Lent 3 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 12th March 2023

Exodus 17.1-7; John 4.5-42

It’s often thought that faith is about certainty. Our readings today suggest that it is questions that take us to the heart of things.

The people of Israel are in a dry and barren wilderness, and wondering if they should have bothered to leave the slavery of Egypt: ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’ It’s a perfectly reasonable question, rooted in perhaps the most basic of human needs, the need for water. Faced with a land that cannot sustain life, they question whether they might not be better off elsewhere. This is the first of the so-called murmurings in the wilderness, which will build up to a crescendo of unhappiness and anger at their plight: It’s all very well being rescued but at least when we were slaves we knew where we were, and what was what; this new-found freedom is fine, except our freedom seems to consist in everlasting wandering through a desert, risking all on a bit of pipe-dream of a promised land. Well, that’s not good enough, we want the fruits of our freedom now, we want what we need now. The murmuring and questioning, is, as I say, reasonable enough, even if we can also feel some sympathy with Moses’ exasperated shout, ‘What shall I do with this people?’

And to this question, the response comes. God tells Moses to strike the rock, and water flows in the desert, and the people drink. But as Moses notes, as he names the spot, this is a place of questioning: of the need to know in this strange alien environment, that most persistent and basic of questions, ‘Is the LORD among us or not?’

And then we move forward, to another hot, dry place, where the water no longer flows, but is buried deep – to Jacob’s well, in the hot noonday sun. And two figures in the shimmering heat, meeting, as if by chance. But this too is a place of questions. Questions first brought on by a deceptively simple request, as Jesus asks, ‘Give me a drink.’ And the woman is not afraid to respond to what is actually a strange, taboo breaking request. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” The woman begins her questions in suspicion, or is it wonder – it is hard to tell.

Last Sunday we heard the previous chapter in John’s Gospel – chapter 3 and the meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus, so beautifully reflected upon by Esther in her sermon. This following chapter provides a powerful contrast: Nicodemus was Jewish, male, a named high status leader and orthodox teacher. The woman Jesus encounters in this morning’s Gospel is a Samaritan, outside the chosen people, female, un-named, living with a man to whom she is not married. Jesus has meet Nicodemus at night, seemingly in secret, in an encounter full of unresolved questions; now he meets the Samaritan woman in the full glare of the noonday sun; and the questions lead to something very different – an articulation of faith, the witnessing of that truth to others.

But back to the questions that take us on that journey. After her surprise at being invited to provide for Jesus’ need for water, the woman’s next question, as she responds to Jesus’ talk of living water, is pragmatic and sceptical: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well?”

But now the conversation goes deeper, as Jesus’ unruffled reply encourages her to voice a deep desire: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” And then, as truths about her are named and revealed without rancour, she asks that most fundamental question – the question that vexed the people of Israel – where is God? “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain,” she says, “but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” And this noon-day conversation brings them to a shared placed where this Jew and this Samaritan can worship together, in the spirit and truth that the meeting exemplifies.

The woman at the well has not been afraid to question this strange perplexing man. And those questions have enabled them to go deep, for layers of truth to be uncovered. At first she names him as a Jew, a foreigner, a possible enemy. But as she is disarmed by his refusal to stick to the usual boundaries, she calls him, ‘Sir’ (Kyrios – Lord in Greek). Later, as he reveals he knows more of her than she thinks possible, she calls him, a ‘prophet.’ And finally, as the conversation reaches its climax, Jesus is revealed, under her probing and questioning, as Messiah. ‘I am he,’ says Jesus – the foundational claiming of that holy name for God, the name that underpins all the subsequent ‘I am’s’ of John’s Gospel.

The conversation, begun in wonder or suspicion, progressing by turns pragmatic and theological, has arrived at this final truth, and unveiling, a revealing. And in this knowing, the woman too is known: “Come and see,” she says, “a man who told me everything I have ever done.”

This Lent, as we too journey in the wilderness, seeking living water, the woman’s lead is not a bad one to follow. Whether we begin in suspicion or wonder, we should not be afraid to ask our questions, be they pragmatic or profound. And if we are prepared to spend time in listening, we find we go deeper, find ourselves known even as we know that spirit and truth which creates a shared space with the stranger.  At their best, questions take us into the heart of the matter. Amen.