Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- It is a curious thing, isn’t it, that some of the most important lessons we learn in life can be opened up to us by the most unexpected and even unlikely means. We like to think that our understanding of God, or indeed the most significant aspects of human relationships, will be made clear by those we most trust, or our greatest friends and intimates, or even our priests; yet it may be that it is when we step out of the safety of what is familiar and trusted that something quite remarkable happens. It was like this with the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, or the remarkable achievements of the Truth and Reconciliation Committees in South Africa; it was events which changed perspectives and looked at things with fresh eyes that brought about whole shifts in mindsets never before thought possible.
St John records one such incident (Jn 4:5-42) in his description of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. This story smashes down boundaries on so many different levels that at the end of it we feel quite shattered, taken apart and reconstructed and that surely is the point of the story. Relations between Jews and Samaritans had been poor since the exile, nearly 600 years back, as Samaria had been conquered long before and many aliens filled the land. These were not deported to Babylon and had followed a form of Judaism despised by Jerusalem. Indeed, so great were the divisions that they would not even drink from the same wells! And into this picture of separation and self-righteousness stepped Jesus. And he doesn’t go quietly into a city or village and behave well either! Oh no, he meets up with a local woman who is the epitome of depravity, the stealer of husbands and the one presently cohabiting with her sixth man. This is not the way to make friends and influence people.
She is so ostracised from her people that she must make the arduous trip to the well for water at midday, the hottest part of the day, unprotected and without friends and companions. What we then witness in the meeting between this unlikely pair, the tired and vulnerable Jesus, and the equally world-weary woman, is a beautifully contrived piece of fencing in which the two gradually put aside their presuppositions about each other and begin to communicate. It is his thirst which forces Jesus to ask for water, and her response which pushes him into his offer of more of himself – a very risky tactic in view of her reputation. She, knowing men as well she does, is having none of it and sticks to the prosaic details, ‘You haven’t got a bucket and what’s this with the water?’ Jesus however perseveres, moving his offer of eternal life/living water a stage further, and the woman, intrigued, follows. She is fed up with her life, the men, the isolation, the city, as she freely admits with the ‘husband-partner dialogue. I suspect there is no great divination going on here, Jesus has most likely counted up the number of her nose rings and deduced from it the number of her repeated and unsatisfactory relationships.
She, ever on her guard, but intrigued, quips back that he is a prophet (those who commented on the times, not seers into the distant future) but then asks where one should worship. Presumably she knows the conventional answer of Jews that Jerusalem is the only proper place and is testing him. Jesus’ remark that neither place, Jerusalem nor Gerizim, is right for God is both asking for and offering a quite different understanding of the relationship. In this of course, he has turned resolutely aside from temple sacrificial worship and, as we note that he never mentions the Jewish law, clearly something very significant is going on. Jesus too is the outcast, the aberrant, the one whose understanding of God breaks away from the exclusivity of Judaism and all its trappings for a relationship of a quite different order between God and humanity. This encounter opens the way for the woman to speak of the Messiah, and Jesus reveals himself as such to her – the only recorded instance where he volunteers such information in all four Gospels.
As is the way with things, at this crucial moment the disciples turn up with food and, full of disapproval, cut the scene of revelation short. But Jesus has made his breakthrough and we know it through the simplest, yet most significant of the woman’s actions: she abandons her water jar. Only those who have lived in very dry countries can truly appreciate the significance of this. She does the quite unthinkable. The woman has turned away from life, the one thing, water which is absolutely essential; and the work of poor women in their millions over generations, and she has found a more important task, that of taking the Good News of salvation to her city. Never mind the fact they despise her, ostracise her and hate her, she is a woman with a mission, the bringer of new life; and so great is her conviction that she carries the day and the citizens accept the Christ and welcome him.
Moses too (Exodus 17:3-7) was another unlikely leader and witness for God, and one moreover who himself frequently failed the God of Israel. A murderer; a renegade; one who lacked courage and ran away, and one who complained to God on the Exodus journey, and yet was chosen by God and does ultimately accomplish the liberation of his people, albeit he himself is excluded from the Promised Land. The bringers of salvation, it appears, can come in very curious guises.
In Romans, (5:1-2.5-8) Paul spells out what this mysterious pattern of redemption really is. His point is that none of us are ‘worthy’ of salvation, but rather that this is the gift of Christ to us. Certainly he speaks of our faith in Christ, but not in any form as a talisman which guarantees salvation, for as he recognises, we are all quite unworthy. ‘We were still helpless when at his appointed moment Christ died for sinful men.’ The point is, that it is God’s choice in Christ which redeems us all, uniting us to the Son and bringing us home to our Creator. It is never something we have done that earns salvation. Most of us, most of the time, like the Samaritan woman, live disappointed and dissatisfied with our lot, vaguely aware that something more awaits us over the horizon. For each of us there will be flickers of illumination, moments of clarity, on this life’s journey, and the point is they may come through the oddest of routes and through the most unlikely and unexpected of people. All we can pray for is the grace to recognise them when they do come.