Sunday, 18 January 2015

Sermon for Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 2015 - John 4:1-42

It would appear that I have been somewhat occupied tending to parishioners in my 170sq mile charge.  Loving it.  Fabulous folk, gorgeous parish - currently looking like Narnia.  We dug ourselves out of our homes and dug our way through the snow to get to church this morning - where we worshipped God, pondered 'living water', and reflected on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Here's the sermon:
John 4:1-42 The woman at the well.

Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

Two people.
A woman.
A man.
Given what we learn of her background,
her life experiences,
she’s probably older than him.
He’s a young man.
A teacher,
a rabbi,
in the early stages of his ministry,
wandering the countryside with his band of disciples.

Two people.
Two different, yet similar cultures.
Cultures that are...antagonistic
towards one another.
An antagonism that demonstrates that they have a past history.
Two cultures that had,
many hundreds of years ago,
been one culture
until stronger neighbours
effectively caused a schism.
A schism that, as the years rolled by,
widened into a chasm of misunderstanding;
that misunderstanding resulting
in mutual suspicion and open hostility.
Two cultures that perhaps, were really more like an estranged family.

Instead of working towards reconciliation -
of celebrating the many things
they had in common,
these two cultures - Jews and Samaritans -
focused instead upon their differences;
distinguished their own identities by
not being like ‘them over there.’
Part of the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ strategy included a very common tactic still used today:
using language to lessen the ‘other’ -
to dehumanise them.
So, for Jewish people, for example,
Samaritans were thought of as animals,
and described as such:
they were labelled, not as a people,
but as ‘a herd’.
The worst insult a Jew could make against another Jew was to call them a ‘Samaritan’.
Samaritans were outsiders:
not       like      ‘us’.
And the interesting thing, when you begin to dehumanise someone who is different,
who is other,
is that there’s a knock-on effect in the way that you interact with them,
in the way that you treat them.

When you tell yourself that your enemy is not even human, you find yourself justifying all sorts of inhuman behaviour upon them.
In this case, behaviour that resulted in burning down the Samaritan holy place -
the temple on Mt Gerazim by Jewish people.
Or behaviour that resulted in Samaritans lying in wait to attack Jews travelling
from Galilee to Jerusalem -
which is why Galileans tended to use the longer road on the other side of the Jordan River: they feared for their lives.
Such division,
such a deep well of bitterness.

But back at our well in Samaria, to:
two people.
A man.
A woman.
From two cultures that mutually
despise each other
and if at all possible,
try to have nothing at all to do with each other.
Two people
now face to face,
having to look each other in the eye,
and see each other.
Really see each other.
And, in the seeing,
recognising their common humanity.

In this story of outsiders,
ironically, it’s Jesus who is the outsider -
he’s the foreigner, the stranger,
stepping into Samaritan lands
because it was the quickest route
to get to his actual destination.
The riskier route.
And, he’s alone, initially.
The disciples have headed off into town
on a shopping trip.
It’s the 6th hour of the day -
in our reckoning, midday -
and he’s been walking,
and walking
the dusty roads.
He’s weary.
Bone-crushingly so.
And he pauses to rest.
A stranger,..
alone, ...
and    tired.
Three reasons in and of themselves
that make him vulnerable.

She - and we never learn her name -
she comes to the well at midday. 
It’s not the usual time to gather water,
for that’s normally done in the cool of the morning or early evening
in the company of other women.
We don’t know why she goes alone to the well - the text doesn’t give us the reason.
But she, too, is vulnerable.
She’s a woman.
She’s alone.
And she’s just turned up to this place
and finds herself face to face with a man...
and a Jewish one, at that.

Perhaps as she looks at him, she thinks:
‘ah, he’s really just a laddie, I can handle him’
She’s got experience of having to handle men.
Often, when this story comes up,
this unnamed Samaritan woman is described as a less than moral character -
This, based on the number of husbands,
and of her current domestic arrangement.
Certainly, that’s one way to look at her.
But there are cultural contexts here that are not a part of our lives now,
and we need to take these on board.
It was a culture where women
were virtually property -
a culture where women who found themselves alone were especially vulnerable:
a woman needed the protection of a man.
This particular woman could easily have been widowed, abandoned, divorced - and it was very easy for men to get a divorce.
She could also have had a series of Levirate marriages - married to her deceased first husbands brother, or brothers, in order to procure him an heir.
For whatever reason, this woman found herself repeatedly vulnerable and needing protection. 
She married.
She may have been immoral,
or she may have had
a simply hellish and tragic life. 
There’s no hint at all in the text that Jesus sees her in terms of ‘a sinner’
Nor is there any sense that he’s absolving her of guilt from a shameful past. 
It’s just not in the text.

I wonder if the tragedy of her life is what Jesus sees, when he looks at her?
Talks with her?
Comments upon her life?
She doesn’t take his comment in any way
as a judgement call.
He’s seen to the heart of things
seen beyond easy, shaming labels,
has seen her for who she truly is.
Her response?
He speaks the truth he couldn’t
possibly have known -
‘I see you are a prophet.’
Perhaps there’s almost a confession of faith
in her comment?

By the well, these two strangers have a deep, profound conversation.
It’s the longest recorded conversation Jesus has with anyone.
It’s a barrier-breaking conversation:
between Jew and Samaritan,
between male and female.
People, who in normal, everyday contexts would not give each other the time of day.
It’s a life-giving conversation
about thirst-quenching water:
the water of eternal life.
Water, that was previously thought to be available only for the Jewish nation.
Water that bubbles and flows and is available for all who will drink from this deep well.

In this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we are invited to go to the well,
the place where barriers are broken
the place where we can see beyond labels
beyond differences of race,
of gender or orientation,
beyond differences of religion
beyond even differences within our own faith.
Here, at the well, we are invited to drink deeply of the living water,
and to go and share this water with others -
to invite them to ‘come and see’.
Come and see the One who sees us fully.
And, as we are seen, so too, we see one another fully,
and realise that we are united
in our common humanity;
and that each of us is 
‘seen by Jesus,
loved by Jesus,
and has the capacity to bear witness
to the one who comes to enlighten our lives and world 
and to give us living water that will satisfy even our deepest thirst.’  (David Lose)

Let’s pray:
God of life,
Shower us in your living water,
bringing us to new life, fresh and clean.
Walk with us as we share the knowledge
of your living water with others,

so that all might live.  Amen.