Don’t Keep Calm
Don't Keep Calm

Don’t Keep Calm

Third Sunday of Lent. Even Fr Richard Joseph Ounsworth finds that the British stiff upper lip has its limits.

We are told in the Book of Exodus that, when Aaron turned the waters of the Nile to blood with his rod, which was the first of the plagues of Egypt, the Egyptians dug wells to get water. Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and so, it would seem, were those of the whole nation: rather than marvel at the divine power manifested to them by this extraordinary occurrence, they just worked around it.

I am rather reminded of that poster that became a very popular meme a few years ago: ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. A very British attitude, one might suppose, a stiff upper lip. As we know, it took many more plagues, culminating in the death of the firstborn on the first Passover night, before Pharaoh and his people were moved to set Israel free.

Perhaps they ought to have paused more for thought at that first plague. A well is no substitute for fresh water – the one dank, murky, stale and grimy, the other fresh, cool, invigorating and life-giving. (I freely admit I have never drunk from the Nile, so I must crave your indulgence for a little poetic licence.)

Christ makes this contrast between the waters of a well and ‘living water’ in today’s Gospel. In the midday heat of the desert, he offers the Samaritan woman the opportunity to imitate her fellow-countryman in the famous parable and come to the aid of a stranger. We should note that, though taken aback at this request coming from a member of a nation that despises her and her kind, she does not refuse it, and it is pleasing to think of her indeed lowering her bucket and sharing the waters of Jacob’s well with Christ as their conversation continues.

This makes sense because Christ’s offer of living water – ‘running water’, we would say – builds upon his opening gambit of offering her an opportunity to show mercy, and she is responsive to his second offer even though she does not entirely understand it. She does not know that the water of life he is offering is what was prefigured by the water that flowed from the rock in the wilderness (‘And the rock was Christ’, St Paul tells us, at 1 Cor 10:4). It is nothing less than the Holy Spirit, the very life of God himself.

She does not know that this conversation would be recounted two thousand years later by the followers of Jesus as they prepare to celebrate the baptism of new believers, a washing in living water that would truly make them clean and fulfil his promise of a spring of eternal life bubbling up inside every one of his disciples.

But I think she does have some inkling that this is not an ordinary conversation, even before Jesus reveals that he knows more than he should about her marital history; even before he tells her ‘I am he’. In particular, she knows the difference between a well and a spring, and why the latter is always preferable even if she must often make do with the former.

And perhaps she knows that the time for making do is over. ‘Make Do and Mend’, that was another example of the British spirit of wartime endurance. When faced with Jesus, his extraordinary demands and his extraordinary promises, a stiff upper lip and some true British grit (or true Samaritan grit, for that matter) will not do. This was true for the Samaritan woman, and it is equally true – more true, perhaps – for us today.

Those who today will begin the scrutinies that lead up to their baptism at Easter know this already. They have made the decision that the stagnant waters of ordinary life will not suffice; instead, they will take the plunge into the living waters of Christ, drink deeply with delight of his abundant life-giving Spirit. It might be that their upper lips are beginning to quiver, as they realise the demands that Christian life will inevitably make.

As we offer them our prayers today and recall our own baptismal vocations, let us remind one another that we do not have to keep calm and carry on, but rather rejoice and carry on – carry on not as before, but onwards and upwards in the journey to the source of our live-giving river, Jesus Christ, our Messiah and our God.

Readings: Exodus 17:3-7 | Romans 5:1-2,5-8 | John 4:5-42

Image: detail from Christ and the Woman of Samaria by Guercino, photgraphed by Lluís Ribes Mateu

fr Richard Joseph Ounsworth is resident at Holy Cross Priory, Leicester, teaches scripture for Blackfriars, Oxford, and is the Editor of Torch.

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