Earth’s fountains fair but mock our souls,
Desert phantoms have the power to entice, just like they do in the desert.
And the more they drink, the more frightened they become.
The more ferocious hunger persists.
The hymn from which these words are taken is probably unfamiliar to you, but they cleverly highlight the paradox that no matter how much water we drink, our thirst for it will never be satisfied. When Jesus speaks of the living water that, if consumed, will quench your thirst forever in today’s Gospel reading from John chapter four, you may recognise the biblical passage that served as inspiration for these words.
The hymn is entitled, “What, never thirst again?” and was written about a century ago by Mary Agnew Stephens and I know it well as it was a favourite of my dad’s, and he used to sing it to me when I was little. I can still sing along to the song’s chorus.
What! Never again be thirsty?
No, never thirst again;
What! never thirst again?
No, never thirst again,
For he that drinketh, Jesus said,
I will never, ever again be thirsty.
One of those hymns, according to my dad, was “What, never thirst again?” and the other half was “No, never thirst!”.
I did toy with the idea of doing that together with the congregation, after downloading the tune to back us up, but the only rendition of the tune I could find on YouTube had the song being sung in Thai (with English subtitles) (with English subtitles). The fact that Mary Agnew Stephens’ hymn is being sung in Thai makes me smile, but I’m not sure how well it will work in our context (so to speak).
In any case, the metaphor of living water for God’s spirit is well-known from John 4, where we first encounter it. To be sure, these words and images come to us from a conversation between two people – Jesus and this time, a Samaritan woman. This is similar to how John 3 speaks of wind and new birth.
To begin our investigation of this Gospel reading, I believe we should take a step back and consider how these two encounters in John’s gospel, found in chapters three and four, appear next to one another. In many ways, they are very similar, but in other ways, they are very different. Both times, Jesus engages the person He is conversing with in a lengthy theological discussion, and both times, the people with whom He is conversing are equally perplexed by what He is saying. However, these two individuals couldn’t be more dissimilar!
Our first introduction to Nicodemus, a wealthy and well-educated religious leader of his time, was in the third chapter of John. As we see in John 4, we meet a woman who is not a Jew, and as a result, is not respected by the Jewish community at large, as well as by the Samaritan community. Unlike Nicodemus, who was wealthy and educated, as well as powerful and respected, this woman is neither of these things. She is a powerless and vulnerable no-one who stands alone in the world.
It’s odd that her real name is never revealed. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by that. Her name may have been unknown to most people. It’s possible she didn’t want her real name to be known. Her arrival at Jacob’s well in midday reveals much about her character, and we’ve learned a lot about her just from that fact.
A few hours later, it was lunchtime. One of the Samaritans came to fetch water. (John 4:6b-7a) a
Those who braved the oppressive heat of 19th-century India were described by Rudyard Kipling as “mad dogs and Englishmen” when they went out in the midday sun of that era. Those who would risk their lives in the sweltering heat of the day in the first century Samaria could say the same. Unless you had a compelling reason to be out and about at the time, this woman had a compelling reason to avoid her peers, as revealed in her encounter with Jesus:
In response to the woman’s pleas, Jesus said to her: “Go home; call your husband.” She replied, “I don’t have a husband.” You are correct in claiming that “I have no husband,” because you had five previous husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. It’s exactly as you’ve described it! (2 Cor. 6:19-21)
OK. There was obviously a lot more to this woman’s story, but this is enough to explain why this woman was shunned by her peers in the community. She had been in five failed relationships, and no one admires someone who has been in five failed relationships.
In that regard, I don’t believe much has changed. Even after two relationship breakdowns, I find it difficult to maintain the respect of others. It’s possible that being reminded that there are people worse off than me should be uplifting. As much as I despise it when others look down on me, I suppose I could at least look down on her!
Over the years, there has been a lot of speculation about what caused her to break up with so many men, and we don’t know anything about the relationship she was in when she met Jesus.
The general consensus is that she was some sort of sex worker. Her multiple children to multiple men, each of whom eventually grew fed up with the sexual and financial demands of her lifestyle and divorced her rather than stone her may have been the reason why she’s now stoned. That’s the most cynical way to look at it.
It’s possible that her partner has grown weary of her because she is unable to have children. Of course, if she were infertile, that would not absolve her of responsibility. If God cursed you with infertility, you must have done something terrible!
The assumption that all of the woman’s husbands divorced her is not necessary, by any stretch of the imagination. There is a good chance that some of them perished in the fire. Is it possible that they were all killed? That alone would raise suspicions, but you’ll remember the story the Sadducees told Jesus about the woman who was married to seven brothers, all of whom died on her (Matthew 28). For all we know, it could have come from a real-life incident. Maybe she’s the one who inspired it?
What strikes me most about this passage is what Jesus Himself has to say about this woman’s past love affairs. It goes without saying that the answer is ‘nothing at all!’.
Many of us have filled in the blanks, but I believe it is significant that Jesus Himself makes no comment about this woman’s failed romantic relationships.
Because He wants the woman to know that He already knows about her marital status and does not judge her, Jesus insists on the woman telling Him, “I have no husband” (John 4:17).
However, Jesus does not tell her to stop her sinful behaviour. He does not tell her, “Your sins have been washed away,” as some have suggested. It’s unclear whether Jesus is commenting on the woman’s sinfulness or her status as a victim. When it comes to the specifics of her personal history, he says nothing but praise for telling the truth.
That’s not nearly as simple for us! Like her peers in the first century, we are eager to judge the woman. Perhaps it’s a natural human tendency, but it seems to me that religious communities are particularly susceptible to this. We look for someone to blame when things go wrong. We can’t be at peace with God or ourselves until we know why bad things happen to people who seem to be doing everything right. Is there anyone else to blame?
That elderly group of women and men (but mainly women) who only ever seemed to have one question for me – “how can we help” – was the community that supported me through my first relationship breakdown.
That was more than three decades ago now. “Who do we blame?” has become a more common question now that we’ve returned to the same low point.
“You now have no credibility,” a friend told me on the day I announced my divorce. I’m pretty sure that’s what they told the woman as well. The main difference, in my opinion, was that she didn’t have anyone to lean on before she met Jesus.
Jesus tells the woman, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I give them will turn into a spring that will supply them with water for the rest of their lives. Woman: “Sir, please give me this water, so that I will never be thirsty or have to keep coming here for water. Thank you,” she said. The Gospel of John (4:13–15)
The woman is not a target of Jesus’ wrath. Her life is in his hands.
Much of what Jesus said that day may have been misunderstood. According to John’s previous chapter on Nicodemus, there is a play on words, and the woman misunderstands what Jesus means when he refers to “living water” as “flowing water” (the same word in the original language).