Thursday, 16 March 2017

Jesus and the Woman at the Well

John's Gospel was written about 60 years after Jesus's death and resurrection.  It was two generations
since Jesus had died and risen again when John decided to record the events of Jesus life.  John's Gospel is different to Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  There is a theological reflection a spiritual edge in his writing.  All of the stories that are written carry through themes and underlying messages.

So it is, that when we encounter the story of the Samaritan woman at the well we are not simply encountering a story of Jesus’ life we are encountering theological a reflection about who Jesus is and what he was doing. We are encountering a reflection about the community that John was part of and the people that formed community. He is trying to give them messages that are going to help them in their faith.

The fact that Jesus may have met a Samaritan woman at the well is secondary to the way John relates the story.  It has no doubt been embellished and enhanced to help bring a theological and spiritual message home to the people John is writing for.

There are three major movements, in the story, that I want to talk about this morning.  I have titled the first movement ‘revelation’. It may not be revelation per se but there is revelation about the identity of the woman and her significance. The second movement of the story is a movement of ‘proclamation’ with Jesus doing some teaching about the nature of worship and the relationship between Jews and Samaritans.  Then, the third movement of the story is a response. In this response there is a witness: the woman does something with the information and the encounter that she has had with Jesus. 

Overall the movements have a very similar to what we see in our image about the movement of liturgy at the front of the Church: revelation, proclamation, and witness.  Gathering, listening and responding.

So let us turn them to the first of these three movements: the revelation.  It is a revelation about who the woman is and information about her.  She is a Samaritan woman, and she remains anonymous, we are not given a name. She also comes to Jesus in the middle of the day.

Last week I preached on Nicodemus. This is an important connection to make because she is the next major character that we encounter in the story of John.  The significance of noting this is because she is almost the complete antithesis, or opposite, of Nicodemus.

Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a lawyer, a teacher, someone respected in the community, someone probably who has some wealth and some power.  He is male, a Jew and he comes to Jesus in the night.

The woman is female, she is a Samaritan, she is left anonymous, she is also possibly of questionable character (although this is never made completely clear), and she is probably uneducated.

The contrast between the woman and Nicodemus is the contrast between a Jew who is on the inside of the group and a Samaritan as someone who doesn't belong to the group.

It is probably, two generations after Jesus, that within John's community there would have been people that where non-Jews for whom this story was important.  They would people to John is appealing at this point.  He is giving them validation in their place in the community.  The earliest Christians were a sect of Judaism.  By the time John is writing a deeper rift is beginning to occur and no doubt questions about the relationship between Judaism and the followers of Jesus needed answering, as did the place of gentiles, and probably even Samaritans in the emerging Christian sect.

So what else do we find out about this woman? Well she doesn't really seem to understand the conversation about the living water and her need for the living water.  This is what Jesus is offering, ‘living water’.  This symbol of living water is very important because it points to cleansing and life and renewal. 

At the beginning of John's Gospel we are told that Jesus is the life of the world. He is the water of life and he gives the spirit of life through his presence.  Jesus is offering life to this woman but at this point she is not really sure about what this means.  Jesus takes the conversation on a tangent, he asks her about her husband.  Now Jesus may have been a prophet knowing about her position and her multiple husbands. We shouldn't jump too quickly to a conclusion that she is a bad person but what we should see is that Jesus is holding up a mirror to her and saying this is your life, this is what your life is like, and so do exposing things about her reality.

In begin confronted by Jesus she begins to see the truth of who she is and she also begins to suspect something of the truth of who Jesus is and what he is offering.

In this first movement of the story things are being revealed.  The woman begins to realise that she not only wants the living water but that she needs.   This is the water that we all need and I think that part of our initial encounter with Jesus is a confrontation with who we are as well.

In entering into the Christian faith we are called to look at the truth of our own identity and life – warts and all.  For John’s community and us imperfect people we find Jesus offering living water – cleansing and life – water our predicament in life might be.

As the conversation continues to unfold between Jesus and the woman Jesus goes on to proclaim the coming hour and the worship that will take place in that hour.  This language of the coming hour is a code or symbolic language about the end times.  The future that God promises.

In this future the mountain that the Jews worship on will be made obsolete just as will the mount that the Samaritans worship on. “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.”

Once again it is hard for us to appreciate and understand this statement.  The Samaritan’s had set up their place of worship at Mt Gerizim almost 500 years before Christ, just after the Babylonian exile.  The temple had been destroyed but the Samaritan’s still saw the Mountain as sacred.  The temple at Mt Gerizim had been set up in opposition to the Temple in Jerusalem.   

For the Jewish people God’s very presence had been associated with the Holy of Holies in the temple.  Jesus words which speak of worshipping in “spirit and truth”, or as another translation puts it “in the Spirit of the Truth’’, points at future where the differences between the Jews and Samaritans is dissolved and that the location of worship is less about a place and more about a person.

To worship in spirit and in truth anticipates the pouring out of the Holy Spirit which joins us to Jesus own life and worship, and to his claim that he himself is the truth.  A claim which will come later in John’s gospel.  For John’s community and for the early church generally this story helps bridge the gap between followers who were from other backgrounds, not only Samaritans, and also to help release any Christians of Jewish background from the need to go and worship at the Temple.

Worshipping in Spirit and Truth was worshipping in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.  What is even more surprising is that Jesus infers that this worship is not simply something that lies in the future but is already present.  He proclaims, “The hour is coming, and is now here”, in his presence and in his presence through the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus transforms our offerings to true worship.  Our faith and our prayer is that very same Jesus is present now with us through the power of the Holy Spirit as we worship and as we listen for God.  We worship in Spirit and in Truth and the living water is poured into our own lives.

This leads me to consider the response of the woman to this whole event and hear I am skipping over Jesus interaction with the disciples.  The woman witnesses to Jesus and shares her encounter with Jesus with the people of her village.

It is a rather strange proclamation. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”  There is an ambiguity to her proclamation which at the face value appears to revolve around Jesus knowledge of who she is more than his claim to be the living water – even his identity as the Messiah is left hanging.

What is even more remarkable than the ambiguity of her proclamation is that we are told that because of what she said some of the people came to believe in Jesus! Her proclamation basically was he told me everything about myself and then a question as to whether or not Jesus might be the Messiah.  There is no skilled presentation of the scriptures, there is no flashy course, there is no absolute certainty.  What there is, is a simple statement that Jesus has helped her know herself.

In an era when we find that people struggling to commit to faith and at a time when it feels like  every five minutes a new program or course seems to come out to help people get to know Jesus I find the simplicity and ambiguity of the Samaritan woman’s witness astounding.  Jesus helped me to know who I am, maybe he is the Messiah.  The belief that the villagers took on about Jesus was simple at best and could only come from them being born from above as was suggested to Nicomedus.

I know personally I sometimes struggle to find the right thing to say when people ask about my faith or when I am trying to share my faith.  For me there are certainly some things in the woman’s witness that we can take heart in.  Firstly, when God is at work through our sharing then anything can happen.  And secondly, simply sharing what knowing Jesus means to you and how it has changed your life would seem to be more than enough for God to work with.

Of course, we hear too that Jesus comes to stay at the village and more people come to people through his teaching that he is indeed the Saviour of the world.  So maybe when we don’t seem to be making headway on helping a person come to know Christ bringing them into Christ’s presence in a different way might help.

For many in John’s community the witness they would have had concerning Jesus would have been simplistic, second and hand and maybe even a bit ambiguous.  Such imperfect witness is superseded by the work of the Holy Spirit who alone can open the eyes of people to God’s love.

So for John’s community, and for we who have gathered here this day this is a story of hope.  Revelation: Jesus knows the truth of who we are and holds up a mirror to us.  Proclamation: to worship in Spirit and in Truth moves us beyond the limitation of the locale of Mt Gerizim or Temple Mount in Jerusalem and into relationship with God in Christ and through the Spirit.  And Witness: sharing the faith is simply telling the story of Jesus that we have experienced in our own life – God can do the rest.

So drink of the living water, present now, be transformed by Jesus within you and share the good news that Jesus may indeed be the Messiah, the saviour of the world, with all whom you meet.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Is it true?

Gen 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Matthew 4:1-11

We just heard two readings from The Bible, one from Genesis and one from Matthew.  Then we sung that song “Ancient Words”.  Ancient words ever true, changing me changing you.

The song implies that the words of the scriptures can change the way we view ourselves and the world in which we live and in this we are also transformed.  It is certainly true for me that the words of the scriptures shape how I live and how I understand the world.  They shape my life.

But there can be no doubt that there are significant questions about the Bible and how we use the words of the Bible to shape our lives.  Each week as part of our gathering we spend time reflecting in some depth on passages from the Bible trying to listen for God speaking to us and making sense of these ancient words.

The story that we heard from Genesis today is great story to begin to introduce both the complexity of the Bible but also its relevance to us.  Most people can probably tell you who Adam and Eve are, and many can tell you the story, but how do we deal with it?

Over the past 5 years I have had the privilege of teaching Religious Instruction across the road at Ironside State School.  I always choose to teach the senior group grade 6, or before the change in education grade 7.  The story of Creation from Genesis, and of Adam and Eve is often one of the first stories we deal with.

Every year when we are discussing the story of Adam and Eve a student will put their hand up and ask this question.  “But is it true?”  Is it true? Often I respond by asking, “What do you mean by true?”

I ask this question because often what is student is asking is “Did it really happen?”  “Were Adam and Eve real people?”  They are trying to apply a pseudo-scientific or pseudo-historical approach to a spiritual story.

Did Adam and Eve really exist is not the most important question that this story raises for us?  It raises questions about personal responsibility and accountability, it raises questions about temptation and evil, it raises questions about God’s place in our lives. 

To help the students understand this I often do the following and I am going to ask you to participate as I do with them.

Can I ask you to put your hand up if you have a brother or sister?  Now think about that person and consider this.  Has there ever been a time - any point in your life - that you blamed them for something that you did wrong or at least were part of? 

I know that I have sought to deflect responsibility for my actions on to my siblings.  I have also experienced the same in other settings.  Has there been a time at school that you blamed a friend?  At work when you diverted responsibility to a colleague? 

Is the story of Adam and Eve true?  If this is one of its teachings then yes it is true.  It is true in all of us that we are all like Adam and Eve.

But let’s take this a little deeper and look at the serpent.  What was the serpent?  Where did it come from?  There is a tradition within the church that suggests that the serpent is the devil although Biblical the case for this is not really that strong.  What we are told in the story is this “the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.”

The Bible does not really explain the origins of evil and temptation beyond this but if we ask the questions that arise they are found to be true.  Do we encounter inexplicable times of temptation in our own lives?  Temptation to seek something for ourselves ignoring the possible consequences this might have for others?  Temptation to deliberately put others down so we look better?  Temptation to seek to be above God and others?  And do we encounter inexplicable evil in the world?  When we look upon the behaviour of people around the globe are there times you simply cannot fathom the evil that is perpetrated?

Is it true?  Does the story confront us with the mystery of evil and temptation that we encounter in our own existence?  Yes it does, it is true.

And this temptation leads us into the biggest temptation of the story.  Do we seek to be like God?  Do we as humans seek to be God?  We supplant God with ourselves?  The history of the last 500 years of human thought in the West, and possibly even longer, has been the sustained attack on the concept of God.  There has been a shift of God from the centre of human life to humanity as the centre of existence.  It is all about us, or even more scarily in this individualistic era, it is all about me.

Such is the impact that this has had on the world that a geologist and chemist have defined the era in which we now live as the Anthropocene.  Our obsession as humans with our place at the centre of existence has moved us from being stewards of God’s garden of creation to its exploiters.

Did Adam and Eve really exist as individuals, for me this does not seem to be an important question because Adam and Eve exist in each one of us!  The story is true.

But this is only part of the bigger story of God’s love for us.  When I prayed the prayer of confession I shared with you a reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans which reminded us that Jesus came to set things right between us as human beings and God.

The reading from Matthew is just one glimpse of how Jesus did this.  Instead of succumbing to the serpent as Adam and Eve do Jesus says no to Satan.  He resists temptation.  This is part of Jesus mysterious and gracious journey through life restoring us in our relationship with God.

He lives, he dies and he is raised from among the dead as a sign of God’s love for us despite our faults, our foibles and our failings.

This is the good news not that we love God as we should but that God loves us even when we fail to love God.

As people who gather each week to hear the scriptures and reflect on them we come to listen for this good news but also to think about how we might live in response to this good news.

In Jesus’ resistance of temptation he says three things that can shape our imperfect response.

One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
Worship the Lord your God and serve only him

Each of these statements can become an invitation for us to live our lives again with God at the centre.  Recognising that though we fail like Adam and Eve by the free gift of God’s love we are drawn into Jesus’ life and we are drawn into being his followers.

Is the story of Jesus temptation true?  My sense is that it is true that Jesus resists Satan and that through him we rediscover whose we truly are and who truly are.

Ancient words ever true, changing me changing you.

Can we be changed by the words?  Possibly not on their own.  But can we be changed by the God who speaks to us through them?  Can we be transformed by Jesus who walked amongst us?  Can we become followers of Jesus and be shaped by his love for us?

For me the answer is yes, and for many of you no doubt the answer is the same.  For anyone here who is still searching my invitation to you is to remain open minded and join in the journey of faith and discover that God is already with you. Amen