Sermon for Easter Sunday Year A

It is not surprising that Easter matters to the wider Christian Church. Yet if we have ever moved from one section of the Church to another I am guessing we have all realized that there is a disconcerting variety of beliefs about this central festival. One source of dispute is in the answers to the perennial question – do we believe that Jesus was resurrected so that in some sense he has continued to live? Even if many say “yes “ there is a world of difference between those who hold to a bodily miraculous return to life on the part of the Son of God or alternately belief in a central idea that refused to die and lives on in the lives of followers.

Admittedly Easter Sunday, globally by far the most important festival in the Christian year, now appears highly variable in expression, with a profusion of religious customs and impressive occasions, many of which represent sincere attempts to demonstrate and celebrate the significance of Jesus’ empty tomb.

At the same time it appears for most denominations, an Easter Sunday celebration shape gradually emerges such that the regular church goers find predictable familiarity – both in the words of the oft told stories, and in the expected responses to the message.

I would imagine for example that when Pope Francis concluded one of his Easter messages with the words: “may the risen Christ guide all of you and the whole of humanity on the paths of justice, love and peace” that Protestants and Catholics alike would have almost expected those sentiments and would have been more than happy to say Amen.

But regardless if such sentiments were expressed by a Pope, or for that matter some other leader from a competing Church, that should never be the last word on the subject. Our real challenge comes when we ask ourselves the next implied question: “Now, how is that going to happen?”

With some trepidation I would like to suggest that, no matter how entrenched our Easter Day celebrations have become, and no matter how well prepared and competently led our services might be, this in no way excuses us from working out how we will live our personal response to the Easter message.

As to the evidence for and against a literal resurrection, we may well have reached our own conclusions and there are plenty of accessible books and articles summarizing the main arguments for and against. Yet regardless of how literally we are expected to take the story of the resurrection, the real issue is whether or not we intend to do anything with the story at a personal and practical level.

I will try to explain by reworking a point made by the current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby in an Easter sermon when he referred to a recent survey to what was then recent news in which it was reported “that only 40% of churchgoers are convinced that the new Archbishop of Canterbury can resolve the problems of the Church of England”. Despite his obvious gifts, Justin Welby spotted the futility of the tested proposition and we should particularly note his comment in response. I quote:

“I do hope that means the other 60% thought the idea so barking mad that they did not answer the question.”

I suspect if the survey question had been reframed to read: “Do you believe that Jesus of the first Easter could now resolve the current problems that beset his church and his world today?” regardless of how strongly we believe (or disbelieve) in resurrection we should probably admit if the Archbishop of Canterbury were consistent, he would have a perfect right to label this question also as “barking mad”.

Despite the best efforts of dictators and power hungry leaders of all persuasions, history teaches that humans are not automatons, and turn out to be difficult to control as puppets. Among most who have attempted to follow the teachings of Christ through the centuries there has been a real mix of saints and sinners, and I suspect that most of us remain a complex mixture of the two. Indeed if we were automatons there would have been no point in Jesus inviting us to consider moral principles, since as puppets we could have been better controlled by a resurrected Jesus playing us as if we were some kind of global or even cosmic computer game.

It is not up to Jesus to direct our responses to the very human problems that beset the Church any more than the Pope Francis can produce world peace with a word or that some Archbishop can solve the current dilemmas of the Anglican Church without corresponding buy-in from their respective followers. The more relevant individual question is to decide how our current actions reflect the essence of what we believe Jesus was really about.

Some like me might remember from school days that one of the seven basic signs of life is movement. When we talk about Jesus being alive for us, this should be very different from signing up to a Church where there is no discernible movement of ideas and where the customs and beliefs are rigid and ossified in a pattern designed for a previous generation and different circumstances.

Even at the time of the first Easter, there were few certainties to fall back on. Given that Jesus’ early disciples would have been hurt and even confused by his crucifixion, and given that there was no formal or timely evidence gathering following the crucifixion we can hardly be surprised that by the time the varying versions of the story were recorded, uncertainty remained.

With only four of something approaching 30 Gospels surviving the final selection of books in the New Testament, we only see some of the options that those first disciples were offered. A further complication is that of some very obvious editing of the Easter story. For example the last nine verses of Mark were added years after the original was written and the oldest copies of that gospel show the earlier ending.

The best of modern commentators are probably no more of a single mind than the first disciples on the scene. There is a vast difference between those like Bishop Tom (N.T.) Wright who might be seen as representing mainstream evangelical teaching which gives credence to the physical resurrection of Jesus and that of Professor Emeritus Lloyd Geering who makes a persuasive case for Jesus only being resurrected in a metaphorical sense.

Although I would class myself amongst the progressive camp in my personal interpretation, and while I cannot be certain what the resurrection means in terms of physical life, the characteristics of the early Church showed a Spirit very much alive as those first Christians sorted out their beliefs and tried to adapt to a rapidly changing geopolitical situation.

Like the earlier Jewish prophets who railed against a faith designed for a previous generation, the early Church leaders had to fashion their set of beliefs to fit with their experience and recent memories. There was movement alright and some of it most uncomfortable.

Look at the history of those very first Christians as they tried to come to terms with a society that neither welcomed nor even recognized their insights. There was constant movement as the creeds were fashioned and refashioned, and as difficult philosophic concepts like the Trinity were explained and re-explained.
Some of the refashioning probably came about as the Gospel writers looked back and came up with their individual views of Jesus. In the book The God We Never Knew, Marcus J. Borg writes:

How do we reconcile the two different images of Jesus, the historical figure that did once live and walk and preach and died a horrible death and the Christ the God incarnate and saviour?

He suggests that we divide our view of Jesus into two. The first is the pre-Easter Jesus, the historical Jesus of blood and flesh, a wisdom teacher who walked Galilee and who was crucified by the Romans for being a potential rebel leader who was a threat to the both to traditional Jewish faith and to Roman notions of law and order. The other the post-Easter Jesus is what Jesus became after his death. The post-Easter Jesus is the Jesus of Christian tradition and experience.

Many of us grew up hearing of Jesus mainly as the miracle figure: walking on water, feeding the multitude with a few loaves and fishes, Jesus as God incarnate, the Son of God, raising Lazarus from the dead, and himself raised again as a resurrected spirit body.   Perhaps we overlooked the practical ethical teaching and example.

Is it heresy to suggest our task is to follow and respond to the wisdom he taught rather than stand transfixed in awe at what he has become in the retelling?

Not everyone welcomes such scholarship and continual questioning as a sign of life. Just as some of the Jewish leaders voiced strong objection when Jesus assumed a prophetic voice to show how the old faith had become too rigid to deal with the changes being experienced by occupied Palestine, others would later protest each change and each sign of questioning or reform in the early Christian Church.

Later persecution of those who questioned rigid assertions, the burning or torture of Church reformers, the martyrdom of the first Bible translators and a strong reluctance to have Jesus’ principles of forgiveness and love of neighbour accepted as a blueprint for action showed not all wanted to recognize openness to change as a sign of life.

A previous Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams once claimed that we make a genuine mistake if we assume that change can only be associated with the early church. Each generation faces its own new situations and challenges and in at least one sense, Jesus is not alive unless we allow him to be alive for us as we try to adapt to our changing world. In the sense that we all come to the faith for the first time, Rowan Williams suggested we should all see ourselves as early Christians.

I suggested earlier that prominent scholars outline very different possibilities for what happened to Jesus after his body was removed from the cross. Just as the first disciples had different experiences and different witnesses to interview, if we are true to the notion of awakening to a living faith, I want to go further and suggest it doesn’t matter if we come to different conclusions, providing we never get to the point where we assume we now know all there is to know about what might yet turn out to be unknowable. More to the point, rather than argue the toss about whose image of Jesus is best, why not start with our current image and start to live accordingly.

In the last analysis, the unquestioning acceptance of a series of belief statements risks being not so much faith as cop-out, living on the assumption that others should do our thinking for us. Faith, if it is honest, must be tested against our realities. Remember that the early church is simply a way of describing those who were prepared to explore and develop their faith for their highly individual changing situations. Will we in our response to the first Easter be recognized as having a positive witness for our Christ?

Did Jesus live?    What do our lives tell others?

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Lectionary Sermon for Good Friday, Year A, on selected passages from John Chs18 -19

Good Friday Sermon, Year A
Since we are now at a point in political history when there has been much written and said about walls, have you noticed the irony associated with Jesus’ crucifixion? Jesus had spent much of his mission identifying and breaking down the walls between people, and there he was, being crucified at Golgotha just outside the physical walls of the city where he had been rejected.

The walls Jesus encountered weren’t just walls of stone. Jesus appeared to have cared very much about removing the non –physical walls. There were the metaphorical walls between the Samaritans and Jews, between Pharisees and the people, and the invisible walls keeping the lepers, the tax collectors, the women, the prostitutes, the lowly shepherds and fishermen in their place.

So Jesus told his parables showing that compassion should be extended to all, touching the lepers, eating with the prostitute , the fishermen, the tax collector and even the zealot in his band of followers. In a very real sense, this helped shift the non–physical walls. Yet there were also those who insisted on keeping him at a distance with the walls they erected around themselves and their institutions.

The zealots hoped for a Messiah who would lead them to military victory over those who threatened their politics and faith. Jesus, with his gospel of forgiveness, did not meet the expectations of those who sought supremacy for their people or their faith. We note in passing, some commentators suggest Judas his betrayer remained a zealot.

The High Priest and the ruling Sanhedrin did not accept Jesus’ right to give fresh interpretations of the law, or accept his healing and teaching ministry as valid. The Romans considered Jesus’ apparent reluctance to accept the supremacy of their authority and his implied challenge to the Emperor being the Son of God as rebellion. Their walls may have been self-imagined walls of self protection, but in good part, it was the threat to those walls that apparently cost Jesus his life.

The gospel writers paint a word picture of the traditionalists among the Jews becoming concerned at his threat to their extensive habits of custom and tradition. The story of Jesus clearing the Temple of those who were trying to make large profits from their religion, the account of Jesus telling parables about the potential goodness of the hated Samaritans, the challenge to ancient customs of avoiding contact with lepers and the challenge to those who used religion to personal advantage combined to make Jesus’ teaching a perceived embarrassment.

Given the strength of feeling against Jesus – particularly from those who represented the establishment, are we surprised that even Peter the leader of the disciples would be described as having his courage desert him at the vital moment?

Sometimes we need to take the familiar and look at it in a new way.
When we hear of the death of someone significant to the nation or community, it is one thing to acknowledge that the death matters, it is quite another to acknowledge that our personal attitudes might somehow have something to do with the cause of death.

I guess at least some present today have heard the anecdote I am about to share, which as far as I know first had its origin in the events surrounding the Allied landings in France during the Second World War. Even if you do know the story, this time I would like you to revisit it, this time seeing it as a parable. I am uncertain where I first encountered the story but I acknowledge this account is remembered rather than copied.

It seems that the fighting in one forest area in France was bitter and among those who died of his wounds was an American soldier whose fellow squad members were determined that they would not simply abandon his body where it fell. With considerable difficulty they started to carry the body until they came across the walls of a Church cemetery. This, they felt, was the most appropriate place to bury their friend. They went inside, and there they met a priest. He knew enough English to understand what they were asking. He was sympathetic but there was one important issue that needed to be settled first.

“This graveyard is consecrated for Church members”, said the priest. “Was this man a Catholic?”

“Not specifically”, said one of his friends. “But as far as we know he was a Christian and we need to have him buried in an appropriate place. To know that we found a Church cemetery as a place to bury him would be at least a little comfort to his family”

“Well”, said the priest, ” I am really sorry. But I have rules that I have to follow. He is not a Catholic. He cannot be buried in a cemetery for Catholics”.

The men protested. The priest remained adamant.
“OK,” said one soldier. “Well at the very least may we bury him just next to the stone wall, just outside?”

The priest was understandably embarrassed, but he too thought that this might be the best compromise, so gave his permission.

After burying their friend as best they could, the soldiers left. After some discussion over night they decided they would return the next day with some flowers for the grave. They found the walls of the graveyard with no difficulty, yet there was a puzzle. When they went to the part of the wall where they had dug the grave – there was absolutely no sign of disturbed earth. Thinking that perhaps they had mistaken the place they walked further – then went back in the other direction – but all they found was undisturbed earth.

They sought out the priest.

“I can explain,” said the priest. “I was concerned that despite the rules stopping you burying your friend inside the cemetery, it didn’t seem to me to be Christian to ask you to bury him outside the walls. I started to worry about this. I couldn’t sleep, so in the end I went to the part of the wall where he was buried – and shifted the wall so that he is now inside, where he should have been in the first place.”

Now I suggested that we take this story as a parable – because I guess, like the Jewish leaders dealing with Jesus 2000 years ago, our lives are governed by the notional walls we set up to show who we accept and who we exclude. If our faith is to make a difference to our inclinations, maybe we too may have to see if there is a possibility that the walls can be shifted.

Understanding what happened on the first Good Friday has a great deal to do with the walls that the folk in Jesus day choose to make important. Finding the relevance of Good Friday at least in part, is to recognize that even we too have our often unspoken rules about who is to remain outside our protective customs. When we identify with those who are kept out by our customs it maybe like the priest in today’s more modern story, we may have to face admitting something may need to be done, for as long as the walls remain we cannot pretend God is in his heaven and all is automatically right with the world.

Like the priest administering the rules and customs of the Church we too might feel constrained by what our customs have become, but the real Good Friday test is to see if like Jesus staying with his mission, and like that priest in today’s story, we are prepared to do something about it.

Good Friday is a good day to remember that in war, as in peace, there are always those who can be persuaded to do the non-loving act. Of course there is the temptation to rush past Good Friday and on to the resurrection. But if the resurrection is to have meaning, then those who claim they recognize its meaning can hardly carry on to pretend that there are no human contributions to the continuing and very real suffering of Church and non Church people alike. Our institutions may serve the majority well, but can we find amongst us, those who are marginalized by their background?

Our communities – and even our nation has its own way of keeping those beyond our physical borders at arm’s length. When we consider the plight of the flood of war refugees in the Middle East and in Africa, and those simply searching for food, we can hardly claim that institutional violence died on the Cross with Jesus.

Nor can we simplify and pretend that whole classes of people other than us are singly and exclusively responsible for the evil that happened back then to Jesus and continues to happen today.

Despite John’s passing implication that the Jews as a total class were responsible for Jesus death, in reality it was some in the crowd, it was some of the leadership, and the failure of nerve of some of his followers which found Jesus on one side of the wall and, those that might have helped, found on the other.

Certainly sacrifice was part of Jesus’ story. As any responsible parent or community leader must know, sacrifices can make a positive difference. But the transformation which can occur in lives is not some magic wrought by some religious act 2000 years ago.

Telling the child prostitute that Jesus loves them without helping them remove the walls that imprison them, or telling the refugee carrying meagre possessions on their back as they face another day without sufficient food or water, that Jesus has saved them by dying on the cross, simply won’t do it.

For all the talk about how we must best survive the current COVID-19 crisis there is virtually nothing said about the vulnerability of those in the refugee camps outside our walls of indifference.

At one level, Jesus’ sacrifice was refusing to give up caring despite the metaphorical walls erected to his face, and this despite the weight of rules and custom. We are most unlikely to have to face anything like the physical threat of the cross, but its lesson is plain enough. Our challenge is to ask if we too care enough to take Jesus’ example and use it to reshape our lives and shift our “walls” to encompass more of those we do not currently treat as God’s people.

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Lectionary sermon for Palm Sunday (Lent 6 Year A) April 5, 2020 Matthew 21:1-11

Palm Sunday is a curiously appropriate festival as a backdrop for the setting of the current Coronavirus upheaval. However I would argue the relevance comes not so much in the significance of Jesus in his entry to Jerusalem but rather as a reflection on the crowd response. Perhaps too it is only one of a number of times in history where Jesus has been lauded and yet in effect set aside when real life dealing with neighbours is subsequently in danger of being found wanting. Yes, on Palm Sunday Jesus and his message appeared to be starting to get through … but perhaps the real question was whether or not his now “enlightened” followers were prepared to stay on message when times were becoming tough?

Getting into the spirit of Palm Sunday has always seemed to me to be rather artificial and even forced, because welcoming anyone – let alone Jesus – with waving Palm branches and cries of “Hosanna to the Son of David” as he rides in on a donkey, is very far removed from what we are used to doing in everyday life, especially when it comes to dealing with real problems.

We also have the distinct disadvantage that we know what comes next. It is hard to get quite into the palm waving spirit of the occasion with the crucifixion starting to cast its shadow and for today, with the reality of COVID-19 casting a more immediate gloom. Even in the midst of the original celebration event, we should find it difficult to forget that, no matter how many admirers were on hand for that particular parade, a few short days later Jesus was taken, humiliated and subject to a particularly nasty form of execution. Can you imagine any modern situation where Jesus is revered for his teaching and influence yet when desperate situation calls for care of the vulnerable, Jesus’ teaching is quietly shuffled to one side? Me too.

When it came to the original Palm Sunday crowd, no matter how enthusiastic the people might have appeared in Matthew’s account, it is hard to believe that they were totally genuine in their support, particularly when a few days later, they appear either to have turned on Jesus, or at the very least quietly withdrawn to allow the authorities to carry out their version of summary justice.

It also seems to me that focusing exclusively on rather overblown theology talking of Jesus being welcomed as the King of Heaven as prelude to this same Jesus about to be sacrificed for our sins, risks appearing otherworldly. Don’t forget there was more to the story. First of all there was something quite deliberate about this parade, which, even if it didn’t quite exactly happen as recorded, helps explain why the authorities felt they needed to kill Jesus.

Pax Romana, which for Israel meant the enforced peace of the Romans in their conquered territory, was never any better than uneasy temporary calm.

Although the military might was clearly in the Romans’ favour, the Jews were most reluctant hosts. There had been a number of aborted attempted efforts to stage a revolution. Each time a revolt was planned, let alone staged, the Romans would exact terrible revenge as a clear warning to any other potential trouble makers.

This did not mean that the Jews were entirely cowed into submission. As far as the Jews were concerned, it was not so much that the Romans were exacting large taxes, but more that they threatened the free expression of the very religion the Jews held so dear.
Because the Jews were very clear that their Lord, their God, was entitled to their total and absolute loyalty, the sticking point was always that the Romans expected the Jews to demonstrate first loyalty to the Roman Emperor. The position of the Roman Emperor was highly symbolic but it went far beyond that of a mere ruler. Don’t forget at the time of Caesar Augustus, the Emperor was portrayed as a God, and his numerous titles included that of Son of God. The Romans expected all their subjects to give honour to the unique God-like status of their emperor, and demanded that even while their conquered subjects might be permitted to follow their own religion, this must always take second place to the acknowledgement of the Emperor.

Conversely, the Jews were taught from their scriptures that their salvation would come with some sort of reincarnation of King David, and this mighty one alone would be their Saviour.

The well known scripture from the words of the prophet (Zechariah 9:9) made the prediction which Matthew quotes as “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Perhaps in the interests of accuracy we might acknowledge in passing that Matthew, unlike the other gospel writers, has been a little careless with his use of the inserted word “and”, which then has Jesus mounted on two animals, the donkey and at the same time, the colt. When we think about it, might have taken some doing in practice.

This however is a relatively minor point and we do at least get the sense that what Jesus was reported as doing in this parade was deliberate enactment of the prophecy.

While it is true this was only one of the signs the people had been eagerly awaiting, some of the contemporary writing of the time portrayed this Messiah more as a mighty warrior king than a man of peace, no doubt coming to drive their enemies into the sea. There were those in the crowd reportedly confirming that here was the predicted prophet – perhaps recognizing the Zechariah allusion. As a consequence we learn of shouting crowds, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

To the crowd then there seemed at least some who showed their delight as those looking for their deliverer. However it is very likely that some present would have had serious reservations.

Some would have been concerned no doubt that the expected one didn’t match the expectations of a warrior king. There is even ambiguity about Jesus in the New Testament. The parables and teaching of Jesus and our Palm Sunday image of Jesus riding peacefully into Jerusalem on the ass-colt of a nursing donkey, has been re-imaged many times in subsequent history. For example the book of Revelation Chapter 19 has Jesus on a white battle horse out to do physical battle with his foes:

I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war…..I saw the beast and the kings of the Earth with their armies to make war against the rider on his horse….And the rest were killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh. (Rev 19: 11,19,21)

Being human we should admit there is always a tension between what we hope we are following and what our baser instincts encourage us to follow.

Any discussion of Palm Sunday is further informed by the insightful book by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan (The Last Week) where they remind us that about the same reported time of the peaceful and joyous entry by Jesus on one side of Jerusalem, there may well have been a much larger and impressive Imperial military parade coming in from the direction of the coast with Pilate entering the city accompanied by his troops who normally were stationed on the coast in Caesarea Maritima. As Borg and Crossan phrased it:

Pilate’s procession displayed not only imperial power, but also Roman imperial theology. According to this theology, the emperor was not simply ruler of Rome, but the Son of God. (Borg and Crossan, The Last Week, p. 3).

Given the current fascination with Video War games, not to mention the ever popular war films, action heroes and war documentaries, even today we might suspect such a military parade might gain more followers than the low key arrival of a humble Prince of Peace. Whether or not we are brave enough to insist that following the message of the Prince of Peace should always take precedence over the periodic calls to arms that has characterized the recent history of most nations, there is a question. Based on what we know of our home town, should history repeat, which of the two parades would we prefer to associate ourselves?

If we try to imagine ourselves actually present at Jesus’ parade it is interesting to speculate on the effect of this parade on the authorities.

When they got to hear about it, the implication that here was a potential Messiah would not have pleased the Romans. Since the Romans expected the first loyalty of the conquered people to be directed to their Emperor, the thought that Jesus might be competing with the Emperor would not have been welcome news.

The Temple authorities would have had it drummed into them by the Roman overlords that further rebellion would not be tolerated. The Jewish leaders’ continued existence in positions of control in the Temple depended on their ability to keep the peace for their foreign masters.

As far as the authorities were concerned that here again was a potential leader who may well serve as a rallying point for trouble, would have created consternation.
We always have the safe option of watching from the side-lines while others, like Jesus himself, identify by word and action with what they believe to be important. It is relatively easy to applaud from the kerb, and it may be tempting to treat even our acts of worship in that sense. Singing “Ride on, ride on in majesty!” is good poetry and acknowledges Jesus’ journey. Where it does fall short, is in acknowledging that his message only finds meaning in our willingness to make his parade our parade. However to identify with Jesus is to identify with his proscription for change, and symbolically this means stepping off the kerb to join the parade.

I also need to confess that I am not confident that I will always support the man on the donkey when he is rejected.

Prior to the current COVID-19 disruption there were many Christian groups loud in their insistence that their faith represented the best that Jesus taught. Now with untold situations of severe need in most communities, that need is set against the spectre of personal danger in stepping up to help those whose lives and welfare are at risk. Now is the time when those who carry Jesus’ message of love for neighbour are being called to step up. I am very uncertain as to how I will respond.

However I am equally sure that what we make of the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee becomes potentially life changing when we realize that it should continue to matter which parade we choose to follow, and ultimately, tomorrow when Palm Sunday is behind us, whether or not we are still prepared to follow when the shouts of adulation die away.

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Invited Reflection by Richard Small 15 March 2020 John 4 5-42

The following is offered in the context of the memorial to the Christchurch Shooting at the two Mosques.    Our gospel reading this week challenges us to move beyond our own understanding and comfort zones in our lent journey. The three streams in this reflection are:

* The symbolism of water.

*God who in Christ, who meets and accept us where we are.

*Living water only flows when it is shared.

A word about water:
Water is essential. Unlike first century Palestine, we are used to water being on tap whenever we need it. We have largely forgotten the 1994 drought in Auckland. We have the Waikato River plugged in. But that isn’t the case elsewhere and it may not be for us in future. In our Hebrew scripture this week, from Exodus 17, the people cry out to Moses and God in the desert of sin for water.

Water is also a powerful symbol of rebirth and renewal in John’s gospel. But the writer of John’s Gospel turns old familiar places and symbols into signs of the New Way announced by Jesus. The water of life is un-bottled: It won’t stay stagnant in old pools.

Water is a key symbol in our church life too. We enter God’s family through the waters of baptism. But are we open to being nurtured by God from unfamiliar wells? Will we even approach the spiritual wells, understandings, the places of worship of others? Or do we take the long road around them?

God in Christ meets us where we are:
In our gospel reading Jesus breaks through an even harder desert that of the desert of sin; a desert of prejudice and mistrust. The first surprise was that he was even in Samaria. Most self-respecting Jews avoided it altogether.

The Samaritan women seems more open to Christ than Nicodemus the learned teacher of Israel in last week’s gospel John often contrasts darkness and light. Nicodemus, the insider, sneaked around to see Jesus at night but missed the essence of his message.

This women, the outsider, avoided the gaze of judging villagers by going in the heat of the day. Yet she found the fullness of Christ.

Jacob’s well was located close to the ancient city of Shechem where God in Genesis 12 promised land to Abram and promised a messiah. The well was also close to Mt Gerizim and Mt Ebal. Joshua built an altar on Mt Ebal. This and not Jerusalem was where the Samaritan people waited for the Messiah.

Back then Samaritans used only the five books of the Tanakh , the Hebrew Scriptures, known as the “written Torah.” They were said to have intermarried with 5 other cultures – (remember the 5 husbands in the text?). They were seen as impure.

The Jewish high priest burned the Samaritan temple on Mt Gerizim. There were revenge attacks. This all sounds so sadly familiar.

A year ago a similar long history of fear and mistrust fueled the horror of the 15 March terror attack on Muslim communities in Christchurch. Unspeakable loss and pain was inflicted on so many families and their faith communities.

And yet there followed an outpouring of Aroha and mutual respect that shows a potential for great light to follow deep darkness:
• People chose connection.
• Leaders demonstrated inclusion.
• Survivors indicated forgiveness.

Still there were reservations from some conservative church leaders.
If we think we have divisions on these issues, liberal traditions within Islam also face challenges. I have been reading Ed Hussain’s Book “The House of Islam” where he challenges both the West’s oversimplification of Islam and the deathly grip of Salafi and Wahhabi fundamentalism.

Some centuries ago great Sufi teacher Dara Shikoh in India was put death for his inclusive beliefs. He was clear that he retained his Muslim identity but said:
My humanness is shared with any one and everyone. If we choose to love a special person does it mean they are the only person worthy to be loved? To you your faith and to me mine. There is no compulsion in religion.”

This sentiment was echoed in the gracious words of Farid Ahmed, a survivor of the Christchurch massacre who lost his wife Hushna, at the memorial service in March 2015:

“I have chosen peace, I have chosen love, and I have forgiven.”

I know that many of the bereaved families faced a battles getting here and being accepted as refugees. The hurt didn’t start for them on 15 March 2019. The work of reconciliation doesn’t and mustn’t finish at this first anniversary.

I like the example of Azam Ali and Shiraz Ali who lost friends & loved ones at the two mosques. They are starting an annual memorial football tournament to mark each anniversary of the shooting and to raise money for St Johns Ambulance who saved so many lives. 16 inter-faith teams will compete. This interfaith initiative is all the more interesting when we consider the crusader backdrop to the origins of the Order of St John.

Azam, said “The coming together of Muslims and non-Muslims that characterised the days and weeks after the shootings should not be forgotten, I think it’s slowly fading away. So I think it needs a bit of a jumpstart again.”

The comment about “fading away” seems very apt. Right now we are in middle of a
pandemic threat which pushes 15/3/19 off the front page. Understandably we’re not actually reaching out to anybody. At some point we will come out of crisis mode and we will still have long term relationships to address. I think this passage from John provide an inspiration to keep building bridges, not walls, and to stay open in gracious dialogue with our own whanau who feel torn between those two things.

We may say we are just too busy to risk yet another difficult relationship. First century Palestine faced occupation, famines and a bloody civil war by turns. Samaritans were “other.” A threat. Yet Jesus shared water, time and respect with them.

Living water only flows when it is shared.
In sharing water Jesus indeed broke the rules:
• Jews would not drink out of a Samaritan cup.
• It was improper for a man to talk to a woman in public.

Today we reflect on a woman who was a social nobody. Who are our nobodies; those we struggle to acknowledge in any real way?

Our “nobodies” are all “somebodies” to God. Are we being called to engage with them afresh? It’s often said that this was a “sinful” woman. Jesus comments on her past, but does call her a sinner. Was she widowed or abandoned five times, or was the reference to 5 husbands symbolic? We just don’t know.

She like many other women in the gospels is un-named. In the Eastern orthodox tradition she is given a name, Photini and she is venerated as a saint.

Jesus refused to be defined by the divisions of his day. Jesus , the “Logos ” the Word made flesh, according to the writer of John, first revealed himself as such in Samaria, not Jerusalem.

We are told that Jesus stays with this Samaritan community for two days. He
abides with them where they are at. For me that small reference further on in the text is as much of a statement as the revelation at the well. He stayed with and identified with that community. Put in very current terms, he had more than casual contact with the
“theologically infectious.”

No social distancing here.

What does an abiding relationship look like? How do turn one journey out of our comfort zone to lay flowers at a mosque into an ongoing mutual relationship? How do we make inclusion the default position? How do we also work together with differences within our own congregations?

As we journey together in lent are the new wells we can draw on together? Jesus
started at the end of the queue to the well.

I think there are still excluded people,
forced to wait at the end of the “queue to the well” and to be invisible, even in bright daylight, when they come to it:
That well could be a well of:
• Health.
• housing.
• employment.
• education.
• immigration, the dignity of being united with one’s family.

What more can we do to see and to give and receive gifts with those at the end of the queue?

This passage shows that something a simple befriending and sharing water can be
life changing. Could it be that the way we receive living water is by giving it away? Water that we try to keep is no longer living water. It becomes like still and stale water in a cistern. Only water that is flowing out is “living water“. Do we trust God, the Source, to renew our supply?

In the words of Joy Cowley’s psalm “Drought” from Aotearoa Psalms

He came to me for water ; and my well was empty.
I said, “It’s not my fault.
It seems that everyone is thirsty, and I’m only me,
one small well.
When I’m down to the last drop, that’s it.
What do you expect? Miracles?
I’m sorry, but that’s your department
“Everything- is miracle,” he said.
The greatest miracle here is that you’re not only you.
One small well, yes, but connected to a great underground river
which will never run dry.
Know where the water comes from
and take time to fill.
It’s as simple as that.”

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Lectionary Sermon for Lent 5 A on John 11:1-45 March 29

If I had my time again as a teacher, I like to think I would encourage all serious science and history students to read Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road not taken” That poem concerns a traveller walking through the wood, encountering a point at which the paths diverged. One path was well worn and the other scarcely trodden. Our traveller decides to take the less worn path. The poem finishes:

…..Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference

The assumption that heading in the direction everyone else is going is the safest may well be partly true, if only in terms of public approval, but in terms of breaking new ground to see things in new ways, whether it be in science, religion – or even sorting out whatever really matters in our personal lives, sometimes we may have to risk making our journey along paths that others would spurn.

Certainly echoing what everyone else says is unlikely to bring about enlightenment. In fact I would go further and suggest a casual affirmation of whatever a large group of people are saying or doing can draw us into patterns of behaviour and belief that sometimes work against the very principles we say are important.

It is true that many followers of Christ have done much to help their communities. Unfortunately it is also true that history is full of examples of bad behaviour excused by public acceptance in the name of religion.

Just to take one brief instance. When King Richard the first was about to set out on the crusades in 1190, a wave of anti-Semitic sentiment swept through a number of cities in the North of England. In one case, the Jewish population of York, estimated at the time to be of the order of 150 men, women, and children, took refuge in the Keep at the royal castle. Terrified by sounds of the mob outside baying for blood, a good number of the Jews committed suicide. Those who didn’t were burnt to death.

With countless examples: of centuries of religious persecution, of slavery justified by Church leaders, of the selling of indulgences to frightened and illiterate peasants, of the storing of treasures on earth by a powerful Church, and the turning of a blind eye to serious injustices, sometimes even on a global scale, we might well wonder why more of those familiar with the obvious themes of the gospels were not brave enough to step back to cry “enough!” in the face of what the majority condoned.  And here is a thought.  If you thought some of the powerful Western nations are acting in a non Christian way would you – um – did we – speak up in protest?

We might pretend that such callous disregard for inhuman behaviour would not happen today. During the Second World War, the Jews, whose people suffered persecution while ordinary citizens in occupied countries looked the other way, might suggest otherwise. So too might those who continue to suffer because there are those who currently prefer turn a blind eye to today’s child poverty and for that matter, the present grossly unequal distribution of the world’s resources.

A superficial reading of today’s gospel story may let you conclude the raising of Lazarus offers nothing to such themes, or if it comes to that, seems almost irrelevant to any practical situation we are likely to encounter in the modern world. At the very least it would be unexpected in the extreme to encounter contemporary examples of people encouraged to rise from the dead and actually doing so.

Before considering the Lazarus story, pause for a moment on the following item that apparently made the US National News back in 1992.

A letter was quoted as reportedly sent to a deceased person by The Department of Social Services in Indiana. It read as follows:
“Your food stamps will be stopped, effective March 1992 because we received notice that you passed away.
May God bless you. You may reapply if there is a
change in your circumstances”.

But at least be honest. If you think that letter was silly, then perhaps you too think the bringing back to life of a person who has been dead for some time is very unlikely as an outcome.

Some less conservative Christians would argue that if the events surrounding the raising up of Lazarus are intended to be taken literally, if there was any truth in the account, perhaps he was not truly dead in the first place.

There’s an old tale that Pat fell from the scaffolding on a construction job and was knocked unconscious. Mike ran for the doctor. The doctor came. He took one look at Pat and said, “He’s dead.” Just then Pat came to and heard what the doctor was saying. Bleary-eyed and still groggy he said, “I ain’t dead.” “Lay down, Pat,” said Mike. “Lay down. The doctor knows best.”

In the case of Lazarus, since resuscitation of the dead is rare enough, especially for one apparently dead for four days, sceptics might even be inclined to the naturalistic explanation and say: in those days lots of mistakes would have been made. It is hard enough today without the best of medical equipment to be certain someone is dead – so presumably it would not be beyond the realms of possibility to have someone apparently resuscitated by calling their name.

Alternately those insisting on a literalistic faith might simply say: well in the case of Lazarus, Jesus was the Son of God and could therefore do such wonders anyway.
I have certainly heard both well travelled possibilities suggested. Well I don’t know about you, but there is a much less well travelled path that is there for those who choose to look.

Let’s look at some of the features of the story. Jesus called the man by name. The name happened to be Lazarus …and just from that particular name we might begin to guess the story is intended to teach at another level. Lazarus was a name used in other scriptures, but almost always the meaning of the name reminds us that there is a parable dimension intended.

We might for example remember that there was a parable about another Lazarus who dies and is saved by God…..(the poor man at the rich man’s gate). Lazarus is more or less the Greek form of the Hebrew word which is derived from the Hebrew אלעזר, Elʿāzār (Eleazar) meaning “God has helped“.[ I don’t know if the name was intended to be significant yet Matthew’s first hearers of his Gospel may well have thought so.

You see it was not just in the gospels. Some rabbinic tales feature El’ leazar (Greek Lazaros) walking in disguise on the earth and reporting back to Abraham on how his children are observing the Torah’s proscriptions regarding the treatment of the widow, the orphan, and the poor. A friend of mine calls this, “being the mystery shopper”!

I wonder what the mystery shopper would report about our society.
The next point we may have noted is that although John claims Jesus raised Lazarus, it most certainly was not in the sense of a resurrection to eternal life. True, John records Jesus as saying Jesus to Martha ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone believing in me, even if they die, will live and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die’ (11:25-26).

However a closer reading of this miracle (or perhaps parable?) shows the eternal bit was not intended to apply to the revival of Lazarus in a literal sense. Lazarus may have come walking from the tomb, yet there is no suggestion that he was now eternal in that he was now going to live forever. As far as we know, even if apparently brought back to life, in due course he would once more be dead.

The alternative is that Jesus was referring to some lasting quality rather than quantity of life, a quality so important that it could be attributed the term eternal. If this were intended, we might guess Jesus was using “life” in a metaphorical sense to imply that those who adopted the way of life he was advocating would thereby open themselves to living in a totally new way…perhaps even one in which death was irrelevant.

To see the story as a case of a dead man literally brought back to life is to stay with the limited understanding of Mary and Martha. We ought to be able to do better than that, because with the extra detail supplied by John there is good reason to think Jesus was talking about life at a deeper level.

I implied earlier that there were aspects of the less travelled path that might make it less likely to be popular. In this case, the popular view seems to be that Jesus performed the miraculous result by himself. This is comforting because it then makes minimal demands on us.

Most sermons and commentaries I have encountered relating to this story focus on Jesus’ actions, so it is easy to overlook a tiny, yet I would suggest an important detail intended for John’s readers.

Remember when Lazarus emerges, festooned with the wrapping bandages and cloths intended for the wrapping of the dead body, Jesus asks those present to remove the bandages that Lazarus can be freed to move. If this too is part parable, perhaps he is saying that we shouldn’t look to Jesus to do it all for us. Just as Lazarus needed others help before he was free to display signs of life, the suggestion is that before what Jesus referred to can take effect others too have a part to play.

We are not all called to moments of high drama, but the notion of helping free those we encounter from the difficulties that stop them living life to the full is at the heart of practical Christianity.

Just as Christ met people as they were, blind, leprous, rejected or as in Lazarus’ case, dead to the possibilities of life, the call into fullness of life is also a call to interaction with those whose claim to full life is tested by encounter.

When that thoughtful and embarrassingly honest Anglican priest, Richard MacKenna, was trying to put his faith into words in his book God for Nothing, he wrote (P183)

Ask me why I am a Christian and I say, “I don’t know” What called me into the cloud of unknowing, the dark wood? Because I want to find out who I am? Because I want to know how to love? All I know is that the quest is risky and painful…and yet there is something there…light at the end of the wood.

In his book questioning standard Church thinking, I believe Richard MacKenna was walking the equivalent of Robert Frost’s road less travelled. I would like to think at the end, he too would be able to say “…that has made all the difference”.

As for me, my autobiography is yet to be written. And what will yours conclude?

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Lectionary Sermon, 22 March 2020 Lent 4, Year A, on John 9:1-41

Bishop Brian Tamaki, the founder of one of the local mega-churches in South Auckland, is quoted as saying that if his parishioners turn to God and pay their tithes, God will protect them from Coronavirus (N-COVID19).

To me, this represents a curious regression to a version of religion that comes from an age when miracle and magic ruled and primitive science struggled for acceptance. At first impression this morning’s gospel similarly takes us back to that same world, yet since my sister- in- law in Christchurch has just undergone a cataract operation to restore her sight, I have to ask the question if our modern world somehow calls for a rethink even on the gospel account of miracle.

Here in John’s gospel we have a miracle story which may well raise a question for many educated Church goers. And yes, they have reason for caution in that, at least as far as the modern mind is concerned, in the real world, nature is just not like that.

Blind people may be helped by corneal transplants, or replacing cataract damaged lenses with plastic, or using lasers to fuse detached retinas – but curing blind people with a word, or by what must seem to non Christians to be mumbo jumbo actions, is outside our normal experience. No doubt some will respond with “Of course it happened. It is in the Bible. The Bible is inspired. Therefore it must have happened as written”. Yet if you were put on the spot what would be your honest view? What do you believe happened?

I guess if we are just seeing it as a familiar Bible story we might even question if it should matter to us whether this should be questioned as literal miracle, or alternately for that matter, even whether any of the recorded Bible miracles actually happened in the physical sense.

For me, coming to the story from a science background, it is no longer reasonable to suggest faith should have nothing to do with what we know about our modern world. If it comes to that, if our Bible beliefs are to affect how we actually live, without an accompanying reference to what we now know from our world of science, how could pretending that Jesus was so very different help make his self-claimed followers better people?

Perhaps part of the answer is to look at the way the gospel for today hurries us past the miracle to what the lesson is really about.

The Pharisees got cross at Jesus for healing the blind man in a way that they did not understand. When he dismisses their assumptions, saying that those who now see will turn out to be blind, they finally lose patience with him. “Do you think we are blind?” they ask, no doubt expecting him to treat this as a rhetorical question. His reply paraphrased. “Your sin is there because you claim to see”. In other words they are in darkness because they think they are in light without having understood the Spirit of the law.

May I suggest we have to be rather careful with today’s Gospel passage. History tells us that on hearing that Jesus called the Pharisees blind, many self-claimed Christians in the next few hundred years used this as one of the scriptures that might be used to support persecution of the Jews. A more thoughtful reading suggests that there is a way that anyone (including us) can be blind not so much in a physical sense, but in the sense that they miss what John would have us know as the light of the world.

This should remind us that John’s focus in telling the story is not on Jesus as healer – but rather on Jesus as the dispeller of darkness in the wider sense – or – using the term that John repeats in a number of places – the light of the World.

As to our own ability to see, it then follows that what becomes most important to us in practice will reveal if we are in the metaphorical light or alternately to wonder if we are in the dark as a result of blinkered attitudes.

If we look beyond today’s gospel to other places where Jesus finds emphasis in his teaching, we may have noticed that the “Pharisees” Jesus takes issue with are really stereotypes which move far beyond the confines of the Jewish faith. The stereotypes work just as well for us today. Jesus’ teaching may have emerged from the law, yet his real focus was always on taking his listeners away from a focus on the rules and turning instead to a care for their fellow beings.

Time after time through history we see that wherever the insistence is on following rules blindly instead of responding to the people in their need, it is then we lose sight of what our faith is supposed to be. Belief without charity is a parody of faith.

Early Church history may seem a strange topic to read for recreation, but it just happens that recently I have been checking up on some of the key early Church leaders who shaped the Church beliefs.

Let me tell you about St Cyril. St Cyril was bright, he could sway a group of bishops to come to his way of thinking – and he just happened to be very nasty with it. He was very good at sorting out creeds, what people should say for example about the Virgin Mary, about how Jesus was the God bearer – in fact according to St Cyril, Jesus was God in human form – and so on and so forth. Some of his statements still influence the belief sets of some Christians today. The only trouble was anyone who disagreed was fired or worse. After seeing how many people were fingered as heretics by St Cyril of Alexandria, when St Cyril finally died in the year 444 AD, one of his fellow Bishops wrote feelingly: “At last the villain has gone. I hope his gravestone is very heavy, for I fear that Cyril will vex the dead so much that they will try to send him back to us.

And so we return to the miracle in today’s gospel, the healing of the blind man. Well as it happens that was only part of the story. In fact if you read the passage carefully you may have noticed that not only was the passage not simply about healing the blind man, the blind man was not entirely healed in that he could not see where Jesus was. In history we discover it is not only nasty people like St Cyril who were judgmental. In his day Jesus suggested that the “rules first” Pharisees who were being judgmental, were actually acting blind.

Way back in Jesus’ day they were also saying the sorts of things that we still occasionally hear today. When a friend’s daughter fell sick with the debilitating disease I was concerned to hear a conservative Christian acquaintance explaining this was no doubt a consequence of sin somewhere in the family.

Over recent times I have heard instances of Church folk claiming that children born with disability are only born that way because the parents or their wider family have displeased God. Similarly the Japan Earthquake was explained by saying that most Japanese were not Christian, and the Christchurch Earthquake was because of the immorality of the people of Christchurch. In that context it is helpful to hear Jesus insisting there is no causal link between disability and sin.

I have also encountered the obverse where people will tell you that those faithful to God will prosper in terms of health and good fortune, and just as the blessed are good, those who are visited by disease and misfortune are bad. What is more, believers in the prosperity Gospel can find Bible verses to back up what seems outrageous when case studies are investigated. If the truth be known, I need to confess a weakness. I take secret pleasure in hearing when someone who spreads such a claim, then encounters a  reversal in fortune.

It is a purely personal reaction, yet to me when I hear someone like Bishop Brian Tamaki claiming if people pray and give their tithe to his Church that God will protect them from Coronavirus, I don’t quite see that this is following Christ. Surely when we are confronted with what appears to be a global crisis the need is to stand and support those affected by the crisis. And there are many who need such help – those who have been laid off and are now facing personal ruin, those whose households are is sudden chaos, and those who are frightened and alone and that is just the start.

The other thing about Jesus’ act of bringing light to the blind man is that in the last analysis the basics are quite simple. For all their wisdom and complex questioning the Pharisees didn’t get it. The Pharisees today might represent unfeeling Church leaders who try to bully and manipulate themselves through to a position of control. On the other hand, for the once blind man, the bullying and complexity of the Pharisees’ questions were irrelevant. “I was blind and now I see”.

Someone had cared and helped. That was all that counted.

We too have to decide what sense we might make of this strange Jesus figure, the one who is portrayed doing strange acts and who asks disturbing questions. Yet John also reminds us that the way those Pharisees responded to Jesus carried with it its own judgment. Rules first, or people first? This is a dilemma which can’t be answered with reciting a creed, even one partly shaped by clever St Cyril. The key issue is not then about how to accept or explain away a miracle. Our choice is one of darkness or light. Which will others see in our lives?

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Lectionary Sermon for Lent 3 A : 15 March 2020 on John 4:5-42

A superficial glance at today’s lectionary gospel reading might leave us wondering why in our current circumstances – a world in the grip of a new set of financial, political and health crises today -we should be apparently wasting time examining a strange interaction between a woman from Samaria, a land of a now largely defunct religion and a Jesus who at the time was presumably representing his own 2000 year old set of now largely outdated customs? 

However if we were to step back and consider just how many of our present difficulties relate to failures in human communication between those from different backgrounds suddenly we find genuine relevance. The oil crisis is affected by negotiations between nations with vastly different attitudes and background. The financial crisis is going to depend on how nations treat one another despite very resources and different backgrounds, and even the spread and reaction to the Covid-19 virus is going to require new ways of interacting and cooperating with those who have little past reason to want to consider one another’s interests.
Cooperation is not our normal starting point. Even in our normally peaceful and relatively accepting New Zealand, society overt prejudice is always close to the surface. I suspect most communities have long been reluctant to totally accept those from different cultures or different religions. If for no other reason, this is a reminder that there is still reason to revisit the Gospel story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well at Sychar.

We may not have Samaritans in our immediate community but we certainly have the equivalent and among those with whom we trade (and sometimes fight). Even if we pretend to be comfortable with those gathering in one of our downtown ethnic restaurants this is not to say we would always be comfortable genuinely welcoming religious visitors from an unfamiliar religion.

Avoiding eye contact, hurrying past or simply seeming otherwise occupied are all familiar enough civilized ways of coping with difference. But to do as Jesus did and engage in serious conversation with such a person as the woman of Samaria is to take the meeting with those we find inconvenient to a new and unexpected level.
Such teaching represents an important part of Jesus’ message which is hard to escape. He has other such recorded interactions with Samaritans, and even on occasion uses them for his parables, to remind us they too warrant respect.

To the Jews of 2000 years ago, the Samaritans represented everything to suspect. They claimed different lines of descent. The Samaritans didn’t accept the Temple as being located at the correct place. They lived in different territory and self-respecting Jews would walk around this territory rather than to be among those they despised. There was also a convention, not unlike customs in places like Saudi Arabia today, where men simply avoided being seen in the company of women to whom they were not already related, let alone to be seen in the company of those considered heretics.

There was also at that time, a custom (which I understand still exists today for some of the more orthodox Jews) that if a son or daughter marries a Gentile –if for example if they married a Samaritan, the son or daughter has their funeral service carried out to convey they are now dead to their family.

Given that background, we can start to realize just how subversive Jesus’ actions and words might have seemed to some learning of his responses.

He was in the heart of Samaritan territory near a town recognized as a Samaritan town. As a Jew he had not done as custom expected by taking the long way round rather than mixing with those separated by the Jewish version of Apartheid. He broke custom by speaking in public to a woman of the despised group and invited her to draw water.

Later in the conversation it is revealed that he is aware that she herself would have been ostracized by her own community for living with a man who was not her husband. Some commentators suggest that the reason why she was at the well in the heat of the day, rather than being present at early morning, or in the evening, may have been because she felt she could not mix with the other women of the town. It was there beside the well Jesus engaged her in a conversation which went to the heart of belief, making the standard questions of the day, like which temple should be recognized, as seeming trivial in the extreme.

Perhaps we should pause on Jesus’ words about living water. He said, in effect, “if you had known who I was you would have asked for living water” – in other words, he is inviting her to realize that Jesus could offer far more than the essential of water. The term used in the Hebrew expression is mayim chayim, meaning fresh running water, water not left stale and brackish in grimy jars.

Later in Chapter 7 (7:37) John will remind us that when Jesus is talking of living water he is really referring to the Spirit.

Of course there are levels of understanding. Even if we take his initial words at face value, the fresh running water is infinitely preferable to the standing, polluted water facing so many in the developing world. Perhaps we who have the luxury of clean water on tap might remember the huge number of young children sick or dying because they lack even this level of public health. Jesus clearly meant more than this, but even at face value there is an implied reminder of our minimal responsibility to those whose very life depends on living water.

Remember too, that assuming we simply admire Jesus’ clever use of words in this reported dialogue, if that is all we do, we have not recognized what he has on offer. It is not a formula belief that Jesus presents. Part of what he taught was a radically different way of approaching others. It only becomes our life-giving living water if we incorporate this approach in our own dealings. When Jesus’ approach to the marginalized becomes our approach to the marginalized, we are living his message. The fair distribution of oil is far more than checking our price at the pump. It is also a genuine concern for those whose land is exploited on our behalf.

We should also take heart in the way Jesus spoke and acted. It is almost a characteristic of every age that there is double thinking about perfectionism. Common wisdom says a public figure who engages in “hanky panky” is to be shunned and vilified. The fact that hanky panky is probably present in some form in virtually every family does not stop us talking as if we are all angels demanding perfection in others.

Similarly when it comes to faith, we notice the few hundred radical Muslims who are suicide bombers and forget the almost one billion who are not. Conversely we expect Muslims to notice Christians as like the respectable charitable Sunday attendees at our Church on a Sunday morning and not remember the nominal Christians who dropped white phosphorus on civilians in Iran or who water-boarded and sleep deprived their prisoners. We notice the Russians taking strong action in Syria and forget our own recent history of interference with other nations. We laugh at the Mormons with their strange early history and conveniently forget the excesses of our own history.

Perhaps you have come across the T shirt with the ultimate slogan for one-eyed self-focus. “Jesus loves you – but I’m his favourite”.

In our more reflective moments we may go the other way and remember with deep shame, unworthy thoughts and dubious behaviour, even thinking that we are simply not worthy to be thought of as Christian. If so we might remember Jesus had time for one who in his time was to be kept in her place because she was a Samaritan heretic, a woman from Sychar and a sinner, perhaps we can see that we too are worthy of consideration.

But there is that one extra caution. If we can take that one further step and see that if we have a place in the kingdom despite our own weaknesses then we have no right to claim that others are shut out from the kingdom.

For some reason although we read and re-read this well known story, yet often its conclusion passes us by. What happened next? At one level, the woman at the well, like Nicodemus appears to leave the encounter with Jesus, still partly uncomprehending….almost unable to see what Jesus is getting at. Yet as with other teaching we ourselves receive, even if we don’t quite understand what the teacher is getting at, at the time, it can continue to shape our thinking.

In this instance, the woman at the well is so impressed by Jesus’ approach to her – and so impressed by his wisdom, she shares the experience with the town folk. They too are staggered by what has happened and invite Jesus to stay on with them for a few days. Perhaps even more surprisingly, he accepts their offer.

It is always easy – in fact almost standard expected behavior – to allow convention to separate ourselves from those who don’t share our background and beliefs. For some of us the taboos may include things like sexuality and while homosexuality may not marginalize to the extent it once did, with so many debating gay marriage, we can hardly pretend there is no prejudice today.

Similarly the degree to which many these days make sweeping condemnation of Muslims and Hindus, speaking from my own experience, I would have to say that even for Church people, it is relatively rare to find much mixing between those with markedly different faiths or those who have very different customs and social standing. Even at multicultural festivals, those of particular cultures and beliefs tend to congregate together.

Yet if Jesus’ teaching is supposed to make a difference to our interacting it is fair to ask if we can relate to, or even better adopt, his attitudes. Do the equivalents of the Samaritans in our lives currently respond to such warm acceptance offered on our part, that they in turn invite us into their homes?

The competing Temples of Israel and Samaria are now part of the dust of history. I have heard that the Well of Jacob is still there at the fork of the road just outside where Sychar stood. Jesus may have asked for water, but the true living water that he offers in return reminds us that baptism is not the only sacrament that should take our attention.

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