The Third Sunday in Lent, Homily on John 4: 5-30, 39-42

Canon Bill Kibblewhite
St. Peter’s, Erindale, March 15, 2020

As a youngster, I remember being on a farm and pumping water out of a well. It was a new experience for me and it was fun to do it. How many of you have ever had the chance to pump water out of a well? I came across a story that’s been around for a long time and have used a different version of it before. A traveller, dying of thirst in a desert, came across an old pump. Attached to it was a can of water with a note on the can. It said: “There’s lots of water in the well. Use this water to prime the pump.” Now, what’s the traveller supposed to do? The water in the can is a sure thing. It may be the difference between life and death. But if he drinks it, he won’t be able to get any more water from the well. Nor will anyone else, because there won’t be anything left to prime the pump. But suppose the traveller pours water into the pump and it’s not enough to prime the pump. Or what if the well is dry?

Using the water to prime the pump is an act of faith -That the unknown writer of the note told the truth – That there really is water in the well – That the pump will work – And that there’s enough water to prime the pump. A dehydrated person would need extraordinary self-discipline to pour the can of water into the pump.

That story reflects the dilemma that faces our world today. Many are not confident that the well has water in it. Or even that there will be a tomorrow, when water will be needed as much as ever.

We need water in order to live! That is so evident in the story of the Hebrew people during the years they spent wandering in the Sinai desert, following their exile from Egypt.

That was also the experience of my grandparents, who spent eleven years in China over a century ago. My grandfather taught at St. John’s Anglican College in Shanghai from 1905 to 1916. The Taylor’s had three children, all born in China. My mother was the only one of the three to survive. Her sister and brother- Margaret and Eric, both died from amoebic dysentery – from drinking infected water. The temperature in Shanghai would reach 40 degrees celsius in the Summer. There certainly weren’t the refrigeration and the water purification systems that we have today.

Here we are, a hundred years later, with COVID-19, being very conscious of practicing good hygiene, including washing our hands frequently with soap and water. We need to continue to exercise caution and care for the most vulnerable. It’s normal to be anxious as the virus spreads, but let’s not give into fear and panic.

In 1994, Canon David Long and I spent part of our SabbathLeave at St. George’s Anglican College in Jerusalem. The month
-long course we took was called “The Bible and Its Setting”.Early in the course, we spent part of a day, standing out in the sun at the ancient site of Jericho. It was 40 degrees celsius. Every few minutes, the dean of the college stopped his commentary and pointed at different members of the group barking out the command -‘drink water!’ Then late in the afternoon, when we were back at the college, some of us in our group decided to take a walking tour of East Jerusalem. It was very pleasant out. The temperature was in the mid 20’s celsius, and the sun was receding in the sky, so I didn’t think I needed to take a water bottle with me. But, because Jerusalem is at such a high elevation, it wasn’t long before I became dehydrated. My head started to spin and I felt faint. I would have collapsed, had I not been able to stop in a shop and buy a bottle of water. From then on, in our five weeks in Israel / Palestine, I never went without a bottle of water at my side.

In Ontario alone, we have approximately a quarter of a million lakes and rivers. This number sounds incredible, until you pull out a map and start counting all the blue dots. We are so fortunate, because areas such as the Middle East have very little fresh water, which has sparked numerous conflicts over the years. It’s no small wonder that the image of water is often used by the biblical writers to speak of life from God.

We see that in today’s gospel reading. The woman at the well is one of my favourite biblical stories. During our program of study at St. George’s College, our group visited Jacob’s well in Nablus, the biblical Sychar. It was there, in the heat of the day, that Jesus engaged a Samaritan woman in conversation. In asking the woman for a drink, Jesus broke several social conventions of his day. Though Samaritans and Jewish people shared an early common history, their subsequent rivalry brought enmity and violence.

When the Jewish people came back from captivity in Babylon, in 538 B.C., and began to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, they refused to let the Samaritans participate. The Samaritans, who were from tribes in the north, proceeded to build their own temple on Mt. Gerizim. They considered it to be superior to the temple in Jerusalem. Su.ce to say, there was no love lost between the Jews and the Samaritans. By the first century, the Jewish people considered the Samaritans heretics and weren’t supposed to speak to them. In addition, men weren’t permitted to address women without their husbands present. It goes without saying that a rabbi had no business engaging an unknown Samaritan woman in a conversation.

Here was a woman who had been rejected over and over again. It’s no wonder that her daily walk came – not in the cool of the morning with the other women, but alone in the heat of the midday. She was shunned by the people of her own community.

Jesus and the woman got into a discussion about what was truly life-giving. Jesus o.ered her living water. It’s not surprising that she misunderstood him. We probably would have too. She took Jesus literally – thinking that he was referring to the water in the well.

In response to Jesus’ request for a drink of water, this polite, but gutsy woman pointed out the obvious: “You have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?” Her natural curiosity prompted her to question Jesus. Then Jesus made a bold promise: “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.” Jesus quickly shifted from everyday life to everlasting life.

It’s when the woman brought up the differences the Jewish people and the Samaritans had in their places of worship, thatJesus was able to point beyond that conflict, to what they had in common. What a lesson for us today, as we live in this great interfaith city of Mississauga! Perhaps you’d like to get involved in the Interfaith Peace Camp this Summer. Jesus revealed himself to the woman as the Messiah, the One who brought the Spirit of God to both Jew and Samaritan. The woman focused on the law. Jesus focused on love and forgiveness.

The woman, realizing that she had encountered a transformative person, left her water jar and returned to the city.

What would make a person leave behind such a precious commodity in the heat of the day? What, if anything about our faith would make us drop all the appointments on our iPhone and spend time with those who can’t stand us?

This woman had made a new discovery. She was now known in a new way, because instead of Jesus condemning her, he loved her unconditionally. Unlike the woman’s neighbours, Jesus did not judge her, even though she had had five husbands and was now living with another man.

She became a new person, not because Jesus revealed her sin, but because Jesus revealed himself to her. Look at the growth in her understanding of who Jesus was. First she called him a Jew, then “sir”, then a prophet, and finally the Messiah.

Because the woman found acceptance, she also found the courage to address her community. She became one of the first evangelists in Jesus’ time. ‘Evangelism’ is a word we Anglicans tend to shy away. It simply means sharing the good news with others – sharing the story of what God has done in our lives. OnFebruary 29, the bonus day at the end of February that’s what we did at the SYC event, Seniors-Youth Connection Event. We had a wonderful time together. Look for more information about the SYC in the days to come.

The woman went back to the city and told others to come and see the man who revealed everything that she had done. They responded to her because they saw a person of strength and conviction, a person who knew what it meant to be loved and accepted.

Her willingness to go back to her community, reminds me of an ancient story of four men who went for a walk in the woods.Before long, they came across a high wall. Intrigued, they built a ladder to see what was on the other side. When the first man climbed to the top, he expressed his delight and jumped over. The same thing happened with both the second and third men. When the fourth man reached the top, he smiled at what he saw: lush green gardens with a variety of fruit trees. streams teeming with fish and lots of animals. Like the others, he was tempted to jump down. But then he thought of his family, friends and neighbours and went back to them to share the good news he had discovered.

The climax of the meeting between Jesus and the woman,came, when, as a result of the woman sharing her story, many Samaritans believed in Jesus. They did so because of the nature of Christ’s invitation to the woman at the well. It was warm, respectful and non-judgmental. It speaks of God meeting a woman on the margins of society in an intimate way, affirming her dignity and her belonging to the broader community. Jesus’ example points to the way we are to be channels of grace in the 21st Century. In the early days of the COVID-19 virus, the racist targeting of Canadians of Chinese heritage was shameful. As Canadians and as Christians, we can do better, by following our Lord’s example in treating one another as he treated the woman at the well.

The quote from N.T.Wright that was in the bulletin two weeks ago, on the 1st Sunday in Lent, speaks to how Jesus approached the woman at the well and how meaningful this Lent can be for us. “Lent is a time for discipline, for confession, for honesty, not because God is mean or fault-finding or finger pointing, but because God wants us to know the joy of being cleaned out, ready for all the good things he now has in store.”

In a parched world, many people will choose a drink of water right now, rather than wait for something that may or may not work out. It’s not easy to stake our life on there being water in the well.

This Lent, let us ask ourselves what is life-giving, and how we can deepen our commitment to drink from the source that God offers us in Jesus Christ, and bring life to others.