Sunday 15 March 2020
Lately, I have been rereading “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen. I have a bit of a chequered history when it comes to this particular book. In my first year in the Seminary, we had to do a course called “Great Books”. The first one we had to study was “Moll Flanders”, followed by “Gulliver’s Travels”. To my credit, I did read those two books. By the time we came to the next in the list, I had run out of a bit of steam for the subject and so I looked up the old Coles cheat notes on it rather than actually reading the novel. It just happened to be “Pride and Prejudice”. Let me just say that my study tactic did not work and I did pretty poorly in the assessment on the book.
Just a few years ago, I was going away on holidays and I was putting some books on my Kindle to read while I was away. And there was “Pride and Prejudice” for the princely sum of $3. So, I downloaded it. I read it on that holiday and have to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed it.
A few weeks ago, I was looking at the library on the Kindle for something to read while I was travelling into the city on the bus and there was “P and P” – in the library. That is why I am rereading it at present.
One of the things that really jumps out at about the context of the story is that, in the absence of all of the machinery of distraction that surrounds us, they spent a lot of time talking in those days. And not just talking, but engaging in conversation.
The Latin roots of “conversation” are con – with and vers – turned. In conversation we are turned with each other – we are absorbed with each other. One description of the word suggests: “When you have a conversation with another person or a group of people, you listen closely and respond appropriately, so that your conversation is a true exchange of ideas, not just people waiting for their turn to talk. A good conversation makes you feel heard, satisfied, and maybe even more informed”.
The account of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well is nothing if not a conversation by this understanding. Jesus could ignore her. All the cultural taboos – her being a Samaritan and a woman – gave him every reason to ignore her. But he didn’t. He knew, as I suspect most people of his day knew, that a woman would only come to collect water from the well outside the city in the middle of the day by herself if she was a persona non grata in her community. But he turns with her and exchanges ideas with her as the definition I just quoted suggested.
It is a conversation that we could study minutely. Notice how it cascades, if you will excuse the pun, down deeper and deeper into the well of the Samaritan woman’s heart. Notice how it is “a true exchange of ideas, not just people waiting their turn to talk”:
‘Give me a drink’.
‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’
‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’
‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’
‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but 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.’
‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’
‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’
‘I have no husband.’
‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’
Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’
‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’
‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’
‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’
The return of the disciples interrupts the conversation, but the woman runs back to the city and proclaims to the people: ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’
I want to suggest to you that this is an account of conversation, true, respectful conversation, as a means of evangelisation.
Perhaps we could break away from the obsession of our age with noise and blather and start to practice the art of conversation again, the art of genuinely “turning with” people to listen to their ideas and fears and sharing honestly our own insecurities blessed in the light of our faith in Jesus Christ.
Evangelisation is far more likely to take place in genuine conversation than in standing on a street corner with the Bible in one hand and cajoling passersby for their sinfulness.
Let’s pray for the gift of conversation.
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen