Nothing Hidden – John 4:15-18

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
17 “I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet…’

Then, showing that she trusts him she raises a religious debate issue that was troubling her, then she says,
25 “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.John 4:15-26

This woman just discovered that her life is transparent to him and yet he is not rejecting her. This impressed her enough that she believes she is in the presence of someone who knows the thoughts of God: a prophet, in other words.

When we are accepted despite our faults – when we are given grace – by God or anyone else, it makes a big impression. In this case he not only continues to talk to her, but reveals to her categorically that he is the one the Jewish people have been expecting for centuries. This is astounding. We remember that it was shocking that he was even speaking to her, and yet she is one of the very first people to whom he reveals his true identity, and especially in such an unequivocal way. He showed the woman that he knew all about her, but he allowed her to know the most important thing about him. This is not a Son of God who lords it over people. This is one who wants dialogue and relationship with us. That relationship has far more impact than following a set of relgious rules. That’s not what Christianity is about.

The result of this encounter was that the woman ran back to her village and told everyone that Jesus, “told me everything I ever did,” and from that simple exchange, many came to faith in Jesus.

The Wellspring of Life – John 4:11-15

Still life with water, Lunigiana, 2013

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”

13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” John 4:11-15

As we read this story I think we need to get over something very obvious: this woman can be forgiven for thinking Jesus means literal water. In the course of the conversation Jesus leads her to understand that he is talking about supernatural spiritual sustenance, rather than special drinking water that won’t need collecting from the well. We are reading it as scripture, knowing that John must have included this episode in Jesus’s life because it reveals something important. We know something else must be going on. Jesus is purposely drawing out her curiosity. She is also probably hot, thirsty, and aside from his shocking lack of knowledge of local etiquette, she has no reason to believe he is not talking about magic replenishing water at this point.

Living water was also another way of saying ‘running water’. Throughout the Bible, water is used as an analogy of God’s provision for his people, as an image of the presence of God with his cleansing and life-giving properties.

What is Jesus really talking about? He clearly states that he can offer to meet an appetite or basic need in a way that will be satisfying. Yet this does beg a question, to my mind. In church meetings we often talk about being filled with the Spirit, and we acknowledge St Paul’s guidance to ‘go on being filled with the Holy Spirit’. Is that because we haven’t received Jesus’s water that will become in us a spring?

I think Jesus must be talking about the bigger picture here. Once we ask Jesus to be Lord in our lives, we can trust that his spirit will be the spring in our lives: it, or rather he, will now be permanently at work in us. That’s not to say the disciples didn’t need refilling with God; we need the same. But once he is at work, we will no longer need to consider God as being located far away.

The Samaritans and Jews were locked in an ideological battle over where God was located, and hence where worship should take place.

“The animosity toward the Samaritans was greatly intensified about twenty years before Jesus’ ministry when some Samaritans defiled the temple in Jerusalem by scattering human bones in the courtyard during Passover (Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 18.30). This conflict at the temple highlights one of the fundamental differences between the Samaritans and the Jews, namely, the question of where God has centered his worship.” – IVP New Testament Commentary Series

Jesus would soon promise his disciples that whoever believed in him as being God from God, that God himself would come and dwell in them (John 14) and that they would have eternal life, i.e. that believers would not die in a spiritual sense. That is a radical departure from a world in which you might be excluded from the location of God because it was in territory where you were not welcome. Jesus makes himself available to a gentile woman as much as to his disciple. He also makes the grace of God available to all who would accept it.

Asking for Water – John 4:7-10

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”” John 4:7-10

So how did your day go after all? Did God show up? Were there seas to cross that turned out to be calmer than you expected? That’s what happened for me, just like we were thinking about last night. God even directed my attention to a daily devotional book of Bible verses this morning, and the passages for today were exactly the same theme as we looked at this morning, promising his presence and help. I was really encouraged. What a great omniscient divinity God is 😉 He’s kind. Those readings got me through the day.

So today we get a clearer picture of what is happening at this well. The shortest road between Jerusalem and Galilee was through Samaria across the rolling hills. It’s lunchtime and Jesus’s disciples take care of their master and head off to buy food; as the disciple of any rabbi would have done. What a familiar image this is. Two thousand years and so much is the same.

But there are some massive cultural differences we need to establish before we can perceive how counter-cultural Jesus’s actions are.

Firstly, the Samaritans were a tribe living alongside, but separate from, Jews. Their bloodline was part Jewish and part gentile. The Jews had been commanded by God centuries earlier to not intermarry, so purity mattered a great deal to Israel. There were also religious differences between the two peoples. Ultimately the Jewish people despised the Samaritans. Rabbis were supposed to keep themselves pure, and would not even think of talking to gentile, Samaritan, woman.

The fact that she is a woman is a bigger deal than you might imagine. The position of women has come a very long way since 1st century Palestine, compared to 21st Century England.

Women’s status in the culture of the day (in Israel and beyond) was as unreliable slaves. They were marginalised at best. Jews taught that they were not to be seen out of the house without two veils; Their vote didn’t count; their testimony was not valid in a court of law. They were not allowed to be taught the Torah (the Jewish religious scriptures, i.e. what Christians know as the first five books of the Old Testament). The first readers of John’s gospel would have the expectation of standard Jewish teaching, that, ‘He who talks with a woman [in public] brings evil upon himself,’ and, “rather should the words of the Torah be burned than entrusted to a woman.” (Rabbi Eliezer). These were not exceptional views for the time by any means. Similar expectations would apply to interaction with a gentile. To Jewish minds, there were spiritual, ceremonial consequences for what Jesus was doing here; speaking to a gentile, speaking directly to a woman, and not even with a chaperone around. Teaching her about God, when no respectable woman would be a disciple, a man’s role.

In Roman (and Greek) culture too, a woman was not to speak in public. Divorce was permitted if the woman went out without a veil.

So we may well imagine the shock on the woman’s face at Jesus asking her for a drink. It’s as if he has no problem talking to her. We can almost hear her head exploding. She boldly asks a question right back, because she is trying to understand how what she has just heard can possibly have just happened.

Jesus isn’t just a counter-cultural spiritual teacher. He takes the opportunity to reveal to her something he has has barely revealed to anyone else, and he initiates a conversation that will end up in extraordinary revelation.

Whatever Christians have made of the status of women in the last two thousand years, Jesus did not differentiate on the basis of gender. He was as interested in revealing the truth to women as he was to men. Because we are about to see that he is not just trying to change social convention. He is suggesting something much more radical. He implies that he can provide a necessity of life more important than water from a well in the middle of a hot day.

And then he acknowledges that she has identified superficial things about the identity of each of them, but if she knew the full story, the one deemed to be thirsty would be her, not him. What kind of thirst is this? More tomorrow.

Notice too that he draws her into the conversation and makes an opportunity for her to ask for more information if she wants. He does not lecture her. He reveals himself to people in natural conversation. I think that’s probably still true today. So often we secretly hope God will just download his truth or guidance to us and then we can get on with our lives. Jesus seems to value dialogue very highly.

When Jesus Met a Samaritan Woman – John 4:1-6

Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.

Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.” John 4:1-6

I thought I might take a few days looking at what happened when Jesus met the Samaritan woman. It’s an unusual episode in the gospel accounts, because it feels like a spacious conversation – Jesus hasn’t got a crowd around him this time and we can just watch this woman and Jesus and see what happens.

But first of all, a very small detail is the subject of today’s post. From what we can tell, Jesus did not sit down at the well with a plan to convert the whole area. He was about to reveal his true nature to a gentile woman who would believe him, be overjoyed and become the first evangelist to the Samaritans. But all that is to come. All Jesus knew, apparently, was that he was tired, so he gave himself some rest by the well in the midday sun. He may have been the son of God, but we have no reason to think he knew what was about to happen. He was just going about his day.

It encourages me that God doesn’t expect me to be able to prepare for every eventuality. I’m grateful to him that he has promised to be always with me: I want to hold onto the truth that I will be able to handle the unexpected as it arises. I might not have tomorrow’s answers today, but as I wake up tomorrow I want to remember that God the Father knows what the day holds in store, and like all his other children, including Jesus, I’ve decided to trust him to lead.

Father, help me follow where you lead. When I’m tired, help me let you give me rest. Protect me from thinking I have to be super-spiritual or superwoman. Thank you for everything you have prepared in the day you made ahead of me.

How to Encourage Each Other – Romans 1:11-12

“I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong— that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.” Romans 1:12

This is a lively phrase in which we can practically hear the cogs of Paul’s brain turn: writing to the believers in Rome, he looks forward to ministering to them, but then remembers how much the experience is inevitably a mutual blessing. He anticipates imparting a spiritual gift to them – this refers to the way Jesus and his followers laid hands (then and now) on another believer and in prayer imparted a gift, such as an anointing for leadership. This happened to Timothy, for example – see Paul’s letter to him. Imagining this happy scene, Paul is aware that he is encouraged in seeing God at work in the lives of those he is ministering to, just as much as they are encouraged by him.

If you’ve been around Christian teaching for a while you might recognise part of the Greek word that Paul uses for ‘mutually encouraged’: symparakaleō. The Holy Spirit is famously described as the paraklete, our great helper-encourager. As he does for us, Paul is looking forward to being with his Roman brothers and sisters so they can all be sym- or co-parakletes for each other – providing help and encouragement for each other. Such friendships are a holy calling.

Visiting a friend tonight, I enjoyed hearing her talk about how she had understood something as she was talking to Jesus on her morning walk. She had a revelation in understanding something about herself. I was momentarily struck with the temptation to wish that I heard from God that well. But as we continued sharing our recent experiences, it was evident that we each had news of God’s breakthroughs in things we were working on and we were encouraged at each others’ testimonies and breakthroughs. We might start tired and discouraged but end by feeling the confidence of God’s evident presence in our lives.

It is such a precious thing to meet regularly with friends and regularly take stock. Just reviewing what God has done is so encouraging, and if one of us is going through a tougher time, you need reassurance that God is at work in a life near you all the more. Even if it feels like winter in your life, you can bask in someone else’s good weather for while. It’s so easy for the invisible to become the unnoticed. We need to have a regular diet of the reality of God, for our noisy lives not to drown out the less obviously tangible.

Thank God for my friends who listen and share what’s really going on underneath. Life would be much poorer without them.

Encouraging Us On – Joshua 1:6

“Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them.” – Joshua 1:6

View across the lush, cultivated fields of Kinkiizi diocese from diocesan prayer mountain, November, Uganda. (c) Victoria Byrne
View from Prayer Mountain across the lush, cultivated fields of Kinkiizi diocese, Uganda, November 2014.

It’s beautiful to look ahead and see the hope, but sometimes the destination looks so far off. It’s helpful occasionally to look back and check your progress – to see how much further ahead than you were, instead of comparing your journey to someone else’s. Annual events can provide a good moment to look back and realise what a lot of ground has been covered.

Today I attended a church network conference, and I last night I remembered how a year ago, at the same event, I threw my hat in the ring with those identifying themselves as feeling God’s encouragement to write. I remember going forward feeling pretentious; aware that I wasn’t doing any writing, as if it were a distant ambition. Fast-forward a year (and seriously, how fast does thing go?!)  I realise that what seemed quite improbable in June 2014 is now part of my real life. How encouraging that we can and do actually change!

My husband and I noticed today that one of us has often encouraged the other into something that inspires him/her, and when the other achieves it, the encourager feels more courageous to go for it themselves. We seem to leading each other into a promised land. When you encourage a friend towards a goal you know they have, you have no idea what good fruit may come of it. You may be inspired yourself.

When Joshua led the Israelites into the promised land, he needed a huge amount of encouragement from God. Just look up the word ‘courage’ in an index of the Bible (a concordance) and you will see that early chapters of the book of Joshua are all about courage, because he lacked it. It’s what God was always talking to him about because he needed so much of it. Sometimes the area we’ve been most challenged in is what will be our great strength. God tells him time and time again to be courageous, not to fear, that God will go with him; and yet Joshua is famously the one who actually led the people over the border into the promised land, and was ready to lead them through the challenges that awaited them there.

I love to  read back over my  journal of what I feel like God might be saying to me and the landmarks of what he’s doing in me and my fellow travellers. I get to try out whether things I think Jesus is saying, actually prove to be so. Whole weeks of my life can pass with out record, but it’s so motivating to read it over and see patterns that were not visible at the time. These days it feels like I can see my own promised land a little more clearly than I could a year ago. We must be getting closer.

The Lord will Build it – Psalm 127:1-2

Unless the Lord builds the house,
    the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
    the guards stand watch in vain.
In vain you rise early
    and stay up late,
toiling for food to eat—
    for he grants sleep to those he loves.

Have you ever seen logs being floated down a river? In places like western Canada, enormous tree trunks felled from the forests are floated down river, because water will carry the weight of wood – which floats – far more easily than a road vehicle.

Life is so interesting. Timing and people and gifts and opportunities are a jigsaw of such infinite complexity that it’s a wonder our minds aren’t blown on a daily basis. Lately things have been coming together in my life and in some significant others’ in a way that makes me think, God knows what he’s doing. In hindsight there is such pattern visible. And so often we have to admit that we are the recipients of grace – there is no way we could have known that this would work together so well.

Water is frequently an analogy for the Holy Spirit. He is the one who builds the architecture of our lives. He knows what we are going through now, but he also knows what we will be needing in the future. He is putting us through training and strengthening now, that will stand us in good stead when we are faced with a challenge we have not yet dreamt of. Personally I’m happy not to know the challenges of tomorrow.

But when we think of tomorrow, we need to see it with the eyes of faith, and not listen to the voice of fear, which seeks to convince us that we will go into those challenges without God’s armour, tools and weapons. When we spend time worrying, we are imagining a future in which God does not continue to provide for us.

The truth that God impressed on me today is that he has already felled the timber that I will need to build my house of tomorrow, the one I can barely even imagine yet, because it’s his design, not mine, and way more complicated and beautiful than I would dare plan. He has selected the right trees, felled the timber and sent it on its way downstream. When that timber reaches me, whatever it represents, will be of just the right kind and I will wonder at the way he has prepared it so well. It will be clear that this house was of his design, because it will be clear that he had it all planned out before I knew anything of it.

How do I know that? Because that’s what he’s like, and I’ve seen him do it time and again. I have a sense that he has cut some choice logs and set them on their way. So I can be at rest about the future.

The Voice of Authority – Deuteronomy 30:11-14

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so that we may obey it?’ 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so that we may obey it?’ 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so that you may obey it.” Deut 30:11-14

I’ve been thinking lately about the age my parents were when they hit major life landmarks, compared to my age now. It’s quite hard to comprehend that they were only this old when I was in the sixth form (which was surely not so long ago…) I saw them as such an authority figure, but now I know that whatever age you are, you don’t suddenly feel like you know what you’re doing. I hope I never feel like I’ve answered all the questions.

Mentions of the film ‘Back to the Future’ recently got me looking up the script online, and I spent a couple of enjoyable hours reading it: I could see how the writers had some interesting themes going on there that were perhaps not so evident when you’re absorbed in just watching the movie. They make it clear, for example, that in 1955 the town is thriving and full of people on a Saturday morning because an out-of-town mall has not yet sucked the life out of it.

Yet I well remember the excitement when a huge supermarket arrived in my town in my early teens. We could shop the large aisles with their smooth floors and hitch a lift as we wheeled the shopping around. We enjoyed the choice and the evidence of abundance and the new inventions of the 1980s food industry (and what could possibly be bad about that?) It was around that year my mother went back to work and we saw her in a whole new light; a microwave arrived in our kitchen, and modernity seemed to hit us in several ways in a short period of time. It was exciting to go and see such abundance, to have access to products that had been marketed at us, and it was probably a lot quicker for my parents than shopping in the town centre. Now, we’re often striving in the opposite direction, if we can, and I’m glad that my local area has a great butcher, fishmonger and greengrocer, and isn’t entirely given over to estate agents and smelly candle purveyors.

God taught the Jewish people to place a high value on passing on the stories of what God had done for them, to the next generation, and teaching them God’s ways, so that they know how their loving heavenly Father can keep them thriving.

Chatting with friends of varying ages we can see the pattern of choosing and rejecting the ways of our parents, as in distinct areas of life one generation copies aspects of the parents’ behaviour without question, and in other ways rejects them to an extreme – so that an error isn’t necessarily corrected by sometimes highlighted by its mirror image in the next generation. I’ve met people who express everything because they experienced their parents’ self-control as repression, and I’m sure all of us could think of ten other examples of extremes being corrected for as the children react and overreact to what’s gone before.

The context of the verses above is that God has set out how he wants his people to live, his laws in other words, and set out the corresponding blessings and curses that his people can expect if they follow, or not, his rules for a healthy life.

What is extraordinary about the good news of the kingdom of God being available to us, is that we have available to us the very presence of God himself, his energy at work in us, in the person of God the Holy Spirit. And so we get to live as people accepted by God, and close to him. This is only so because Jesus did what he did and God poured out his Holy Spirit after that.

As believers in Jesus, we get to acknowledge that those words are true in even more dimensions for us than they were for the Jewish people – the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so that you may obey it”. 

We don’t obey God because we fear punishment – usually. We obey him because what we want increasingly matches what he wants, as we mature as Christians. His spirit is at work in us helping us feel joy when we feel his pleasure; understanding our missteps when we make them. We don’t have to live in reaction to the errors of the past. We have a heavenly Father, who teaches us his ways. And he says he doesn’t think they are too difficult for us.

Promise

“Jesus said to them, ‘Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.” And suppose the one inside answers, “Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

‘So I say to you: ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” Luke 11:5-10

One of Jesus’s disciples had asked him to teach them to pray. This is how he answers. I’m guessing Jesus knows that sometimes it feels shamelessly audacious to think that we could speak directly to God and ask him for anything.  Some people never brave being shamelessly audacious, and they convince themselves that they are to meekly be happy with their lot whatever that is, not to pray for limitations to be overcome, and their lives get smaller and smaller.

Thankfully, of course, God is divinely wise in how he responds. According to Jesus God wants us to request; wants us to voice our wants and needs, but in his wisdom does not always just do exactly what we ask for. Often he will answer indirectly, and we may need discerning hindsight to see that the thing we wanted that was underlying our request, is what he actually answered. Good human parents are like this too: saying ‘yes’ to the good requests, ‘no’ to the ones asking for challenges and growth opportunities to be entirely avoided.

Thank goodness, for example, it didn’t work out with those crushes of my teenage years and twenties, because the man I did marry is the right one for me!

We can assume that if we pay attention to God’s answers, and we learn his ways, and learn to follow Jesus, that our requests will start to look like the sort of requests to which God loves to say yes. Our wiser prayers might be ‘help me overcome this challenge’, instead of ‘please make that person not be in my group any more’.

I love this famous promise, that everyone who seeks finds. I used to be merely a Sunday Christian in at least one important way. I don’t think it ever occurred to me to pray about things that troubled me in my earlier years. I was a churchgoer, but now that I think about it, I can’t remember praying anything outside of set prayers like the Lord’s Prayer, until maybe university years, after I was challenged about whether I actually believed whether Jesus was God’s son, God’s presence on earth. I probably did pray such prayers – but they certainly didn’t feature largely in my life. I wonder whether I would have faced challenges with greater boldness if I had talked them over with God.

Jesus is very clear in this passage, God wants to hear from us. He seems to really enjoy communicating with his sons and daughters. It’s almost as if he is lovingly attached to us, not a distant impersonal being! Someone fix that flux capacitor, there’s someone I want to tell.

Reflections

“Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favour of him.

‘What is it you want?’ he asked.

She said, ‘Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.’

‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said to them. ‘Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?’” Matthew 20:20-22

We’re all so good at judging others superficially, and forgetting that their internal world is every bit as complex as ours.

Here Jesus is dealing with complex issues around honour, status, favour, and who knows what else. There’s lots we could get out of the passage. Today I just have a simple reflection. We have a tendency to underestimate how hard others may be working or suffering for their ‘luck’ or status.

This episode also reminds us that we have the benefit of a body of scriptural witness to inform our reactions to all that Jesus did. It’s helpful to notice that there were a range of misunderstandings of what Jesus did and what he was about. Easy for us to think that this woman sounds like a pushy mother, with a lot of pride in how she thinks her sons should be treated. But we don’t know what sacrifices they were making in following Jesus. Maybe she had good reason to plead with him for some promise of reward. How can we judge?

As the saying goes, Bible reading isn’t so much about reading God’s word, as letting his word read us.