Today we have another long Gospel reading. And it is a reading chock full of theological, Christological and Trinitarian themes. It also tackles many of the social ills of both Jesus and modern-times – gender politics, relationships, racism, nationalism – these are just some of the ideas tossed around in this encounter at the well.
It is also integral to John’s project of connecting Jesus directly to God and to the key historical and theological themes of Jewish history and religion. Jesus is the living water intricately inter-related with God and the entire revelation of this historical drama – past, present and future are all to be found in him. Like God, Jesus is the centre point of the story, its beginning and end, and John goes to great lengths to get this mystical truth across.
What I would like to concentrate on is the space in which this story unfolds – at a well in the middle of the village where the woman is an outcast because she has a history of living with men and not being married to them. She is not a prostitute but a woman captured by the religious laws of the time and as a result living in a perceived sinful relationship. It is no surprise that John portrays her as feisty and astute, to be compelled to live such a lifestyle requires or ensures one develops a level of survival skills most ordinary people never do. She has had to argue for her life on more than one occasion and she will again. No man dominates her. She is in charge of her life and will make the decisions and the arguments to ensure she continues to not only survive but thrive.
Jesus meets her in an open space. This is not a meeting that takes place behind closed doors or in a place that would give power to one or the other. It is not in her house or in a synagogue. It is in the square in the middle of the village near a well. It is a non-threatening environment one level in which both can speak freely. Perhaps its like a coffee shop or the old front bar in a pub. In both places people share far more openly than they do in the office, in the home of a stranger or on a bus. These are the open spaces where all feel safe to talk, discuss and occasionally argue.
The choice of space is important for us. How do we create a safe open space where we and others can communicate at the level of honesty and acceptance these two did? This is an important question if the church, you and I, are going to engage with those who are outside our building this morning. What could that open space look like – a garden, a café, a choir practice, a concert ? What does it require of us to engage in such an open space way? Are we sufficiently comfortable with ourselves and our understanding of ourselves that we can talk, be challenged and change our ideas just as Jesus and the woman did? Are we prepared to go into the centre of our village and have conversations like this one? And how do we do it with intention and not by accident? Jesus places himself in this space intentionally, he was loitering with intent, and when the opportunity for a full and frank discussion cam about he took it. Are we ready to do the same and go into the world with the intent to do so?
Jesus meets her out in the open. Jesus didn’t invite her to a special place to have this discussion, it happened when they both needed refreshments, he because he was travelling, she because this was the safest time of the day for her to get water. They met at a spot where all could see what was going on and both risked the gossip and scuttlebutt of those who peered out from behind half closed doors, discretely pulled back curtains and those who accidentally had to go outside to get a better look. This was a controversial meeting between two controversial people in full view of the local media and, was no doubt, on the social media network almost instantly. But they had nothing to hide and were comfortable with the fact that their meeting would have an impact on others.
This sense of out in the open challenges us in the church who always want people to come inside – our building, our choice of space, our particular world view or theological position and away from the prying eyes and ears of others. Are we confident enough to have these controversial conversations in full view of others? To be able to sit down in places that are not our own and work through the possibilities of faith with others? Or do we always want to do it in our safe space, on our terms, surrounding by people who believe as we do? It is a challenge the church has only intermittently taken up but must begin to consider if we are to remain as the living water in this world.
Recently I was asked to write a response to a prominent Australian’s viewpoint on indigenous recognition and treaty. When the draft was finished it was sent off to an aboriginal QC in Sydney for comment. He was blunt. We do not have to engage with people such as this was the answer. But I suspect we do for the sake of the cause and for the sake of the other person. And we need to do it out in the open, not in selected forums and meetings where the primary audience is people like ourselves. Jesus sets the example.
The chosen space is a prominent, critical community landmark – the well. Everybody has to go to the well at some time everyday. Water is the most important element after oxygen in our lives. You can last up to 3 weeks without food but only 3 days without water. Water is essential to our very existence. They meet at the well because the need for water does not discriminate –village elders and the outcast and marginalised and rabbis and the incarnate Son of God all have the same need and use the same well to fulfil that need.
Jesus is not subtle when he says whomever drinks from here will get thirsty again and again and again. You will never be satisfied. The inference is that no matter what your past is or what you need is it cannot be satisfied by material necessities, no mater how important they are. Jesus is pointing to a deeper need which can only be satisfied by a mystical and graced gift coming from the heart of God.
The well speaks of depth, of going deep within to discover the truth about self and about the mystery we call God. The well speaks of the never-failing supply of life lived openly around the mystical source of life. The well reminds us that we all have the possibility of engaging at this depth if we are but ready to let our bucket down and engage honestly, openly and critically with God and ourselves.
Finally this story is not about the past, hers or the dispute between the chosen people of God and those excluded; it is not even a story about the present, hers or the history they were living; it is a story about the future, the unfinished possibilities for creation; for Jesus, the unnamed woman and all the creatures yet to be. This is a story of expanding space, the surge for more that drives the Jewish, Christian and creations story. It is about the mystical future place in which is hidden the kingdom of God we can not imagine. The Jesus story leads us into the unknown, a future of fulfilment and wonder we can not imagine but only grasp a glimpse of in the chaos around us.
Yes this is an ordinary story about relationships, space and human need but one full of deep truth, power and mystery, just as is the stories of each of our lives and of how we live them in the centre of our village. It is time for the church and for those of use who find our vitality within the church to step out into the open, create the space for others to be safe and to begin the conversations that will fill us and them with the water of life in a future kingdom we only hear rumours about now. Amen