Earth’s fountains fair but mock our souls,
Like desert phantoms lure,
And they that drink, the fainter grow,
The keener thirst endure.
You’re not likely to recognise the hymn from which these words are taken – words that cleverly highlight the enigma that no matter how much we drink, the human thirst for water is never ultimately satiated. You may well recognise though the passage from the Bible that inspired these words – namely, our Gospel reading form John chapter four, where Jesus speaks of the living water which, should you drink of it, you will never thirst again!
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 remember the chorus:
What! never thirst again?
No, never thirst again;
What! never thirst again?
No, never thirst again,
For he that drinketh, Jesus said,
Shall never, never thirst again.
According to my dad, it was one of those hymns where you’d get one side of the church singing one line – “What, never thirst again?” – and the other half replying with “No, never thirst again!”.
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). I’m sure Mary Agnew Stephens would be chuffed to know that her hymn is being sung in Thai but I confess that I lost my enthusiasm, in terms of how that would translate into our context (so to speak).
These are, at any rate, well-known words and images that we encounter in John, chapter four – the metaphor of living water for the sprit of God – and as with the well-remembered words and images of John three, which spoke of wind and new birth, these words and images come to us as part of a dialogue between two people – Jesus, on the one hand, and this time a Samaritan woman on the other.
I think it’s worth starting our probe into this Gospel reading by stepping back and looking at the big picture, and to how these two encounters in John, given to us in chapters three and four, respectively, appear alongside each other. They are markedly similar in many ways and starkly contrasting in others. In both cases Jesus enters into deep theological dialogue with the person He is talking to, and in both cases His partners in dialogue are similarly confused by what He is saying. At the same time though, these two people couldn’t really be any more different!
In John chapter three, we met Nicodemus – a wealthy and educated man, and a loved and respected spiritual leader of his people. In John chapter four, we meet a woman who is not a Jew, and so was not respected at all by most Jewish people, and who was also not respected by her own people – the Samaritan people. Whereas Nicodemus was rich, educated, powerful, loved and respected, this woman is none of those things – neither wealthy nor educated nor powerful nor respected. She is an isolated figure – a powerless and vulnerable nobody.
It’s interesting that we never learn her name. Perhaps that should not surprise us. Perhaps very few people knew her name. Perhaps she didn’t want people to know her name. Either way, we know quite a bit about her, and we learn quite a lot about her simply by the fact that she turned up at Jacob’s well in the middle of the day:
“It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water.” (John 4:6b-7a)
“Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”, Rudyard Kipling famously said, referring to those who would brave the heat of the day in 19th century India. Much the same could be said of those who would brave the heat of the day in first century Samaria. You wouldn’t be out there unless you had good reason to be out there at that time, meaning that this woman had good reason to be avoiding her peers, and the reason for this becomes clear in the conversation she has with Jesus:
“Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”” (John 4:16-18)
Obviously, there was a lot more to this woman’s story, but this is enough to help us understand why this woman was being shunned by her community. She had had five relationship breakdowns, and nobody respects somebody who has had five relationship breakdowns.
Nothing has really changed in that regard, I think. I find it hard enough to retain people’s respect after having had two relationship breakdowns. Perhaps I should find it encouraging to be reminded that there are persons out there who are greater failures than me. Perhaps, in as much as I hate having other people look down on me, at least I can look down on her!
Of course, we don’t know what caused all her relationship breakdowns, and neither do we know anything about the relationship she was in when she met Jesus, but over the years there has been plenty of speculation.
The assumption made by most commentators is that she was a sex-worker of some sort. Perhaps she’d had multiple children to multiple men, each of whom eventually tired of her sex-addicted, money-grabbing lifestyle, and, rather than have her stoned, simply divorced her and moved on. That’s the most unsympathetic interpretation.
At the other end, some speculate that perhaps she couldn’t have children, and so perhaps her partner’s tired of her for that reason. If she were infertile of course, that wouldn’t mean she was not to blame. Surely, you must have done something pretty bad to be cursed by God with infertility!
Of course, we don’t have to assume that all the woman’s husbands divorced her. It’s quite possible that some of them died. Perhaps they all died? That in itself would make her look pretty suspicious, of course, but you’ll remember that story the Sadducees told Jesus about the woman who was married to seven brothers, one after the other, and they all died on her (Matthew 28). Perhaps that story was based on a true-life example. Perhaps it was inspired by this woman?
What is really interesting here, I think, is what Jesus Himself tells us about the details of this woman’s failed relationships. The answer, of course, is ‘absolutely nothing!’.
We who have followed Jesus have used our imaginations to fill in all the blanks, but it seems to me quite significant to me that Jesus Himself offers no comment on the woman’s failed relationships whatsoever.
Jesus pushes the woman to tell him about her marital status – “I have no husband” (John 4:17) – presumably because He wants to let her know that He is already fully aware of her domestic circumstances and that He does not judge her.
Jesus does not say to her, “Go, and sin no more”. He does not say to her, “Your sins are forgiven”. Jesus doesn’t say anything about this woman’s sinfulness, on the one hand, or about her victimhood, on the other. He affirms her for telling the truth, but he makes no comment on the specifics of her personal history whatsoever!
We don’t find that nearly so easy! We want to judge the woman, just as her first century peers wanted to judge her. Perhaps that’s the natural human thing to do, though it seems to me to be a tendency that especially afflicts religious communities. When things go wrong, we search for someone to blame. We can’t feel at peace with God or with ourselves until we have a straightforward explanation as to why the bad thing happen to apparently good people. Someone must be at fault?
Yes, of course I’m allowing my personal pain to affect how I experience this story but, having been through two relationship breakdowns, I now find myself looking back with wonder and admiration at the community who nurtured me through my first relationship breakdown – that elderly group of women and men (but mainly women) who only every seemed to have one question for me – “how can we help”.
That was thirty years ago. Having come back to the same low point a second time, the far more common question this time around has been, “who do we blame?”
As one friend said to me one the day my separation was announced, “you now have no credibility”. I suspect that’s exactly what they said to the woman too. The key difference, I suspect, was that she had no one to support her – no one, at least, until she met Jesus!
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again”, Jesus says to the woman, “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. The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”” (John 4:13-15)
Jesus doesn’t judge the woman. He offers her life!
It’s hard to be sure how much else of what Jesus said that day was properly heard. As with the Nicodemus dialogue in John’s previous chapter, there is a play on words in the original text, and while Jesus is speaking about ‘living water’, the woman thinks He is talking about ‘flowing water’ (which is the same word in the original language), as in contrast to the still water of the well.
It’s hard to know how much else the woman took away from that meeting, but note that this is the longest recorded dialogue that Jesus has with anyone in any of the four Gospels, and that Jesus clearly took this woman seriously as a partner in theological dialogue, and this despite her being a Samaritan, being uneducated, being a woman, and being a woman who was looked down upon by her community.
I don’t know how many others here have read Foucault’s, “Discipline and Punish”. I read it back in my University days and have never forgotten it, or at least I’ve never forgotten what I remember as the central premise – namely, that our ‘correctional institutions’ don’t really exist for the sake of correcting anybody but exist rather so that people in regular society have another group they can look down upon.
I’m sure more erudite scholars of Foucault will tell me that’s a very partial reading of the great man’s work on the subject. That’s what I remember, and it’s an understanding that has been reinforced in me over the years that I’ve visited prisons around this country. We know the statistics – that the recidivism rate (the rate of those who return to prison, term after term) is ridiculously high. These places don’t seem to be designed to help their clients. Even so, Foucault is the only one I remember being bold enough to suggest the prison system’s real function.
The village idiot was another vital member of the community who once played that role – giving everybody else in the community someone they could feel superior to. It’s part of the way human communities operate. We have a pecking order. Celebrities are at the top of the order and pedophiles on the bottom. Even in prison, pedophiles have their own ‘protection wing’ so that they aren’t killed by the other prisoners, as the regular prison population needs people they can look down on too.
This is the way human societies work. We evaluate, we judge, we respect and we disrespect. We admire and elevate some people and we denigrate and lynch others, and being the fickle people that we are, we can switch in an instant – shouting hosannas to someone one day and crucifying them the next. That wasn’t only Jesus’ experience. Look what’s happening to Julian Assange at the moment.
This is the way human societies work. It’s not the way Jesus works. In no instance in the New Testament do we see Jesus looking down on anyone on the underside of the community. On the contrary, he doesn’t look down. He gets down. He gets down with those at the bottom, and offers them the living water that wells up to eternal life!
Let me finish as I started, with the words of Mary Agnew Stephens:
Oh, blessed stream of pure delight!
Oh, balm for every pain!
To thee I haste, for Jesus said,
I’ll never thirst again.
First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on Sunday the 15th of March, 2020.