Third Sunday of Lent 2011

Preached in the Parish of St. Mary Magdalene, Yarm

(John 4. 5-42)
Water is a wonderful thing.  We all know that water is the stuff of life for all living creatures.  We can only live a few days without water.  Most estimates claim we could survive only somewhere between three and eight days without water.  On a less dramatic note, we all know just how good water feels, how it quenches our thirst after hard work.  Water says a lot about the richness of existence.  Jesus calls himself in today’s Gospel “living water.”  His water is abundant and life-giving: “the water that I will give will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
But water is also a terrifying thing.  Growing up in Whitby, I know well the blue swell and surge of the sea, its monstrous waves capable of taking lives with ease.  The sea that holds so much life also holds death.  Water is as dangerous as it is life-giving.  Jesus’ living water is no different.  We recognise the simultaneous life and death contained in water through our worship.  In baptism, the sign and pledge of new life, we also talk about being ‘buried with Christ’.  The waters of baptism ‘drown’ who we were, broken and sinful, so that we might share in Jesus’ new life.  In the Mass, we add water to the wine to remind ourselves that water gushed out of the side of the crucified Jesus along with his blood.  We become what we eat, or so says St Augustine.  We eat death along with life in communion, the death again of our old selves and our rebirth as little Christs in the world.
The awareness of the dangerous power of water changes how we might see today’s Gospel reading.  Jesus talks with a Samaritan woman, someone despised by the Jews because of religious difference, someone seen as second-class in the wider prevailing culture because she was female.  They meet, however, at a place both of their religious cultures recognise as important: Jacob’s well.  The story begins with a simple request for water, presumably because Jesus is thirsty in his travels.  But Jesus turns this simple request into a dangerous, radical conversation about truth.  Jesus points to a deeper, shared longing for God.  Rather than tie God down to a particular place of worship, rather than reduce God to something we think we know, Jesus directs us all to recognise the transcendence of God.  “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.”  The place of worship, the place to recognise God’s power, is Jesus, the ‘living water’, the ‘Messiah’, the Chosen One.
This recognition, this call to follow Jesus, offers life and promises danger.  Water may quench thirst, but even God, in some sense, knows thirst.  Jesus on the Cross says, “I am thirsty.”  He means, on one level, that his body, beaten, dying, needs refreshing.  But Jesus also identifies with our longing for God, even when God seems absent.  The living water also knows thirst.  The living water also knows death. 
This Lent, we try to focus on self-denial, hunger, and thirst in order to sense our need for God.  We also sense our death with Christ on the Cross.  If we take Lent seriously, it is a dangerous experience.  We are called to die, to let the dangerous waves of Christ’s call to follow him drown our old, distorted, suffering, and broken selves.  Those same waters promise new life, not without pain but through transfiguring our lives into the victory of Jesus, the living water, who shares the fullness of life in God. 
Water cleanses and enlivens us.  Jesus’ water does the same.  It is the forgiveness of sins on the Cross as water pours out of Our Lord’s side.  Water also destroys who we are and what we think.  Jesus’ water does the same.  There is an apocryphal story of a man who is finally discovered on a desert island after some years.  His rescuers find he has built two churches.  ‘Why have you built two churches?’ they ask him.  He points to one and says ‘that’s where I worship’.  He then points to the other and says, ‘I wouldn’t be seen dead in that one.’  Jesus’ living waters drowns, if we let them, our preconceptions and prejudices about ourselves, others, and our world.  When we let ourselves die and Christ live in us, then we recognise the power of God’s living water and worship in spirit and truth.  It is a wonderful and a terrifying thing to do.  But it is the living water that leads to eternal life.  Amen.