Water is a precious commodity not to be wasted. It is essential to all life. It is a massive inconvenience in every day life not to have access to water. It cleanses, refreshes, and sustains. Many parts of the world experience a severe lack of water and that is disastrous, sometimes fatal, for their inhabitants. Water is an absolute and basic necessity. It is suggested that future wars between nations will be fought over water rather than resources such as oil and minerals.
For many in biblical times supplies of water were scarce and getting it was a chore. If it had to be purchased it was expensive. That is why Isaiah’s invitation is so striking, “Come all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost” (Isaiah 55:1). People in hot climes crave cool water. Folk exhausted from labour and afflicted with dehydration thirst for water.
On the Isle of Wight in the south-eastern corner of the island a clean, clear little stream tumbles through weeds and over rocks and pebbles in its hurried descent to the sea. In the midst of this chattering rill someone has placed an erect stone tablet quoting the words of Jesus as he claims to be the water of eternal life. It is the sweetest message at the mid-point of a pleasant path.
The path of life for the Samaritan woman who encountered Jesus at Jacob’s Well does not seem to have been entirely pleasant. She had a total of six liaisons with men, and came to fetch water alone, which suggests she may have been a social outcast without close friends. She had no inkling or idea that in eternity past a meeting with the Messiah had been arranged for her. This was so unlikely, given her lowly status. Frowned upon by her society, and a citizen of despised Samaria detested by the Jews, this lady had little prospect of moral and spiritual redemption. Hers was a life of rejection and yet Jesus deliberately strayed into alien territory to converse with her and convert her.
What a merciful rendezvous was listed in Jesus travel itinerary. How aptly he engages her attention. No sudden verbal assault but a gentle request, “Will you give me a drink?” The woman is made to feel useful and is thus set at ease with a sense of respect accorded to her by this stranger. The courtesy and humility of the request surprises her. Jesus had broken a strict taboo and she is amazed.
Coming to the well was a daily routine. She came with no great expectations - just to get a pitcher of water. Life was predictably ordinary. There is no accounting for the sudden interventions of God in unexceptional lives. The story alerts us to be on the lookout in our uneventful existence as we sometimes deem it to be.
The woman responds to Jesus with caution and curiosity. “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)”. Divine grace breaks through human notions and conventions. It is unregulated by human standards, timetables, and categories. Grace comes freely to the unnoticed and undeserving - even those way off the proper religious track, which we all are if only we knew it, spiritually careless or indifferent or self-righteous and smug. We all by nature slot into one of these types.
When the woman is truly tuned into Jesus in appropriate terms - he has triggered her interest - he ministers to her enquiry. He has touched her vital centre of being with intense concern for her personally and not as a mere statistical target. “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” (v10).
Jesus is making a salient point. The salvation he came to provide is pure gift.
This woman was unprepared. She fulfilled no conditions. She was unworthy. When she came to know who had drawn near to her and had selected her for favour all she had to do was ask as he had invited her to do. The greatest gift of God is granted eagerly. Jesus had approached this woman where she was without registering shock at her circumstances, without demands upon her moral effort. All that was required was candour concerning her soul’s condition, thirst for spiritual satisfaction and a quiet conscience.
He came to give and forgive. He aroused her interest by identifying with her preoccupation - a thirst more urgent than her physical want of water - and then showed that our identified needs, of which we become gradually conscious in his presence, point to a greater need than any other, the mercy of God and saving knowledge of him. He excited that need by revealing that our normal requests and goals in life will not slake the thirst of the soul, or solve our yearnings and frustrations.
We carry our pitchers to wells that cannot quench the deepest thirsts of our parched spirits. Our lives are dry and laborious - we lack life in God and Christ in us. The wells of the world are stagnant and polluted. We keep dipping into them without lasting benefit and the effort wearies us and often ends in resignation to cynicism and bitter disappointment. Why do so many of the celebrated and successful of the earth drug or drink themselves into oblivion and even to death in spite of their attainments and privileges? It is because the wells of the world cannot plenish or replenish our arid natures that ultimately wilt with a sense of futility and boredom. The momentous aims in life prove to be mirages when we reach out to seize them. How vain they are. Our triumphs are trifles. We spend our lives chasing after shadows. Life becomes a desert because we have deserted God.
Standing at and sipping from our cisterns of futility and failed hopes, whatever and wherever they are, Jesus seats himself beside them, summons our attention, and solicits from us an admission of our real longing, our deepest desire not yet supplied, and pledges a gift for the asking when our greatest lack is disclosed by his skilled and accurate probing of our lives and consciences. Like the Samaritan woman our record is not good, we are defensive, and utterly undeserving.
But Jesus has drawn alongside in his gospel manifesto. “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks of you the wellbeing of your soul, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
We should not hesitate but respond with alacrity, “Lord, give me this water”.