St Agnes, Toxteth Park
Lent 3 (A)
Note: I am indebted to Fr Nicholas King SJ and the notes in his New Testament translation for much in this sermon.
Over and over again when I read the gospels I think: If only we had more information about that; if only we knew where that happened; who else was there what had happened just before, or what happens afterwards.
Today’s gospel reading is almost the opposite: we almost have too much information, too many details, we know where Jesus has been, where he is going and what the disciples are doing. We know that Jesus is tired; hungry and thirsty; that his disciples have gone shopping for food while he has time on his own.
This is a great passage for practising lectio divina with, so take your Mass sheets home with you and spend some time this week imagining yourself witnessing the scene that is described, spend some time getting to know the passage, noticing things you haven’t noticed before, ask God to speak to you, tell you what he wants you to hear.
The passage is quite early on in John’s Gospel – just chapter 4. John begins his gospel, as we know well, with that magnificent hymn of praise to Jesus, the Word made flesh: In the beginning was the Word. Jesus then meets John the Baptist; his first disciples, Andrew and Peter, then Philip and Nathaniel; he turns water into wine at a wedding at Cana; visits the temple in Jerusalem; meets the Pharisee Nicodemus in the middle of the night and then sets out on the journey from Jerusalem to Galilee through Samaria where he meets this woman.
John in his Gospel is trying to take us on a journey, a journey in which we get to know more about the mystery of who Jesus is. Today’s story is a sort of mini-journey in which the woman herself goes through the process of working out just that: who Jesus is.
It has a slightly awkward start which is typical of John, a sense of ‘what’s going on here?’ and that’s not surprising. The meeting of a man and a woman at a well would immediately make anyone who knew their Hebrew Bible think ‘Ay, ay, what’s going on here then.’ In a very similar passage in Genesis 24 Isaac meets his soon to be wife Rebekah at a well. In Genesis 29 Jacob meets his wife Rachel and in Exodus 2 Moses meets his wife at a well.
One new testament scholar – the Jesuit Nicholas King – even translates verse 9 in our passage today with full double-entendre:
‘Judean males do not have intercourse with Samaritan females’.
The passage quickly moves on to the woman gaining greater knowledge. She has come to the well at the middle of the day; the least likely; the least convenient time to do so, in the heat of the day. Jesus asks her – somewhat abruptly – for a drink, which he never gets.
Perhaps this is like his thirst on the cross, or his saying in Matthew 25 ‘I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink’?
Perhaps we can ask ourselves what Jesus is thirsting for. Is it for us, our friendship, our kindness, our compassion?
There is typical ironic humour in the woman’s misunderstanding Jesus as if he refers to his lack of a bucket. But she is quick on the uptake and soon refers to as ‘Lord’; the first to do so in John’s Gospel.
But the story moves quickly to the woman’s own life and the oddness of her five marriages: we are not told what happened to them. Most likely they have each died, it was almost impossible for a woman to get a divorce and even for a man required the woman to have committed adultery in which case she would be unlikely to be able find a new husband.
So if she is a four-fold widow we can imagine the deep compassion that Jesus would have shown and felt for her.
This compassion leads to one of those key phrases that John uses in his Gospel when he wants to show us something really important . Jesus says, in Greek:
EGO EIMI: I AM.
I am the one who is speaking to you. He says, acknowledging the answer to her statement, that she knows the Messiah is coming.
John is showing that Jesus is not just telling her she is right, he is the Messiah, but more than that he is acknowledging that he is God, divine.
Again, in the Hebrew Bible when God reveals himself to Moses in the burning bush he says:
I AM WHO I AM.
When we see Jesus for what he is. When we meet Jesus in our lives, things change. The woman drops her bucket and becomes a missionary. She goes and tells her friends and neighbours who she has met and they come to believe in Jesus because of her words.
The disciples don’t get it. They are puzzled and uncertain. But there is no uncertainty in the people who have come to faith through the woman. They use a new title for Jesus ‘Saviour of the World’.
So in this one passage we see Jesus identified in six ways:
GREATER THAN JACOB
SAVIOUR OF THE WORLD
As we read this passage we can ask ourselves the question that Jesus asks:
‘Who do you say that I am?’
Jesus meets us at the well, he wants a relationship with each of us as passionate, as significant, as enduring as marriage. He betroths himself to us if we will give our consent and say ‘yes’ to Jesus. And as soon as we do we become missionaries, those who make Jesus known.
In the few months I have known you here at St Agnes, I have fallen in love with this church and our celebrating of Holy Mass together.
Here we receive the food and drink that no one gets in the passage we have before us today.
Here, together, we meet Jesus.
Soon the post for a new priest here will be advertised. I will be praying hard that God sends to this place a holy priest, a mission priest, a priest of prayer and faithfulness who knows Jesus and makes Jesus known, a priest who will grow this congregation and bring many others who live and work and go to school in this little corner of Liverpool to meet Jesus, to drink and to be fed at his altar and to acknowledge that Jesus is:
GREATER THAN JACOB
SAVIOUR OF THE WORLD
May the woman at the well, whose name we do not know, who is ‘equal to the apostles’ pray for us and pray for a new priest for this parish.