This morning’s sermon could be about a marriage, or a pilgrimage, or a heartfelt cry to learn to live with difference, but really it is about baptism. Whenever there is water mentioned in John’s Gospel, you just know that he will get on to the subject of baptism – like last week, being born of water and the spirit – like the wedding at Cana – no need for daily acts of ritual cleansing as the baptised are free to celebrate with the best wine of heaven – and so this morning, as soon as Jesus starts to talk about living water – bubbling water, moving water – we know that baptism is on the cards.
But the set up is much more complex than that. For example, we know exactly where this encounter happens, and we could go and visit it tomorrow, if we wanted to. Jacob’s Well is now a fixed point on the tourist trail within the occupied West Bank, a few miles from the town of Nablus, so we could go there, sit on the well, and try to engage one of the local women in conversation, and see if we have the same results as Jesus. Or we might not be able to, because as soon as we mention the West Bank, we know that this is disputed territory, and that sometimes tourists are not allowed in. 2,000 years after this encounter, little has changed in this place – Jesus was as unwelcome in the town of Sychar in his day as we might be if we rolled up in a tourist coach today.
In Jesus’s time, this area was not under occupation, but was the subject of a dispute that dated back nearly 500 years, to the aftermath of the Jewish exile and their subsequent return. Sychar and its surrounding area had been annexed by the Assyrians as far back as 700BC, and they had brought people in to farm the land from other parts of their empire. The remaining Jews had intermarried with these gentiles, but had maintained a version of Jewish religious practice. When the main body of Jewish exiles returned from Babylon, starting in 538BC, there was a major conflict about the status of those who had married gentiles, which resulted in Samaria becoming a separate land, with a separate culture, and a separate temple as the centre of their – ostensibly – Jewish worship.
500 years of suspicion and hatred had not abated when Jesus sat down at Jacob’s Well – deep within Samaritan territory but a landmark dear to all Jewish hearts, as the place where tradition taught that their ancestor Jacob had met his wives. Jacob’s Well also happens to be at the foot of Mt Gerizim, which is where the Samaritans had built their temple – so the woman’s attempt to redirect the conversation, once Jesus gets onto the touchy subject of her private life, is not totally without relevance.
So, you get the picture: Jesus, a foreigner, sits down at a place claimed by two hostile nations as their own, and talks to a woman with a dodgy marital history about knowing God in a new way. Not the most obvious of exchanges, but this is what we have. Why did he do it? Could he not have waited for his disciples to come back with the bucket? It is what any other Jew would have done. But no, the Lord of the universe, the creator of all, was not going to turn down an opportunity to talk about the love of God for humanity, especially if the person he was going to talk to was both a social outcast – why else was she at the well at midday, other than to avoid all the other people in town – and on the wrong side of the religious and cultural divide.
Now we could stop there, and learn all sorts of lessons about the love of God and the way we should live as his people – about the inclusive nature of the love of God, about the radical engagement that Jesus had with everyone and anyone, about not shying away from difficult topics, about confidence in our faith in the face of age-old differences and mounting indifference – but Jesus is not going to any of those places. Jesus is treating this woman as someone who needs the living water of the love of God deep within her, to transform her life and the lives of others around her, so that all that has been put up as a barrier before can be left behind in the joy of the living presence of God. Whichever way the conversation twists, it comes back again and again to how we encounter the living God – and here he is, in flesh and blood, asking her for a drink.
We have gathered today to encounter the living God. Whether we come because we want to, because we always do, because our parents have dragged us here, because we have been invited to attend the baptism or whether we have simply walked in off the street, we are here to meet the living God. [This young man is going to meet the living God in water, in oil, in word and in light.] How well we get through to him, how well he communicates with us, is totally dependent on how much we allow him to talk to us, to fill us with his living water. We can put up all sorts of barriers, use all sorts of excuses, but God is here, with us, in us, present in bread and wine, in music and song, in word and deed, in peace shared and in prayer offered. God is here in the space between our words and thoughts, in the silence and in the noise, in the stillness and the movement – and all he wants of us is to acknowledge him, to love him in return for his amazing love for us, to want to let that living water rip through our lives and refresh us every day.
And in refreshing us, that living water will transform us from people who see barriers to people who see opportunities, from people who look only to the past to those who see God at work in the past, in the present and the future. And in refreshing us, we will be transformed into God’s people who see difference as a reflection of God, and so embrace it. We will be transformed into people who deliberately cross boundaries to take Christ’s love to those whom society says we shouldn’t even talk to.
This is Lent in all its glory – freedom to go beyond ourselves and society’s self-imposed limits to explore areas where fear and tradition have held us back. Come to a Lent Lecture, and discover that all those people who go to other churches here in Kew are exactly the same as us, have the same reactions and same doubts, same hope and same expectations – for they too are filled with the living water of God. Use the time and money freed up by whatever you have given up to make a difference somewhere – to help local refugee families, to explore and document the wonderful world that God has put us in, to spend more time with those neighbours you have always felt you should talk to but somehow have never got past the time of day and the beauty of the weather. Go long – help us organise a cracking Big Get Together in memory of Jo Cox, killed by someone who could not cope with difference during the referendum campaign – just to say to the world that we are a people of welcome and inclusion and love.
And may that living water that God filled us with at our baptism well up in us today as we worship, tomorrow as we work, and forever, as we delight in the God who loves us cares for us day by day.