Sunday, March 13, 2011

Remove the cover from the well and draw the water

“Not so much a stabilising factor, more a spark for radical social change, leading to civil wars, the genesis of modern science and the birth of western democracy.” Quite some claims that Melvyn Bragg made in last night’s programme, The King James Bible: The Book that Changed the World.

How does the Bible change the world?

Something of that answer can be found in the wonderful words of Miles Smith in the Preface to the Authorised Version.

Translation it is that openeth the window to let in the light,
That breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel;
That putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most Holy Place
That removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water.

Read the Bible and it lets loose the power of the love of God in Christ to bring light into darkness, to nourish the soul, to provide us with a spiritual dimension to our lives, and to give us life in all its fullness.

I love that last image.

To read the Bible and discover the love of God in Christ is to remove the cover of the well, and draw off the very water of life.

The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman who comes to the well in order to draw water and finds herself entering into conversation with Jesus is one of my favourite stories of all time.

Ask me, says Jesus, and I will give you living water.

That image of living water is full of power for me.

‘those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’

Now when Jesus* learned that the Pharisees had heard, ‘Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John’— 2 although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— 3he left Judea and started back to Galilee. 4But he had to go through Samaria. 5So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)* 10Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ 11The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ 13Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ 15The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’

What kind of life-giving water comes to your mind?

What kind of water do you like?

There’s such choice nowadays.

Is it the beautiful still water from a Scottish highland spring?
Or is it sparkling water that tickles your palate?
Do you like a sweetened water with a hint of flavouring?

Why not sample the waters? I should warn you before you try them that one is not as it appears. It’s not commercially available, but I did fill one of those bottles with water from deep down in the rocks underneath Cheltenham at the Pittville Pump Room.

My favourite water of all is also available too … it’s pure rain water that falls on the mountains of Wales and then emerges through springs and streams that combine and flow the Welsh Marches to be collected in Tewkesbury and delivered to a tap near you!

Which kind of water are you thinking of as Jesus says The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life?

Is it simply water – the still water from a Scottish spring or better still the cool refreshing rainwater from Wales? Simply the water we need to get by. This is what our faith provides us, the difference our prayers can make to us, the life that comes from the scriptures to us?

Water is something we simply need. We cannot get by. It is what gives us life. And we actually need lots of it. Keep your fluids up. Just ordinary water. Taken for granted but we cannot do without it. That’s what faith and prayer and the spiritual life are – simply what we need day by day. And the way to keep it going, to sustain it is through the Bible as we read there.

But sometimes it may be good to have a sparkle in our water – there’s that extra buzz – our praying, our spiritual life has that something extra – it’s bubbling over. Great to have those moments – maybe there are moments when things really are bubbling along. Not always but they are there.

Sometimes it’s good to add a little flavour – a little sweetening. I sometimes feel we can make religion too syrupy, too much like a sweetener just to make things taste different – but then I think sometimes maybe we need that and it’s good. The syrupy is something that can be helpful – maybe on occasions it has a place. I’m not so fond of the over-sweet.

Which kind of water did Jesus have in mind when he used this wonderful image.

There’s one kind of water I haven’t come to yet. Cheltenham’s water. Salty, a bitter taste. Definitely not to be gulped down. What do you make of Cheltenham’s waters?

Not much! I can see written over everyone’s faces.

And yet people flocked to Cheltenham to take the waters for their therapeutic value. I remember leading an open air songs of praise service just in front of the Pump Room in the scorching sun. There was no shade. Foolishly I had no water with me. By the end I felt ill and was desperate for something to drink. The then tea room in the Pump Room had closed by the time I got there. In desperation I took the only water available. And (slowly I hasten to add!) drank a couple of big glass fulls. And I instantly felt better. Just the water, or also all those salts? I could see why people thought of it as so therapeutic.

Could it be the nasty tasting water that Jesus also invites us to have in mind?

Immediately Jesus has spoken those wonderful words of invitation, the Samaritan woman replies with eager anticipation, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

At that point the story takes an unexpected twist. It’s as if Jesus is changing the subject. Or is he?

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

An innocuous comment … except for this woman it is not at all innocuous.

The woman answered him, “I have no husband.”.

Unnervingly Jesus responds in a way that suggests he has looked right into her heart and knows her through and through … “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’ for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!

The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet!’

What does she mean when she reacts by identifying Jesus as a prophet?

Prophets in the Old Testament were people who challenged, unsettled as they held people to account and often as they held the powers that be to account.

It is as if Jesus confronts this woman with the darknesses deep in her own life.

This is nasty tasting water for her to have to swallow. And yet it does her good to know that Jesus’ love is reaching out to her knowing her fully.

There’s more … as the conversation unfolds the prophet in Jesus challenges, unsettles calls to account something that has the capacity to change the world. The Samaritan woman thinks a Samaritan way and is very aware of the divisions between her people and Jesus’s people. It is a cruelly divided world that she lives in and she for one is bent on keeping those divisions in place, and she is pretty sure that the Jewish Jesus will also want to keep those division in place. The Samaritans worship on one mountain, the Jewish people on another. And evermore shall it be so.

Not so, says Jesus.

He challenges, he unsettles, he calls to account – he is very much here the prophet out to change things in the world.

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. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

The woman has recognised in Jesus a prophet who unsettles, challenges, and changes the world … and this is nasty tasting water to have to swallow for that Samaritan woman.

But now she sees in Jesus much more – the Messiah her own people and the Jewish people have been waiting for.

What do you look for in your Christian faith?

By all means think of the cool refreshing waters of the Scottish Spring or the Welsh Rainwater; by all means enjoy a little sweetening, and a sparkle in your faith.

But also be prepared to take the nasty tasting waters too.

Jesus confronts us with truths about our selves and still he loves us – and is there for us. That can be dark and difficult.
Then he confronts us with the world and its needs – and he wants us to break down barriers and make a difference in the world. Water is a powerful image for us to take to heart in our world. How important for us to be committed to the world and its needs not least its needs for water. And how tragic that water is right at the heart of the conflict in Palestine and Israel.

There’s one final twist to the tale …

The woman went back to her own city told everyone about Jesus, got them to come and see for themselves and we read , “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony,

The part of the testimony that was so powerful was the hard bit, the bit that had been difficult to swallow – the nasty tasting water – ‘the woman’s testimony that he told me everything she had ever done.

They came, they heard Jesus’ word for themselves. And they said, We know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.

Our task is to share the message – but not just the lovely – the bits that are difficult, that don’t taste nice – that challenge, that hold to account.

Do that with the message at the heart of the bible and it’s no surprise that the Bible really is a book to change the world!

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