Scarcity Meets the Fountain

A sermon by Revd Sally Hitchiner
Readings for this service: Genesis 12. 1-4a, Romans 4. 1-5; 13-17, John 3. 1-17

We are living at a time and place in history that is marked by panic buying and anxiety, withdrawal and suspicion. Where is God today, here in London? What is Jesus saying to us here and now?

I’d like to invite you to be Spirited away for the next ten minutes to a different space and time.

The promise of our Gospel story today is that there is a fountain of life that has enough abundance to fulfil and complete our every need and, even better than this, is mobile and can travel with us where ever we find ourselves.

This woman’s life has become marked by scarcity.

It’s probably worth pointing out that women in first century Palestine didn’t have as much choice about relationships as they do in the UK today and they were often unfairly blamed when things didn’t work out but, even so, this woman seems to have been looking for something in relationships that she hasn’t found.

This woman has had five husbands, and is currently living with a man who is not her husband. Five bad marriages and one uneasy partner. That makes six.

But this woman’s story isn’t just about her, she is a living allegory of her whole people.

Samaritans and Jews had hated each other for centuries. Samaria was full of all kinds of ethnic groups with their numerous religious cults. It had been since the eighth century BC, when the Assyrians invaded the northern kingdom of Israel.

Over time the Samaritans developed an uneven but bitter contest with the Jews. The Samaritans worshiped God on Mount Gerizim. The Jews insisted that the centre of their faith was the Temple in Jerusalem, fifty miles to the south.

2 Kings 17 gives an account of the Assyrian invasion. It lists five kinds of foreign peoples that worshiped idols in Samaria. Now the story starts to make sense. We can see the Samaritan woman’s five husbands as representing the five false gods the Samaritans had worshiped.

And who is the sixth husband, the one to whom the woman is not married? Well, there are histories of Jesus’ time. One historian tells us that Herod the Great renamed the capital of Samaria after Emperor Augustus and populated it with 6000 colonial settlers.

But the historian makes an interesting observation. He notes that the Samaritans did not intermarry with the settlers in the way they had under the Assyrians. Hence Jesus’ words ‘and the one you have now is not your husband.’

So this woman represents the Samaritan people. Jesus is pointing out that the Samaritans are historically and spiritually devoted to five false gods, and now, politically, subjected to Roman power. These are the six husbands.

Six in Biblical times was a bit like the English number 99… it’s screaming that it’s almost 100, or in 6’s case, almost 7. God worked for six days but completion and rest were not found until day seven.

At this point we begin to see what Jesus is doing in a new light. If this story is about husbands and we’re emphasising the number six, the conversation Jesus has with this woman as he loiters at the well begins to look different.

Men travelling to foreign countries and waiting at wells for a woman has a precedent in the Old Testament. Moses, Isaac and Jacob – all the patriarchs – lingered at wells in foreign countries waiting to strike up a conversation with an honourable maiden eligible to marry. They all ask the woman for a drink, the woman always ran back to tell her people to come to meet the man and witness the wedding ritual. Jesus might as well have been standing beneath a balcony window in Verona and calling up to this lady. This is no longer a story about scarcity, this is now story about courtship.

You can’t court someone using the language of scarcity. In the famous scene in Pride and Prejudice, Mr Darcy tried courting Miss Bennet by emphasising her lacks – her lower status and annoying mother – and his lacks – his inability to live without her. She turned him down flat and who blames her. Scarcity is not the language of courtship. For dating you need something more expansive.

This is a woman used to being talked about as trash but Jesus talks to her, and her whole people, as a potential bride. In doing this he changes what defines her from being someone who lacks things, someone who is exploited, someone who is scrabbling to get what she needs, to someone who is delighted in, someone to whom gifts are given, someone with something to offer.

And so the courtship ritual begins, not merely between this woman and Jesus, but between her whole people group and their Messiah. Assyria couldn’t fulfil them, neither could Rome but now here is one who is different.

“So” Jesus says leaning on the well looking at the whole Samaritan people dead in the eye “would you like to get me a drink?”

The woman can’t recognise it, she’s not used to people speaking to her in a way that honours her, she falls back onto the scarcity language.

She points out his social limitations. “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman.” Two very good reasons why he’s not supposed to be talking to her let alone drinking from the same cup as her.

“Don’t worry” says Jesus “I’ve got enough status to handle that”

She points out his physical limitations. “You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep.”

“This isn’t about how hard it is to scrape some stagnant water from this well.” Jesus says “This is about a something you haven’t worked for: a fresh water fountain with more delicious, clean water than you could possibly want or need.”

She’s beginning to get it but it gets a bit too close to home when he talks about husbands, so she does what most of us do when we are used to living in a paradigm where we don’t have enough: she competes… in this case, competing for who has the most access to God.

Have you ever seen someone trying to compete in an area where they’re clearly out of their depth? She sounds like most conversations I have about football.

“Oh you like football, did I mention Liverpool won the World Cup last year?”

“Oh I see you’re into religion” says the woman “did I mention we have a religious mountain and we have ancestors who have been worshipping here from the start…”

Jesus sidesteps this competition. This isn’t about your people, it’s not even really about my people, this is about God. And God is more expansive than you can imagine.”

“Oh you want to talk about God’s plans to save us?” She says… “I’ve heard this idea that one day the Messiah will come”

Then Jesus drops the ultimate in expansive statements “I, the one speaking to you… I AM” – Invoking the great name for God Almighty shown to Moses in the burning bush. The verb “To Be”. Everything she could want to happen is embodied right in front of her.

This is quite a conversation… We’ve gone from describing Jesus as merely a “Jewish male” to “a prophet”, to “the Messiah” to the “I AM” YAWEH, God himself. You can hear her jaw drop.

“God, Here with you. Now, not in some future hope, ME, talking to you, now, here” God – here – now – me.

You can bet she’s not thinking about herself anymore.

I heard a friend trying to explain the Trinity to children once. He said “Sometimes we think God is like pizza. If you have pizza in one room and you take half of it to another room, you have less pizza in the first room. But what if God isn’t like pizza, what if God is more like music?” You could see their little minds blown.

What if God isn’t limited by the things we are limited by? What if God is eternal not just in time or space but in capacity?

Whatever our limitations, God’s capacity is greater.

Whatever our failures, whatever our strengths, God’s status blows them out of the water.

It’s not about you or me going to the right place and doing the right rituals. We are all likely to be worshipping a little differently over the next few months, but God is not limited to certain activities and places. What if God can be everywhere?

God is also not passively waiting for us to worship him, but is actively seeking us out. God’s ability to find us is greater than our ability to be lost.

Just look at what the woman does in response to this. Immediately she leaves her water jar. That water jar is the symbol of her daily economic subjection to fetching water for survival. That jar represents her social humiliation of having to do so in the heat of the noonday, because her life had made her an outcast. That jar tells her, every moment of every day, she is limited. She is nothing. She leaves it behind, because now she has found living water, and she’ll never be thirsty again.

Straightaway she becomes someone characterised by generosity towards the very people, the very culture that squashed her down. Her invitation is full of opportunity, the same words Jesus himself uses at the start of John’s gospel in calling the disciples “Come and see!” she says to them. It’s not limiting what they will find in Christ, it’s so expansive “Come and see”.

Then astonishingly, something new happens, Jesus, the loyal Jew, is invited to stay with the Samaritans for two days. That means he must have eaten with them – which at the beginning of the story it said he would never do. The story is telling us that the competition between Jew and Samaritan is over. She has found a living spring bubbling up within her, that goes with her and brought the Kingdom of God where ever she is.

The next few weeks are going to be hard. For very different reasons many of us will find ourselves cut off from the community and practices that we have found our identity in. The beautiful space for worship, the uplifting practices with our choirs and large community events may change.

There are many for whom physical or social resources will be less abundant, finances may be an anxiety.

It will be easier to fall into the trap of seeing ourselves as most fundamentally people who lack things.

We have a precedent for this. At that very moment, the moment of isolation the moment of poverty and less than ideal living situations, that was where Jesus showed up. When you are in that situation, pray, “Oh God who came to the woman at the well, be with me now in my isolation and lack.”

Her circumstances didn’t drastically change but what this woman learnt was that, in the words of the old children’s chorus “there is a fountain flowing deep and wide.”

This fountain is so plenteous that it floods her tendencies to compete and remind others of their limitations, it floods her memory of herself as a person who should be ashamed of herself, her memory of herself as someone who is looked down on and all she can see is the generosity of Messiah, the Messiah who has come to save her, where she is, with more abundance than she thought possible, a fountain of life … and what is more, whether she is in Jerusalem, or Samaria, or the most irreligious situation, this fountain comes to her.