Living Water

THE THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT- 23rd March, 2014




“There’s a hole in my bucket,

Dear Liza, dear Liza,

There’s a hole in my bucket,

Dear Liza, a hole”.


So goes the comic song everyone’s heard at some time or other.


“So mend it, dear Henry…

With straw, dear Henry…

The straw is too long, dear Liza…

So cut it, dear Henry…

With what, dear Liza…

With an axe, dear Henry…

The axe is too dull, dear Liza…

So sharpen it, dear Henry…

On what shall I sharpen it, dear Liza…

On a stone, dear Henry…

The stone is too dry, dear Liza…

Then wet it, dear Henry…

With what shall I wet it, dear Liza…

Try water, dear Henry…

With what shall I fetch it, dear Liza…

With a bucket, dear Henry….”  


When Jesus meets a Samaritan woman beside Jacob’s well at Sychar, he is “tired out by his journey” and the sun is at its peak, because “It was about noon”. Jesus is thirsty – not surprisingly – and, unlike Henry, he doesn’t have a bucket – not even one with a hole which needs mending!


Jesus’ disciples have gone into the city to get food and Jesus waits beside the well.  But this is no chance meeting.  Our lectionary, for some unknown reason, began the Gospel reading at the fifth verse of John chapter 4.


Let me read you the beginning of the chapter:

Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, ‘Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John’— although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria.”


“He had to go through Samaria.


Jesus is on his way from Judaea in the southern part of Israel to Galilee in the north.  But between these two territories lay the region of Samaria, which ran west to east from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.  The Samaritans were a mixed-race people, part-Jewish and part-Canaanite, regarded by the Jews with the sort of contempt not uncommon throughout history.  John tells us that “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans”, and that is something of an understatement!


Immediately before this story in John’s Gospel is the one we heard last week about Jesus’ night-time conversation with a devout Jew, by name of Nicodemus.  To Nicodemus, Jesus spoke of new birth and new life which comes through a response to God’s love shown in sending Jesus so that those who believe in him “might not perish, but have eternal life”.


Today’s story makes it clear that when Jesus says that “God so loved the world”, this love was not limited simply to the children of Israel.  “He had to go through Samaria” because there was someone there who needed to hear his message of love and acceptance.  Normal Jews, and especially religious ones, would cross the Jordan just before the territory of Samaria, head north along the eastern bank of the river, and cross westwards once they had passed the Samaritan border.


But Jesus – in the words I well remember from the King James Version of the Bible – “must needs go through Samaria”.  It is possible that he was in a hurry to get to Galilee, but you could say, “We know better”


Jesus comes to this Samaritan woman and asks for water.  Not an unreasonable request, except for all the reasons I’ve listed in the “Bugle” this morning:

  • She is not only a Gentile, but even more significantly a Samaritan, someone racially challenging to this Jewish rabbi
  • This person is a woman, and it was not considered proper for a man to be alone with a woman who was not his immediate family.
  • Not only is she a Samaritan and a woman, but she is a woman who has been married five times and is not married to the man with whom she now lives.  So she is undoubtedly regarded as being of questionable virtue. 
  • And – something I didn’t write in the “Bugle” – she was at the well to get water at midday.  Most of the women of Sychar would probably get their water in the cool of the early morning or late afternoon.  But this woman had probably been the victim of gossip and ridicule because of her marital history.  This time of day gave her a little refuge, however uncomfortable the climatic conditions. 

She is a complete outcast, not only to religious Jewish males, but even to people of her own race and gender.

And yet Jesus asks her for water and engages her in a long conversation.  It’s a pretty good lesson for us who proclaim ourselves to be Christians, followers of Jesus the Messiah.  We have met with Jesus, we have acknowledged our sins and sinfulness and been totally forgiven, restored to friendship with God, and given the “water of eternal life”.  We have been accepted and welcomed, despite all of our failings and inadequacies, and we are loved.

And, lest we ever get proud of our Christianity to the point of criticising or excluding those who are not of our faith, or denomination, or even parish, Jesus goes over and over in the Gospel stories to those who are “unacceptable” and “unworthy” and even “unclean”.

The message we are given is that of Jesus the giver of living water, the water which becomes “in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life”. 

The prophet Isaiah says in a wonderful poem, “Therefore with joy shall you draw water out of the wells of salvation.”

Jesus came to a well which was abundant in water, but he had no bucket.  We have come to the one who has given us both the source of “water springing up to eternal life” and the bucket with which to draw.

How can we live with greedily drinking of that water and not reaching out to bring others to the well which is Christ himself?

At the end of this reading, we discover that the woman to whom Jesus has spoken has gone off to the city and – regardless of her inferior status and the obvious rejection of the citizens – has brought a whole lot of people back to Jesus, so that they, too, might meet the one who “told me everything I have ever done”.

And, what is even more wonderful, is that when they have met Jesus for themselves, “they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word.” And they said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.


Let me tell you that, if you and I are willing just to introduce people to Jesus, we will find that we don’t have to do a huge amount of coercion and convincing.  There are many people who – knowingly or otherwise – are just waiting for someone to say “Are you thirsty?  Let me draw you a little water”.  We have found it abundantly in the love and forgiveness and welcome of Jesus.  We, too, “must go by way of Samaria”. 



A Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2014


For all that I have done many funerals in my time, and I still do them regularly, I really don’t like funerals.  Equally, I don’t like Ash Wednesday.  Actually, this is one of the most difficult services of the whole church year. I find it difficult to look someone in the eye and say, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return”.  But that’s a touch of reality which we need to hear at least once a year.

When we attend a funeral, we are faced with two realities – that of death and that of unfinished business.

Every funeral I attend or conduct reminds me that I, too, am mortal.  Death and taxes are said to be the two unavoidable realities of our life, and some folk manage to avoid most taxes.  But none of us can avoid death.  Someone once told me that life is a terminal condition.

So, it is clear that death must come, not only to everyone else, but inevitably to me in due course.  Except that I cannot be sure of that “due course”.  I have conducted funerals for everyone from premature and still-born babies, through children, teenagers, young adults, middle-aged and elderly folk, and even for a lady of over 103 summers.

In this service of Ash Wednesday, we use ashes to mark the forehead of each person, as we say, “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return: repent and believe the gospel”.

The first part of this reminds us mortality and the transience of life.  The ashes themselves are made from last year’s palm crosses – rejoicing at the coming of the King has become a symbol of mourning.  And I’m sure you’re all aware of the words frequently recited at funerals – “earth to earth, ashes to ashes and dust to dust”.  And in Psalm 103, the psalmist gloomily tells us that:

As for mortals, their days are like grass;
   they flourish like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
   and its place knows it no more.

So, as you receive the ashes, remember your mortality.

A favourite line which I like to quote is that ‘no man on his death-bed ever lamented, “I wish I had spent more time in the office”’.  It may not be entirely true, but so often in working with families in preparation for a funeral, I am told of the dreams and hopes of and for the deceased which were never fulfilled.  This is especially true, of course, of those who died “before their time”.  But most of us have regrets in some areas of our lives.

And this is the second – yet perhaps really the primary – meaning of Ash Wednesday and Lent.  The second part of what I say in marking people with ashes is “repent and believe the gospel”.  Ashes in ancient times represented sorrow, repentance and mourning for personal and national sin and its consequences.

Today’s liturgy provides us with a considerably more detailed prayer of confession than is usual in our Sunday Eucharists.  And it is good for us to reflect thoroughly from time to time on how “we have sinned against [God] in thought, word and deed, and in what we have failed to do”.  And it is very good to hear the declaration that God forgives us.  The “gloomy” psalmist whom I quoted earlier also says in the same psalm:

“The Lord is merciful and gracious,
   slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
   nor will he keep his anger for ever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
   nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
   so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
   so far he removes our transgressions from us.”

So, this evening, we come as sinners aware of both our sins and our mortality.  But we come also knowing that in Jesus Christ there is the antidote to both.  On the day we call Good Friday, Jesus himself died to bring about the forgiveness of all our sins, and in his resurrection he opens for us the door through death to new life.  Reminded as we are of sinfulness and mortality, we can still leave this place forgiven and restored, with hope in our hearts, the “sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life”.

The ashes will remain on our foreheads only until we wash.  The forgiveness and life will remain forever.