March 27, 2011
It’s one of those situations you dread, isn’t it? You pop out on a domestic errand, in a hurry, perhaps, or feeling low, so you deliberately choose a time when nobody much is about – and some stranger starts talking to you. It starts off relatively innocuously, with pleasantries, but, before you know it you’re into the really deep stuff – discussion about the ultimate questions – what ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ calls the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything.
That’s what happened to the Samaritan woman who went to draw water at Jacob’s well at Sychar. We don’t know why she went to the well at noon. Most women went early, while it was still cool; and they went in a group, for safety, because the well was about a mile out of town. So, the woman was putting herself at risk by going alone in the middle of the day. Perhaps her marital history gives some clue as to why: as a much married woman, living with someone out of wedlock, she would rather run the gauntlet of strangers and wild animals rather than face the hostility of her more respectable sisters.
And when she gets to the well, she finds someone already there. An unknown man, who starts up a conversation with her. And from his accent, she knows he is a Jew. She has got herself into a situation where she could be in real trouble. And so begins an encounter that will change her life.
We hear of this encounter only in John’s Gospel. We don’t know why John includes it. Perhaps because his community included Samaritans and Gentiles as well as Jews, and other Jewish Christians disapproved; perhaps because his community allowed women to act as missionaries to both men and women, as other communities did not; perhaps because his community had the reputation of welcoming people with doubtful pasts, and were criticized for it. We don’t know.
The encounter between Jesus and the woman is obstructed by misunderstandings, as are many of the conversations recorded in John’s Gospel. In part that is a literary device, the way in which the author of John presents the teaching of Jesus. In part it is because the conversation is full of ‘double entendres’ – not of the rude kind, but because it is being carried on at two levels, the spiritual as well as the practical.
But the encounter is also obstructed by the preconceptions and prejudices the woman brings to the situation. We don’t know the full details of the woman’s past, but it is clear she has not had an easy life. She has had 5 husbands already. This doesn’t mean she was immoral; life expectancy was short, particularly for young males in an occupied country, and few women could exist on their own, so remarriage was necessary for survival; but even if she had been widowed 5 times rather than divorced, she would be regarded by others, and would regard herself as unlucky. Now she couldn’t find anyone else willing to risk marriage to her, so she was in an extramarital relationship. No wonder she was wary of men.
And this man was a Jew. She knew the longstanding hostility between Jews and Samaritans, so she probably went into the encounter expecting problems. Perhaps, if she had thought, she might have realised this man was different. Most Jews would not have travelled from Judaea to Galilee through Samaritan territory. They would have taken the long way round, along the Jordan valley, to avoid even getting Samaritan dust on their feet. Jews would not have taken the three day journey through Samaria, because they would have had to buy food on the way – and observant Jews would not eat Samaritan food, or drink Samaritan water, or use crockery touched by a Samaritan. But Jesus had come into the area, and sent his disciples to buy food in her village. Perhaps the woman had passed them (and been ignored by them ) on her way to the well. She should have realised even before he spoke to her, that this man was different.
Most Jewish men, particularly not respectable rabbis, would not have spoken to a strange woman, let alone asked for help from them. Yet Jesus treated the woman with courtesy, and opened the conversation by asking for her help. The woman should have realised from the way he treated her that this was no ordinary man.
But the woman is so hidebound by her own lack of self-esteem and her own preconceptions that she answers his polite request with a rude question of her own “How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan, for a drink?” Perhaps she thinks it is a trick question. Perhaps she is waiting for the put down that will follow.
But Jesus moves the conversation onto a new level, by saying if she knew who was talking to her, she could ask him for living water. This is one of those moments when the conversation is on two levels; Jesus could just mean running water, like that from the mountain streams in his native Galilee; but on another level, he is talking about spiritual water, the water of life.
The woman however, is stuck in the practicalities. “You don’t have a bucket’ she objects, ‘and the well is deep. How can you get water without the right equipment? Are you greater than our common ancestor, Jacob, who had this well dug for us?”
What can we learn from this encounter?
We can learn first of all from Jesus, from the fact that he approached the woman at all, and from the courteous way he treated her. She was three times over an unsuitable companion for him – a woman, a Samaritan, of doubtful reputation. Who are the outcasts of our society? Do we, as Christians, always approach such outcasts of our society with a similar courtesy? Jesus began by asking the woman for help, before attempting to give his teaching. Do we approach those we wish to evangelise in that way? Would we consider it dangerous, or beneath our dignity, to speak, let alone to ask for help from, a person of another faith, or with a dodgy past? If our Lord, who was and is truth could ask for help before rushing in with his message, why can’t we?
But we can also learn from the woman. She came into the encounter blinded by her own prejudices and trapped in her own sense of failure and lack of worth. Because of this, she was unable at first to receive the grace that Jesus was offering to her.
The Catholic writer, Gerard Hughes, suggests that we all have our well moments, and our bucket questions. We are constantly laying down criteria for God to measure up to if we are going to listen to his voice. Jesus found this constantly, not just in Samaria, but also in Judaea, and even among his own people in Galilee. Can anything good come from Nazareth? Isn’t this a carpenter? Isn’t this just the son of Joseph – or even (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) of Mary! No way can he be acceptable as a messenger of God. So often, if the reality doesn’t fit our mental filing system, we ignore it.
Hughes suggests we make a list of all the ‘You have no bucket’ phrases we employ to avoid hearing God’s word to us when it comes from unexpected quarters. How about, ‘How can a gay person be a minister of the Church?’ ‘Why should I accept teaching from a woman?’ ‘How can any sensible person be a Roman Catholic?’ ‘Or a fundamentalist?’ ‘What have we got to learn about faith from Muslims, or Jews, or Hindus?’.
Then, says Hughes, we should pray to be delivered from the prejudice, bigotry, snobbishness, the attachments to religious traditions and personal preferences which blind us to the gifts God is offering to us, and makes us reject the people he chooses as messengers.
We need to do this, both as individuals and as churches. So many of the unnecessary disputes between churches come because we categorise people as unacceptable ministers or members for some reason. This encounter warns us against doing this in Jesus’ name – because it is not something that seemed to bother him.
But we can also learn from the woman about how not to receive God’s free gift of grace. On the outside, she was a strong and feisty woman. She engaged in witty chat with this stranger, and replied to his mysterious pronouncements with a ready answer. But she was hiding behind strong defences; when he started to get personal, and talked about her marital situation, she quickly changed the subject and started a conversation about the relative merits of the Jerusalem Temple and the Samaritan Temple on their holy mountain. It didn’t matter how gentle and gracious Jesus was; she had been hurt too much in the past to risk going down that path.
We very often hide behind our defences and refuse to accept the gracious forgiveness and unconditional love that God offers us in Christ.
There are no preconditions to an encounter with the Living Word, no price on the reception of the Water of Life. It is offered to us through Christ in love, and we receive it in faith, and allow it to do its healing and inspiring and transforming work in us. Once we let down our defences, the Living Water which Christ offers us will become part of our very selves, and as it bubbles up out of us will bring life and salvation to others.
We can prevent this happening by our own defences. But we can also get in the way of it happening to others by the way we receive them in Christ’s name. The woman had such strong defences because she had been bruised in her encounters with those around her, who judged her because of her marital history. The Christian Church has a sad history of passing adverse judgements on people because of their gender, or sexuality or marital misfortunes, denying them their dignity as children of God and their place in the redeemed community. Many such people have been deeply hurt by the judgements – spoken and unspoken – which church tradition and authorities has passed on them. I read of a Christian leader who was giving advice on a TV show, and was asked by a man whether he should marry a woman who had been married 4 times before. The Christian answered, “No. Steer clear of her. She is a 4 times loser”.
Can you hear Jesus speaking of a person in such terms? On the contrary, his encounter with the woman at the well shows us him asking for help from a 5 or 6 times loser, and using her as his messenger to the people of her village. She came to the well a battered and guilt-ridden outcast; she went back the first woman evangelist charged with telling of her encounter with the long-awaited Messiah. God will not be happy with us if our attitudes prevent others whom he wishes to use as his messengers from coming close and hearing his words of grace.
The final section of the woman’s meeting with Jesus is a conversation about worship. And here again, Jesus invites us to break lose from our preconceptions. The Samaritans worshipped God on in a Temple on Mount Gerazim, the Jews in Jerusalem – but both temples are about to become redundant. The only way to worship God after an encounter with his Messiah is in spirit and in truth.
Where doesn’t matter. Samaritan Temple or Jewish; plain chapel or ornate cathedral, ancient holy place or modern school hall, it’s just simply irrelevant, so long as we are open to the Holy Spirit. How doesn’t matter – Common Worship or BCP, modern worship songs or Gregorian chant, robes or ordinary clothes – it doesn’t matter so long as they are used to convey the truth which came to us in Jesus Christ.
And the most important message of this encounter is that ‘who’ doesn’t matter either – 5 times married woman or male disciple, they will both need to divest themselves of their prejudices and preconceptions in order to encounter Jesus and allow the Spirit to guide them into recognizing him as God’s Messiah and the one who brings us life and so will we.
March 7, 2011
2 Peter, 1, 16-21; Matthew 17, 1-9
I read an article once about a man who had been the youngest member of the team that climbed Mount Everest for the first time in 1953. He had high hopes of being part of the group that made the final assault on the summit; but just as he was ordered to lead a team of Sherpas to beyond Camp 4, the final jumping off place for the attempt on the summit, he contracted ‘flu, and was sent back to lower altitudes to recuperate. However, he recovered in time to be back up on the mountain as Hillary and Tenzing returned from the summit; and in later years, he went on to climb other unconquered peaks like Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas, technically a harder climb than Everest.
Apart from the exhilaration of being so high, these climbs engendered a tremendous sense of comradeship between the members of the climbing teams – and every year, the surviving climbers met up to relive the experience in a Victorian hotel at the foot of Mount Snowdon in Wales. We are doing something similar here today, remembering the Transfiguration.
I don’t go in for mountain climbing, but I have taken many holidays in mountainous regions, especially the Alps. We usually go up to the peaks by railway, with lots of other people, but almost everywhere we have been, it is possible to get away from the crowds, to enjoy the silence and the glorious views. I remember one very special moment, when we were on the top of a peak near Luzern on August 1st, the Swiss National Day. As we stood looking over the snow capped peaks, and the green mountain side going down to the lake, we heard a group begin to play music on Alpenhorns – haunting harmonies that re-echoed around the peaks – heavenly music indeed!
Mountains in the Old Testament were very often places of encounter with God. Moses went to the top of a mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, and Elijah was on Mount Horeb when God spoke to him in the ‘still small voice’. These were two major figures of the Jewish faith, representing the self-disclosure of God through the Law and the Prophets, and they were expected to appear again on earth at the end of time.
And in the New Testament, the high points in Jesus’ ministry – the great sermon, the Transfiguration and the Ascension – all take place on mountains.
We can see why people who believed in a ‘three-decker universe’ – heaven above, the earth in the middle, and hell or the abode of spirits beneath – would feel closer to God at the top of a mountain. There is also the fact that mountain tops are often covered in cloud; to be within the cloud makes you feel small and lost and vulnerable – and the cloud or shekinah was a sign of the presence of God in the mind of the Jews. And all of us who have been up mountains can appreciate that the view from a mountain, of creation spread out before you, is a powerful illustration of the glory of God. What’s more the silence and the thinness of the air there are conducive to religious ecstasy.
So it is not surprising that three of the Gospel writers set the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus from his earthly form into the glory of heaven on a mountain top. In this experience, witnessed by his three closest companions among the disciples, Jesus is shown conversing with Moses and Elijah, and is acknowledged, as at his baptism, by a voice from the cloud, as ‘My beloved Son’. It must have been a thrilling moment for Jesus, and for those who witnessed it. No wonder Peter suggested that they should build some shelters on the mountain, and stay there.
But human beings cannot live on the top of mountains. The air is too thin, and there is not enough food or water there to support life. Human beings always have to come down from the mountain top, and get on with life at ground level.
And that is just what happened to Jesus and his disciples. All three Gospel writers put the story of the Transfiguration at the turning point of their Gospels. From this moment, literally and spiritually, Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem and the cross. From this time onwards, his teaching is about the suffering and opposition the Messiah must suffer, and the certain death that is to come.
The disciples resist this process of being brought down to earth with a bump. They argue against Jesus’ interpretation of his Messiahship. They have seen his glory; surely, they only have to tell others of their experience for them to believe. Or perhaps they think, the transfiguration can be repeated at ground level, to force people to believe.
Only later, perhaps, will they look back and see that the mountain top experience was what gave them the strength to carry on through the agony of the trial and the cross to the experience of resurrection.
Many of us will have had ‘mountain top experiences’ in our religious life – though not necessarily at the top of a mountain. There are, for most of us, times when our faith is strengthened, and we are encouraged to carry on by an overwhelming experience.
Perhaps it is the experience of worship, in a large crowd as at Taize; or in a quiet spot imbued with centuries of prayer, like Holy Island or Iona; or supported by glorious music, such as you find in Kings College Cambridge. Or perhaps a course of teaching prompts us to see our faith in a completely new and exciting way. Perhaps we may have experienced an unexpected healing of body or mind; or perhaps a kind act by someone, or an encounter with a person of spiritual depth brings revelation and a deepening of faith.
But few of these experiences last for long. Sooner or later, we all have to come down from the mountain top, and get on with life in the valley , life in all its ordinariness, and with all its problems. Most of us, like Peter, would much rather stay on the mountain, where the glory of God is right in front of our eyes, and there is no room for doubt. However, the voice of God from the cloud will not allow us to stay there. It tells us to listen to Jesus; and Jesus is leading us down again, and along another path to glory, one which goes through the depths, through failure and death, rather than along the heights.
We cannot stay on the mountain top. But we can carry the mountain top experiences with us, to inspire us when the going is tough, and to give us a goal to work towards.
In our New Testament Reading, we heard how the Christians of the Apostolic Age were sustained in their faith through times of darkness and challenge by the memories of those who experienced the vision of the glorified Jesus, drawing on the mountain top experience as a light shining in the dark places of life.
Those of you who have visited the fjords or Norway may have been told that, during the winter months, the sun doesn’t reach the settlements at the base of the mountains for months at a time. Sometimes, living the Christian faith can feel like living in one of those settlements on the edge of the floor, in perpetual gloom.
When we feel like that, we need to treasure our memories of the peaks of faith to give us hope that the glory is there, though hidden from our sight.
And we need to build into our lives opportunities to visit the spiritual mountain top on a regular basis, either through reading the Scriptures, through prayer, through using seasons like Lent to strengthen our faith, through being part of the Church’s campaigns or through contact with people through whom the glory of God shines, so that our belief in the possibility of Transfiguration is maintained when we come down from the mountain – as we must.