As we have seen before, the Gospel of John is differently put together than the other three Gospels. In chapter two we had the changing of the water into wine and then Jesus cleanses the Temple. In chapter 3 Nicodemus, the member of the Sanhedrin, comes to Jesus by night. Then, in this chapter, Jesus meets and talks with a woman at a well in the Samaritan city of Sychar.
The Gospels in Lent are stories of encounter. Jesus encounters himself and his own calling in the Temptation in the Wilderness. Nicodemus finds Jesus by night, today we have the Samaritan woman, next week the man born blind and, finally, Lazarus is raised from the dead. The lectionary deliberately skips through the Gospel in order to give face to those who have met, and been changed by, Jesus person to person.
This is, of course, a key message for Lent. That during Lent we are invited to so order our lives that we make space for Christ. We do this both by special acts of devotion and charity but also by reformation of life – that is the process of straightening ourselves up and trying to iron out some of the kinks which we know we have in the hope that year by year we will walk closer and closer to Jesus through the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
There could not be a bigger contrast between Nicodemus and this woman. For one Nicodemus has a name, this woman is one among many who would have been considered outcasts amongst the Jews. She is a Samaritan, remember the hated Samaritans, she is a woman and, it turns out, a woman with a jaded background – not necessarily reflecting her own immorality, but definitely showing her own vulnerability in a male dominated society.
Yet Nicodemus comes by night, he is cautious and he takes the whole Gospel to make anything like a public declaration of faith. It is not until after the crucifixion that he is seen carrying that heavy load of spices to the tomb, apparently one of the followers of Jesus. This woman meets Jesus in broad daylight in what seems like a chance meeting. In broad daylight she runs to her fellow townsfolk, not afraid, apparently, of repercussions, or of not being believed – she runs because she is changed by this meeting.
Perhaps a key difference between the two is that Nicodemus is coming from a place of power and caution. He has always believed that he is OK. That his learning and grasp of the law means that he is faithful and chosen. This woman can publicly have none of that – although her conversation with Jesus shows that she has a grasp of history and theology – she is educated, but not in the formal way of the Pharisee and neither is her role in the public arena of the legislature.
To her, Jesus proclaims who he is, fully. And from this proclamation she becomes consumed as a messenger of the Good News. Her response to “ I am He,” is to tell people. This is a message of abundant gladness, overflowing joy, exuberance. It is a fountain which will not run dry and a spirit which will never thirst again. Through this brief encounter the woman is washed from the inside out and given value and purpose.
If you heard about the fires in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, last year you may also have heard that Dollywood came close to disaster. A lot of people laugh at Dollywood but my children were raised on a diet of roller coasters and bluegrass and Dollywood checks both of those boxes. One of the resident singing groups is called the Kingdom heirs, notable in our family, because my late father-in-law, who never cared too much for Church, would go to their shows multiple times in a park visit. They are a Gospel Vocal group, and we are that family who sing in the car, yes, in four part harmony. This might not be your cup of tea but one of their songs is about this Gospel. The line which jumped out to me this week was:
“Give me a drink, that I should never thirst again, so she went away a’telling the news about the water of life.” She went away a’telling.
Appalachian culture is one of stories. If you are familiar with the mountains you know not to expect a short answer to most things, stories abound and you may as well settle in an enjoy them. Bluegrass songs often tell long stories, larger than life characters fill their notes. A’telling is a big part of life when there is nowhere to rush to, and nowhere to be except right where you are, on long winter nights.
The woman rushes, but she drops everything she is going to go and tell the story – she even leaves her water jug. I wonder when we are so compelled to simply stop everything and involve ourselves in a story. If you listen to talk radio, you may have driveway moments, when a story has grabbed your attention and you sit and listen to the end on the driveway instead of going into the house.
There are incidents and disasters which catch our attention but many become background noise as we put aside the distraction they cause. We have blurred the line between the reality and drama of life and the tales we weave around movies and television. We are no longer shocked by things which should make us stop and weep. The 24 hour news cycle moves us on to the next story, the next person, the next nation.
What do we engage with which causes us to change our path and leave the water jug at the well. What makes such an impression on us that we just have to move and move others?
Apathy was precisely what Jesus was calling the people of Israel to move away from and it was a hard all because we do not notice when we are there. There are so many calls in the Old Testament for people to behave as if their religious rituals mean something – Amos 5, Isaiah 11, 1 Samuel 15 to pull but a few chapters.
Perhaps this Gospel is a reminder to us that apathy, a lukewarm response, is not an option. Where do we encounter Jesus and do we remember that promise of water, water which is gushing up. You can see that image, water which is so eager to break out of its confines that it cannot be contained. With this water we become the same, so eager to tell the story, so eager that our story is known and valued by God, that we rise up, we gush.
There is a song from the Iona Community in Scotland about the Holy Spirit, in it the Holy Spirit is referred to as the enemy of apathy. We, the church, are not a painful trickle of vaguely good news, we are a mighty roar of excitement and wonder. We are those who are send to challenge apathy, not become its victim.
“But those who drink of the water I will give them will never be thirsty.” Imagine that. Never thirsty – unless we shrug, and say “That’s nice” and fill our pitcher and go to our house and drink alone. Then we are thirsty, really thirsty.