Sermon for High Mass – Lent 3 Sunday 19 March 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
We tend to divide people into the morally acceptable and those who are on a scale between dodgy and downright immoral. The basis for making those judgements (and Jesus warns us about making judgements, remember) is often, at least, dodgy itself. As we’ve just heard in the short novel that is today’s gospel, at Jacob’s well the morally acceptable and the morally unacceptable appear to be meeting (Jacob himself having been at best a morally dubious character, but that’s another story).
Jesus was a male Jew who lived a moral life and kept the Law (although some tried to say he didn’t). He meets a female, a Samaritan, someone with a life of questionable morality at least according to the values of those who like to be judgmental; five husbands down, living with someone to whom she is not married. Even this information may be two-edged: if this woman has been divorced five times (remember that she has no right to divorce her husband in this time and place) we should perhaps be asking what it was about this poor human being that she had been rejected so often (of course they could all have died; we aren’t told, but because this is an area in which judgmentalism is quickly activated, conclusions are quickly leapt to).
Jesus doesn’t even bother to address any of that. He knows all about her, and refuses to use that knowledge to condemn, or place her on one side of a divide. To him there is only one group: children of God. Anyone who worships God in spirit and in truth can drink of the living water. Living water, by the way, is yet another of John’s puns, about which we heard last week. ‘Living water’ in Greek means ‘running water’, that is ‘fresh’ water; but it also means what we usually take it to mean, ‘life-giving’ water, water ‘welling up to eternal life’. Jesus articulates an image of what the Spirit is like, the difference it makes to us.
As did Nicodemus last week, as do all the recipients of Jesus’ puns, the woman takes him literally. Those listeners in the know probably smiled smugly when they first heard these stories, but we should not assume that she is thick. The logic of the story requires her response; this is a teaching dialogue. And her response is entirely practical, wishing for an endless supply of fresh water, safe to drink: a dream in her time and place, which would put an end to the necessary drudgery of carrying it from the well. Jesus is saying, as when he describes himself as the bread of life, that he offers her, us, a staple of life in relationship with God, for which unlimited supplies of untainted water are a perfect parable. It is not only in baptism that water is sacramental. In John we don’t get parables or miracles: we get metaphors and signs, signs which are infused with what is signified, that is sacraments, which always make connections with core needs of the human person. Bread, water, eternal life.
As the dialogue proceeds we see that Jesus is also unsettling a key dividing line which remains with us: race and religion. Jacob’s well is still there. The Temple on Mount Gerizim, overlooking Sychar and holy to the Samaritans, is gone. So is the Temple in Jerusalem, thirty miles to the south. Jesus says to the woman that the hour is coming when they would worship ‘neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem’. Well, today, the two temples are no more. To that extent Our Lord’s words have been fulfilled. To the extent that we have built ten thousand times ten thousand others, they have not. But that is OK, so long as they are temples in which God is worshipped in Spirit and in truth.
What that means is clarified in our story. Truth is told immediately when Jesus meets the woman, and truth does not create a barrier. Telling the truth is simply a preamble to creating or nurturing a relationship, such as Jesus forms in this encounter. This is exactly like the sacrament of confession, in which telling the truth removes the barrier between us and God. The woman’s gospel, the good news she shares with her Samaritan friends, is that Jesus told her the truth about herself: ‘come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done’. But her gospel is also that him knowing who she was actually helped, unlike the fake knowledge of gossip, character assassination or self-justification. Truth removes barriers and helps us to grow in relationship.
Worship in the spirit and in truth is worship where God is given first place, above anything we have built. That is always important for us to hear, in this place, because we can become overwhelmed not by the truth which Jesus tells us about ourselves, but by the cult of St William Butterfield and St Ninian Comper. I assume that, as good and faithful servants, we may rightly picture both of them in the nearer presence of God; we can certainly be thankful for their labours of which we are beneficiaries and heirs. But we know that they were not attempting to build the one true temple on earth. They wanted to create a space, as perfect a space as their talents allowed, in which God could be worshipped in Spirit and in truth. And they wanted it to be freely available and without entry qualifications. Our bombed and rebuilt Butterfield sister, St Alban’s Holborn, bears a legend over the North-west door: ‘free for ever to Christ’s poor’. That is partly about the end of pew rents, of which our chairs are also a Johannine sign. But it is also a radical Gospel statement, that there are no entry-qualifications to the Kingdom: the rebirth in baptism about which Jesus punned with Nicodemus last week, is a free gift, grace.
The flipside of that is that none of us, even those baptised in the first days of life and pursuing our calling from childhood, deserves the relationship more than any others, however come-lately or unsuitable they appear to us (reference the parable of the workers in the vineyard elsewhere in the gospels).
To the woman Jesus shows the respect of one individual for another: he listens. He didn’t say that everything she’d done was OK: he said she was OK. Her identity did not come from belonging to an unacceptable group, or from becoming acceptable. Her identity is already there; she is a child of God. All she has to do is ask and she will receive living water, just the same as everyone else.
Jesus calls everyone, and he challenges us to include everyone. The woman was so excited by this invitation that she forgot her jar – which is a divider between what’s inside and what’s outside – and went to tell people about the water.