In the course of our lives there are sometimes moments which, when we look back upon them, turn out to have been watersheds, turning points which changed our lives for ever. It might be meetingsomeone for the first time, or hearing a dramatic piece of news, or even experiencing a personal crisis. One thing l can almost guarantee: when something affects us that deeply it is generally speaking not a comfortable event, and sometimes it is deeply troubling.
I wonder what was going through the mind of the Samaritan woman in the story as she went to draw water at the well. Almost certainly it wasn’t something which filled her with joy! There was a reason why she was fetching water alone at the hottest point of the day. Normally this would have been a sociable activity, one which the women of the town would have done together but earlier in the day or later when the sun was lower in the sky.
The Samaritan woman however seems to be a bit of an outcast, which is hinted at by her dubious marital situation – five husbands and now a partner possibly married to another woman? But there are any number of reasons why she has had a string of men in her life.
Life expectancy could be brutally short and women were economically dependent upon men for their survival. But whatever her circumstances, the woman goes out to fetch water on her own at a time of day she knows that she is unlikely to meet anyone and therefore can avoid all those disapproving looks and unkind remarks.
To her surprise she finds someone already at the well, a man. It is an unlikely meeting. Now there are a number of reasons why Jesus should not have spoken to her. First and foremost, he is a Jew and she is a Samaritan, two closely related ethnic groups who, as so often happens in families, had become sworn enemies. Jews would normally make a detour to avoid Samaritan territory but instead Jesus takes the direct route.
Secondly, he is a man and should not have spoken to an unchaperoned woman. It is why his disciples are so shocked when they come back from their shopping trip to find them in lively conversation. But they know better than to ask questions for their master is anything but conventional. Here he is engaged in a conversation which will transform a social outcast into the very first evangelist. In the course of it, a teasing exchange with Jesus turns into the moment of truth for the woman when she finds herself coming clean about her marital situation. It is an uncomfortable moment. But she is intrigued by this
straight-talking stranger with the offer of miraculous water that gives eternal life, and the revelation that he is the promised Messiah.
The Samaritan woman may not realise it as she rushes back to tell the townspeople what has just happened to her, but this encounter has released her from her captivity and isolation. And when she tells her neighbours that Jesus knew all about her, they are clearly impressed enough to find out for themselves. They certainly don’t dismiss her testimony and are so convinced by the power of her testimony and the conviction with which she delivers it that they go out to see Jesus for themselves.
She is the catalyst that hooks their interest until they have had a personal experience of Jesus. Once that happens her work is done though l can’t imagine that it is the end of her career as an evangelist.
Well that’s her side of the story, but what about Jesus? Was it chance that led him to the well outside the city of Sychar? Was it chance that he was sitting there exhausted, alone in the heat of the day? Was it chance that made him ask for a drink of water from the lone woman coming to the well?
And what about the conversation between them?
Jesus steers it expertly so that the woman is led to the point where she has to say that she has no husband. Notice that Jesus doesn’t criticise her. It seems that his insight into her situation is enough to convince her that she is in the presence of someone very special, someone about whom it is not unreasonable to ask the question: can this really be the Messiah? It seems to me that Jesus knew exactly what he was doing throughout the episode. This was mission, spreading the word through the most effective means.Person to person. Not through some kind of specially selected religious person with impeccable moral and theological credentials, but through someone on the margins, someone who has seen a bit of life and is no doubt carrying the bruises.
A few weeks ago our student minister Heulwen shared with us something of her experience on placement in a charismatic church in Bristol. Their worship differed radically from ours – no formal liturgy, little use of scripture in services – but lots of emphasis on uplifting music and on real-life stories, testimonies from people willing to share their experience of Jesus. The value of testimony is that it is real. It is that person to person transmission that was the mark of the early church. Testimony, real-life stories about the way that Jesus changes lives, puts flesh and blood onto the bones of formal liturgy, just as the vision of Ezekiel showed the valley of dry bones becoming animated with the breath of life as they gained flesh and substance.
Somehow we have got to be able to communicate our experience of a living God, rather than tending dry bones of old creeds and practices. I don’t think we are going to be replacing the organ with a band any time soon or holding services two hours long with 30 minutes of hymn singing at either end, but the key to the worship witnessed by Heulwen was the focus on the Holy Spirit. I sometimes think of the Spirit as a potential electrical charge flowing unseen but powerful, waiting for the invitation of the on-switch. I think we need to start switching onto the grid and praying for renewal and revival.
Asking for opportunities to share our faith in ways that are meaningful to people for whom God seems distant at best, at worst, non-existent. So let us pray as hard as we can for the Holy Spirit to intervene in our current situation and give us new strength and new enthusiasm to share our faith – even if that has to be at the end of a phone! If the outcast woman at the well can do it, then so can we!