It all began with a piece of grit in her eye, as Laura Jesson stood on the edge of the platform at Milford Junction and the express train hurtled by. Going into the refreshment room, she asked for a glass of water to bathe her eye, but she could still not dislodge the grit. By chance a stranger was there, a doctor, Dr Alec Harvey, who made her look up, look down, look left and look right and then removed piece of grit with his handkerchief.
This brief encounter was to have a big impact on their lives in a tortuous few days of unrequited, doomed love. The story of the film Brief Encounter is told like a confession, as Laura sits sewing, recounting in her mind how it happened and, in her mind, telling all to her husband Fred, ‘the only one in the world with enough wisdom and gentleness to understand.’ ‘I’m an ordinary woman’ she says, ‘I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.’
This tale of an extra-marital affair must have been quite shocking in post-war Britain. No less shocking was what happened in the encounter in our gospel story today. That Jesus should talk with a woman was bad enough, but that he should stoop to converse with a Samaritan woman whom the Jews regarded as being very much beneath them would have been scandalous. Furthermore, the woman had gone to the well not at the beginning or end of the day as was customary, but at midday, when strangers might be at the well; and she was on her own.
This is a chance encounter; had she have come to the well ten minutes later she would probably have missed it. But it is remarkable and life-changing for the woman concerned. She is a mundane woman with her mind set on her daily chores, which revolved around the drawing of water from the well. She is confused by the riddles with which Jesus seems to speak, puzzled by this stranger who offers to give her water yet has no bucket. Jesus draws her away from the mundane to the spiritual; the water that he has to give will quench the thirst of the soul.
Jesus knows her better than she knows herself and he reveals to her an infinite blessing: direct contact with God through his Messiah through the Holy Spirit; not bound to the holy places of the Jerusalem temple or Mount Gerazim, the temple of the Samaritans. Jesus reveals himself to her directly, the one who is speaking to her is the Christ, the Son of God. He tells her that she must worship God in Spirit and in truth. She has the responsibility to seek God out how he really is, to find out what is true about him and reject what is false. It is a charming encounter, one that is typical of Jesus’ interest in the ordinary person with an ordinary life.
In the book The Way of a Pilgrim, the writer sets out to find the answer to the challenge of how one should pray constantly, and he has a serious of encounters as he seeks out starets, or holy people. Some of these encounters were with ordinary humble people, but they were all memorable to him, and helped him deepen his understanding of prayer and the immanence of God.
In the course of your lives I dare say that you have had some extraordinary encounters that have affected you deeply and left a lasting impression. Life is richer for these encounters and we never know what such an encounter with a stranger might bring to us.
We never know what an encounter with the Lord might bring to us, because he has not stopped going out to meet his people. Prayer is an encounter, and any true meeting with Jesus through the Holy Spirit can be life-changing, it may have a momentary duration or it may last for a long time.
At the end of the film Brief Encounter, Fred puts down his newspaper and goes over to his wife with her doe-eyed face so stricken by sadness, “You’ve been a long way away. Thank you for coming back to me.” And Laura dissolves into a flood of tears on his shoulder, as she realizes the truth of what has happened and what will not happen. In her mind she had told him everything, and one feels that all will now be well for them.
So it is with us, when we seek an encounter the Lord and can speak to him with all honesty, directness and truth. Jesus, he who is the Christ, is always there, waiting at the well, offering to us the living water, through the Holy Spirit, to revive our parched souls.