When Soren and I were recently in Damascus, you may remember hearing that our water was poisoned. This was on account of the NATO-certified ‘moderate’ rebels having taken control of the damn that fed water into the city, and these same moderate folk had poisoned the water by pouring diesel into it!
The result was that people were getting sick, and one friend of ours whom we met up with in Damascus had indeed been very sick, but was recovering when we met him. Soren started to get stomach cramps too, which worried me, and Mother Carol came down with a severe tummy bug that ended up excluding her from some of the key experiences of the trip though, thankfully, she recovered.
Of course, we couldn’t be sure whether Carol’s or Soren’s difficulties were due to the water but, either way, it was all a stunning reminder of how essential to life water is, and that is no doubt a large part of the point Jesus is making when he speaks of God as water.
“Everyone who drinks of [normal] 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 will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:14-15)
The quote comes from the fourth chapter of the Gospel According to St John, and it’s part of the dialogue that takes place between Jesus and a woman He meets at a well in Samaria – a woman whose name we never discover.
It’s a well-known story, describing a well-known encounter – an encounter almost as well-known as that described in the previous chapter of the same Gospel – namely, of Jesus’ meeting with the Rabbi, Nicodemus.
I confess that in my previous treatments of the scene in John four (the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman) my focus has always been drawn to the person of the woman – who she was and why Jesus dealt with her the way He did, whereas with John three (Jesus and Nicodemus) I’ve generally found myself focusing on the teaching:
- “The wind blows where it will … so it is with the Spirit (John 3:8)
- “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the son of man be lifted up” (John 3:14), and, most famously …
- “For God so loved the world that He gave His only son” … (John 3:16)
The focus on the person rather than the teaching in John four is understandable as the Samarian woman is a startling figure! The fact that she is a foreigner, and a foreigner with a dubious past, make it noteworthy indeed that Jesus is spending time with her, though it’s simply the fact that Jesus is dialoguing with a woman that bamboozles His disciples. Either way, Nicodemus comes across as a relatively flat and uninspiring character by comparison.
It occurs to me this time though, as I look at the two stories side-by-side, that they were meant to be read together, and scrutinised in much the same way.
As I say, Nicodemus – Jesus’ special guest in John chapter three – comes across as a rather colourless figure in comparison with the Samaritan woman of chapter four. In truth though, I think the contrast between the two figures is deliberate, and the fact is that they contrast at multiple points!
Most obviously, Nicodemus is a man and the woman is a woman! Gender differences are always fundamental to who we are, but we know too that gender differences had even more pronounced social significance in first century Judea than they do today.
As mentioned, it was the fact that Jesus was talking to a woman that shocked His disciples! Of course, this may not have been simply because she was a woman as such, but also because she was the type of woman that ventured out to the village well in the middle of the day (and the story does make it clear that she did come out at around noon [John 4:6])!
As all students of Kipling know, it’s only mad dogs and Englishmen that go out in the midday sun, and persons whose social standing is such that they wish to avoid all contact with their peers during their daily trip to the well.
As is confirmed in the conversation with Jesus, we are not simply dealing here with a woman who is on the lower rungs of the societal ladder by virtue of her gender, but with a notorious woman – someone who occupies one of the lowest rungs on that ladder by virtue of her reputation!
We don’t know the woman’s story in any detail. Jesus somehow knew though that she’d had five husbands and that the man she was then attached to was not her husband. Quite likely, the man Jesus refers to in this way was her pimp!
However we reconstruct the woman’s story, she’s someone from the underside of society – an outsider, and certainly not someone that any self-respecting Jew would take seriously as a spiritual person. The contrast could not be greater between her and Nicodemus, the Pharisee, a teacher of Israel (John 3:10).
- He is male. She is female
- He is educated and literate. She is neither.
- He is a respected community leader. She is social refuse!
Indeed, the contrast between these two figures is so stark that I wonder if the author of the Gospel doesn’t intend us to understand these two figures as two bookends between which all humanity is included?
However we interpret the author’s intention, what fascinates me when I read of these encounters, side by side, is not only that fact that Jesus treats each of his partners in dialogue with equal respect, but more so, the fact that the teaching He imparts in both cases is more or less the same!
I don’t mean to gloss over the complexities and differences in the conversations recorded in John chapters three and four. Even so, in both cases Jesus speaks in metaphor, and the metaphors all seem to point in the same direction!
In John, chapter 3, Jesus speaks of God using the metaphor of the wind: “The wind blows where it will. You hear its sound, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes!” (John 3:8)
I said earlier that water is one of the most fundamental elements of human life. Perhaps the only element in the universe more fundamental to human life than water is air! Human beings can live for quite a while without food – forty days and forty nights, at least. We only last a few days without water. We can’t last more than a few minutes without air!
Jesus speaks of God as both water and air!
- “You must be born of water and of spirit” (John 3:5)
- “The wind blows where it will … so it is with the Spirit” (John 3:8)
- “those who drink of the water that I will give will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)
The air and water Jesus speak of are the fundamental building-blocks of life! We are not talking here about some spiritual icing on the cake – how to cap off a life well lived by rounding it out with a spiritual dimension. The God that Jesus speaks of is One who penetrates to the very core of human existence!
- You must be born again!
- You must be born of water and of the spirit!
- You must drink of this life-giving water if you are to have real life!
It is popular in our culture to think of religion as being an optional extra in life. We don’t mock anyone for being religious (so long as they don’t get too carried away) but neither do we see any necessity in religion, as if we couldn’t get by perfectly well without it. Obviously, this is not religion as Jesus understood it. Life without God, from Jesus’ perspective, is like living without air or water. It’s just not something that is sustainable in any meaningful existence!
Now, I appreciate that there are lots of good reasons for not joining a church, and indeed, the church throughout history has done a pretty miserable job in terms of offering consistent witness to the life-giving stream of water that is supposed to be flowing through it. Even so, if we can get beyond the church to the message of the church, we know that that message is about what is as fundamental to human existence as the water we drink and the air we breathe!
This is surely at the heart of the message Jesus shared with both Nicodemus and the woman at the well, and if there is a second fundamental truth about God that Jesus wanted to communicate through the metaphors He uses in these conversations, it was surely this – that God is not easy to grab hold of!
Along with being fundamental to human life, this is perhaps the other most obvious quality that both air and water have in common – they are both difficult to hang on to. Getting a solid grip on water is not easy. Holding on to the wind is also difficult. And I don’t think I’m squeezing these metaphors here in a way that goes beyond what Jesus was doing with them. On the contrary: “The wind blows where it will … so it is with the Spirit.” (John 3:8)
We have real trouble keeping track of God. We have no trouble mistaking when the wind is blowing but we can’t work out whence it comes or whither it goes! God is like that! Just when we think we have God pinned down and think we know exactly what to expect, God turns up in the most unexpected places, such as alongside some notorious foreign woman in the middle of a desert!
In a similar vein, Jesus says to the woman, “true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (Jon 4:23). This is in response to her attempt to outline what constitutes true worship, in terms of where exactly you should go to pray. Jesus says it’s less an issue of where you go than of who you are, and it’s not about things visible but about things unseen – attitude, spirit, truth!
One of the great things about these two dialogues in John three and four is that neither of Jesus’ partners in dialogue really grasp what He is talking about! We might think that Nicodemus, the Pharisee, the teacher of Israel, would get it, or, being fans of Jesus and knowing the way He operates, we might think that the notorious woman would get it while the sophisticated intellectual misses it. Nope. Neither of them get it, and if the Gospel writer really is thinking of these two persons as something like bookends between which the rest of humanity is squeezed, perhaps we shouldn’t expect to grasp it all either!
I don’t know whether everyone saw the video I shared on Facebook on Friday, featuring a Rabbi, a priest and an Atheist smoking marijuana together. I didn’t create the video, and it already had around 3.5 million views before I got to it, so I can’t take any credit for making it popular either. Even so, if you haven’t seen it, I recommend it, as I think you will find it strangely edifying!
The featured priest is an American Episcopalian (of course) and after about 45 minutes in to the session, he responds to the scepticism of the Atheist with a rather profound statement – “just think of God as all that is true, knowing that we don’t know all that is true!”
Now, I don’t know whether that was weed-inspired wisdom, but I thought it was pretty profound. Moreover, I thought it was a really good response to what Jesus teaches about God through these two dialogues in these two chapters from the Gospel According to St John.
God is mysterious! God is difficult to grasp. Just when we think we have God all worked out, God alludes us and frustrates us to the point where we want to give up. Even so, God is so essential to human life that we can’t go on without God. Such is the life of faith!
first preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on March 19th, 2017