The woman at the well

Today I did talk on John 4:1-30 for the Women’s World Day of Prayer. Here it is…

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today.  I am a pioneer missionary with the Church Mission Society based in Kingston.  I run a project called ‘Sacred Space, Kingston’ and am employed by the YMCA London South West as their Spirituality Development Co-ordinator and work with them, as well as Kingston University, All Saints and Kingston URC, to engage with people who would describe themselves as ‘spiritual’ rather than religious or subscribing to any particular faith.    This is fast becoming the majority of people in the UK but I began my ministry 9 years ago when I felt God tell me to offer to pray with people at Kingston’s Green Fair.  I now train and lead teams around the country to do mission in mind, body, spirit type fairs and pagan festivals.

I love this story of Jesus’s encounter with the woman at the well.  Both of them are not meant to be there and as someone who likes to go where I’ve been advised not to, I feel intrigued about what will transpire and have a point of identification with them.  She should not be drawing water from the well in the heat of the day and Jesus should not be mixing with Samaritans, let alone an unaccompanied female.  Yet here they are and Jesus asks her for a drink.  She’s not intimidated enough to point out the problem with his request but, much like the well they are beside, his response seems intent on drawing her in deeper.  “If only you knew what God gives and who it is that is asking you for a drink, you would ask him, and he would give you living water.”  As the excellent Tom Wright points out in ‘John for Everyone’, the phrase ‘living water’ was regularly used in this culture to refer to running water, water in a stream or a river that’s more likely to be fresh and clean as opposed to standing around getting stagnant in a pool or puddle.  She now demonstrates her knowledge of the history of the place and it’s religious significance and comes back to Jesus with a challenge – surely you’re not saying you’re greater than our patriarch Jacob?  Jesus then gives her a hope, a vision.  Imagine what it would mean as a woman in those times, and indeed in many places in our world today, to never again be thirsty and to always have a ready supply of water on hand to meet your every need?  How much time and energy must have been expended going backwards and forwards heavily laden with water for the basic necessities of life?  Jesus seems to be proposing an end to all that!  This is enough for her, she might not fully understand but she wants it!

Then their conversation takes an unexpected turn, Jesus asks her to go and get her husband. Why does Jesus say that?  Especially when he knows the answer i.e. she doesn’t have a husband, she’s had 5 already and the man she’s currently living with she’s not married to!  I think a clue might be found later in the gospel of John, chapter 7, verses 37-39, “On the last day of the festival…Jesus stood up and shouted out, “If anybody’s thirsty, they should come to me and have a drink!  Anyone who believes in me will have rivers of living water flowing out of their heart, just like the Bible says!”  He said this about the Spirit, which people who believed in him were to receive.”  If we are to receive God’s Holy Spirit, it will impact every area of our lives including our relationships and domestic arrangements.  With Christ nothing is hidden, although I love the fact he doesn’t make her feel condemned but finds something positive to affirm and actually commends her for her honesty!  This means she’s not put off and continues to go toe to toe with him in the remaining dialogue, clearly impressed by this word of prophetic insight.  She next introduces the issue that divides her people from his – where should God be worshipped?  Again Jesus answers by going to a whole new, deeper level.  The real issue is not where but how – by the power of God’s Spirit – and who – it’s the Messiah that reveals the truth.  Suddenly it’s as if the light goes on, she gets it and she can’t wait to share it!  She rushes back to her community and is one of the first to share the good news of Christ such that others believe.

OK so what can this teach us about mission today?  Firstly, to be willing to go to where the people are even if that might offend and challenge.  Jesus opens himself to criticism by talking to this woman and yet she becomes the first evangelist.  He doesn’t invite her to come hear him next time he’s speaking at the synagogue or temple courts so why do we expect people to come to us in our churches?

Secondly, he’s creative.  He uses what’s there to initiate a conversation.  The water in the well is a fantastic symbol to use to talk about who he is and what he brings.  Also he is willing to make himself vulnerable and asks her to do something for him – give him a drink.

He relies upon the Holy Spirit.  I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had with spiritual seekers at fairs where I’ve said something that seemed to reveal an experience they’ve had or a need they want met which has had little to do with me but everything to do with God.

He listens and responds to what she says.  Mission is a dialogue and not a monologue.  That’s what makes it so exciting!  I never know exactly what is going to happen, who I will meet and what exactly I’m going to say but I do know that I will be as challenged and enriched by the experience as I hope those I encounter will.

Finally, she doesn’t count herself out!  Despite problems with the community, no doubt as a result of her dubious lifestyle as evidenced by her drawing water alone at midday, the Samaritan woman is not afraid to tell others.  Yet it is not forced or rehearsed but a natural outpouring of enthusiasm as a result of meeting Jesus.  The challenge it leaves us with is do we have such a dynamic relationship with Christ and are we sufficiently empowered and motivated by His Spirit to want to share it so it makes a significant difference to our community?

Our theme today is streams in the desert.  I want to end with an extract from Sunday’s Observer:

“Hala Shukrallah was elected leader of Egypt’s Dostour party last week,…she is the first woman – and first Christian – to lead a major Egyptian party. At a time when the 2011 uprising seems to have achieved little, her election is a reminder of the seismic social shifts the revolution unleashed. At least, that is how she sees it. “What we’re seeing here is that something truly on-the-ground is happening,” Shukrallah, 59, says of her election. “I think it’s a reflection of the changes in the people’s psyche since the 25 January [revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak]. They do not really see these elements as significant – being a woman, being a Copt, or whatever. These elements are no longer significant in comparison to a much bigger thing that they are aspiring to.”

Women and Coptic Christians (who form around 10% of the otherwise Muslim population) have historically been largely marginalised from politics. But Shukrallah’s election hints that this may slowly be starting to change, partly thanks to a shift in national consciousness created by the 2011 revolution, which encouraged people to challenge social structures.

Here and there, you can find similar signs. In December, leftist physician Mona Mina became the first woman to be elected head of Egypt’s influential doctors’ syndicate, a group led for years by male conservative Islamists. In terms of women’s rights, Egypt’s new constitution is thought more progressive than any before.”

May these be lasting signs of hope for Egypt and her people.  We need to pray but also let the stories of amazing women in other parts of the world, as well as the example of the Samaritan woman, inspire us to do our part, with God’s help, to ensure streams of living water continue to flow wherever we are and there is need for peace, healing and transformation.

Unwelcome silence

I really respect people who love silence.  They go on retreat and spend days alone in quiet with just their own thoughts for company.  It is almost as if by stripping away all other noise, they become aware again of that intimate connection at the centre of the Universe which gently holds and sustains them.  Without the other distractions of life and relationship it is much easier to get back in touch with this infinite presence at the heart of everything.

I get that!  However, I was punished with silence.  “Go to your room and think very carefully about what you’ve done and don’t come out until you’re ready to apologise.”  Silence for me is about disconnection.  It’s the consequence of being bad.  I even had a boss who would give me the long, cold, silent treatment when I had made a mistake in my work.  I remember one morning being in a lift full of employees from other departments.  As he got in, he made a huge show of greeting everyone enthusiastically, accept me.  They all knew who he was and what my relationship was to him. It was utterly humiliating.  Even after this, it carried on.  He’d completely ignore me, turn his back when I came into a room and talk without any reference to my existence.  It went on for what seemed like weeks.  Eventually, I went into his office and begged him to shout at me so that he could get his displeasure with me out and, then hopefully, done with!

When I experience silence, I feel panic.  I have lost everything.  I am in free fall with nothing secure to reach out for.  The critical voice in my head recounts over and over, continuously all the evil I have ever committed, all the failings I’m deeply ashamed of.  “This is your own fault.  If you had not exposed yourself to scrutiny, you would not have been found out for the miserable wretch you are!”  I can’t get away from it.  I try to sleep and the voice just gets louder and more insistent.  I turn the radio on to drown it out.  I seek to distract my mind with a good book or compelling drama.  This goes on for days.  It is torture.  It feels like it will last forever and there will be no end to it.

But there is a cure.  It is re-connection.  It’s finding the strength and resolve to contradict that internal tyrant and resist the overwhelming urge to never let anyone see you in vulnerability again.  It’s being courageous enough to trust again despite the pain that will inevitably result.  It’s forgiving others for circumstances that, however inadvertently or unintentionally, contributed to your suffering.  It’s not hating yourself for breaking cover, revealing what’s precious in a potentially hostile environment and allowing it to be judged.  It’s choosing to believe it won’t be as bad as this next time.  It’s being willing to entertain the idea there will be a next time!

Silence is not a bad thing but it should carry a health warning.  It exposes what’s there.  And that’s necessary.  It can create space for healing.  But for some of us silence can be an unwelcome presence because what it reveals is our shame.