March 19th - Hugh Perry
Writing of this Exodus reading Maurice Andrew suggests that:
Creation does not of itself liberate an oppressed people, but a liberated people must also be able to live from creation, as we see when, after only three days in the wilderness, they find no water. After liberation, people become migratory and their wandering is characterised not by the will to go forward for life, but by the desire to return to security. In the difficult period between liberation and the gaining of land, which the wilderness wandering represents, the limitations of the people are witheringly exposed.  We could call this episode ‘the whinging in the wilderness’ and there is a lot of it about.
John 4: 5-42
We often get long readings from John’s Gospel because in John’s Gospel Jesus makes long complicated theological speeches and the teaching is in those speeches rather than in the description of events. In this episode we get the vision of the inclusive Christ who will accept a drink from a woman who is of a race considered unclean. Jesus also teaches this woman and sends her out on mission and she in turn brings people to Christ.
The Exodus journey certainly had its issues and Moses’ leadership was challenged right from the very beginning. When the escaping slaves saw the Egyptians advancing on them they complained to Moses:
‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?’ (Exodus 14:11) That of course was followed by the incredible dividing of the sea and the miraculous escape from the pursuing Egyptian Army.
You will remember that the Egyptians were fearful and resentful of the growing population of Israelites. The Egyptians blamed the Israelites for everything that went wrong. Not just unemployment and the rising cost of housing but plagues as well. They were pleased to get rid of them.
However, even before they had a chance to build a wall to stop them coming back they realised they no longer had anybody to do the menial tasks that all civilisations need to thrive. So, they did what any civilised society would do, they sent the army to get them back.
That is a very ancient story but if we read the news today it also sounds a very contemporary story. Returning to the Exodus story we remember that the Israelites escaped the fleeing army because Moses stretched out his staff across the sea and it parted allowing the Israelites to cross over on dry land. (Exodus 14:12) Then, as the chorus of one of the most important Negro spirituals tells us, ‘Pharaoh’s army got drown-ded!’ ‘O Mary Don't You Weep’ was a song that looked to the Exodus tradition to inspire another group of slaves to look to the future where their descendants would help send people to the moon or marry a president. It is a song that helps keep the tradition of the wilderness journey from slavery to freedom alive and many, many singers continue to keep the song alive, including none other than Bruce Springsteen.
Returning to the Exodus saga one would think that, after such an amazing deliverance, Moses’ leadership would be secure. Furthermore by the time the Israelites had reached the episode we read this morning they already witnessed the manna and the quails arriving in seemingly miraculous fashion in answer to Moses’ prayers.
But freedom in the wilderness always involves the challenge of self-sufficiency. Those seeking freedom in the wilderness must learn to live off what the wilderness provides and that, as our own colonising ancestors have testified, is always a hard journey.
Furthermore, we can see from today’s reading, when it is difficult to find what we need to survive people blame their leadership and they want to go back to the slavery of the past.
So often people’s fear of change, and the challenges of finding their way through the day to day life of the present, encourages people to lament a wonderful mythical past. Their minds build an idyllic picture of the past that ignores the very real struggles they endured.
When I was a child we had a much greater respect for authority. However, I was bullied by older children and that seemed to be sanctioned by teachers. Furthermore, I was so fearful of getting the strap for getting my spelling wrong that I never retained the correct spelling beyond the initial test.
One girl in my class at secondary school was so put down and verbally chastised that she left school as soon as she could. When I met her years later she was lecturer at teacher’s college. She had returned to education and fulfilled her ambition to be a teacher which is a happy ending but bullying teachers had cost her years in her chosen profession and deprived many children the chance of being taught by a young woman with a passion for teaching. However just as she rose above the difficulties others put in her way great leaders are those who rise above criticism they face. Moses exemplifies leadership that, despite the criticism of others, finds a way for the people to survive whatever challenge the wilderness puts in the way of their march towards new beginnings.
Lack of water for the journey is something we understand, especially in our dry summer of fires. Furthermore, the lack of and condition of the water we have has made us rather critical of those charged with the stewardship of our natural resources. We can observe the flow in our rivers and have a reasonable understanding of the physical geography that controls waters cyclic journey through the environment.
But it is never fruitful to try and find geographical, or any other scientific explanation, for biblical metaphors. The important thing is to let the story speak to us with its message of leadership and freedom through self-sufficiency in the journey of life. Like all journeys towards hope and new beginnings our own life journeys are wilderness journeys filled with unexpected twists and turns.
Slaves are housed and fed so they can work for leadership that benefits from their labour. Freedom involves living off the fruits of the journey and involves leadership that cares for all people on the journey. Such leadership encourages the people to live off whatever the wilderness reluctantly surrenders. True leadership encourages people to adapt and grow in ways that not only find new beginnings but forms a new people, a new culture.
That is the journey towards new beginnings that is woven into our Gospel reading. The two reading are linked together through water drawn from the ground and living water drawn from cultural and religious tradition. The gospel reading winds through a typical Johannine theological journey wrestling with personal morality, theological and cultural differences. The passage concludes by marginalising places of worship in favour of an intimate and spiritual relationship with God that is available in all places though the Jesus image Christians have of Christ.
The Samaritan woman highlights a theological dispute between Jews and Samaritans over places of worship. Jesus then dismisses both places of worship, temple and sacred mountain in favour of a spirituality that worships God as Spirit.
Both Jews and Samaritans were slaves to places of worship. They were ethnically similar people but history thorough conquest, exile and marriage with other ethnic groups had separated them. That separation had given them alternative places of worship and their slavish adherence to those places of worship reinforced their separation.
The well of Jacob was the water that attested to their common cultural and religious history. Jacob was one of the patriarchs of both Jews and Samaritans. Using the metaphor of living water the gospel writer points the reader towards Jesus as the way to a future religious heritage that welcomed all people to worship a God of Spirit that recognised all human beings as spiritual people.
The detail that is the weaving of this story means that it is very easy to get moralistically tangled up in the woman’s five husbands. The detail that the man she was presently living with was not her husband is also a distraction. The real issue however was that the woman was amazed that Jesus knew all about her.
Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the messiah, can he?’ (John 4:28)
We have a cultural bias that suggests that a woman who has had five husbands and not married to the one she is with at the moment is a woman of loose morals, or at least careless. But she lived in a world where women did not have a place in society unless they had a father, husband or son. In the culture of the time and place the woman should not have spoken to Jesus and Jesus should not have been talking to the woman. Therefore we are challenged to notice that woven into the story is one of many examples of Jesus challenging his culture. That happens even before we are told through the voice of the woman that Jews do not accept drinks of water from Samaritans.
This was a society where marriages were arranged and girls as young has twelve were married to much older men. Furthermore, the fact that the need to care for widows is mentioned so often in the Bible is a testimony to the reality that widows were not well cared for. People needed to be continually reminded that it was a divine command to care for widows.
So, the fact that widows were not well cared for meant that widows had to remarry. If they again married a much older man, there was a good chance they would be widowed again. There was also the practice of Levirate marriage where the brother of a deceased man is obliged to marry his brother's widow, and the widow is obliged to marry her deceased husband's brother.
In Luke’s Gospel, some Sadducees challenge Jesus on life after death using a hypothetical case of a woman who had married seven brothers in turn and wanted to know who would she would be married to in the next life.(Luke 20:27-40) Jesus rubbished their argument but it illustrates the fact that a woman could legitimately have five husbands. The one she was now with could well be a love match or an arrangement that was convenient to both. However although it is perhaps inferred they were living as husband and wife her statement that she had no husband my also mean she was living back in her father’s household, her brothers household or her sons household.
Just as Jesus dismissed the Sadducees argument he pays little attention to her marital status other than to point out that he knows all about her. He then goes on to introduce the symbolic place of water—living water. The water metaphor reminds us of the water that is crossed to enter new beginnings, the water that springs from the rock on the wilderness journey and the water of baptism that signals new beginnings.
Like any recorded conversation we can assume that what was said between Jesus and the woman was greater than we are given in this Gospel passage. What we can discern is that Jesus made such an impression on the woman that she went back and told the people she knew. She impressed them so much that they came to see Jesus for themselves. This is the message from the author, John the evangelist. We, his readers, are called to meet with Jesus, tell others about that meeting with Jesus and those we tell will then seek out Jesus for themselves.
But wait there is more!
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.’ (John 4:42)
However we pass on the good news of Jesus Christ, by words or action, it is when those we interest in Christ’s presence experience that presence for themselves that the living water flows, not only into our world but into the world of the future.
Our world may well seem a spiritual wilderness with a rock hard resistance to the Christian faith. However, the message from both these readings is, that when we draw water from the well of our tradition and strike the rock with the staff of faith that supports our own journey, then the living water of Christ will flow into our world.
Our calling is to release the living water, the Christ within us, into our world and allow it to trickle past us into the future.
 Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999) p.105.