Last June I had the great blessing of going on my first ever pilgrimage to the Holy Land, in company with some of my fellow clergy from the Edmonton area. The Holy Land in June is hot. The sun stands almost overhead at noon, and there is very little shade.
However, we were assured when we arrived that we would have an air conditioned coach with all mod cons to carry us around, and the driver had a great ice box at the front of the coach which would be full of bottles of water that we could buy on board. So the first day we piled on to the coach and set off into the furnace-like heat of the day.
When we’d gone a little way it transpired that something in the Middle Eastern supply chain hadn’t quite joined up. There was no water on the coach. Those few clergy who had been wise virgins and brought along their own supplies looked a little smug, while the rest of us started to experience mild symptoms of panic. You realise what thirst really means when you are in an intensely hot dry climate and you don’t know when you’ll next be able to have a drink. You realise that what you want is not a nice cup of tea, not even a gin and tonic, but water, pure clear refreshing water. In the event our crisis didn’t last long, and the first time we saw a kiosk laden with bottled water everyone descended on it like a flock of gulls.
Having felt the heat of the Judean summer I can really appreciate the force of today’s story from John’s Gospel. “Give me a drink” is not a request made simply for the purpose of illustrating a moral message. It is about real need and desire. But what Jesus wants to explore is the deepest desire of human beings, what we most fundamentally need. What we most deeply need is not the water that will leave us thirsty again, but the water that wells up to eternal life.
The life that God gives, which we call eternal life, is completely different from the biological life of the body. It is of the Spirit. It comes from beyond us, as God’s gift. We must be “born from above” as Jesus said to Nicodemus in last week’s gospel.
Today’s story follows the journey of the Samaritan woman, and indeed that of all her village, into belief, into the life that God gives. That life is not like water that will leave us thirsting again, because it is inexhaustible. God pours himself out for us without ever being diminished.
Water, of course, is necessary for the life of the body, our biological life. But that will not last for ever; it is a life which is limited and conditioned by death. And water itself is a limited resource, when you use up what you’ve got, it’s gone. And because it’s limited it can be a cause of rivalry and conflict, as it was in the reading from Exodus. As it may be, perhaps, in the future in some parts of the world as climate change causes more deserts to appear.
So the water the body needs, in this story, stands for the desires which cannot ultimately satisfy us. Those desires which are limited and bounded by death and so are the cause of rivalry and conflict.
The death-bound nature of this kind of desire appears in other ways in this story. The woman whom Jesus talks to turns out to have had five husbands, and the man she is with now isn’t her husband. Her complicated relationship history seems to have made her something of a social outcast, shown by the fact that she goes to the well in the heat of the day, alone, rather than early in the morning with the other women of the village.
Now we might think therefore that this woman has been living a loose life, that it’s her fault. But in a patriarchal society such as this, women had little say over what happened to them. It was men who decided who women would marry and men who decided to divorce their wives when it suited them. It’s much more likely that this woman was the victim of the rivalrous desire of a number of different men. She is now a social outcast because of the conflict that their desire has created.
Jesus’ perception of her history leads to the exposure of a deeper rivalry. The woman says, “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you (plural) say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”
Here is the age-old conflict between the Samaritans and the Jews cast in terms of a rivalry about God. And Jesus’ answer shows how this talk about God is really just a disguise for another desire bound up with death, a desire for something limited which cannot satisfy. God is not like that, says Jesus. God is spirit, breath. God is the life from beyond us which is without limit. All those who worship God worship in spirit and in truth. How foolish it is to be in rivalry over God. As if there might not be enough to go round.
So Jesus delivers us from our rivalrous death-bound desires, the desires which can never satisfy, by giving us the life which God lives. The life which gushes up like a spring of water to eternal life. The life which is not diminished in giving itself.
Which I think is what St Paul is talking about in today’s passage from Romans where he says that we will be saved through Christ from “the wrath”. Paul in the Greek doesn’t actually say “the wrath of God”, just “the wrath”; the words “of God” were added by the translator who for some reason thought they should be there. (The King James Bible, in this instance, gets it right.)
“Wrath” in Greek is orge. “Orgy” comes from the same word. It speaks of desire which is never satisfied, desire out of control, desire collapsing in on itself in a spiral of self-destruction. Wrath is, if you like, the flip side of our death-bound desires, what those desires do to us if we are not saved from them. Our desires are fixed on what will never satisfy us, and so we experience wrath, rage, frustration. Because we are seeking life, true life, eternal life, where it can never be found.
But Jesus is saving us from “the wrath”. His gift is eternal life, the life God lives, which we receive as his gift because we cannot construct it for ourselves. We must allow him to liberate us from our death-bound desires so that we can be born from above and live according to God’s deathless desire, God’s desire which will satisfy us eternally because it is entirely without limit and without rivalry.
Towards the end of today’s Gospel Jesus introduces another image of the life that he gives, the food that his disciples know nothing about. Jesus will enlarge on that later in John’s Gospel in his teaching about the Eucharist: Jesus himself is the bread come down from heaven; the bread that he will give is his flesh for the life of the world.
In this Eucharist we feed on the deathless life of God, given in Jesus, who liberates us from our death-bound desires. That life is poured out for us without ever being diminished. By living from that source of life we too are enabled to live eucharistically. We can live in thankfulness rather than rivalry, because we receive our life as a gift rather than grasping it as a possession. We too can pour ourselves out for others without fear of being diminished because we know that the true source of our life is not in ourselves but is God’s gift.Jesus said, “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Lord Jesus, give us this water, so that we may never thirst. Amen.