‘Anyone who drinks the water that I shall give will never be thirsty again: the water that I shall give will turn into a spring inside him, welling up to eternal life.’ (John 4:)14
What an extraordinary Gospel reading!
And yet this is a tremendous story.
Here, away from the crowds, away from the city, away from the disciples, there is this charmingly told encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman as they both meet at the well. The Well, like the water cooler, or drinks machine, or the cafe or the pub was a place where unexpected encounters could take place. And this is certainly unexpected. The two engage in a bit of banter, and almost flirtatious conversation, which turns to matters serious and portentous.
We may think that the encounters of the first century, of 2000 years ago, are far removed from the lives and concerns of the present day. Surely this far land, and this foreign people, and these unfamiliar cultures can have little bearing on modern life, with its technology, and its diversity, and its myriad lifestyles.
Yet - while the technology of the well may be truly ancient - the situation which is revealed there is one which is very familiar to the modern day.
First, this is an encounter between two people of different, indeed opposing, religious backgrounds - Jesus the Jew and the Samaritan Woman. Their faiths are related, but so much so that they disagree about fundamentals and their people have deep suspicion and indeed hatred of one another. And they engage in conversation, a conversation which does not avoid what divides them. Jesus seems to have no discomfort or difficulty in talking to the woman - yet even in our day, every is not at ease, or lacks confidence, when dealing with those of a different faith, or a different ethnic background.
And Secondly, this woman is in what the Church nowadays refers as an "irregular relationship". Like so many today she has many partners. Some she married, others not. 50 years ago, if we heard this story, we would have thought the woman to be shockingly immoral - nowadays we probably know someone just like her. And Jesus sits and chats with her. And encourages her.
These two aspects of the story - the dialogue with the diversity of belief in our society, and the breakdown or marriage and family life - we think of as being very modern, very challenging, very different, very new. And how does Jesus deal with it?
Firstly, he does not condemn her. He doesn’t walk away, or denounce her as a sinner, or attack her faith as groundless or even demonic. He speaks to her and he listens, too. He treats her with dignity and with respect.
Yet secondly, he does not condone her either. He doesn’t say about her beliefs or her lifestyle “well, that’s you choice”. He does say, or even imply, that all beliefs, all faiths are the same. He stands his ground, and makes speaks for the truth.
And thirdly, he offers God’s blessing to her, openly and freely. The living water is for her as much as it is for anyone else. He does not tell her that God’s grace is refused to her because of her way of life or even her background. It is offered to all, without favour. It is not a reward for goodness - but hope for sinners.
And fourthly, he sends her out to spread the word. He invites her response and she reacts with enthusiasm. She tells others about him, and they are drawn to him. She becomes a messenger for the truth, a witness for the Gospel, a herald of the Christ, a minister of grace.
It is a model we would do well to follow. It is precisely the approach which Pope Francis has used in facing difficult issues, and which he presented before us during the Year of Mercy:
Listen and show respect.
Surrender nothing of the truth.
Call others to Christ.
Nothing negative here. Nothing easy either.