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Sermon 19.3.2017 – Lord Carey

Article posted on 20 March 2017 Leave a Comment

‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the messiah, can he?’

Those words were those of the woman, Jesus met by Jacob’s well. It was a dramatic meeting. Incidentally, this is the longest recorded conversation anyone ever had with Jesus. It is longer than any recorded conversation with any of his disciples.
We actually know a lot about her even though we are not told her name. We know that she was a lonely and despised person. She was lonely because she came alone to the well and not at the usual time when the other women came and used the opportunity to chat to other women. She was despised because she seemed to be a loose woman. ‘Fancy having five husband and now she is living with and has not bothered to marry him’. That would even cause a ripple of gossip even now, let alone in moralistic Jewish society of the 1st century. I think we can surmise other things: she was open to God and keen to talk to this strange male Jew; she was very intelligent and very articulate. But, unbeknown to her, long before it had a name, she was asking a question at the heart of a science we call ‘Hermeneutics’. Now, you may blink at that. Herman- what? Is this a German professor with an interest in Newts and other Amphibians? Herman Newt-ics? I joke.

Hermeneutics is the science of meanings and interpretation, and it stems from one very interesting question: How do we know when we read an ancient text what it actually means? How do we know that what that woman said two thousand years ago is what we understand today? So when she said to her people: ‘Could this be the messiah?’ is it what we mean by the messiah?
Now, at this point a lady might step forward, shove all of us men aside and say: ‘Guys. Let me take over. I am a woman and I can empathize with this long dead lady because you men have been bossing us long enough. We woman share so much so I know what she was going through’.
Well, I half agree but not totally, because not even a woman can enter into the experience of a woman who lived so long ago and whose life experience was totally different from ours today. Remember, this was a time of no social benefits, no hand-outs, no insurance. It was a time when women could not work freely, so she was dependent upon a husband or a large family. So her five husbands probably indicated that her first husband died, she was taken in by a relative, then he died – so she went from pillar to post. And Jesus did not sit in judgement on her but listened too her. By the way, this passage reveals an exciting and incredible ring of truth. Time and again in the gospels we find Jesus caring for women and in their company. And in John’s gospel this is particularly true.

So, if it is difficult for our horizon to meet with hers, how can we be sure that we have anything in common with this mysterious lady from the past?
I will tell you how we can, because we have all the same needs, longings, hopes and dreams. So when she said so wistfully: ‘Can this be the Christ?’ We don’t have to bother about what type of Messiah she was talking about but focus on ‘what is it to be human in our desire for fulfillment.

So, how do our two horizons meet? The Old Testament and the gospel readings tell us how, because both talk about ‘living water’. Indeed,, Jesus says, beautifully, ‘The water that I will give will become in you a spring of water welling up to eternal life’. Have you thought much about the importance of water? All the food we eat is dependent upon water. Water is dependent on nothing else or, as we say, if we want to be learned – it is not contingent on anything else, except clouds. The human Jesus could fast 40 days without food; as a human he could not go four or five days without water. See the pictures on our TV about that serious famine in East Africa now affecting millions. Without water you can’t sow seed, without water crops die. Without water people die.
But here, Jesus is talking about something far more important. He is talking about something that satisfies us spiritually. When Jesus offers her ‘living water’ I think he is being deliberately ambiguous. He could have said ‘running water’ but he says ‘living water’. He was trying to incited her curiosity implying ‘You came her for water but I have water you have never dreamed of before’.

One of the great truths to come out of this story is that God is greater than geography, race, class, sex, and religious tradition. True worship is not about where or how or even when. It’s about who you are and who God is. God wants worship that is based on truth and a wholehearted personal commitment to him. There is good news and bad news in that statement. The bad news is that religious activity doesn’t really count. Yes, going to church, being baptized, giving money, praying six times a day, following the Ten Commandments, having a Quiet Time every day, those things, as good as they are (and they are truly good things) is not really the heart of it. They are only actions- and very good ones, as such. But if what God wants is spirit and truth, any one can qualify. Salvation is not limited to the Jews. The Good News is meant for everyone. This is God’s “Equal opportunity programme”. Salvation is not about going to the right mountain. It’s about going to Jesus for salvation. And anyone can do that anywhere at any time!

So, what do we make of this story? We are not told the name of this woman but she illustrates the kind of people we are and what we would like to be. It illustrates what the great Augustine said 1600 years ago: ‘Thou hast made us for thyself and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee’.
Her story illustrates the way we find meanings beyond ordinary things- hermeneutics – and the way we are changed by being in the presence of Jesus.
We are halfway through Lent. There is still time to go to one of the groups, still time to spend a little more time in prayer and reflection, and, of course, it is always time to reach out to the Lord and receive his gift of life.

All of us have sung John Newton’s hymn GLORIOUS THINGS OF THEE ARE SPOKEN. Verse 2 reads:

See, the streams of living waters,
springing from eternal love,
well supply thy sons and daughters
and all fear of want remove.
Who can faint while such a river
ever flows their thirst to assuage?
Grace, which like the Lord, the giver,
never fails from age to age.

George Carey

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