Have you ever met someone who… you just really didn’t get. Someone who you could only see as a problem? I’ve met people like that. I suspect I’ve been people like that.
When I lived in the Friary, in a closed community, it was easy for small things to become big things. Personalities rubbed up against each other every day, and none of us had perspective on situations. I remember one Franciscan Friar, clearly exasperated by another saying “the only problem with living in community… is the community”
It’s very easy to be irritated, irked, dismissive of others, especially if, like in a Friary, or like in a tribe as with Moses, or in a small village like the woman in the well, we are rubbing up against people every day. It can be all too easy to write off people as useless, or spiteful or unkind or unworthy. It is easy, especially in a small community, to write people off as “not your sort of person”.
But in our readings today we see what happens when we do that. And it should act as a warning.
Moses had to put up with a lot of whining. The people of Israel still didn’t trust him or God. They camped at a place where there was no water, and they whinged and complained to Moses.
“did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us?” they asked him. And poor Moses got really, frustrated with them.
God performed the required miracle, water from a rock, an amazing miracle. But whereas for us, with a bit of distance, we see is a miracle, Moses named the place? Massah and Meribah. Testing and Quarrelling, that’s what he remembered about that event. Not God’s grace.
When we don’t give ourselves that distance, that perspective, it’s easy to lose what God does among the heat of the friction of personalities. That’s why time, space, prayer, the interior life is so important in re-aligning us, putting us in the right relationship with God.
So with that in mind, let’s look at the story of the woman at the well.
The woman is hanging around a well in the middle of the day. That may not seem much to us, but to the readers of John’s Gospel, there were certain types of woman who hung around wells during the middle of the day, and they were no better than they ought to be.
Jesus is sat by the well, and she comes up to him. Maybe she’s curious. Maybe she’s flirtatious. Maybe she just needs some water. But there were certain rules surrounding women in public in those days. A man could divorce his wife simply for talking to strange men in the market place – that’s actually one of the examples for legitimate divorce given in the Jewish Talmud. And when Jesus says to her – rather rudely it has to be said, “give me a drink” – she doesn’t silently obey, as she might, she replies to him, and doesn’t give him a drink. When the Apostles come back, they are to quote “astonished at seeing Jesus talking with a woman”. You see Jesus asked her for a drink, not a conversation. It was she who began engaging him.
And then there’s the number of husbands. To paraphrase Lady Bracknall, to have two or even three husbands is unfortunate. To have five looks like carelessness. And to make matters worse, she is not actually married to the man that she is shacked up with.
You know, it’s hard to know the history of this woman, but it’s hard not to imagine. Five husbands. What reason could it be that she had five? Perhaps as often happened, she had been married off to an old man when she was very young. Perhaps her first husband had died. Perhaps she was unable to have children, and her husbands divorced her for that reason, which was common. Perhaps she talked back to them, perhaps she was feisty and opinionated, and strong. But her situation when we meet her was bleak. As a woman in those days you belonged to a man, that was your security, you were part of a family and that family had duties. But she belonged to no-one. She was living in the sort of disgrace we can only imagine and the whole town would have known her shame. Maybe she was looking to Jesus for an escape route. Maybe she was looking for a kind word.
And so it makes me think. The Samaritans looked at her and knew what she was. A thorn in their side, a useless individual, perhaps a disgrace.
Just like with Moses, who even when the miracle happened, could only remember the quarrelling and bickering, the Samaritans had still written this woman off. They were careful to say to her, “it wasn’t because of what you said, it’s because of what he said”.
But Jesus – what did he see? What did he see in her? Whatever he saw, it wasn’t what the Samaritans saw.
At Meribah, God took a rock, useless to the Israelites, and made water flow out of it.
And Jesus took a woman, useless to the Samaritans, and made his love flow out of her. Living water indeed.
There are two things I learn from this Gospel.
Firstly, that in the noise and clamour of daily life, it can be too easy to be put off from seeing who people truly are by their manner, their loose tongue, their behaviour, their attitude. Sometimes we’re too close to people to see what God sees. But if we write people off, God never does. The unloveable, the hard, the cruel, the immoral. God can see past the skin of their behaviour, and so even if we can’t, we should know that what we see is just the first layer of a soul which goes deeper.
The other thing is that sometimes when we can only see the worst in people, the quarrelling or the reputation, we miss what God is doing in the world. Water from a rock, good news proclaimed. Our time on earth is short, and the more time we spend grumbling about the actions of others the less our ears and eyes are open to seeing where God is in the world.
We see just how bad that can turn in our Christian story. As the noise gets louder and the crowd gets more full of hate, they couldn’t see God even where he was most present, in Christ.
The journey to the cross proves what happens when we write people off. The journey of the Resurrection shows what happens when we see people are they truly are.