Lent 3: Perfection at the Well

John 4

15/3/20

Lent 3
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

It is not very often that I come across well-known Gospel stories that I haven’t written a sermon on previously! The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is rich in meaning and there are many threads to pull at and we won’t do it justice in a few minutes this morning.

There are many threads in both the Exodus and John readings that involve water. Water also featured in our Lent Course/devotional booklet this week. With the amount of handwashing we should be doing, we are hopefully using more water than we usually do!

I am going to use the headings, physically, socially and spiritually, as I try to highlight some of the significant details in these stories.

Physically

Moses had only very recently led the Israelites across the Red Sea to escape slavery in Egypt. Almost immediately on arrival into the wilderness of Shur, the lack of water is an issue. The first water found at Marah was bitter and undrinkable. Their immediate reaction is to complain to Moses who in turn cries out to God.

God’s reaction? He provides Moses with a piece of wood that is to be thrown into the water to make it sweet.

God then leads Moses and his people to Elim, where they camp by 12 springs of water and 70 palm trees. But they have to move on, and it is not long until a lack of water is again a problem. Same response – complain to Moses with even more anger than last time. They are blaming Moses for bringing them out of Egypt because he wants to kill them, their children and livestock. Woe is us!

God again responds by providing more water. This time Moses must strike the rock at Horeb. Water comes out and the people drink. Problem solved, for now.

What does the say to us today?

God provides. Let’s not forget that today and in the current situation with Coronavirus and the uncertainty we all face. God provides all that we need. We do need to cry out though! Make our needs known to God and to others.

God will use other people to answer our prayers. He gave us family, friends and our church family. Look around, don’t touch each other, but the people sitting around you could be the answer to prayer. They can certainly help to meet any needs you might have right now.

Socially

The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is a fascinating one! She too has a physical need for water but her social circumstances dictate that she had to collect her water when no one else was around. The well would have been a place of social gathering for the women of Sychar. Kind of like the modern-day equivalent of the workplace water cooler.

But not for her.

The time of day is also significant. Noon day – the woman was at the well at the heat of the day. Why? Who would want to schlep heavy jugs of water at the hottest point in the day?

She was on the margins on society. There is nothing to suggest she was a prostitute or promiscuous although that is often read into this story. There may have been many reasons for her five husbands. Maybe she married young. Her first husband could have died, and she was passed along to his brothers. She could have been infertile as there is no mention of children. She had no power to divorce her husband as that power was given only to the man. Whatever the reason for her 5 husbands it might not have had much to do with her. She would have needed the protection of a man to survive.

However she ended up in the situation she was in, it meant that she was socially unacceptable, left alone to collect her water at the hottest point of the day.

Then one day, she meets Jesus at the well, at the loneliest and hottest point of the day. There are huge social implications for Jesus and the disciples.

In the wider story, Jesus and disciples are travelling around Judea and Galilee to teach, preach, heal, cast out demons. They have arrived in Samaria – a place that was traditionally hostile to the Jews. They did not like to share things in common with each other. Jesus is not only in Samaria and talking to a Samaritan but an unaccompanied woman at that. Jewish men did not speak to lone women in order to avoid any form of sexual temptation or impropriety.

Jesus is not bound by these conventions and the longest recorded conversation he ever has with anyone begins. This is an astonishing thought.

The Samaritan woman spends more time in conversation (as is recorded) than anyone else. This woman on the margins, judged and looked down upon, with virtually no control over her situation gets the most face time with Jesus at the most socially active place in the city at the most deserted time.

What does the say to us today?

We may be facing time in the very near future when we have to self-isolate physically and this will likely be difficult for us. We were made to live in community. The social and mental health implications may have a greater impact than we can anticipate right now. Some people live in isolation under normal conditions which can only get harder. There will be people for whom any social isolation is the worst thing they can imagine.

There are some practical things we can do. Maybe make a list of things you could do around your house, a list of people to call, email or write to, a list of books to read or films to watch. Build a schedule – might sound silly but we all need purpose. I will be so crass as to suggest more prayer and Bible reading – you might have the time! Watch out for people around us who might be more isolated than usual.

Despite our circumstances, Jesus will meet with us when we want to meet with him. The Samaritan woman was getting on with the business of everyday life when she met Jesus. He was waiting for her. He is waiting for us too.

Spiritually

There are many times in reading Gospel stories that I would love to hear the original tone of voice in them. One commentary suggested that the woman comes across as cheeky, brave, vulnerable and a bit flirtatious. Jesus responds to her with warmth and humour yet continues to push her beyond the superficial. You can see a quick wit in her responses. Jesus responds on that level but everything he says has a serious point to it.

Jesus tells her that everyone who drinks the water from the well will be thirsty again, but those who drink the water He offers will never be thirsty again, this water will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life (John 4:13-14). This is of course the water that the Samaritan woman wants.

But I think she wants it because it will stop her from having to come to the well by herself in the heat of the day to avoid the other women who judge and condemn her. She sees this invitation as a solution to her external problem. But she is thirsty for more than just that even if she doesn’t see it yet.

Jesus responds by asking her to call her husband, another external problem she has. By his asking her to call husband six, Jesus shows that He knows what is going on internally too.

From Live Lent: ‘She longs for a more satisfying life. From freedom from the shame that made her go to the well when she expected no one else to there. Jesus treats her with respect and dignity.’

The woman responds by creating some distance and distraction. She agrees that what Jesus says is true, she acknowledges that He is someone special and then brings up the differences between Jews and Samaritans. She’s good!

What does this say to us?

Anyone else try to do that with Jesus? Try to distance and distract? Not letting Him get too involved in your everyday life and business – thank you very much. He wants to be with us – if we will let him! It is helpful to remember what Jesus doesn’t do: He didn’t tell her to sin no more, blame her, condemn her. Works with her where she is at.

The woman does admit that she knows that the Messiah is coming (verse 25) as an attempt to create even more distance. Yet again she is matched by Jesus. The Messiah she has in mind is safe and impersonal and won’t interfere too much in her daily life. That is not the Messiah she met though. She met the Messiah who very much wants to be involved in our lives and knows every detail.

She went away changed; the small but not insignificant detail of the left-behind water jug tells us that. She went for water as in H2O and came away having experienced some of the living water Jesus offers. She still had some doubt, ‘He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ We are told at the end of the story that many Samaritans came to believe in Jesus because of her story.

It is a time of great uncertainty across the world. We may feel isolated, but we are not alone. Jesus is the living water we need to satisfy our thirst. He will provide for our physical needs as he did for Moses and the Israelites. He will provide for our social needs if we find ourselves alone at the well in the heat of the day. Jesus will meet our spiritual needs with his living water in whatever way we find ourselves isolated.

I will leave you with this final thought: I heard in another sermon an explanation for what the Samaritan woman found in Jesus that day. She had five husbands, was living with man number six, when she met Jesus, number seven. Seven, is the number associated with perfection. In Jesus, that woman met perfection. We too meet perfection in Jesus.

The Transfiguration: On the Mountain & In the Valley 

23/2/20

Next Sunday Before Lent
Exodus 24:12-18
Psalm 2
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

I grew up in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains just outside Calgary, Canada. The majestic Rockies provided the backdrop to my childhood: great winter skiing holidays, summer hikes, days out in Banff. The Rockies have been a constant presence throughout my life when I picture home.

My father once wisely said, ‘the Rockies never look the same twice.’ This is very true. Some days they appear very close on the horizon, other days much further away depending on the light and time of year, some days they are covered in cloud or fog and not visible at all.

In the OT and NT readings this morning, ‘mountains feature significantly. The mountain was already highly symbolic in the Old Testament. There is Mt. Sinai, where the Commandments are given; Mt. Horeb, possibly another name for Sinai, as the site of the Burning Bush; and Mt. Moriah where Abraham was commanded to sacrifice Isaac. It was on a mountain where God revealed himself to Elijah. For Jesus, the mountaintop is the site of various important events: the mountain of the temptation; the mountain of his great preaching; the mountain of his prayer; the mountain of the Transfiguration; the mountain of his agony; the mountain of the Cross; and finally, the mountain of the risen Lord. ‘(Fr Kvetoslav Krejci, Transfiguration, 23/2/20)

These stories of Moses, Elijah, Jesus, Peter, John and James are likely familiar ones, but I hope that we will not see them the same way twice.

On this last Sunday before Lent, I think it is significant that we are reminded of the greatness, holiness and completeness of Jesus before we descend into the austerity, solemnity of the Lenten season. As we hear again the Transfiguration story, we need to remember the importance of it as it reveals Christ’s divine nature, confirms his Sonship, foreshadows his death, secures his place in the stream of Israel’s history, exalts him above the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah), and prefigures his Resurrection. This might seem quite dense and hard to understand – that’s okay!

It is important that as Christians we understand Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and his authority which also comes from God. If we don’t – then all we are is a social club with inconvenient meeting times.

The Transfiguration would have been an amazing sight I am sure! It was clear that by Peter’s response that the disciples were overwhelmed; Luke helpfully records that ‘Peter did not know what he said.’ They were frightened, bewildered by what they were seeing on the mountain.

It is only after time and reflection that Peter begins to understand what he saw that day. There is hope for the rest of us! Peter believed what he saw, in his second letter he tells his readers that they didn’t make anything up. Peter, James and John were eyewitnesses to the power and coming of Jesus; they heard the voice of God on the mountain.

Any meeting with God on the mountain is a changing experience. Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights on the mountain in God’s presence. Whenever Moses spent time in God’s presence, people were afraid to look at him after as he is described as glowing. There is something about those mountain-top experiences, in the presence of God, that carries on down the mountain and people are changed.

Coming from a more charismatic background, talk of ‘mountain-top experiences with God’ are quite normal. Those divine encounters with God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit that are overwhelming, leaving one changed and knowing something more and deeper about themselves and of God.

Most of the sermons and explanations that I’ve heard about the Transfiguration of Christ end here. In both Exodus and Luke everyone comes off the mountain, the show is over and it’s time to go home. Some would theorize that this should make us hoard those mountain-top experiences because we all have to come down at some point and get back into ‘real life.’

Leaving the Transfiguration at this point also raises some difficult questions about God: is he just a showman, dazzling for the few, the select? What about the others who don’t get a personal invitation to the mountain? The other nine disciples were waiting at the bottom.

This is where I got a second and wider look at this story. The Transfiguration of Christ is told in three of the Gospels; the lectionary lets you choose your own ending though. At the end of the passage in Matthew, Jesus tells them to keep silent as they come down the mountain. As Jesus and the disciples came back into the crowd they are confronted by a desperate father with an epileptic son. Back to real life indeed.

Debie Thomas, an American essayist, writes about the Transfiguration: ‘Yes, Jesus revealed his majesty on a mountaintop.  Yes, it is essential for us to contemplate that amazing epiphany and consider what it reveals about Jesus’s identity.  But here’s what I’d like to know: how does glory on the mountaintop speak to agony in the valley?  What does it mean that the two experiences – fullness and emptiness, ecstasy and despair, light and shadow — share a landscape in this famous Gospel narrative? Aren’t there two beloved sons in this story?’  The glory, the revelation, the holiness and greatness of Jesus on the mountain-top needs to work in the valleys too. The heavens opened for the disciples on the mountain, but in the valley just below there is a scene of heartbreak and suffering as the other nine disciples are helpless as this second beloved son is not healed (at least not yet).

This tells us something about how the world works; our mountains and valleys are often much closer together than we might think. One person’s pain does not cancel out another person’s joy.

Maybe this morning some of us are feeling close to God and all is well with the world and a few pews over someone else is aching with the pain of God’s absence? Here’s the challenge for the Christian life, for a church congregation: Can we hold in faithful tension the mountains and valleys we all experience, denying neither and embracing both?

Jesus did heal the little boy and the valley of that suffering turned to a mountain top of excitement and relief. Let’s not forget the suffering that came first; it was very real and needs honest witness. The faith the father needed to call out to Jesus was forged in the valley of pain and helplessness in the demon possession of his only child.

For the nine disciples left at the bottom on the mountain too, there were left alone as their three leaders, Peter, James and John had gone off with Jesus. They were also surrounded by some of their strongest negative influences – the teachers of the law. Where did their confidence go? Where does ours go in those moments?

The view from the mountain top is arguable better than the view from the valley floor. Yet the power of God in the Transfiguration is the same power that healed the little boy in the valley. As a church family, our mountains and valleys often lie right beside each other; the challenge is to hold the tension in love and faith.

We cannot afford to lose or have our view of God dimmed by our circumstances. As we stand at the gateway of Lent and come to Communion once again, let’s seek our eyes to be opened to God and to each other, be dazzled by the power of God regardless of where we find ourselves this morning.

Lent 4: Giving Up

I realize that this is a couple of days late in posting as Mothering Sunday in the UK was this past Sunday. I believe that sermons should be the most useful not on Sunday but later in the week as we live and love and get on with the business of life. I talk about the giving up of motherhood that Moses’ mother and Mary experienced. In this season of Lent we too are asked to give up. It feels hard to do today!

Lent 4 – Mothering Sunday

Exodus 2:1-10
Psalm 34:1-11
2 Corinthians 1:3-7
Luke 2: 33-35

While I fully appreciate and celebrate Mothering Sunday for the joy that it brings, I know that this day is difficult for many people. Motherhood can bring great heartache for many different reasons; for those who wanted to be mothers but were not able to for various reasons, the mothers who found it difficult to be a mother and carry that guilt or resentment. Some people’s mothers weren’t exactly as loving and caring as they were supposed to be and the hurt of that lingers on. I think of the mother’s whose children have died before them and the enormity of that grief. Others here may be missing their mothers who are far away or no longer living.

It is important to hold these tensions together this morning as this is what church family does. We rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. Yet we try to find a way to celebrate mothers and motherhood for the joy and delight it brings. I know that motherhood has brought joy to many here as I have listened to your stories and remembered you and them in my prayers.

The aspect of motherhood that I want to focus on today is one that most people overlook or portray in a negative light: ‘giving up’ that is required of mothers.

The giving up of motherhood begins in pregnancy with the giving up of one’s body as it is inhabited by another. Not having ever experienced this I can only imagine what this would be like. Everything is shared as a mother must care for her own body so that it can provide the right environment for the baby as it grows and changes.

Mothers may also have to give up or at least put aside their own dreams and goals for the sake of their child/children. This can be harder for some than for others. This is a considerable issue for many young women in the current workplace; women who put off having a family for their careers face consequences of fertility issues as they age. Some women also need to consider the effects that having a family can present to career advancement later. Many women must go to work out of financial necessity so staying home is not an option for many. We can also fall into the trap that ‘giving up’ something must always be framed in a negative light; that giving up is the same as giving in. It is not!

In this season of Lent, we are asked to give up those things (albeit temporarily) which distract us from our relationships with God. Part of our growth and maturity as Christians is to give up those things that ultimately bring harm to ourselves and others. Giving up is not always a bad thing! It can be a challenge, – especially if that something is not what we are prepared to give up. But that doesn’t mean it is a bad thing.

But to give up a child? Or give up on the prospect of having children for the sake of a career or vocation? It’s one thing to lay off the booze and biscuits – but a baby?!

In our readings this morning we see two mothers, Moses’ unnamed mother and Mary, who both must give up their children. Moses’ mother does what she can to keep him hidden until it was no longer possible. She did not want to let him go but ultimately does. Mary is told that she will give birth to the Son of the Most High.

Mary may not have understood what this meant at the time but there was a plan and purpose for her child’s life known to God. Moses’ mother has no assurance of that that, no guarantee that he would be safe and not drown in the Nile, no safety net that putting him in a basket and floating him down the river would work out in the end. Both mothers simply trust that their sons will be taken care.

Moses’ Mother

I think that Moses’ mother was a very brave and cleaver woman. At this time in Israel’s history, the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt and Pharaoh has commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill any baby boys but to let the baby girls live. The midwives feared God and let the boys live. When Moses was born his mother saw that he was ‘fine’ and she kept him and hid him. Risking his life and her own. She had no idea if anyone would rescue him from the water.

In a rather cleaver move, we can assume, that she sent her daughter, the unnamed sister, to stand at a distance and watch. She might have hoped that an Egyptian would rescue him. Moses was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter, the very person who was demanding his little life. Did she mean to give her baby to the slave-driver of her people?

By giving him up, Moses’ mother saved his life and got him back. She was good to her word; nursed him and when he grew up took him back to Pharaoh’s daughter. Sometimes we are asked to give things up, we might do it for the season of Lent or maybe it is a permanent give up. If we do it because God has asked it of us, we get it back, maybe not in the way we think we will or even in this lifetime, but God will replace what we have given with better things. God is faithful and knows what we sacrifice and will care for us and love us through it.

Mary

These few verses are part of the bigger story of Mary and Joseph taking Jesus to the Temple to undergo the purification rituals required of new Jewish parents.

The whole of Christian life is one of blessing and sacrifice – we see that in the stories of Moses’ mother, Joseph and Mary. They were given their babies to care for and then had to give them back to God.

In this exchange in the Temple, Mary and Joseph are probably shocked at what Simeon has to say! All parents learn about their children by getting to know them, spending time together, paying attention to them. I would suggest that very few parents learn about their children, let alone their future through elderly strangers at church! Mary and Joseph do not know very much about their baby – up to this point, the shepherds knew more than they did.

Simeon doesn’t bless baby Jesus – instead he blesses Mary. Mary and Joseph needed to be blessed! Tough times were ahead for them! They may not have fully realized in that moment what they were being told or fully understood the sacrifice that was to come. Simeon tells Mary and Joseph that, ‘this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed.’ Jesus would be the baby who grew up to become to new Passover lamb. The one who would be sacrificed for the sins of the whole world.

Lent is a season of sacrifice; giving up those things that we are either asked to by God or voluntarily give to him. Moses’ mother got her baby back to give him up again later into the household of Israel’s oppressor. Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the Temple where his future was spoken over him, much to their surprise. They received a blessing of mercy. Why? Mary would one day stand at the foot of the cross while her first-born was crucified for the sins of the world.

How much sacrifice of giving up is asked of us? I don’t think we can quite compare with Moses’ mother or Mary. In the crucifixion and resurrection, we see the ultimate act of sacrifice and the greatest act of blessing. We are blessed and restored through the sacrifice and giving up of Jesus and Mary.

Jesus cares for us completely and fully. However much or little we are/were loved by our mothers, Jesus loves us more, cares more deeply, knows us better and longer than they ever will. This is also true for those of you with children – Jesus loves them more than you do!

Wherever you sit today in the range of feelings on yet another Mothering Sunday – bless you. Let the love of God fall on you today.