Sunday 19th March 2017
Third Sunday in Lent
10.00 am Hadlow
Readings Ex 17:1-7, John 4:5-42
May I speak this morning in the name of God +Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
How is your Lent going?
If you have given anything up for Lent has it stayed given up? If you have taken up anything for Lent – perhaps regular bible reading, has it stayed taken up?
Remember, if you have stumbled, that doesn’t mean that you have failed for the whole of Lent and can forget it until next year – just pick it up and carry on from where you were.
But giving up and taking up is, of course, not the whole point. It is only an outward sign that could easily be done with no inward effect at all. If the real purpose of Lent is to draw us closer to God in preparation for the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, how is that going?
Are we examining our consciences and our motivations and asking God to purify our actions day by day? Are we spending the time freed up by our giving up drawing closer to God?
Let me give you a quick personal illustration, if I may. One of the things I have done this Lent is to give up Facebook. Now, although not everyone is a fan and although there are places on Facebook that one shouldn’t venture, on the whole I think that it can be used for good. I have maintained friendships with people from many parts of my life that would otherwise have faded away and I have made lots of new relationships that would otherwise never have happened. Although I don’t speak about it a lot here, through Facebook I have built relationships with lots of people, including in this village, who would never normally step across the threshold of a church or seek out the friendship of a vicar. So Facebook has definitely been good for me and my ministry in many ways, and I will speak more about internet ministry in the future.
Giving up Facebook for me is genuinely a bit like withdrawing into a wilderness – cutting myself off from hundreds of people and from the constant chatter and interaction. It has been hard, with lots of temptations to peek and see what is happening, but now that we are three weeks in I have noticed a beneficial change – when something happens, for good or ill, that I would previously have shared on Facebook for the comments or likes or dislikes of my friends, I now find myself sharing it with God. By cutting down on the chatter and the constant presence of my internet community I am actually opening myself more to the quietness and the constant presence of God. Rather than seeking my friends approval or disapproval I am consciously handing things over to God and saying ‘what do you think of this situation?’ And if one does that constantly throughout the day, in a way that it is very easy to do with Facebook, then it is possible to transform constant internet presence into constant prayer.
I will return to Facebook after Easter Sunday, because its benefits are real to me, but it will be as a slightly different person.
So, no matter what you have resolved to do during Lent the most important thing is to use this time to draw closer into the presence of God. And, as our bible readings remind us this morning, God can appear to us in quite unexpected ways even in the middle of a Facebook-free wilderness.
Today’s first wilderness is the one which lies between the Hebrew’s slavery in Egypt and their freedom in the promised land. Although slavery is a bad state of affairs in which to live dying of thirst in the desert is a good deal more immediate, and that is the prospect which now faces the people who have followed Moses. And, let’s make no bones about it, they have a good old moan about it. Some preachers like to draw wry parallels between the Hebrews moaning in the desert and congregations complaining about the after-service coffee straight after partaking of the manna from heaven but I wouldn’t dream of doing that because you are lovely.
No, it’s not really the same thing at all – the sun is hot, they are a long way from any kind of home and they are thirsty. I have stood in a wilderness in 40 degrees of heat and, believe me, thirst gets real very quickly.
So they say to Moses – “give us water to drink”.
Moses doesn’t share his plight on Facebook but takes it straight to God – “What am I to do with these people?”
And, as we heard, God led Moses to strike a rock with his staff – the same staff that had poisoned the Nile and parted the Red Sea – and water flowed out of the rock. That water didn’t stop the people moaning forever but it kept them alive to moan another day and, sometimes as a pastor, that is the best you can hope for.
Our gospel reading from John takes us to another wilderness and another request for a drink of water, but with quite different consequences. This time the wilderness is in the hill country of Samaria, through which Jesus and his disciples had to walk as they passed from Judea and Jerusalem in the South and headed back north to their home country of Galilee.
They came near the Samaritan town of Sychar and Jesus sat next to Jacob’s Well whilst his disciples left him to go and buy some food, presumably in the town. Whilst sitting there Jesus encountered a Samaritan women, whose name we sadly never learn.
Before we look more closely at this conversation it is worth bearing in mind the contrast between Nicodemus, with whom Jesus spoke last week, and this woman, because it could hardly be greater; they are at totally opposite ends of the scale in so many ways. Nicodemus was an upright Jewish man and a leader of men. This woman is not only a woman, but she is a Samaritan and she has been married multiple times and is now living with someone to whom she is not married. The very fact that she was at the well on her own at noon, rather than collecting water early with the other women, suggests that she may have been a bit of a social outcast even amongst other Samaritan women. You may recall that Jesus was quite brusque in his words to Nicodemus, but this exchange is as different in tone as those two characters are in social standing.
Jesus’ opening words to the woman echo the words of the Isrealites in the desert:
“Will you give me a drink of water?”
Although this woman was of lowly status it is worth remembering that at a well the person who holds the bucket holds the power.
The woman responds by pointing out that Jesus should not really be talking to her at all:
“You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?”
Without answering this social objection Jesus segues the conversation to another level entirely:
“If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
Ignoring the social chasm Jesus said that if she but asked he would give her the gift of living water – but this water is greater than the water either from Jacob’s well or from Moses’ rock because:
“…everyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst. Indeed the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
This is better than water from a well which has to be fetched and carried everyday – a personal spring of running water which not only carries on flowing eternally but which is also a source of eternal life for those who drink it.
Unsurprisingly the women wishes to have this gift of everlasting water and Jesus leads her into a further conversation in which he reveals that he knows not only that she is a Samaritan women but even that she is has led a far from perfect life. But, nonetheless, she is not an outcast from Jesus’ presence.
Some Christians seem entirely unable to cope with the fact of divorce and remarriage, let alone living together outside marriage, but Jesus never let the lack of existing perfection be a barrier to encounter.
Finally Jesus revealed to this most unlikely candidate, at least by human standard, that he is the Messiah, expected by both the Jews and the Samaritans.
The woman rushed back into the town, leaving behind her water jar. Unlike Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimethea this woman was no secret disciple – instead she became an immediate and enthusiastic evangelist, going through the town saying:
“Come and see..”
Evangelism does not need clever words or arguments – “Come and see…” can be enough.
That woman became not only an evangelist but also an apostle to the town of Sychar. Many believed because of the woman’s words and they persuaded Jesus to stay with them for two days and many more came to believe that:
“…this man is the saviour of the world.”
It is worth remembering that the conversion of this woman and many others from this Samaritan town all happens in Chapter 4 of John – this is before the wedding feast at Cana, the feeding of the five thousand or many of the other miracles that persuaded others of who Jesus was. The message is clear – although Jesus came to gather the lost sheep of Israel his ministry extended to the non-Jewish world right from the start.
In the midst of this Lenten wilderness Jesus says to everyone, high and low, saint or sinner, respectable or outrageous:
“If you are thirsty, you have only to ask, and I will give you a spring of living water, welling up to eternal life.”