Val Morrison's sermon

Service Date: 
19 March, 2017

Val Morrison's sermon 

Hymns: 
Sermon: 

Exodus Ch 17 vv 1 – 7, John Ch 4 vv 5 – 42, Romans Ch 5 vv 1 – 11

Is it that there is something wrong with this story or is it that it is something of a classic farce? Well no doubt for many of us it is just a familiar story and the danger with familiar stories is that as we read them or listen to them we fail to hear the shades, the nuances and the layers which are contained within them.

So at one level - nice bright sunny day in the Middle East, tired man, sitting by a well waiting for his friends who had gone shopping. Along comes a woman to collect water for her family, a bit of a conversation, friends return and woman goes back to her home. There’s a bit of banter between the friends but they have their picnic. The woman returns with her friends and invites the man to stay in their town which he does, for two days.

Well, that’s nice, they all seem to be enjoying themselves, sharing food, making new friends, seeing a bit of the country which they maybe haven’t visited before. From such an encounter they could all move on and there would be very little change in anything for any of those involved.

But even the simplest story opens up possibilities for reflection and even taken at this simple level there are things to think about and explore. In the version I have just related there are things which are only part of my imagination. However likely it is, nowhere do any of the gospel accounts tell us anything about the weather, surely that part of my mental image of the event is directly related to my British context where the weather is a crucial piece in the jigsaw of our observations.

Jesus, we read, was making this journey to avoid dissention between his disciples and those of John. To get back to Galilee, Jesus could have led his disciples on a long roundabout route to avoid passing through Samaria but he made the surprising decision to take the shorter route. Such a journey would expose pious Jews to defilement by bringing them into contact with Samaritans so ignoring 500 years of hostility between the two nations.

Even having taken the shorter route this man Jesus, was tired and needing a rest, just as would any other human being and along comes the second surprise in that context. A woman coming to draw water in the middle of the day. Not normal. Neither was the fact she was on her own. Women in this society were not independent in the way that women in our society are. They went to the well together for protection, they went when it was the cooler part of the day. And the third surprise, Jesus asked her for a drink. It was not normal for a man to engage a woman in conversation. Men in this society were expected to withdraw to a distance of at least 20 feet, indicating that it was both safe and culturally appropriate for the woman to approach the well.

With a simple (and we might say, not very polite) request ‘give me a drink’, there begins an exchange about social mores of the time, the nature of water, practical matters about obtaining water, the history of the well and the traditions and understanding of the nation. Have you ever noticed how when Jesus asks a difficult question or makes a statement which requires some deeper thought people often try to side track him by introducing into the conversation something practical or legal or historical?

Of course the whole conversation is a series of misunderstandings. at least on the part of the woman, most of which has to do with the different backgrounds, experiences and expectations of the two participants. Whilst I think we can be confident that Jesus knows what he is doing, the woman is, not surprisingly bemused. I would be surprise if we have not all had the experience of being involved in an exchange with someone where they are saying words which we feel should make sense but which strung together in the way they are, seem to be just outside our grasp to understand. In such a situation we might well do what the woman in our story did and fall back on the depth of the well and the lack of a bucket.

Sometimes in such situations we can hear a phrase which we think we understand and we hang on to that in the hopes of the whole thing somehow making some sense here, for this woman, the phrase “the Gift of God” would have been such a phrase. It would have signified for her the Torah of Moses and she might have known that for the Jews it was the Law and the Prophets. God’s ultimate gift was a book, but even this was not the anchor she could hold on to because Jesus was trying to tell her that now the “gift of God” was a person not a book.

So it’s back to the practicalities and a bit of a challenge about the significance of her ancestor Jacob, and Jesus, who has no desire to get involved in a debate about the significance or otherwise of historical figures, ploughs on with his theme of living water permanently conquering thirst and becoming a spring gushing up to eternal life.

For the woman that promise of water which will permanently conquer thirst so avoiding this difficult journey to the well each day, strikes a chord and she accepts the offer, still not, I think, totally understanding what this might mean for her.

Having made this much progress Jesus again breaks with tradition. He commands her to ‘go’ ‘call’ and ‘bring’. He has a job for her to do and against all the accepted way of doing things he is calling her, a woman, to go and witness to him, a man.

During this part of the conversation, Jesus makes clear to the woman how well he knows her circumstances and through exposing her somewhat questionable past and embarrassing present causes her to once more change the subject. This time into a discussion of the ideological divide between the Samaritans and the Jews and Jesus follows her lead picking up on a major theme about worship and where God’s presence is to be found. It has been suggested that the woman’s response to these profound thoughts is a huge sigh as she recognises that this man she is talking with has -to say the least – unusual qualities, which lead her to express the belief that the Messiah is coming and that when that event occurs everything will be a whole lot easier. All these complicated questions and challenging thoughts which this extraordinary man is facing her withwill in fact be clarified.

In some senses we can only guess at what she thinks about Jesus’ statement “I that am talking to you, I am” because the disciples, not known for their sensitivity, come blundering back into the scene with the sandwiches for lunch and the woman, leaving her precious water jar behind goes off to the city to tell her friends and we are told that;

many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony

So in the many layers we can find in this story we need to ask what it says to us for our Christian journey in the world of 2017.

Well, I think that one thing it maybe says something about is mission and how we engage with the world.

Here we have a story in which to begin with Jesus is very much portrayed as a human being, tired and thirsty, presenting to the person he encounters someone in need of help, making himself vulnerable just by the route he took and his challenge to the accepted rules of society, by his requesting the help of an immoral foreign woman.

As we offer our help and support to those in need, those on the margins of society, do we make ourselves vulnerable? Do we accept their offer of a drink? Sometimes on a Sunday morning one of the homeless to whom we serve breakfast will begin to put chairs and tables away or wipe the tables or tidy up the crockery, they won’t necessarily do it in the way we would like but they want to help and be valued for that help, which is the important thing.

“May you be my servant too” in the line from the hymn brother sister let me serve you is a good phrase to remember.

But of course the Jesus we see in this story is also very much the divine, the son of God, with an understanding of his place and his calling. As we think about our mission today, it is the whole person of Jesus that we are called to share. The extraordinary concept that this man was also God, in on the world at creation and alongside the creator throughout the ages.

As we consider our mission, we often despair of a world which we feel passes us by. Where there are events and developments which we find it hard to understand or keep up with and where we know that we must change to be able to share our message.

I think one of the most difficult things for us to understand about the gospel story was the profound changes which Jesus brought. In today’s story it was the whole matter of women’s place in society and the expectations that they themselves had, never mind the expectations that society had.

Jesus elevated the position of women in ways which shocked society and broke taboos. He talked with them, invited them into his band of disciples, was financed by some of them and had some of them travel with him. In today’s story he chose a woman as an appropriate audience for profound  explanations of the nature of God and of true worship and then he called and sent this woman, who by the expectations of that day could not have been expected to understand anything of what he had shared with her to be an evangelist in her own community, the first woman preacher.

In all of that a reminder for us that we must overcome our prejudices, learn to see God’s word in unexpected places, but above all expect that the world can be changed by single conversations and actions which in themselves may seem insignificant but which added together with others may be more effective than we could dare to hope.

There were a number of points in the conversation where the woman tries to sidetrack Jesus, times when he asks difficult questions or when he exposes something in her background of which she is not proud and I think there are two lessons for us to learn here.

At a personal level, trying to sidetrack God when he has a call on our lives or when there is a difficult situation to be dealt with will not do. My experience of God is that he just keeps on calling and so it is best just to accept that call right from the start delaying tactics don’t work and serve only to waste time and effort.

But I think there is another way in which this can be seen and that is as we try to understand more of God’s word and we engage in discussion about the interpretation of his word. Let’s not be afraid of what we might discover, it may be challenging or uncomfortable but it is I believe only by going through those sort of experiences that we deepen our faith.

And finally, (though there is much much more which could be said as a result of reading the story of Jesus and the woman of Samaria) the conversation seems to have been more a case of two people talking together but not hearing what each other were saying until the point at which Jesus began to speak about the woman’s background. From that articulation of his understanding she began to listen more carefully and to understand more fully.

And it seems to me that trying to understand the context of the person we are talking to or the group of people we are trying to provide for is crucial to all our mission.

By sitting by the well, Jesus put himself in the place where he would meet a disturbed and possibly disturbing woman. By making himself available to talk and by showing his understanding of her situation he took her on a path of transformation from village outcast to village evangelist .

Now there is an aim for all our lives and our mission. How many outcasts can we take on a path of transformation just by being in the right place at the right time and by showing we understand the lives of the people we meet?