The readings for the third Sunday in Lent include Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well, and Moses’ miraculous striking water from stone.
In the old stories, this encounter beside a well would have ended in marriage. Jacob’s father met his mother beside a well, and he met his beloved Rachel there a generation later. The land on which Jesus and the woman meet was Jacob’s bequest to the sons of his son, Joseph; the firstborn of Rachel, his beloved. There is history, in the ancestral traditions that Jesus and the woman share, of promising strangers meeting women beside the well.
But between Jacob’s time and theirs, another history has intervened. Divided by the exile into Babylon, which left behind the people of the northern kingdom, the people of Samaria pursue their religion differently than do the Jews, and a mutual mistrust has grown into outright enmity, even despite their promising beginnings as children of Abraham, children of the living God together.
There is no huge leap needed to find the parallels between their situation and the mistrust, even the rhetoric of enmity, that divides the children of Abraham, the children of the God of Abraham, from one another. We have seen the horrors to which anti-Semitism can lead; we are rightly wary of our own Islamophobia. We come to the well confused by our shared history of faith and violence, forgiveness and suspicion. We come to the well, wary of one another, and through our veil of protection do we recognize Jesus, when he asks us for a cup of water?
The tension, then, that makes this such a great story in our canon of Jesus is not only the tension between a man and a woman, met as strangers, alone and exposed outside the town. It is not only the tension of history, the ongoing struggle for justification between Jew and Samaritan. The tension that brings this story to life is the struggle between love and enmity, between life and its memory of cruel death, between our good and proper human aspirations to right religious observance and the divine grace of God.
In the old stories, this encounter beside a well should have ended in marriage, or perhaps, alternatively, in war.
I had my own encounter once with God beside a well. I hesitate to tell you all of the details, in case you think me a crazy woman; I have a hunch that my Samaritan ancestor-sister can relate. Anyway, it was noonday, and the well was in the Lake District of north-western England, the country where Beatrix Potter wrote her Peter Rabbit stories and William Wordsworth met his crowd of daffodils. I had just come into the knowledge that I was pregnant for the second time. We never got to meet the first; and that was the tension that thickened the air above the well that noonday. I was grateful, so grateful for this second chance at a new life; and I was bitter, and frightened, and angry that the first had left me bereft.
I found God beside the well, and I had a choice, whether to meet God as a friend, and to bless God joyfully; or whether to turn away, curse God, and follow my own heart back into its hard shell of protectionism, mistrust, and enmity.
Met beside the well, the Samaritan woman and I laughed, without much humour, at the outrageous, flirtatious offers of Jesus. Living water, ever-flowing, clean and refreshing blessings, life without dessication or decay? We knew that this was not the way that the world works; and we wondered whether we were being taken for fools by a sly and manipulative conman. Jew and Samaritan, mortal and immortal; what do we share in common with one another, after all?
We have more in common with the people of Flint, Michigan; one poor public works decision away from disease and ruin. They, in turn, might rally to the cry of the people cursing Moses in the wilderness:
“Did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”
Of course, that story ended in a miracle. But I noticed something, reading these tales of living water side by side. In each of them, God does not act alone, but invites the people who would test God, who would question Jesus, who are wary of trusting in God’s grace; God invites even those people to participate themselves in the God’s acts of saving mercy.
The water does not break open by itself, or at the touch of an angel, but only through the medium of Moses. Jesus, coming to the well, first asks the woman, “Will you give me a cup of water?”
It is as though God is doing everything in God’s power to bridge the gulf between our trouble and our expectation, between our history and our hope.
And it turns out that, after all, we share a history with God. We share a history steeped in God’s perennial practice of mercy, love, rescue and redemption. It turned out, too, that day beside the well, that God even shared a history of parental loss, seeing a son suffer on the cross, the very heart of heaven broken by the weight of grief and glory.
The woman ended up trusting Jesus, forgiving him for his place in her family history, because the well of their shared ancestry ran far deeper than their divisions, and their faith in the one God, differing religious practice notwithstanding, was far more likely, in the end, to unite than to divide them.
As she was reconciled to Jesus, an unprecedented accord between Jews and Samaritans ended up with Jesus and his disciples staying for days in the house of their enemies, without fear, without judgement, prejudice, or enmity. In the Samarian wilderness, in the heat of the noonday, a little oasis of the kingdom of God sprouted up in the city of Sychar, rooted in the spirit and in truth.
She would still, after he had moved on towards Jerusalem, need to return to the well to draw water day by day, and to negotiate the complexities of life in a region riddled with strife. Still, there would be days when the water was undrinkable and the children sick, even dying. Still, in the wilderness of Sin, the people gathered around Moses had a long way to go before they could rest their weary complaints and their frightened hearts.
And yet something was born anew that day, some hope, some second chance at new life.
Forgiving Moses, in a rush of generosity lubricated by water from the rock, the Israelites for a moment also forgot to be angry at God. Forgiving Jesus his enemy heritage, the woman found herself open to astonishing new possibilities: could this be the Messiah? She became one of the first to recognize him. Reconciled to God; dare I say, forgiving God? we are opened to deeper possibilities of a partnership with grace, a more profound understanding of the history that we share:
the history that we share with one another, as children of Abraham, as children of the baked earth, intertwined by birth and blood, death and the stories that we tell of those who have gone before us;
the history that we share not only with Moses, and with the woman at the well, and with Jesus; but the history that God has shared with us;
a living stream of grace and mercy whose current runs through to this day.
Forgiving Jesus his history, the woman became one of the first to recognize him as her redeemer. Forgiving God my history, I was able to strike living water even from the bitter well of grief.
In the ancient stories, such an encounter would end with a marriage: the promise of forever, the ever faithful covenant of God.