Water is central to life. We all know that. Without it, life as we know it would never have evolved and couldn’t continue to exist. We tend, in our Western comfort, to forget just how precious water is, but to our ancestors it seemed miraculous. People have always venerated natural springs, and why wouldn’t you? They seem to come from nowhere, welling up through the ground, apparently a free gift from the earth itself.
It’s no surprise that people have tended to regard springs and wells as holy in every religion. Christians quickly started telling stories linking wells and springs with the lives of the saints. St Alban, on his way to martyrdom in the town that now bears his name, started to feel thirsty, the story goes, and right there and then, a spring rose up. When the Welsh saint, Winifred, was beheaded by the suitor she had rejected to become a nun, a well rose up on the spot. Fortunately, her uncle, St Beuno, managed to reunite her head with her body and resurrect her, but that’s another story – and the spring kept going anyway. You can still visit it at Holywell in Flintshire. And of course, just down the road in Kemsing, St Edith’s well marks the spot where the Saxon saint was born and grew up. It was a site of pilgrimage before the Reformation, along with a shrine to her in Kemsing churchyard. Supposedly, the water was good for restoring eyesight, though I wouldn’t advise trying it now.
And of course there are many Biblical stories about springs and wells, and the significant things that happen at them, like our readings today. God brings water out of solid rock when the Israelites are thirsty in the wilderness. It was the last place they expected to find water, but solid rock is no obstacle for God.
The well in our Gospel story was a familiar place to the woman who met Jesus there, though. In fact it was probably depressingly familiar. Collecting water was a daily task, and a backbreaking one, usually the job of women or girls, as it still is in many parts of the world. The UN estimates that 90% of the work of collecting water and wood in poorer parts of the world falls to women and girls, which means they miss out on school, and often face danger too. When drought strikes, as it has in East Africa at the moment, the task becomes infinitely worse. That’s why access to clean, safe water is such a game-changer for women in particular. The only positive feature of that daily journey to the well at the time of Jesus – and perhaps for some women today – was that it was often a sociable occasion, a chance for a catch up with your friends.
But the women who comes to this well in Samaria is alone, and it’s noon, the hottest time of the day. Why hasn’t she come in the early morning, as surely her peers did? It seems like she’s be avoiding them, or they have shunned her.
The reason why that might be is soon revealed. She’s been married five times and the man she is with now hasn’t even bothered to marry her. They have either divorced her – women couldn’t initiate divorce themselves – or they’ve died, or maybe a mixture of both. Whichever it was, it would have been seen as her fault, a curse from God. No wonder she can’t face her neighbours. And no wonder she’s so surprised that Jesus welcomes her. A Jewish man who wants to talk to her, a Samaritan woman? What’s that about? And he puts himself in her debt by asking for a drink from her. Why would this be? He can’t possibly realise what kind of woman she is, she thinks. But it’s clear from what he says that he knows very well what’s happened to her – he’s the one who brings up her marital history. He knows, but it makes no difference to him. She’s a person of value in her own right, a person he’s happy to talk with, and to talk theology with, something normally reserved for men. She’s never met anyone else who has spoken to her like this before, giving her such dignity and respect?
It’s utterly transforming, even more transforming than having her own private water supply in her own home would be, which is what she initially thinks Jesus is offering her. It transforms her in her own eyes. It transforms her in the eyes of Jesus’ male disciples, who are astonished to find him talking to her. And it transforms her in the eyes of her community, the community who had judged and shunned her, but who are now drawn to Jesus by her testimony.
“Living water”, water that “gushes up to eternal life”, which slaked her thirst not just for a moment or a day or a week, but forever. This is what Jesus offered her, and it’s what he offers us too.
For one surprised Samaritan woman, the living water of God’s love, released by Jesus into the arid wasteland of her life, brought dignity and a sense of worth. We might thirst for something else – a sense of purpose, forgiveness, freedom, rest - but whatever it is, the water we really need can only come from God. So what is it that we are thirsting for tonight? What is it that we need? In the silence, let’s imagine ourselves sitting on the edge of that well with Jesus. Let’s ask ourselves that question, and listen for his response.