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Watch your Language

Our readings from St John’s Gospel during this Lent bring us a series of dramatic encounters between Jesus and individuals he meets. Last week we heard about Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus. Today there is Jesus’ conversation with the woman he met at the well. Next week, unless we choose the alternative readings for Mothering Sunday, we hear Jesus’ conversation with the blind man who is healed, and then the Pharisees, who question Jesus actions, beliefs and origins, rather than expressing joy in his healing.

What all these readings have in common, is that St John records in some detail, and with great precision the conversation that is held. And at the heart of each of those conversations is a clash of understanding about language itself. Nicodemus, a Pharisee, whose religious life was entirely run on a huge set of exact and definite rules, came with his questions, and we heard him almost interviewing Jesus, expecting a series of further definitive rules and regulations. It seemed that he went away disappointed because what he heard from Jesus was a different type of language, that we might call religious language, or the language of faith.

Religious language, is the language people are forced to use about some of the deep mysteries of faith, belief, or religious experience. We live in an age when people expect from each other clear and unmistakeable statements – preferably in sound bites that can go out on radio or television.

We have all heard the likes of John Humphrys or Jeremy Paxman insisting that their interviewee answer their probing question: come on, yes or no, did you make that statement, did you take that money unfairly, are you responsible, are you to blame? At this point we may be cheering on Humphrys or Paxman – go on, get him or her squirming; or sympathising with their victim – oh do give him or her a chance. But our very definite society that wants an answer in just a few words, or preferably just yes or no, can’t put up with uncertainty or mystery. After all, the computers that seem to run so much of our lives, with or without or being involved, themselves run a on a huge chain or micro switches, responding just to the concepts of yes or no – or so I’m told.

So we come to the conversation between Jesus and the woman at the well.

The practical request Jesus makes for as drink, leads her to respond with a question about the perceived differences between them, she a Samaritan and a woman, he a Jew whose law should prevent him from receiving a drink from her, on both those grounds. But already by her references to faith, the woman is showing that she might be open to being drawn away from the yes or no language of everyday life, to the language of faith, and Jesus speaks for the first time of ‘living water’.. But at first, the woman remains in practical mode ‘Sir you have no bucket and the well is deep.’

But she is open to being drawn from the practical, into the more mysterious offer of living water. The woman comes from a region that knows the meaning of thirst, and the need sometimes to drink water that is brackish or has been standing in a dirty place for a long time. One of the possible meanings of the phrase we translate as ‘living water’ is the running water, from which we all wish to drink, and pray for people all around the world to be able to access.

But the woman is able to grasp the eternal as well as the practical significance of living water, and the conversation turns to matters of faith. From this conversation, and the woman’s later testimony to her village, Jesus is acknowledged as the Messiah there. So we see in the woman a progression from Nicodemus, who refused to be drawn from the legality of his quest for rules, into the language of the eternal

Matters of faith, belief, religious truth cannot always be expressed in simple and unmistakeable language. Some things are too mysterious, too complex to be nailed down to a precise sound bite.
Reckoning with religious language, with its necessary overlay of inexactness and uncertainty – at least in this life, can be a source of friction, even between Christians – let alone between believers and those who do not admit to having a faith. . This can make us Christians appear to outsiders either as wishy washy, not knowing what we believe, or quarrelling about all sorts of issues, even about what the Bible says.

This is to ignore the importance of understanding what religious language is: that it often asks us to enter a realm of mystery, of trusting something we cannot exactly grasp or completely explain. As the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says, Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.

As individuals we have to be grown up about understanding that some questions need straight answers – should I pay my gas bill on time? Should I leave a note on the windscreen of a car I accidentally scrape in as car park? These have obvious answers. But what does it mean those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life?. That is a question to ponder, to grow into to be lived out and prayed out.

Many of our neighbours do not have an understanding of religious faith or religious language. They might want to write us off as airy fairy pie in the sky people, or to write themselves off as having nothing to do with that confusing nonsense.
Yet we do know that people have a huge hunger for something that might underlie the basics of day to day human life. That is why, despite the fact that only 8 per cent or so of the English population attend any kind of worship regularly, over 70 per cent choose to put on the census – a completely confidential document, that they are people of faith.

And it is why people still want to be married in church, or to
bring babies to be baptized, or to come to church to say farewell to someone who has died. For in each of these circumstances, it is possible to see, even in those who adamantly reject the idea of themselves as people of faith, an assertion that life is deeper and more mysterious than sound bite headlines would have us believe.

Our task is to help our neighbours, particularly at times of significant events, births, marriages, or deaths, to acknowledge the essential mystery of the meaning of our lives, and the presence of God within these events. We have to help them understand the scope of religious language, which does not always give easy precise answers, but often expects us to mull over the words and ideas, as we grow closer and closer to understanding their meaning. That meaning may only be made clear to us in eternity, rather than in the here and now.

We want to be confident ourselves, in these days of yes and no answers, to rest in mystery and not knowing all the answers. And we need to encourage and support our neighbours in being content to explore the mysteries of life – including not to understand fully the meaning of all the words spoken by Jesus, including those about ‘living water’. And we want to help them move forward as the woman at the well did, into so strong an understanding and commitment to faith, that they are able to share it in turn with their own neighbours..

But one more thing – we cannot lose hold of the need that brought Jesus and the woman to the well in the first place, the need of living water, pure flowing water, in its practical sense as well as its religious, mysterious eternal sense. So many of our fellow human beings all over the world do not have the basic necessity of clean, flowing water to support their very life or health, that we cannot concentrate entirely on the religious language of ‘living water’, without striving to ensure the opportunity for clean water for all our brothers and sisters throughout the world.

I attended a marriage recently of a Christian couple who asked not for gifts for themselves, but for their guests to give something for others less fortunate. A visit to Oxfam provided a gift that would assist the digging of wells in places affected by severe drought. The volunteer who took my payment remarked that I was the fourth person buying a wedding gift of that nature on that day.

Perhaps it is in the outpouring of compassion and generosity that the practical and the spiritual meet, and the everyday language of ‘I don’t wish my brother or sister to be hungry or thirsty’ meets the religious language of ‘I don’t want my brother or sister to miss out on the spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’


Copyright © Rev Wendy Carey



Eternal God,
give us insight
to discern your will for us,
to give up what harms us,
and to seek the perfection we are promised
in Jesus Christ our Lord.