
I would like to share with you a poem about this encounter by Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) called “Song of the Brightness of Water”:
From this depth—I came only to draw water
in a jug—so long ago, this brightness
still clings to my eyes—the perception I found,
and so much empty space, my own,
reflected in the well.
Yet it is good. I can never take all of you
into me. Stay then as mirror in the well.
Leaves and flowers remain, and each astonished gaze
brings them down
to my eyes transfixed more by light
than by sorrow.
The poem is written as if the Samaritan woman is casting her mind back over some time to that day when she met Jesus. She is still living in the afterglow of that encounter.
We have a woman coming to the well at a time of day when there would be few people around in the midday heat. She is a Samaritan, and surprised that Jesus is engaging with her as a member of a group on the outside of society. A Jew would not be likely to talk to a Samaritan or be willing to share their utensils – so, in breaking these conventions, Jesus communicates powerfully that he has been sent for everyone.
Our poem describes her as having come from the depth suggesting that, at the time, she might not have been in a good place. For whatever reason, her sense of shame or awkwardness means that her lifestyle may have left her feeling judged by society and best avoiding others. This is possibly why she was collecting water in the midday heat so as to avoid those who might judge her.
She may also have felt in the depths of a weak relationship with God with an awareness, on some level of her life, that she was falling short of God’s heart for her.
As one gazes into the depths of a well to draw water, the darkness of the walls of the well can seem overpowering. Dominating the view. Yet Jesus, in this encounter, stands alongside her looking into the depths of her being symbolised by the depths of the well. She finds the radiance of his presence meets her in the reflection that she perceives in the water.
In the heat of the midday sun straight above her bright daylight and the reflection from the well’s water might limit how fully she can open her eyes. Yet Jesus opens her eyes – opens them to the a new way of seeing her life, a new way in which to live it out. There is a double revelation of Jesus as the Messiah and of her own broken life “Go, call your husband, and come back.’ , To which she replies “I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true”.
It is this depth of Jesus’ perception and forgiveness that moves her to the depths of her being. Jesus’ factual acknowledgement of her sin shows no judgement or condemnation. It is named, without argument, evasion or excuses and salvation draws near to her. In our poem, the well has become the symbol of the depths with which the woman has now been led into self-awareness by Jesus.
Yet this image of the well and its depth reveals so much more that it’s dark walls. The midday sun shining from straight from above would illuminate most of the water. Refracting light back up against the walls of the well showing up every detail and imperfection in them.
“Yet it is good”, she says. Jesus has accepted her as she is and, in doing so, reflects back the account of God’s creation in Genesis declaring where God declares “it was good”. This perhaps acknowledges something new in her being transformed. She can’t take all of it in in one go but she can take a bit – just as she can’t draw all of the water in one go. She will return to the well just as she will return to that encounter with Jesus. The source of living water. His memory is emblazoned in the water she perceives in the well.
Our poet’s stance of writing about the woman looking back on the encounter confirms all if this. The woman and Jesus have a conversation about where their different traditions believe that they should go to worship God.
Jesus’ reply “But 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” (John 4:23) tells her what she now knows – that Jesus was sent by God to teach us how to enter into a personal relationship with Him through accepting the truth of who he is, the Messiah, and being open to the Spirit animating that relationship in our hearts and souls. By engaging in this way with our faith, the geography of where we worship and pray to God is not the focal point. We can meet with Jesus and discern his will, through the Spirit, in our lives at any time and in any place. That living water is available to us at all times – both at the well and when we are in any other place.
At the beginning of the poem the woman appears more transfixed by the darkness of the walls of the well than the brightness of the water. Jesus’ light shines through the sorrow reflecting back up onto the dark walls. Leaves and flowers may represent the sorrows that are still there but now they are shot through with healing light. They may, too, be the new shoots of life within her of her growth in Christ every time she drinks from that living water. Her “astonished eyes” reflected in the water sees them enlightened by her encounter with Jesus.
The beauty of this passage in John’s gospel is what it shows us about growth and change on our spiritual journeys through open conversations and not feeling that we have all of the answers. To keep that stance of openness, rather than holding tight to specific convictions, allows those moments of profound revelation to happen in our own lives. It enables those free flowing conversations with others that help them to “come and see”. Her open response to what Jesus was speaking into her life allowed who she was to evolve into a person who was animated by knowing Jesus and transformed in how she viewed the reality of her life. As that animation grew it spilled out to those that God was leading her to that were open to change as well as she ran off to spread the word. And so the kingdom continued its growth just as it does today.
Lord, we thank you that you are God with us and within us. As we prepare ourselves for your passion and resurrection, come, we pray, to illuminate the walls within our own souls with your healing light. Let the streams of your living water flow through our lives bringing all that challenges us into your radiance and may that joy animate our faith to draw others to you. We ask this for your kingdom’s sake. Amen.