Water for the desert and the journey - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Water for the desert and the journey

John 4:5-30,39

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Then cometh he to a city of Samaria, which is called Sychar, near to the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph.

Now Jacob's well was there. Jesus therefore, being wearied with his journey, sat thus on the well: and it was about the sixth hour.

There cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water: Jesus saith unto her, Give me to drink.

(For his disciples were gone away unto the city to buy meat.)

Then saith the woman of Samaria unto him, How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans.

10 Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.

11 The woman saith unto him, Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from whence then hast thou that living water?

12 Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle?

13 Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again:

14 But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.

15 The woman saith unto him, Sir, give me this water, that I thirst not, neither come hither to draw.

16 Jesus saith unto her, Go, call thy husband, and come hither.

17 The woman answered and said, I have no husband. Jesus said unto her, Thou hast well said, I have no husband:

18 For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly.

19 The woman saith unto him, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet.

20 Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.

21 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father.

22 Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews.

23 But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him.

24 God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.

25 The woman saith unto him, I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things.

26 Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he.

27 And upon this came his disciples, and marvelled that he talked with the woman: yet no man said, What seekest thou? or, Why talkest thou with her?

28 The woman then left her waterpot, and went her way into the city, and saith to the men,

29 Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?

30 Then they went out of the city, and came unto him.

And many of the Samaritans of that city believed on him for the saying of the woman, which testified, He told me all that ever I did.

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I grew up in a non-church household, with a father whose take on life was not dissimilar to that of Richard Dawkins; religion was anti-scientific and superstitious. The worst thing I did, in his eyes, was to get baptised.

I'm still not wholly sure why I 'got religion' and my brother didn't but one thing that I know played a major role was music. The transcendence and spirituality, particularly of great choral music, revealed something different that drew me, by the time I got to my teens, to a recognition of God.

Jesus Christ and the fullness of Christianity came later at university but music remained a very important part of drawing me nearer to God. It is symbolized for me by a wonderful line in Benjamin Britten's 'Rejoice in the Lamb', based on a poem by Rev Christopher Smart, which states: 'For there is music and therefore He is God...'

However, a number of years ago, after I had become an Anglican and just as I had started the process of going forward for ordination, the sense of God in music deserted me. It wasn't so much that I lost my faith, but the glory of the transcendent God that music held, disappeared.

The soaring music crumbled into the very practical realisation that music is simply made up of scientific processes of the hair of a bow drawn over strings, the hammer of a piano key on a string and the movement of air through various vessels whether the pipes of an organ, the brass of a trumpet or the vocal cords of a human being.

All the divine and much of the beauty that music had held, disappeared overnight and it was a major shock to the system. But as the months went on and I puzzled over my changed perception of music it struck me how amazing it is that these scientific processes come together to create such glorious sound. There was a sense of revelation about these mundane material things combining to create the glory of music and to bring groups of human beings together to play the instruments to make the music.

The miracle of how material and immaterial, divine and human, combine to reveal God in things and God transcendent enlarged my sense of God in the wonder of music and restored that aspect of spirituality and prayer. And it is that sense, that utterly Christian sense, of God's glory in both the transcendent and incarnate in the mundane and ordinary and material, that is highlighted by today's readings and their focus on the significance of water.

Water, that ordinary everyday commodity that in this country at least we are lucky enough to find available in the turn of a tap, is both utterly ordinary and yet essential - literally vital - for life; and so vital that Jesus takes it as one of his major illustrations of what he is about.

This mornings readings - a tale of two water stories if you like... emphasise both the physical importance of water for life and the symbolism of water as a source of life.

The first reading sees Moses attempting to lead his fractious, mutinous people through the desert; it's a job he didn't want and not for the first time he asks God 'what can I do with this people?'

But the people had a point... here is this idiot who's led them away from their homes in Egypt - without a plan, a map or any idea of where he's going. Egypt may not have been great, oppressed and slave-driven as they were - but at least they had food and water. Now here they are, stuck in the desert, effectively asking 'what's the point of freedom if we're going to die of thirst anyway?' 

God answers both the people's cry for water and Moses' cry for help in dealing with them and water is found - whether by the literal miracle of the fountain created when the staff hits the rock or whether the story creates a miracle out of the perfectly natural find of a spring of water.

Either way it tastes good - as water does when you're feeling parched after a long walk in the sun or the contemporary equivalent of a long frustrating attempt to travel anywhere on Southern rail! That life-saving taste of water not only met the physical need of the wandering Israelites but also calmed the emotional stress of worrying what would happen if they didn't find water. It meant they could carry on with their journey to the Promised Land, their faith restored in God and God's plans for them, under Moses' leadership.

By contrast the water in the Gospel reading is not so physically critical. Whilst a drink from the well in the heat of the day may have been pleasant, neither Jesus nor the lady he encounters was at immediate risk of death by dehydration. Here water and its role in the preservation of life is more symbolic. Yet the power of water and its necessity for life is what makes it one of the major symbols of Jesus's offer of new life to all - continued most obviously in baptism.

It could be tempting to polarise the two stories, seeing the water for the Israelites in the desert as purely the physical gift of life and Jesus' offer of the water of life as purely symbolic. However, just as with the reflection on music that I began with the two are inter-twined not polarized.  

The physically essential water in the desert was also seen as a miracle; it was a revelation of God's loving providence. Whether the water was miraculously produced as Moses struck his staff on the rock or was in fact the finding of a naturally-produced spring, is irrelevant - either way it felt like a miracle and was a sign of God. That water of life kept Moses and his people physically alive, providing life for the next stage of their journey, but also kept alive the hope of freedom in the Promised Land - the hope of freedom and life for these now nomadic ex-slaves.

For the woman at the well the symbolism of being offered the water of life also had practical social consequences. Like the miracle of water for the Israelites in the desert this water of life was also a revelation of God's love. To have water that meant she would never be thirsty again would spare her the daily grind of drawing water and having to visit the well in the midday sun.

Even more significantly, for Jesus to offer that water of life to someone like her, an outcast, morally frowned upon because of her series of marriages and a Samaritan rather than a Jew - was also a literal, not just a symbolic, new lease of life. It is notable that unlike his conversation with the woman caught in adultery he does not tell this woman to go and sin no more. The reality is that although serial marriage might suggest that she was, to put it bluntly, a bit of a hussy - that would be to misjudge her because only men could issue a divorce in Jewish law. So she is actually much-divorced by a series of possibly callous husbands rather than a much-married commitment-phobe.

So when Jesus offers her the water of life it is offering her a new reality, in which she is not stigmatized and outcast.  This offer of the water of life affirmed her humanity as a child of God despite her being so ostracised that she had to gather water in the heat of the day when no-one else was about to frown on her. And that offer of the water of life was not just a private thing - it gave her the confidence to go out and tell people what had happened, that the Messiah had come; breaking this extraordinary news to those same people who ostracized her.

So in both these stories the reality of material and social facts is transformed by the ordinary, yet extraordinary life-giving power of water, inter-twined with its symbolic power as the herald of new life and new hope. The everyday, basic essential of water transforms hardship, exile, social exclusion, poverty and loss of hope as the revelation of God's love when least expected, to a wandering group of ex-slaves and a woman ostracised because of her marital difficulties.

So next time you turn on the tap to pour a glass of water or run a bath, you might like to think not only of the mundane and everyday but also of the water of life, which is every bit as powerful and vital and miraculous evidence of God's love as the more obviously transcendent spirituality of music. And as Lent rolls on you might like to think of how giving practical, ordinary gifts, for example to the foodbank, can mean so much more than just a tin of beans.


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