A sermon given during the 10:30am Choral Eucharist, by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO, on the 12th March 2023.

How do we say thanks for Living Water?

[Readings: Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-42]

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Our readings from Exodus and John this morning might, at first sight, not appear to touch upon similar themes – but, in one important respect, they do. In each of them we have examples of human interaction with the divine … with God in Exodus and with His Son in the reading from John’s Gospel. This morning I wish to reflect upon the ways we communicate with God; and how our presumptions about God may affect how we undertake that communication.     

The reading from Exodus finds us once again reading about that troublesome group who had fled Egypt to escape enslavement but who had never seemed satisfied with circumstances as they unfolded. Their almost constant grumbling started with what has been regarded as the first recorded example of Jewish sardonic humour. It had been on the banks of the Red Sea where, facing the impenetrable waters of that Sea and with the armies of Pharoah descending upon them, the complainers had said:

Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? [Exodus 14:11]

Then, by the time they had reached Rephidim, they were now complaining of thirst, saying:

Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst? [17:3]

Scholars have calculated that it had taken the Israelites twenty-two days to get from the parted waters of the Red Sea to where our reading this morning found them. If that grumbling attitude had predominated over those weeks, we can sense from Moses’ words that he was by then at the end of his tether with his flock:

What shall I do with this people? [17:4]

Not only had his testy followers apparently threatened to stone him, they had also questioned God himself asking:

Is the Lord among us or not? [v7]

To all this, God had responded more graciously than they deserved. He instructed Moses to strike a rock from which water had then erupted. Thankfulness should surely have been the result. Yet even Moses, despite this positive response from God to their complaint, chose not to call the place of the miracle after their deliverance from thirst, but rather to forever remember the people’s incessant complaining by calling it Massah and Meribah. Massah means ‘testing’ and Meribah ‘quarrelling’. So, it became a place where the people’s quarrelling and testing was remembered rather than their salvation from a death of thirst.

The Book of Numbers [20:2-12] also recorded an episode where the people had quarrelled and tested God over their thirst for water. Some scholars have regarded the episode recorded in Numbers to be one and the same with that from our reading this morning in Exodus. However, others, such as the medieval Jewish scholar and rabbi, Rashi, have reported that the incident recorded in Numbers had occurred thirty-eight years later when the Israelites had once again found themselves back in the same place.[1] Once again, God instructed Moses to strike a rock for water to flow. Without giving thanks to God, but instead saying to the people ‘Listen now, O rebels …’ [Numbers 20:10], Moses had then struck a rock twice and brought forth water. God had then responded, the relevant verse from the account in the book of Numbers being:

God said to Moses and to Aaron, ‘Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this congregation to the Land that I have given them. [Numbers 20:12]

An awesome conclusion to the episode with Moses being denied entrance to the Promised Land. But for us, we also have an important segway to our Gospel reading this morning by those words spoken to Moses and Aaron.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus had encountered a person to whom we so often just refer to as ‘the woman at the well’, but to whom the eastern church has respectfully given a name – Photine.[2] Jesus had opened the conversation asking for water. Photine, shocked, asked Jesus how he could ask such a favour from a Samaritan woman; to which Jesus responded by saying:

If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink’, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water. [4:10]

The focus of the conversation had then immediately changed from quenching Jesus’ physical thirst, to the yearning inner thirst which Jesus sensed in the woman. The discussion between them continued in ways which astounded Photine until, in a moment which would have been considered outrageous inasmuch as she, intemperately as both a woman and a Samaritan, spoke about the coming messiah. Jesus ignored her lack of propriety, very simply answering:

I am he the one who is speaking to you. [4:26]

We would do well to pause and marvel at that moment which our Gospel reading recorded. There, in a territory of the hated other, in the heat of midday, in a very ordinary setting – a village well – and more forthrightly than he had done much earlier at the synagogue in Nazareth [Luke 4:21], Jesus had revealed himself to a woman, a Samaritan woman at that. Unlike previous encounters of performed miracles, where Jesus had told those whom he had healed to remain quiet, this time Jesus simply let Photine absorb the enormity of the encounter she had just had with him. The result being that, putting her water jar down, she immediately sought out other villagers to share the transcendent moment in which she had just participated. Enthusiastically, she said:

Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he? [4:29]

With those few words, Photine became the first evangelist of the good news of Jesus, for our reading also tells us:

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony. [4:39]

While Moses had not proclaimed the Lord to the Israelites, upon miraculously producing water from a stone, Photine, having received living water, immediately proclaimed His Son to the Samaritans. Despite the miracles of feeding, watering and protecting of those who had fled Pharoah, never does the Biblical record reveal a profound thankfulness among them leading to spontaneous worship of God. Yet here, in a seemingly chance encounter, a woman who had sought earthly water received ‘living water’ and immediately gave thanks and praised God by her act of openly acknowledging him to others.

After all the reported incidents of the people of God as they wandered the wilderness, in the absence of spontaneous thankfulness on their behalf to the gracious love of God, it is perhaps not surprising that the record of the Torah, in both Leviticus and Numbers, set out so many ways in which the people might, liturgically, give thanks for deliverance.

By contrast, there on that hot Palestinian day, in a public place, not a place of worship, without liturgy to script the response, Photine had been thankful.

Thankfulness should be at the core of our faith. Not just thankfulness for perceived gifts received but because we live in the creation of a loving God, whatever our circumstances may be. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Philippians had written:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. [Phil 4:4-7]

Paul had written those words whilst in a Roman prison and after many travails; for as he wrote in that same letter:

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.I can do all this through him who gives me strength. [Phil 4:11b-13]

There, at Massah and Meribah, that had not been the comprehension of the people whom God had delivered from the world’s enslavement. However, at the Samaritan village of Sychar, a lone woman had comprehended it and wanted others to as well.

In our prayers and in our worship, but also in our thoughts, our words, our deeds do we feel and want to share such thankfulness as Photine did, and the people at Massah and Meribah did not?

[1] Cited in the Chumash, in footnote to Numbers 20, page 843.

[2] Photine is derived from the Greek word for ‘luminous’ – a light to the world.