SERMON 19 MARCH 2017
I was reading a little book last week, written by Ann Hogan’s mother Nancy, for those of you who know Ann. It is a book of prayers and reflections. In one of these, Nancy asked her readers if we start each day with a sense of expectation and thankfulness. It is a seemingly simple thing, but it is easy not to do that. Probably we mostly just think of there being more of the same each day with some slight variations, though of course there are days when we really look forward to something and may even remember to be thankful about that. Sometimes there may be some dread about what might unfold. Normally we also probably have our own routines about what we do at the start of each day, even down to little things. Do you always put the same sock or shoe on first? Do you get dressed in the same order, get breakfast in the same way, and so on and so on? We are often creatures of habit. There was a couple with young children whose busyness made life rather pressured in the mornings. One day the wife was feeling very stressed and snarled at the children and her husband. He commented that she must have got out of bed on the wrong side that morning. Do you have that phrase in Korean? The next morning the husband got up first to have his shower. Looking at the empty space beside her the wife slid across the bed and got out on the other side. Somehow everything began to feel different. That morning was much better.
We do have the luxury of choice. Tea or coffee? Muesli or toast? Something with rice? These are things we take for granted and often cease being thankful for. It does us good to remember that many people don’t have such choice. Quite apart from those millions who are in desperate need, many people closer to home just struggle to get through the day. If you or anyone you love has ever struggled with mental health issues, you know that sometimes it seems impossible even to get out of bed in the morning. All these things are very real.
But there are also very different kind of days. Days when we just expected more of the same but a chance meeting or conversation, something we heard on TV or the radio, someone we met at the shops – it could be anything – something unexpectedly shifts things, and sometimes profoundly. I wonder if you can recall such a moment.
We have been hearing about that today: how the ordinary became extraordinary. In Exodus we heard how the people’s grumbling and their lack of trust in the future, was turned around unexpectedly. It had seemed to them that they no longer had any choice. Their lives were focussed on the simple need for water. That need consumed them and they forgot how they came to be in that place. No wonder, because they had been journeying for a long time. It seemed that nothing was going right and they had forgotten how God had provided for them. They forgot that the manna that fed them was a gift from God, a very surprising one. Now, because of their need, their faith had worn away and they thought there would only be more of the same – thirst, tiredness, hunger. They no longer trusted in God and we can understand that. The story is a dramatic illustration of how these people struggled to believe in God’s promises to them. We may well wonder if we would have been any different, indeed if we are, in our own times. Do we trust? Do we expect that God will change things? Do we even believe that God understands? Their day of anticipated struggle became a day of refreshment. It’s interesting that the place where they were dramatically given water is remembered not for that extraordinary blessing but for the people’s testing of Moses and their grumbling.
In John’s gospel we are invited to imagine a woman, waking up some 2,000 years ago to another day. She may well have dreaded having to face, as she did each day, the derisory and critical glances of the women who were her neighbours. She had known them for a long time. At first, maybe, they had been sympathetic to the loss of her husband, but after she had been through that terrible situation again, and then again, attitudes had changed. Maybe they gossiped about what kind of life she had been living to make all this happen to her. Probably they were fearful of her as bearing some evil. So she was ostracized and lonely. It seems that she had found some human comfort in a new relationship but that only heightened her isolation and underlined her reputation. So she had to avoid these other women who might once have been her friends. She couldn’t go to the well with them in the cool of the morning. She had to wait until they had got their water and then go, alone, in the heat of the day. This was her daily routine. She never expected anything different.
For Jesus, was there ever a day that was routine? Certainly his disciples never knew what to expect. They had become familiar with the daily task of getting food, of finding water or wine to drink. But they also knew that, with Jesus, life was always full of surprises – and sometimes those surprises were shocking.
On this day there was more tension around because now they were in more hostile territory, Samaria. They weren’t even sure why they were there, amongst people who were old antagonists in the life of faith, who claimed a different holy place from the Temple in Jerusalem. They didn’t really like being here.
At the bottom line of their life they knew about being tired, hungry and thirsty. That much was ordinary. They knew that Jesus got tired and often needed a break, so they left him resting by the well while they went off to get food.
And so, two lives intersect in the way God does things: a tired and thirsty man who needs water and a care-worn and lonely woman whose life was parched, dried up. It is a real God-moment; a God surprise.
John gives us an account of the conversation – the longest conversation recorded in Scripture. It seems as if they are talking at cross purposes. The woman is direct and realistic, though the thought of being given the water of life and never having to go and draw water again blows her away. Jesus is full of insight and is also direct. Here is a moment of connection for the woman that is life-changing. She had not gone looking for this, could never have dreamed of this, but it had found her, and nothing would be the same. The God of surprises!
This story asks us if we can believe how much our ordinary lives are known and understood, with love and insight, by God. And, if we believe that, might we not also believe in the unexpected and be alert to the amazing surprises that God puts before us. Maybe not always dramatically life-changing, but certainly life-enhancing. This story is also about God’s grace and underlines how so much that happens to us is pure gift. Even when, like the nameless Samaritan woman, we feel trapped in a dark place, or an inescapable situation, this story reminds us that surprises happen, things that shift the balance and bring new possibilities. Surprises are just that. We can’t anticipate them. Can this story ask us how much we are open to wonder; how much our life of faith is lived in expectation or how much we become dumbed down and dull?
The woman at the well went back home energized and prepared to surprise those around her from whom she had been withdrawn. No doubt they were shocked: shocked by her new attitude, shocked by the extraordinary claims she made about going to the well and meeting a stranger, a man who knew all about her and who could be the Messiah. Why would they not be shocked!
And the disciples too, used as they were – well, almost – to the surprises of life with Jesus, they were shocked as well by this extraordinary breach of etiquette and the long-established norms of culture and religious tradition. Jesus had been talking to a woman, alone, and a foreigner to boot! Another pillar of their foundations had been kicked away. It seemed that nothing was sacrosanct, except maybe what they discerned and were always brought back to – the over-riding love and forgiveness that Jesus displayed. It was always life-giving and it always had the power to surprise them. It still does.
Here is a more contemporary story from Iona:
At Columba’s Bay they met;
two of Iona’s countless pilgrims.
He, a pastor from Zaire;
She, a broker from Detroit.
And battered by the autumn wind and rain
They shared their stories –
rooted in contrasting realities,
yet both embedded in a strange, life-giving brokenness.
The hidden stories – of poverty and torture,
of cancer and loneliness;
interweaving stories, mirroring our global interconnectedness.
And stories of faith;
of God’s unfolding in their lives through ordinary days.
And suddenly it seemed that for a moment
on that distant shore
they glimpsed the basic truth –
we are one in Christ.