Women at Wells

This is the text of the message I preached at Lake Tyers Beach on Sunday 19th March 2017, the third Sunday of Lent in Year A.

John 4:5-42

Sometimes I am truly fascinated by the lectionary.  Now there’s a preaching nerd statement if ever there was one!  But it’s true.  Each week and for some midweek holy days as well, on a three-year cycle, many Christian churches read through the greater portion of the Bible by following a series of set readings.  Each day’s feast includes a passage from the Old Testament, a Psalm or portion thereof, a passage from one of the gospels (and in 2017 we’ll mainly be reading Matthew), and a passage from one of the New Testament’s letters.  Oftentimes these readings are collected around a common theme.  Remember last week, case in point, when the Old Testament reading was about Abram’s call to follow God to Canaan in Genesis 12 and Paul’s commentary upon Abraham’s life of faith in Romans 4.  One of the gospel alternatives was Matthew 17 and Jesus’s transfiguration, and the Psalm was 121 where I lift my eyes to the hills which might connect with either the transfiguration or with Abram the trusting nomad.  Since we’d heard about the transfiguration separately a few weeks ago, I went with the other three passages. As a preacher, I can see each week that a theme has been recommended to me in the choice of which readings go together, and generally I have been able to follow that theme.

So, this week the gospel reading is John 4:5-42 and the story of the woman at the well.  It is paired with Exodus 17:1-7 and the Hebrews whinging for water, Psalm 95 where the Jews are reminded not to whinge like they did back in the day, back on that day, and Romans 5:1-11 which follows last week’s message on justification by faith and not by ancestry or obedience.  Maybe we can link Paul’s words to the Psalmist and the writer of Exodus: in stark contrast to the sooky behaviour of the Chosen People God is looking for trust-filled Christians.

So, what’s the theme?  Well, maybe it is that pro-trust and anti-tantrum story.  That would make a great sermon.  But why, then, the woman at the well?  As I said at the outset, sometimes I am truly fascinated by the lectionary.

So, today, I’m going to both break with tradition, by ignoring the other lectionary readings and their suggested theme for reading John, and embrace tradition by suggesting another set of readings and a new theme.

First, a different “other New Testament reading”, this one from the previous chapter of John and the alternative gospel reading.  The idea was that if I’d preached on the transfiguration a few weeks back, on Transfiguration Sunday, the lectionary offered me this passage to preach on last week alongside Abraham and Paul.  I won’t bother connecting this story to last week’s message, although it does fit, but I do want to flag it for this week.  So, next to the Woman of Samaria we have Nicodemus the Pharisee in John 3:1-11.  Hold that thought.

Second, a different Old Testament reading. Genesis 24:12-20, and we could add Genesis 29:6b, 10-13.  Abraham’s most-trusted servant goes to a well in a foreign country and Rebekah brings him water.  Abraham’s servant takes Rebekah home and Isaac marries her.  A generation later Jacob goes to a well and Rachel brings him water.  Jacob goes home with Rachel and marries her.  So, next to the Samaritan Woman at the Well (in Sychar) we have two foreign women at wells in foreign countries meeting Jewish men.  Hold that thought.

John tells us in chapter 3 that Nicodemus is one of the leading Jews of the day and comes to visit Jesus at night.  He is taught that what is born of the spirit is spirit.  I heard it said recently in defence of the Bible that scripture remains the key source of our knowledge about what Jesus is like.  I want to say that as much as I value the Bible I’m not sure that that is entirely true.  It is true to say that we begin with the Bible, but as we wish to learn more about Jesus and come to know him as a present reality and not an historical figure, albeit the greatest man of all time, the Spirit takes over and we are born anew of the spirit in our understanding of God.  Someone who follows the Spirit would always be living in accordance with the Jesus portrayed in the Bible.  But you can, in a sense, “obey the Bible” but not live like Jesus if you are legalistic and literalist about it.  The Pharisees were great Bible scholars and obeyers of the Law, arguably they were more obedient of the Law than was Jesus, but were they as obedient of God?  Were they born of the Spirit in the way that Jesus was?  Nicodemus certainly wasn’t.  He was a scholar and a leader, but he was blinded by the page to the glorious freedom of “Life in the Spirit” that was waiting to be drawn out.  Yet in John 3:2 Nicodemus recognises that the presence of God is upon Jesus, that Jesus is more than a teacher is obvious to the Pharisee.  Those who follow God closest follow God as wind and spirit, not (primarily) as scholarship and interpretation.  Go beyond the book says Jesus.

John tells us in chapter 4 that there’s a new Rebekah and Rachel story going on at Jacob’s well.  This woman is not necessarily the town slut; she may have been legitimately partnered in levirate marriages (to a dying line of brothers) like the woman in the story of the Sadducees in Matthew 22:23-28.  John is mucking around with the romance stories of his culture to make a point about the new way of Jesus: one part sociolinguistics, one part Mills and Boon. Jesus calls the woman “Woman”, a way he also addresses his mother in John 2:4 and Mary in the garden in John 20:15.  In John Jesus uses this form to address any female conversation partner when he is about to reveal something of importance her.   Like with foreign Rachel and Abraham’s grandson the conversation between the Samaritan Woman and the Judean messiah is loaded with meaning.

Now, I’m sure you’ve heard that the Samaritans were considered by the Judeans to be an unclean race living on an unclean land.  Alongside the regular division of adult male from adult female to whom the man is not related, Jesus in speaking with the Woman at Sychar must also overcome the barrier of Judean and Samaritan, and rabbi and outcast.  There is the tradition that she is an adulteress, which may not be true as I said before, but may be true too.  (The point is that they are talking at a well in the middle of the day, not the scandal of why she was at the well in the middle of the day.)   When the woman leaves the well she does not go home to her husband, which is what Jesus asked her to do, rather she goes into the town and rallies the men (invariably) in the town square to come and meet Jesus.

Much of this story hinges on the ideas of private (appropriate to female) and public (appropriate to male) spaces, and the introduction of the idea that the people of Jesus are like brothers and sisters, which allows for all social barriers to be crossed.  Everything that is wrong about Jesus drinking with this woman is made right if she is his sister.  Jesus meets the woman in what should be a private space (the well is secret women’s business) but which is made public space because of the time of day at which the meeting takes place (secret women’s business takes place at dawn).  But Jesus speaks to the Woman as if it is private space (between siblings) thereby drawing her into a form of relationship with him, and she responds.  The woman then leaves the now-private place to go to the most public space imaginable, the town square at midday, from where she brings others back to the place where Jesus is.  When they come, in broad daylight, in public, he invites them to hear the private wisdom he has already shared with her.   Pause and consider, take a Selah just for a moment: think how this picture contrasts with Nicodemus sneaking about after dark to meet with Jesus in secret.  A senior Jewish man meets with another respected Jewish man, Jesus, at night and inside, (so in secret), while the whole town of Samaritans comes to Jesus in broad daylight and outside. The result is that the men of Sychar invite Jesus (and presumably the Twelve) to stay on in their town, thereby including him in their private space, and Jesus is hailed as Saviour of the World (John 4:42), an ascription ordinarily reserved for the Caesars and never used by the Jews to refer to Jesus anywhere else in John.

So, in the long history of “boy-meets-girl”, where if he’s an Israelite then she’s a foreigner and they’re meeting at a well, this is an amazing story.  John’s story looks back at John 1 where Jesus is the living word of God, John 2 where in the wedding at Cana Jesus is the symbolic bridegroom, and John 3 where Pharisees visit alone and at night.  When in John 4 the entire village of Sychar flocks to see Jesus in daylight, in public, in Samaria, in the box of a traditional boy-meets-girl story, Jesus’ identity as saviour of the whole world is thrust down our throats even without the Samaritans saying anything.  But they do say it, for good measure.

So, there you go.  And yes, this story does of course fit with the whinging, thirty Hebrews and Paul’s argument that salvation comes by trust.  As a Samaritan, female, outcast, the woman of Sychar had no right to approach Jesus, so he went to her.  He didn’t owe her anything, she wasn’t relying on him like the Hebrews were relying upon the Pillar of Cloud, she wasn’t trying to prove her worth by her obedience, she was just there and Jesus spoke the grace-filled message of living water to her.  But I think that knowing what we do about Nicodemus, about Rachel and Rebecca, and about the way in which John wrote and organised the rest of his gospel, the whole story makes an even deeper point.

You are loved, you are included, you are wanted, you are provided for, and if you want it you are saved.

Amen.

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The Prayer of a Righteous Leader.

(Exodus 17:1-7)

Oh God!
Oh, God these people you have sent to me are dead-set doing me in….
Doing my head in, I’m done in: they’re ready to stove my skull in and rip my tongue out.

Oh God!
Oh, God this message you have sent to me to proclaim is too harsh.
Harsh like this ruddy, rocky, wrathful desert you’ve lead me to, and lead the ones following me following you to too.

Oh God!
Oh, God these people circling me are neurotic in their simplicity.
Simple understandings, literal conclusions, lack of imagination and devoid of the creative response of compassion.

Oh God!
Oh, God this message is as contradictory as a rehydrating mirage.
Rehydration, for a million souls? It’s inhospitable in Horeb, it’s an impossible request to make of me.

Oh Man!
Oh, man strike a rock and do it before the people.
Before the people sup I will provide all good things; in their right time and right place.

Oh Man!
Oh, man you ask “is the LORD among us or not”?
The LORD among you will refresh and support you; quench your questioning when I AM is identified in the overflow of outpouring.

God of Moses, God of us:

Hear us when we call out to you for what only you can provide.
Hear us calling in faith and trust, and not in whinging complaint,
when we ask you for what we cannot provide for ourselves.

Be generous to us and patient when we call on you again.
Be patient and generous in your provision and in our haste to receive,
and remind us that we cannot do anything without you.

Amen.

Gotta have Faith

This is the text of the message I preached on Sunday 12th March 2017, the second Sunday in Lent (Year A) at Lake Tyers Beach Uniting Church.

Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

The first sermon I preached in the way I’m preaching now, i.e. as the man in the pulpit with twenty minutes and twenty people in front of him, I preached on the first eleven chapters of Genesis.  This was in 1991; I was 19 years old, and it was an evening service at Ulverstone Uniting Church where my dad was the minister.  I’m telling you this because I concluded that sermon at the verses that I’m starting this one, Genesis 12:1-4.   In that first sermon, I spoke of the eras prior to Abram’s advent where God had created the world and the Garden of Eden and the people in it.  (We heard about them last week.)  I spoke of how God had observed the life of the first parents outside Eden, the first sibling squabble and the first human death; of how God had seen the rise of sin in the world, the coming and going of Noah in his ark, the coming and going of the Babelites in their tower, and ultimately the breaking down of every relationship established in Eden.  Each man and woman had become alienated from God and the natural world.  God’s perfection had been removed from spousal relationships, parental relationships, and sibling relationships.  There had been a breakdown between each woman and her neighbours, and between each man and the individual strangers who made up the rest of humanity.  By the start of Genesis 12, we had reached the end of that first real sermon where, in Genesis 12:1, one man stands alone.  The man stands in a fallen world, where life goes on but every connection, every relationship in creation is damaged.  The good news is that having seen all human pre-history come to focus upon this one solitary man God speaks to that man and God begins the work of rebuilding the world in love and creativity.  God so loved the world that God gave as Jesus says in John 3.

We meet Abram when at the age of 75 he agrees to be uprooted from all he has ever known to follow God into the unknown.  The world that Abram inhabits is spiritually bleak, as the first eleven chapters of Genesis has made out, but it’s also a real world of sunshine and commerce.  It’s life, life being lived just as we live our lives today, just with less electricity and more dirt.   Abram has everything to lose by walking away from where he is and what he has made of himself.  He’s 75 years old, he’s begun to kick back at the end of a long life; he’s begun to snooze off the heart of each afternoon in the cool shade of the palm-trees outside his home while sucking on a stubbie of Sumerian Bitter.   But God has other plans for Abram and God offers the retired man the promise of blessing of such abundance that Abram himself would be a blessing to the entire earth.  Not only will the whole planet be blessed through Abram, and remember that we’ve just read eleven chapters of mounting curses against the world, but every man and woman on earth will measure their own blessing against the gold-standard of Abram’s example.  It seems that without much thinking it over Abram goes, and his nephew (Lot) goes with him.  Mind boggling stuff!

From a time about as far back as Paul is from us in history, Paul reviews Abram’s example in Romans 4 to explain that Abram’s merit was gained by his faith, not by his obedience, even as remarkable as that obedience was.  Some areas of Jewish scholarship at the time of Paul pointed to Abraham’s perfect obedience and spoke of how he had kept the Jewish Law perfectly even before it had been given.  Remembering that Abraham comes earlier than Moses even so Abraham is said to have kept the Ten Commandments and all the other stuff without fault. Paul turns this idea on its head to say that it was Abraham’s faith which had elevated him to friendship with God, and that his obedience had come because of his trust.

What makes sense to me is that you can’t obey somebody unless you trust him or her.  It is not normal behaviour to obey a random stranger, especially if that stranger suggests you entirely uproot your life at 75 and walk out into the desert on a promise of “I’ll look after you”.  I’d be asking “how can I trust you to look after me, I don’t even know you?”  But where trust has been built first, then you might follow in obedience based on trust, which is faith.  So, Paul is saying what matters now as followers of Abraham is not that someone has Hebrew ancestry, or that he or she obeys Torah religiously, but that he or she exhibits deep faith based on deep trust within that relationship, with the sign that such faith leads to obedience.  Even when God’s answer seems slow in coming, and the promise is physically impossible to accomplish, the true inheritors of the promise of Abraham will hang on in faith, hope and trust.  As the saying goes “God will come through in the end: if God has not come through then it’s not yet the end”.  Abraham waited twenty-five years for Isaac, having stuffed up with Hagar and Ishmael, not to mention his lies to Pharaoh and the mess he made with Lot.  Yes, Abram did leave Ur and walk his whole estate across to Hebron, via Egypt, just because God asked him to.  But the heroism is not in Abram’s leaving Ur on a whim but on his staying faithful to the voice and command of God in obedience yes, but more so in establishing a strong and resilient reliance upon God based on relationship.  Anyone, really, can obey an authority figure; but who can really hang in there through turmoil and impossibility to forge a relationship with God?  Abram did, and Paul says that that is where you find the substance of Abram’s being a blessing to all people and the standard by which our spiritual, physical, and emotional prosperity is measured.

This message is echoed in our psalm today, but it took some finding.  I don’t mean to suggest that I hammed the psalm about until I got it to fit my agenda, but that I’d always been told of a different interpretation to this psalm than the one I’m going to share with you now. In Psalm 121:1 the question is asked where “help” comes from: in other words, perhaps in Abram’s words, the question is “who can I trust?”  Does our help come from the hills?  Do we rely upon Mt Zion, knowing that this is a pilgrim’s psalm for example?  The ones singing this are obeying God by going on pilgrimage from home to Jerusalem, so since each is being a good little Jew and walking religiously to the holy city on the holy mountain they assume that God shall protect each on the road.  Now, perhaps the psalmist thought that, probably the pilgrim singers did think that, but that doesn’t seem like an Abraham or a Paul idea.  And so, this other interpretation, which came from a Jewish scholar whom I very much like, is that the singers are saying that my help does not come from the mountain people’s local baals but from God alone.  Unlike the indigenous Canaanites, Jebusites and Vegemites, says the pilgrim, I don’t look to local superstition, I look to the great YHWH who made the world and called out my ancestor Abraham to build a great nation.  In this way, I am demonstrating obedience to the one I know, not because it obligates God to protect me as a pilgrim but because I am fully confident that my Father and the God of my People has got my back because I am loved.  So, my “help” does not come based on my obedience in trekking my way toward an ascent of Mt Zion but upon the gift of God’s grace which I access through faith.  The psalmist tells us that God is never drowsy but always fully attentive and alert to the task of saving the people who trust in God, but through Paul and Jesus we know that this is because it is God’s nature to be like that.  God is not obligated by our obedience or our ancestry, but because the LORD is good God’s protection always keep us safe.

But let’s not overlook that this psalm is a pilgrim’s song; and that what is expected of God is pertinent.  We are assured by the knowledge that God is faithful that we will have safety on the road.  We will not experience sunstroke.  We will have protection in all times and all places between home and worship and back home again.  No bandits, no sharp rocks, no wheels falling off our carts, and no food poisoning after our counter meal at the Megiddo pub.  When our help comes from the LORD it is the right help at the right time.

So, what are you trusting in, other than God?  I doubt that any of you are diving off into the high country to worship the local baals between Sundays, but I wonder whether you, like me, tend to short-cut the way of God by taking fate into your own hands.  We might not be worshipping less-demanding gods, we might not be having intimate relations with our wife or husband’s slave to hasten along a promise of children, but if you’re anything like me you’ve thought or acted according to the idea that God needs help and a hurry along.  Instead, let us be followers of Abram in the way that God intended; let’s be pilgrims on the road who walk the road right to the end, and then trust God for provision once we have arrived.  Unlike Abram at his outset we already know the one who calls us beyond, we know and have learned to trust God.

During this time of Lent as we look toward, at, and then beyond the events of Easter let’s act like Jesus.  Jesus knew as soon as he turned toward Jerusalem that troubling time was ahead, but he trusted God to glorify Godself and to honour the faith of the faithful man.  Jesus’ trust and obedience cost him his relationship with creation, he died alone, abandoned, and cut off even from his Father.  But by in dying in this way Jesus was the way that the Father brought hope into the world of Genesis 11, and began to rebuilt the relationships between all created beings.  The death of Jesus carried such deep significance, no wonder it was so difficult for him to accomplish.

So, let’s just do it.  Let’s listen, obey, trust, and follow.

Amen.

Equality

This is my minister’s message as presented to the people of The Lakes Parish (Uniting Church) in their March 2017 newsletter

Shalom ye Gippslanders of God.

Equality is one of those words which has become loaded with all sorts of meanings in our post-modern world.  In contrast to the selfless character of Jesus it seems that grasping for sameness in position, authority, value, and income is a necessary and desirable activity.  Today (March 5th) we read of Eve and Adam seeking equality with God, and thereby breaking the sacred trust between God and humankind.  As the pinnacle of Creation man and woman were made to be stewards of creation and co-workers with God, however our desire for more than what had been provided breaks the whole system.

 With that in mind I wonder about the gaps between women and men in our day.  Not only in terms of gender inequality (women get less money and do more vacuuming), but economic inequality (the poor are getting sicker), social inequality (the loud ones rule the world), and spiritual inequality (dogma trumps love) is our world fallen.  Our need for Jesus is not limited to restoring what Eve and Adam destroyed in the garden, but extends to the need for grace in what every woman and man has done since in the city, the wilderness, and the home.

 In God’s perfection equality is not something to be demanded or snatched (Philippians 2:6, Genesis 3:5), but something to be revealed as people in community act with the fruit of the Spirit in their interactions with each other.  So, in this season of Lent I urge you in the Spirit to defer to one another in love; to acknowledge the worth of the person with whom you are speaking, rather than insisting that they acknowledge your value back to you.  If Christians act as if the people around us are only a little lower than the angels in value perhaps no one will feel the need for aggression about their perceived inequality.

 Damien.