Many firms have embraced the concept of water cooler encounters as a positive force within the workplace. This is the idea that, as employees go to get a drink from the water cooler, they will meet others doing the same and share chat. As a result, people talk about topical issues, discover shared interests, get to know each other better, step outside the boxes of their different roles and responsibilities, and discuss what they are working on. This in turn leads to fresh ideas, new directions of thought and creative perspectives – all benefitting the employees and the company’s work. The key elements are a social space that people need or want to go to, and a willingness to engage in conversation.
An extension of this is individuals whose gift is to ‘become’ the water cooler moment within the community: people who are able to socialise comfortably, get to know others, bonding over shared stories, and through this are able to share conversation about important issues. It is not everyone’s gift but I’m sure we can all recognise those around us who are blessed with it.
In John’s gospel, we hear this Sunday of how Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, half a mile outside the town of Sychar. (John 4: 5-42). The well would have been very much the water cooler place, where women would have gathered together to draw water, helping each other and sharing gossip, usually in the cool times of the early morning or evening. But Jesus’ encounter with the woman was at noon, under the heat of the midday sun. She came alone to draw water from a well that was some 100 feet deep! Why? As John’s account develops, we discover that the woman has been married five times and is now living in an unmarried relationship. Perhaps the poor woman had been widowed five times and no man now wanted to risk marrying her. Or perhaps she had a series of failed marriages and was constantly seeking a better relationship. Whatever the reason, she seems to have been ostracised by the other women of Sychar.
Indeed, everything about this particular well-side water cooler encounter is against expectations. Jesus breaks the taboos of a male stranger talking to a woman, of a Jew talking (in Jewish terms) to an ‘unclean’ Samaritan enemy and, worse, drinking water from her pitcher. But by stepping outside the expectations, Jesus was able to draw her into conversation. As this developed he showed her that he knew her deeply and he opened up to her the invitation to know and receive his gift of living water, true life.
And as we see repeatedly elsewhere in the gospel narratives, encounters with Jesus not only turn lives around to a new relationship with God, but also achieve a healing of human relationships, returning ‘healed’ individuals into recognition and social acceptance. In this restoration of the damaged, Jesus took the outcast and made them the water cooler moments that began the transformation of the lives of those they went on to encounter. Filled with the exciting news of her well-side meeting with Jesus, the woman rushed back to Sychar to share her story. There, because of her testimony, people listened to her and many other Samaritans came to know Jesus.
I wonder, what are the water cooler spaces in our communities? How do we as church be the water cooler identity? How are we sharing the transformative good news of Jesus Christ in the social places and in the unlikely moments? How are we living his compassion in restoring the dignity of the outcast?
May you be refreshed today by Jesus in your journey of Lent.
Image by Lucy G.