Do you like having visitors to stay? I do, even though it means that I have to clean up a little more vigorously than usual. Amend that – a lot more vigorously than usual.
One of the benefits of having people to stay is that you take them out to places you would never think of going to otherwise. We have friends in East Anglia and they are always amazed when they come to stay that there are hills so close!! Last time they came we took them to Carnforth railway station – not an obvious place for a day out until you realise that it’s a period piece of the nineteen forties – just like railway stations used to be – including the station buffet – but the sandwiches are better. And why is it like that – because the station was where the 1940’s film Brief Encounter was made.
For those of you without grey hair, who cannot remember the film, it is a story of two ordinary middle aged people, one a single man, the other a married woman who meet at a railway station when she gets a speck of dust in her eye and he lends her a handkerchief to remove it. Ah. It was of course filmed in black and white at Carnforth Railway Station which was masquerading as one of the London terminal stations.
The film traces the story of their developing relationship, a relationship which puts their moral and social values to the test. In the society of the day divorce was rare, married women did not often up sticks and leave their hard working husbands – and if they did they may well be ostracised by family and friends. Their brief encounter was the spark for them to consider very carefully what their lives were now and what they would become if the relationship continued. It was a moment in time which presented challenges and was life changing.
A turning point
Today’s gospel story is of a brief encounter – an encounter between Jesus and the woman of Samaria at Jacob’s well. And just as for Celia Johnson’s character in the film, it was a turning point in the life of that woman.
Jesus was travelling from Judea to Galilee and the shortest route was through Samaria. There was an alternative way avoiding Samaria, but this would have taken much longer. And yet Jesus may well have opted for the longer journey. Because there was a long standing feud between the Jews and the Samaritans – it had been going on for some four hundred years – and they had no time for each other.
Jesus, tired and thirsty is left at the well outside the town whilst the disciples go to search for food. And along comes a Samarian woman.
Speaking in public
Now, Jewish Rabbinic teaching was that men should not speak to women in public, so it is no wonder that the woman was absolutely taken aback when Jesus not only spoke to her but asked for her help. “How can you ask me for water?” She is astonished that an educated Jew would have any dealings with her.
When Jesus tells her that he can provide living water, the woman takes him literally, thinking he means fresh, clear running water, and mocks him: “Sir you have nothing to collect the water in.” “And are you saying that you are greater than Jacob who gave us the well.” And when Jesus says that he can give her water which will ensure that she is never thirsty again she is delighted. Who wouldn’t be? She would never have to travel to the well again – no long trudge from the town each day, no carrying canvas buckets or large pots of water. “Sir, give me this water” she says.
But then Jesus amazes her. He asks that she calls her husband and comes back. She has no husband and Jesus tells her precisely what her life is like – 5 husbands and the one she calls husband now is not her husband. Perhaps that is why she has to draw water from the well outside the town because the other women ostracise her at the town well.
And as she realises that Jesus knows all about her she accepts that he is a prophet. Although she knows that Jews and Samaritans worship in different places and in different ways, she obviously knows from the scriptures that the Messiah is coming and Jesus reveals to her, a Samaritan woman of dubious character, that he is the Messiah.
Could this be?
We do not know what her reply to him was as the disciples return at that moment. But we know her actions – she puts her pot down and runs to the town telling others of her experience – we can imagine her rushing about saying that she has met a man who knew all about her – telling people what he had said – Could this be the Christ?
And many of the people in that town believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony – and Jesus stayed in their midst and they listened to him and believed. Again Jesus breaks down the barriers and accepts hospitality from those who are enemies.
Breaking down barriers
It is a very dramatic story. (Perhaps we should have acted it out this morning)
It is a story in which we see the humanity of Christ in his tiredness and thirst, we see his ability to break-down barriers between peoples in reaching out to a Samaritan, and a woman at that. And most of all we see the effect of that meeting on the woman.
For her it was a life-changing brief encounter. Not a romantic one – but certainly a soul-searching one, an encounter which was to change her life forever.
She met Jesus and realised that he knew all about her past, and it is pretty certain it was a somewhat dodgy one, and still he would offer to her the living water. And although at first she misunderstood, she realised eventually what he meant and then she joyfully recognised him as the Messiah. And her first action was to tell others and bring them to Christ. Discipleship indeed.
She is every bit as much a disciple as those twelve who travelled with him. Some think that the woman may have been Mary Magdalene – but we do not know for certain.
Whoever she was, she met Jesus, recognised in him something unique, was prepared to listen, to admit that she did not understand everything, and when she suddenly realised the truth, had to tell others about it and bring them to meet Christ. She was a disciple, a follower, a true evangelist.
And what an example she sets for us. From her story it is clear that is not only those who are perfect, those who are socially acceptable, those who are knowledgeable who can be disciples. For she was a woman with a past and she was a foreigner – and she did not find it easy to understand what Christ was saying. Despite that she did what many are afraid of doing, she told others. She was so enthusiastic about her discovery that she had to share it.
It has to be told
The Good news of Christ has to be told, to be passed on. As Saint Paul says “ how shall they hear without a preacher”. I have said in the pulpit, that few come to Christianity as a result of hearing sermons – that’s true, yet they must know, must hear, of the good news before they can discover Christ for themselves.
But those who have no experience of Christianity, no pattern of church going, are more likely to listen to someone who meets them in the place where they are – and talks to them of a direct experience of Christ. The woman of Samaria was not a theologian, she had no religious training, it was not to a religion or a theory that she called her neighbours but to a transforming, life-giving power. She introduced them to Jesus.
A brief encounter
Her neighbours heard from her of Jesus and were so affected that they went to discover for themselves – and came to the joy of knowing him. What an evangelist she was. (That gives me a lot of encouragement. I am not perfect and don’t always understand what Jesus is saying.)
A brief encounter. For the woman at the well, her encounter with a stranger changed her life, changed her ways, inspired and freed her. And she did not keep all that to herself – she told others, with enthusiasm, with joy and with certainty. Are our encounters with Jesus reflected in joyful enthusiasm of bringing others to him?
This week may others see in us the joy, the life and the transformation that comes from our encounters with Christ today. Amen
“A brief encounter” was preached by Margery Spencer at St John with St Mark Bury on Sunday 15th March 2020. It’s based on John 4. For Ian’s take on the same passage please follow this link. For more by Margery please go to our Archive. Given Covid-19 and the restrictions on public worship it may be the last sermon preached here for a while, so please enjoy!