Oil and Water. Famous, proverbial indeed, for their inability to mix. They might not mix, but both of them are important for life, both are life giving. In our first Bible reading this morning, about something that the prophet Elisha was involved in, we see flowing oil bringing life to the widow and her sons. She only had a little oil, not much to work with really. But she was obedient, had faith, did what the prophet told her. She collected as many jars and bottles as she could, and started pouring, and the oil kept flowing. The only thing that stopped the oil flowing was a lack of something to pour it into. Hold those thoughts – only a little to start with, doesn’t look like much. The only limit to its flow was the number of jars ready to receive it. That’s the oil.
What about the water? Well, we didn’t actually hear about the water this morning. We only heard the end of the story in John chapter 4. We began with the disciples returning from somewhere, surprised to find Jesus talking to a woman. In the preceding verses, read them at home later, we find out a bit more about this conversation, in the middle of which we read about Jesus saying, “the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
The conversation hadn’t started so positively. For one thing, Jews and Samaritans did not get on. Was it a tribal hatred? Was it a racist resentment? Was it a fear of the other? How did it show itself in practice? Was it an active antagonism, was it a passive avoidance, or was it a habitual contempt, handed down from generation to generation with no real understanding of the roots of it. Whatever combination of these it was, it was a real part of life which we glimpse in little phrases “Jews do not associate with Samaritans” or as the footnote puts it, in a better translation, “do not use dishes Samaritans have used”. The relationship between the two peoples was so broken that Jewish people would not even eat from a dish that a Samaritan had used previously.
Jesus should not have been talking to any member of this race, never mind a woman – and a woman who comes to the well in the middle of the day, when the sun is at its highest, not a good time for hauling water. Why is the woman coming now?
And he really shouldn’t have been talking to a woman on her own – no chaperone. But why is she there on her own? That sounds unusual, wouldn’t she be with a friend or a group of women coming to get water together?
So a woman, from the wrong race, on her own. Can it get any worse? It turns out that it can, she has been married five times, and the man she is with now is not her husband.
Now, much of the interpretation of this insight of Jesus has understood this as revealing the sinfulness of the woman. However, there are some commentators who suggest a different reading of this, a reading that seems to me to make more sense. Let’s just think for a moment about how this woman could have ended up in this situation.
One explanation is that she’s been married five times, each time the husband has died, and that she has given up on marriage. Even given the lack of modern medicine this seems unlikely. Another explanation is that she is a serial adulteress, in the middle of yet another affair. This is possible, but given the heavy penalties for adultery (Jesus was invited to join in a stoning of someone caught in adultery), also seems unlikely to me. A third possible reason, and to me the most likely, is that she was infertile. She had been married off repeatedly by her father, but each time she didn’t conceive she was returned, just as barren livestock would be. Her father had finally got her off his hands to another man willing to feed and keep, but not marry, her. And of course, in that culture to be infertile was to be cursed by God. No wonder none of the other women would be with her. No wonder that she did not want to join the throng of young mums at dawn as they went to collect water in the cool of the day.
Jesus meets her in the heat of the day, in the middle of her brokenness and curse and water springs up out of him and transforms it all. As he speaks, she knows that she is seen and loved for who she is, not written off or despised for something she has no control over. And then she goes and shares this with the rest of the community, and they listen to her and follow her. No longer is she the curse of the town, but the source of blessing to the town. The one who could not bring a child to birth is bringing a whole town to new birth.
Oil flowing and bringing life and hope, water flowing, bringing life and hope, but there isn’t just oil and water flowing around, bringing life and hope. There is something else. There is testimony. Verse 39 says this, “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony”.
Testimony is powerful, it changes lives. But I think we can be a bit scared of the word. Out in the world it’s not a word that’s used very much. When it is used it’s in legal contexts – like a witness being brought to a court to give their testimony. It’s serious thing. In church language, it seems to have got this meaning that it’s got to be about how we came to faith, and it’s got to be big and dramatic and impressive. If I came to one of you now and asked you for your testimony, I wonder how you would feel. Just take a moment to feel that feeling – to recognise it and to own it.
The thing is, I don’t think that it has to be that big a thing. It doesn’t have to be about how we came to faith, it could be about something else God has done in our lives. It doesn’t have to be big and dramatic, it might be a simple blessing that we’ve received. It doesn’t have to be a complicated story.
The Samaritan woman’s testimony was a sentence, “Come see a man who told me everything I’d ever done.”
It’s not very long, but I think that it provides a clue about what a testimony really is, at its core. A testimony is just an example of something that God has done in our life.
Now, the people that this woman was talking to would have known her pretty well, would have known her situation, would have been able to see a change in her, so she didn’t have to give any further explanation. Sometimes that will be the case for us.
Let’s take an easy example. Say you’ve lost some weight. A friend asks you how you did it. You say that you went to Slimming World. That is your testimony to the effectiveness of Slimming World. It’s not difficult, it’s natural, it’s normal.
Or say that you’re part of a running club, and you do Park Run every week. One of your clubmates notices that you’ve really improved your personal best. They ask how you did it. You say that you found a new training regime in Runners World and it’s really helped. That is your testimony to the effectiveness of that training regime. It’s not difficult, it’s natural, it’s normal.
What if you’ve got a reputation at work for losing your temper. Your colleagues notice that you haven’t lost your temper for a while and eventually (once they’re sure you’re not going to bite their head off) they ask about it. You say that you’d got some folk at church praying for you about it, and you felt that God was helping you to control your anger. That is your testimony to God at work in your life.
Let’s be real – it’s not quite same, it’s not the answer people are expecting, so it won’t feel as natural or normal, it may feel more difficult, but that is no reason not to do it.
Sometimes we’ll have to provide a bit of context, especially when people don’t know us, or bits of our situation so well.
In those circumstances we have three things we’re going to want to share.
What was going on before.
What God did.
What difference it made.
Throughout the summer we’ve been looking at journeys to faith in the Bible, this morning its the woman at the well, and we’ve also been hearing the stories of some of the people in this congregation. This morning is no different, and today’s story is structured around those three things:
Rebecca was hoping to be here today to share her story herself, but she’s come down with a tummy bug, so has sent it to me to share instead.
What was going on before:
“12 months ago we’d not long had Mia christened and following on from meeting yourself and Abby the meeting regarding Mia’s christening got me thinking about Christianity and it certainly hit something inside me and made me want to find out more because I knew nothing about Christianity other than the story of how Jesus died and my knowledge of that was very brief. I’d never read the Bible and church was for christening, weddings and funerals.”
What God did:
“Over the last 12 months I have attended the Start course run by All Saints which was an introduction to Christian faith. I found this left me with more questions than answers so I new I needed to delve a little deeper and find out more. Abby recommended that I join the Alpha course at Admaston House last September. I remember going along having no idea what to expect and sitting in a room full of 30 other women most of who had such an overwhelming faith and were so enthusiastic about Jesus and their faith that I remember for the first 4 weeks I was terrified and began to think that it wasn’t for me as I didn’t share in their enthusiasm. However I stuck with it and on week 10 I was filled with the most overwhelming feeling of wanting to be part of the church family so that evening, with the help of Dawn and all the other ladies in the Alpha group, I invited Jesus into my life. Since then I have gone on to do my second Alpha through All Saints and have attended my first Holy Spirit Day and will be starting my third Alpha course at the end of September. I have also done the Freedom in Christ course which I found totally refreshing.
What difference it made:
“I have found a tremendous inner peace and my faith has grown so strong since completing the course”
A simple story, told clearly, of God at work in someone’s life, a testimony – readily shared, such a powerful way of sharing the good news of Jesus now.
So, my invitation to you for this week is to have a good look back over the last few months of your life. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you what God’s been up to in your life, and spend some time coming up with three or four simple sentences – this is what it was like, this is what God did, this is what it’s like now. And then, pray for an opportunity to share that story with someone, look out for the opportunity and take it.
It may only be a little, but the only limit to its flow is the number of ears we are willing to pour it into.
Who knows whether your story will be the first seed in someone’s heart or the final thing that brings the harvest in, but if you don’t share it, you will never find out, and they may never have an opportunity to say, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Saviour of the world.”