27th Feb, 2005

The Third Sunday in Lent

8am Low Mass, 10.30am High Mass, Academy Awards Sunday
Sermon preached by the Rector, Fr Ian Elliott Davies

Exod 17:1-7 the people ‘tempt’ God
Romans 5:1-11 ‘while we were still weak…’
St John 4:5-20 the woman of Samaria

At last the secret is out, as it always must come in the end
The delicious story is ripe to tell to the intimate friend;
Over the tea-cups and in the square the tongue has its desire;
Still waters run deep, my dear, there’s never smoke without fire.

Behind the corpse in the reservoir, behind the ghost on the links,
Behind the lady who dances and the man who madly drinks,
Under the look of fatigue, the attack of migraine and the sigh
There is always another story, there is more than meets the eye.

For the clear voice suddenly singing, high up in the convent wall,
The scent of the elder bushes, the sporting prints in the hall,
The croquet matches in summer, the handshake, the cough, the kiss,
There is always a wicked secret, a private reason for this.
(WH Auden’s “The Ascent of F6”)

The hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans had grown over many hundreds of years. In ancient times the Assyrians had captured the northern kingdom, but some of the conquered Israelites had remained there. Those who remained had intermarried with the incoming conquering foreigners, and therefore, as far as the rest of the Jews were concerned, had committed the unforgivable crime- compromise. Marriage with foreigners represented the very epitome of compromise. The Jews saw the resulting race, the Samaritans, as unclean and regarded them as mongrels, not too strong a word. In fact as a result of such ostracism the Samaritans had even built their own Temple on Mount Gerizim, again the wrong place, so far as the Jews were concerned. To the Jews the Samaritans were despicable and to be avoided at all costs, and because of the way the Jews treated the Samaritans, even physically abusing and attacking them at times, the Samaritans hated the Jews as well. And now Jesus as a Rabbi, a Teacher of the Law, decides to go through impure Samaria, he decides to go against the social norm and devout religious traditions of his day, he purposefully sets out to make contact with sinners.
The whole account of this meeting at Jacob’s Well is full of double entendre and misunderstanding yet replete with significance.

You’ve probably already noticed that this meeting between these two people is in marked contrast yet parallels the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus in last week’s Gospel. Nicodemus is self-assured, confidently aware of his own accomplished status as a religious teacher, but here this week the Samaritan woman is evasive, nervous, almost jittery and at times her excited responses verge on the humorous. You see Jesus shouldn’t really have engaged her in conversation; at this hour of the day when there was no one else around it was quite improper for a male Jew, or for any man come to think of it, to talk to a lone woman, it might be construed as something of a chat-up line and she infers as much with her “you a Jew, are asking me for water?”
The really strange thing is that none of this matters to Christ, he may well be aware of the risk he’s taking, the gossip that his actions might engender, but he goes out of his way to greet this woman, to engage her in, what on the surface appears to be, small-talk. He recognizes in her a person in need, a woman ostracized by her own people, why, after all, is she there at Jacob’s Well all alone? Even the Samaritans didn’t want to have anything to do with her, but Christ does-
“Under the look of fatigue, the attack of migraine and the sigh
There is always another story, there is more than meets the eye.”
Even though she doesn’t realize it, she is already on her way to being an honoured part of the community of faith. Half the people one talks to about faith either here in Church, or in the bar or wherever, are already on a journey of faith, even if they don’t realize it, but it does take something of a risk to begin that conversation, to risk gossip and tongue wagging by talking to individuals that other people might not think appropriate to the Christian faith.
“Give me a drink” those few words leap over all the boundaries, religious and social and start a conversation that leads to life. Can you imagine the woman’s shock? She immediately recognizes Jesus as a Jew, probably from his accent and dress. She asks him “What on earth are you doing speaking to me, a Samaritan, a lone woman, in public, in a place where everyone might see? What on earth are you really after?”
Jesus answers “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that says to you ‘give me a drink’, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” She doesn’t understand why he’s talking to her and she definitely doesn’t understand what he is talking about. She has been looking for a relationship with a man that will solve all her problems and I guess that Christ knows that. But the relationship she needs, that she is being drawn into is of far more significance than just husband number seven, while she is thinking in terms of physical water, a well that never runs dry and a marriage that will last a little longer than the others, Christ is addressing her in more subtle, decisive, spiritual terms. He sees straight into the heart of the matter, the heart of her yearning and desire and knows that it is the gift of water welling up to eternal life for which she craves. She thinks he is talking about the element H2O, whereas he is actually talking about a different reality, an inner principle and an entire universe of life and fertility, hope and birth, direction, focus, faith and God! So, you cannot help but think of the waters of new birth in baptism and the references to it in the conversation with Nicodemus. The woman’s reactions, very differently from Nicodemus, show that she is beginning to understand Christ’s way of thinking. In the beginning she simply addresses Christ with the slightly pejorative “you”. She then goes on to call him, Sir, kyrie, Lord and eventually recognizes Christ as a prophet.
The astonishing fact is that she, beyond all religious expectation, begins to perceive Christ as a prophet, and in so doing she almost accidentally joins the community of faith, she takes her honoured place in the body of Christ; she rushes off to the town to tell her friends and neighbours- she brings fruit, and fruit that will remain, survive, grow and mature.
Now that’s something that even the disciples who have gone off to the town in search of food can’t do- they’re just too slow to make the connections, they might be there only for the show, they have no perception, as yet, of the need to remain faithful, to persist, to grow, to mature, to abide, to attend the Daily Mass, to participate in the Breakfast Club.
This hugely romantic conversation begins with the tired and thirsty Christ asking her for water and ends [ends? it launches on a trajectory] with the solemn “I,” the prophet, “am he, I who am speaking to you.” The distance between the two statements is immense, in fact it is a universe.
The woman rushes off to tell her fellow Samaritans, to evangelize, she leaves behind her water jar and brings other people to see this man who has told her everything she ever did- At last the secret is out, as it always must come in the end- and Christ will remain with her and she in him to all eternity.
Remaining and being faithful, sticking out the course, staying to the end- all matters that are of great import in the current discussions in our own Anglican Communion. The Archbishop of Canterbury needs our support and our prayers, not our whining or complaining.
The secret is out, as it always must come in the end-but it is the secret that here is the Saviour of the world, the Christ who welcomes Samaritans and sinners and all who come to him.


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