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The Crucial Encounter:The Woman At The Well (4)


John 4:5-26      John 39-42


Recently western journalists were telling an Arab oil magnate how fortunate he was that his country had huge reserves of oil. “Fortunate?” the Arab oilman retorted, “What’s so fortunate about having oil? You people have rain.” He’s correct. The country that’s rained upon is ever so much more fortunate than the country with non-replenishable oil.

The modern state of Israel has proved that it takes only one thing to make the desert blossom like a rose: water. Water is life. People of every era have known this.

Jesus speaks of himself as living water. He is water in that he alone quenches life’s profoundest thirst. He is “living” water in that he is alive himself and satisfies parched people by giving them himself as they come to know what it is to live in his company, under his authority, suffused with his Spirit. He wouldn’t be “living” water if he offered them a formula, guidelines, principles, schemes or techniques. He is “living” water just because he is alive himself with the life of God and he draws men and women into the life that he is.

The early church exulted in the one who was life-giving water and who unfailingly lent fruitfulness to human existence. Peter writes to Christian friends, “You believe in him with unutterable and exalted joy.” Paul cries, “He loved me, and gave himself – for me.” John exclaims, “We know that we have passed out of death into life.” And the unknown author of Hebrews insists, “We have tasted the powers of the Age to Come.”

What the apostles exclaim in their ardour; what wells up out of them and spills over onto us; they don’t regard this as extraordinary or secret or meant only for a privileged few. Unselfconsciously they speak as they do because they have tasted Jesus Christ for themselves and have found that he satisfies so thoroughly as to leave them looking no farther. Their experience of their Lord has assured them that his claim to turn the desert of people’s lives into garden; their experience here has confirmed his claim as truth and confirmed him as reality. Seeking nothing else and no one else, their one task now is to announce the Nazarene as humankind’s hope.

From time to time I imagine my work over, my life concluded, and a few people gathered around my casket. Someone says, “Shepherd was smart. He knew a lot about the Sixteenth Century, especially the early Sixteenth Century.” Someone else says, “Shepherd was clever; his sermons exhibited clever wordsmithing.” And then I long to imagine hearing someone else say, “But he was more than clever. Through his testimony I came to know what the Samaritan woman came to know.”

You see, I’m always aware people don’t come to church to hear about the Sixteenth Century; they come because they are thirsty with a thirst nothing else in the world can meet. Whether or not they use the language of the apostles, they long for that of which the apostles speak. They expect their spiritual leader to be acquainted with the “living water” and they expect him to be a means whereby they can come to taste it. I’m always aware that if people come to church and leave disappointed in this regard then their thirst-fuelled anguish haunts them and stares me in the face. Margaret Anderson, a British poet, knows this anguish and his written about it. Listen to her poem, Wail of a Distressed Soul:

O preacher, holy man, hear my heart weeping;

I long to stand and shout my protests:

Where is your power? And where is your message?

Where is the gospel of mercy and love?

Your words are nothingness! nothingness! nothingness!

We who have come to listen are betrayed.


Servant of God, I am bitter and desolate.

What do I care for perfection of phrase?

Cursed be your humour, your poise, your diction.

See how my soul turns to ashes within me.

You who have vowed to declare your Redeemer

Give me the words that would save.


I: — On one occasion a woman every bit as needy as Margaret Anderson met Jesus at a well. She assumed that he was thirsty too. (Why else would he be standing beside a well?) It’s no wonder, then, she was surprised to see him standing there without a bucket. How did he think he was going to draw water? Then she got the point: he didn’t need a bucket, since he had just asked her for a drink. She was to give him a drink. Noticing that Jesus was Jewish, and painfully aware that Jews and Samaritans had been hostile for centuries, she shot back, “You, a Jew, are asking an inferior Samaritan like me for a drink? Jews don’t stoop to ask Samaritans for anything.” Jesus replied, “If you knew God’s gift of living water; if you knew who I am, you’d be asking me for a drink.”

She misses the point entirely, and continues in her off-hand, semi-flirtatious way, “You’re the only person I’ve ever seen who goes to a well without a bucket.” Ignoring her banter, Jesus speaks to her again, once more at a depth she doesn’t apprehend: “If you drink the water I give, you will never thirst again.” She misses the point yet again and playfully retorts, “Give me your super-duper water, then; at least it will spare me a daily trip to this well.”

Isn’t this the misunderstanding overheard today between believer and unbeliever, between church and world, between those who have “tasted the powers of the age to come” and those who look upon churchgoers as stuck in an antiquated habit? Those who haven’t “tasted the powers of the age to come” may converse with believers at length but they never get the point of the church’s presence and worship and mission. To be sure they’ll admit there’s a historical reason for the church’s presence; they admit there’s a moral dimension to the church’s life (even as they deny that the church is essential to morality;) but beyond this they don’t penetrate. Beyond this they don’t perceive that the church is the instrument of the living Lord whereby he renders available to others without number his own gift of living water without limit.

II: — The woman’s banter doesn’t go on for ever. Just when she’s overcome her shyness at having a strange man – and the enemy of her people at that – chit-chat with her, Jesus ends the chit-chat. “Why don’t you go get your husband and bring him here?” Suddenly the time of banter, casual chit-chat, coquettish evasiveness; it’s over. Suddenly it’s truth-time. “My husband?” the woman gasps, “I don’t have a husband.” “You are right,” continues Jesus, “you don’t have a husband. You’ve had five husbands. And the man you are currently living with isn’t one of them.” Reeling now, she knows that the game she was enjoying with Jesus has ended.

We do play games with our Lord, don’t we. We can play them for a long time, glorying in an evasiveness born of our supposed cleverness; we can play such games until his question or comment exposes our game-playing as just that: frothy fun and shallow self-congratulation – as his word to us goes to our heart like a dagger. Deflated now, we sag under the wound.

Our Lord stopped the woman’s evasive banter by forcing her to come to terms with a marital deficiency. But we shouldn’t assume that such a deficiency is the only kind. Neither should we assume that if we aren’t deficient in this area then we aren’t deficient at all, couldn’t be.

In fact Jesus Christ forces self-perception upon us, the self-perception we’ve lacked for years just because we’ve preferred to be without it, as he puts any number of questions to us:

“Go call your alienated child.”

“Produce your income tax return.”

“Show me the lonely person needing comfort for whom you gave up leisure time.”

“Bring back the person your tongue slew.”

Unfailingly he directs our attention to that area of our lives whose desert remains desert just because living water has never been seen there. He gets our attention by shattering our illusion of self-sufficiency and complacency.

C.S. Lewis, for instance, knew for many years a nameless, profound longing that haunted him and which he couldn’t identify. One day he saw that the nameless longing haunting him was the question the Master was addressing him. On that day his long-studied avoidance, his evasiveness born of years of self-willed agnosticism; on that day all of this evaporated as his resistance to the Master crumbled.

Those of us who relish abstract thought, and find few things more enjoyable than armchair philosophical speculation; one day we hear our Lord saying, “What you relish as real and defend as profound isn’t nearly as profound as you think and in fact is an unconscious attempt at avoiding reality. Why don’t you let it go and admit the truth about yourself?”

Or on another day we have to admit, however, reluctantly, that the trinkets and toys with which we’ve cluttered our lives haven’t rendered us one whit happier – and why should they, since trinkets and toys are mere trifles – we see now.

Or perhaps Jesus Christ not only looms before us but also leans on us until we admit that our besetting temptation retains its deadly grip upon us just because we secretly enjoy it.

All such discernment is merely the converse side to our Lord’s comment or question. There’s no end to the ways he stalls effectively our attempts at trifling with him. While he doesn’t say “Go, call your husband” to all of us he speaks to all of us nonetheless.


III: — And then what? How does it all end? How did it end for the Samaritan woman? We must note that she isn’t crushed; she doesn’t collapse. She doesn’t say to our Lord, “All right; you’ve pulled the skeletons out of my closet. I give up. There’s no hope for me.” So far from being crushed, she’s elated. Thrilled at her encounter with the Master, she runs off to tell her story to the townspeople. Her encounter with Jesus has done for her what nothing else has ever done or was ever going to do. To be sure, it has held a mirror up to her and forced her to look into it. What has stared back at her can scarcely be called pretty. On the other hand, because Jesus Christ is more than mirror; because he comes to move us beyond the penultimate truth to the ultimate truth about us; because he informs us of the bad news about us only to sharpen our hearing for the good news, the Samaritan woman is set on her feet with her heart rejoicing. Now she sees herself no longer rejected but accepted; no longer condemned but pardoned; no longer slinking around in shame but honoured. Yes, the mirror which our Lord is acquainted her with her private and public wretchedness; and at the same time the living water which he is assured her that from this moment the desert of her life would be a garden. “This man is truth,” she exclaims to her neighbours; “He is truth and life for all of us.”

We are told that the townspeople are startled on account of the woman’s testimony concerning Jesus. They press Jesus to stay with them. He stays two days, at the end of which these townspeople say to her, “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Saviour of the world.”

The ring of assurance is unmistakable: “We have heard for ourselves, and we know….” The ring of assurance is unmistakable everywhere in scripture. The first epistle of John, for instance, is only a few pages long; we can read it in five minutes. Still, the little expression “we know” or “you know;” this expression is used thirty-two times. Of course there’s a phoney kind of “certainty,” a specious certainty born of fanaticism. And we’ve all met the person whose “certainty” is iron fast because rooted in immoveable prejudice. We’ve all met someone who is certain that the world is ending in four years, or certain that all Viet Namese newcomers are crypto communists, or certain with the certainty born of a script she dare not depart from – like the Jehovah’s Witness caller who can only parrot stock lines.

Yet we all know that such “certainty” is contrived. We crave the authentic certainty of the townspeople who say to the Samaritan woman, “It is no longer because of your words that we believe (even as they would never have come to believe apart from her testimony,) for we have heard for ourselves, and we know….”

Faith, we must understand, isn’t something we exercise in the absence of knowing. Faith, rather, is a particular kind of knowing. Faith knows God. Faith doesn’t know God, however, the way we come to know chemistry – i.e., by manipulating chemicals while remaining personally detached. Faith knows God, on the contrary, as we suspend detachment and allow ourselves to be included in God’s own life. Faith knows God as believers meet him and love him and honour his purposes for them.

When Harold Ballard owned the Maple Leaf Hockey Club he used to go to Maple Leaf Gardens early in the morning when the arena was empty. He put on his skates, and, hockey stick in hand, skated up and down the ice tapping a puck here and there. Ballard was living in his fantasy world. He was fantasizing that he was an NHL player, a star even, caught up in the game’s intensity and explosiveness. But he wasn’t a player and was never going to be. His fantasy world, the next best thing, in fact was light years removed from the real thing. Regardless of what information he possessed about hockey Ballard would never know hockey in the sense of participating in the game.

The townspeople who came to meet Jesus after the woman had met him; they came to say with utter authenticity “We have now heard for ourselves, and we know that you are the world’s sole sovereign and saviour.” Elsewhere Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and they know me.

Assurance swells in us as we look away from ourselves to him who comes ultimately to bless. Our Lord isn’t merely water. Water cascading over us might just drown us. He is living water, and he causes to come alive all who welcome him and receive him, thereafter to love him and obey him.


                                                                                                          Victor Shepherd                                                                                                    

June 2004