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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church

At Jacob's Well

At Jacob's Well

By the Rev Kelvin Holdsworth

Preached at St. Saviour's Church, Bridge of Allan on 27 February 2005

Our Gospel story this morning takes us to a particular time and place. It takes us to a town known, as Bridge of Allan was once known, for its water: Jacob's Well. And here, in the ridiculous heat of the day, comes a woman, to draw water at the well, Jacob's well. And, there is a man waiting at the well, with whom she begins to talk. A scene so familiar to her. She must have been coming to Jacob's well for years to get her water. So familiar was it all to her that she failed to notice something crucial. For today, this day of all days as she came to draw the water from the well, Jacob's well; Jacob's God was near.

Jacob's God was near, and after a convoluted conversation, the woman at the well came to recognise him.

Through the conversation at the well, she came to understand that he was the Holy One. He was the one who had come from God. She came to understand that she was holy too.

It is very similar to the reading we had last week. A muddled conversation about water leading to a conversion. Last week we heard about Jesus telling Nicodemus that he must be born of water and the Spirit. Nicodemus was someone who was not supposed to mix with riff raff like Jesus.

This week, we find him waiting by the well. And this time he is in the superior position. It is himself who should keep quiet. He should not be speaking to the Samaritan woman. Yet, standing by the well, he needed water, real water to slake his thirst. He was so hot and so thirsty that he was even prepared to ask someone for help whom he should not have spoken to.

The Samaritans were a people who were hated by the Jews. They were reviled. They were used as scapegoats by everyone.

The last time I preached about this text was six years ago - before I came to St Saviour's. When I did so, I preached all about the pressing question in the church at the time - should the church allow both men and women to appear on the shortlists for Episcopal elections. In short, whether we could have bishops who are women.

Now, today, I find myself preaching about this text again. The dispute in the church is a different one though the arguments are very similar, even though the competing voices get shriller and more agitated as time goes by. Once again the church is discussing who can and who cannot be a bishop.

I do not know what it is like to be a woman. I do not know what it feels like to be a Samaritan in Jewish society. I do not even know what it is like to have to come and draw water in the heat of the day.

However, I do know what it feels like to be a gay person in ministry in the Anglican church.

And this week, I know what it is like to be hated. I know what it is to be reviled. I know what it is like to be made a scapegoat for things that have nothing to do with me.

And I have learnt from people like the woman at the well that to remain silent in the face of injustice is to collude with it. I have learned from those who have drawn deep drafts from the water of life that to remain quiet in the face of bigotry and intolerance is to become a part of it.

This week I celebrate 5 years of being at St Saviour's. It is exactly five years since I came here. And the one thing that I have been trying to do is to preach the unconditional love of God. I feel a call to do that. And I find this week, that my mission is compromised by the wider Anglican church.

I have learned from people like the woman at the well that the personal is pertinent to the gospel; that the personal is political even.

And now, in the ridiculous heat of the current arguments in the church comes a man, who stands at a well and says - give me water, I will drink with you.

For it was Jesus who started it. Standing by a well, he asked someone for water, and in doing so, Jesus crossed a line of ethnic hostility. Don't believe that racism or sectarianism or the gender divide is something new. It isn't.

Yet, Jesus was prepared to turn things around completely by asking someone of whom he should have been afraid, for water.

He crossed the line, and calls us to cross the line too.

And of course, it was not just that she was a hated Samaritan. She was a woman too. He was prepared not only to scandalise the neighbours in the village, but he was prepared to scandalise his own disciples, who were not best pleased when they came back and found the two of them chatting.

He crossed the line of gender oppression by speaking to a woman at all.

It seems that he was prepared to cross any such line in order to meet people.

And I am sure that he expects the same of his followers. Boundaries caused by poverty, race, gender, sexual orientation call us out of ourselves, to destroy difference and to see once more that we are all God's beloved children.

So, if you think that the church and its priests are obsessed with these things. Well, we are, and with good reason.

And what is that reason?

Well, Jesus was not the only one who put his reputation on the line. The woman did too, what reputation she had. She should no more have been speaking to him than he to her.

She reached out beyond the rules of her disordered community and found that she met God. Jacob's God. The God whom her people had claimed to know all about, as they lived, gathered around Jacob's well.

She reached out and we must, as Christians too.

It is not just that we are looking for justice for those who suffer from violent and ugly prejudice, though that is a good thing in itself. It is not just that we don't want to cause offence. Though there is nothing wrong with that either. No. It is because this is the way to meet with God. God speaks to us through those who are different from us.

He always has and he always will.


Kelvin Holdsworth writes online at and works in St Saviour's Church, Bridge of Allan, in central Scotland.>>

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