BBC Radio 3, Evensong at Salisbury Cathedral

Psalm 84 (Coverdale); 1 Kgs 8:22 – 29; John 4:5 – 24
July 13, 2008

Jesus came to Sychar, near Jacob’s well. Today that piece of territory is on the outskirts of Nablus, in the Palestinian West Bank. It was Samaritan territory in Jesus’ time, and had been “unclean territory” since the time of the Exile. The people who remained there after Babylon’s destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem had intermarried with their conquerors, and the returning Jews wouldn’t tolerate them. They were religiously and racially unclean.

Here comes Jesus and asks for a drink. His conversation with the woman at the well is the longest conversation he has with anybody in the gospels. It violates all sorts of social norms – as a rabbi, he’s not supposed to talk to a Samaritan, or to a woman, especially without a chaperone, and their conversation looks suspiciously like teaching –as a later rabbi (Eliezar) said, “better to teach a woman lewdness than to teach her Torah.” Not to mention the fact that her family life makes her morally suspect. Some commentators immediately assume that she’s a prostitute.

But she gets it, this woman who comes alone to the well in the heat of the day. She may be the most unclean person in Sychar, but she recognizes that Jesus is offering life-giving water. The Orthodox name her “enlightened one” and call her “equal to the apostles” because she runs off to tell her neighbors about this fellow with good news.

Jesus is vulnerable enough to ask a religious and racial enemy for the stuff of life, and the encounter becomes abundant life.

Sychar has long been the site of mortal conflict. In Jesus’ time it was between Samaritans and Jews; in the 5th and 6th centuries CE, it was between Christians and Samaritans, with supposedly Christian emperors defiling Samaritan worship spaces, and Samaritans mutilating and murdering bishops. Today it’s the Israeli Defense Force and Palestinian militants. Nearly 1400 Palestinians have been killed around Nablus since 2005, Palestinians who Muslim, Christian, and Samaritan. More than 100 Israelis have also died.

One sign of abundant life grows out of a century’s work at St. Luke’s Hospital in Nablus, operated by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem. Like the other diocesan hospital in Gaza, St. Luke’s provides care for anyone in need, of whatever faith or creed, 20,000 people a year, whether they can pay or not. When someone comes asking for healing, Jesus’ friends in that hospital respond. Water of abundant life is springing up there, even in the desert of violence.

That violence is born of ancient enmity, out of fear of religious difference and different customs. I hear that some of those differences are known even in this country, especially as people of other religious traditions immigrate to this island.

Where have you asked an enemy for water recently? Or listened to the plea of a thirsty foreigner? Jesus seems to discover a friend in his conversation, one who is abundantly interested in slaking her own thirst. What might we all discover in shared vulnerability with the strangers in our midst?