Reflection for the Third Sunday of Lent and free speech

‘Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.’  Fromtoday’s Gospel, John 4:5-42.

“If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” George Orwell, author of 1984 and a former BBC talks producer. 

Today’s encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in Sychar is a lengthy one, in which they engage with a series of exchanges that affect both of them. Jesus is tired, alone because his disciples have gone to get food, and it’s noon, the heat of the day. He’s vulnerable – and so is she, as fetching water at the hottest part of the day when most people would be sheltering from it indicates that she may not be in good standing. To her surprise, as the Jews and Samaritans ‘do not share things in common’ v9, Jesus crosses a social boundary by freely asking the unnamed woman for a drink – something that would never normally happen in the custom of the time as it could compromise them both. Then, as sadly still today, the racial, religious and social circumstances meant that enmity and unrest prevailed there, although fetching water was something women were expected to do.

Jesus then offers her living water – fresh, not stagnant, “a spring of water gushing to eternal life” v14 but she jokes with him that he hasn’t got a bucket and, despite the divisions between them, refers to our ancestor Jacob. The woman establishes common ground by doing this and then says that she wants this water, calling Jesus a prophet when he refers to her five husbands. When he tells her that he is the Messiah and the disciples return, the woman leaves and speaks openly of what has happened so that many other Samaritans flock to Jesus and ask him to stay with them. John writes that many believed Jesus, but does not say whether or not the woman herself came to faith in him. Yet through her, Jesus’ ministry is now extended to the Samaritans and she is the means by which many acknowledge him as, “Truly the Saviour of the world.” v42

The irony is that, whilst she is sharing what has happened, the woman who may have been shunned and goes to the well when no-one else does becomes the centre of attention. Once that has happened, social convention is restored as she is told, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves.” v42. What became of her – did she allow God’s grace to change her life as well as theirs or did the nameless woman continue to seek living water in the desert, despite finding it in so unexpected an encounter? 

Perhaps we are like her at times: encountering unexpected or difficult situations and being the means through which others become involved. Garry Lineker and the BBC executives might agree, given the row that has developed this week about the right of the sports presenter to speak about controversial matters and the need for the BBC to be impartial, although for many this has now become a debate about free speech. Lineker’s comments about refugees and the many wide-ranging responses to his remarks continue to create much speculation, though not always at the heart of the matter: those who don’t care what Lineker says on Twitter but do mind about missing their football analysis have also entered the fray. 

Who are the people we may have unexpectedly encountered in our communities and lives or on the news? How may they have changed our thinking or whose thinking might we have changed? Were social boundaries crossed or re-established and for whom is the outcome unknown, like the Samaritan woman who was the means of change for so many others? As the Lenten journey continues, is it possible that chance conversations and desert experiences we have had may contribute more than we realise to the growth of the kingdom of heaven here on earth?

With my prayers; pob bendith,

Christine, Guardian.