Jesus answered and said unto her, Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again. John 4:13
The theme of this Gospel reading for today is found in the words of our Lord when he says,
Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.
The life, passion and resurrection of Christ are the source of this spring of everlasting life, and the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Church is the personal gift of this life so that it wells up in our own hearts. More than anything, the Christian life is a matter of allowing this spring of everlasting life to flow freely within us. It is a matter of removing the things which will obstruct it. It is an inward spiritual process of focussing on the source of life within us, who is God. When we seek God, we find this spring flowing freely. When we fill our lives with distractions and other priorities then we find the fountain fails, and becomes choked, and dries up.
We see from the account of our Lord speaking with the Samaritan woman that people often fall into the error of thinking that Christianity is simply a matter of doing the right things and avoiding the wrong things. There is an inner seeking after God which requires effort, and which will require us to give time to prayer, to worship, to stillness and to service. But this effort is properly all directed towards seeking God and not to pleasing him. If we think we have to please God before he will show his mercy and favour to us then we have a wrong impression of salvation. What is necessary is that we seek God and rely only on him giving us all that we need to live the Christian life. There are religions which are much more explicitly based on a performing a series of rites which will propitiate their god. These religions, and many others, have a deistic view of God, in which God is distant, and is only pleased by certain acts being performed.
Unfortunately, this point of view is also present in some Christian communities. There are many people who call themselves Christians but who rarely attend Church, except for christenings, weddings and funerals. There are others who attend Church regularly, but do not have a relationship with God outside of the Church building. Even in our own hearts we may find traces of this view of salvation and may secretly congratulate ourselves that we pray regularly, fast and attend church services. It is all the same spirit of self-righteousness and it cannot save us. There is nothing we can do which can save us, everything is of God, even the desire to please God, and this wells up within the hearts of those who know God as a spring of life.
The Pharisee in the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee is an obvious example of this self-righteous way of thinking taken to an extreme. He thought he was spiritually better than the Publican because of what he did. While the Publican shows that he has found salvation by his humble expression of repentance. The Samaritan woman today also has lots of questions which she uses to hide the exposure of her heart and to stand in the way of actually meeting with God.
She says, ‘You Jews don’t like us Samaritans’. She says, ‘How are you going to get the water out of the well?’ She says, ‘Where is the right place to offer worship to God?’
In fact, many of us seek to hide the content of our hearts from ourselves and from God by asking a multitude of questions like this. The questions we ask ourselves often have a virtuous appearance. I wish I knew the right way to fast? I wish I had a better prayer book? I wish I had a plan to help me read the Bible in a year? Yet if we consider these sort of questions carefully we will see that often – not always – but often, they are a means of allowing us to feel good about ourselves without actually doing the spiritual work that is required of us. We can be like those people who are always writing their first novel and who are always able to describe themselves as a writer without ever having to write, let alone publish, anything at all. We can be like that, always talking about the Christian life but never actually living it out.
Our Lord is not so very interested in the questions which the Samaritan woman poses, and it is not obvious that she understood very much of what he said to her. But at one point in their conversation something changed for her. She was no longer having a conversation with a man at the well. Rather she was having a personal encounter with God. He had exposed her heart, and it was this personal encounter rather than his answers to her questions which convinced her.
This is what is so different between Christianity and other religions for instance, or even Christianity and the sort of English religiousness which sometimes passes as Christianity. We have had a personal encounter with God. He has touched our hearts and it is this inner relationship which is the means of our salvation and which is the well of eternal life flowing within us. It is this inner relationship which is the essence of our Christian experience, not the things we do, however necessary and important to our spiritual growth.
There are many outward practices of our Christian life. But we do not pray so that we might please God. We do not fast to force God to have mercy on us. We do not attend Church to prevent God being angry and displeased. We do all of these things because we have turned inward, into our hearts, and have found God there as a spring of life. Perhaps a casual observer will not be able to distinguish between the one who does religious things to please God, and the one who expresses their living spiritual relationship with God through these practices.
May we find the wisdom to spend our lives in seeking God and not in seeking to please God. May we commit ourselves to that inner relationship with God which saves us, and which makes us bearers of the image of God in our hearts and not just people who do religious things. There is a great difference. A saving difference. If we do not experience this unceasing spring of life and salvation within our heart in every moment then let us seek it and ask for it above all things, crying out and saying, Lord, have mercy on us and grant us a spring of everlasting life within our hearts, for our salvation and your glory. Amen.