Massah and Meribah. These names are a bit of a refrain running through the Old Testament, mentioned whenever the sons and daughters of God were found grumbling about the ways of the Lord. It was at Massah and Meribah, out in the desert wilderness south of Israel called the Negeb, the Dry, that the Israelites first complained to God about his ways. I only learnt a few weeks ago what each of those two names mean: Massah means ‘provocation’; Meribah means ‘contention’. Not exact happy place names.
We can all imagine what it might have been like out in the Dry, the parched lands, where God’s people could not find a ready supply of water. We can imagine them reminiscing about the ‘good old days’ back in Egypt (which never existed, of course), where water from the Nile was plentiful. We might even appreciate the people complaining to God, with a provocative and contentious spirit. Unremitting dryness might very well lead to bitterness. God had to get Moses to strike the rock to bring forth water; a metaphor of the hardness of heart among the Israelites that needed to be cracked open.
Jesus found himself out in the Dry, in the Samaritan lands north of Jerusalem. It was a Massah and Meribah kind of place. At least there was a well—Jacob’s Well—but he did not have a bucket, so was unable to access the reviving water he desired in his tiredness. Midday in the wilderness would not have been very comfortable.
It is fortuitous that a woman comes to the well. Fortuitous, but we suspect this was known by Jesus. She does not wish to be at the well at that time of day. She is without companionship, and forced to do draining work in the midday sun. The woman herself might very well have been called Massah or Meribah. There is a provocative and contentious way about her, born of a troubling and troubled life, as we learn from her conversation with Jesus.
As it turns out, she is in need of the water that only Jesus can give. Jacob’s water will not last, but Jesus’ water revives and refreshes constantly. One might satisfy externally and temporarily; but the other satisfies internally and eternally. Through a series of steps towards understanding, the woman and Jesus come closer to a true encounter that revives them both.
Recall the final thing the woman says to Jesus, and the most revealing thing of her own heart. ‘I know that the Messiah—that is, the Christ—is coming; and when he comes he will tell us everything.’ She wants to know this Messiah; she wants to know what is true. She wants to find her way to that spring within her, a spring that will heal her wounds and revive her spirit. Into the Dry of her own troubled life, Jesus brought the water of life.
There are any number of dry places in each of our lives. Troubled relationships, unhappiness with ourselves, regrets of commission and omission, bitter places. We have Massahs and Meribahs about us; provocations and contentions that bind us up. Our lives are, in places, like rocks that need to be struck open to let the water of life flow. Jesus came to do this, he comes to the Dry of our lives, with the staff of his Cross.
Banner image: Jan Joest, Christ and the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well, 1508, Kalkar, Germany.
Archbishop Peter A Comensoli17 November 2023