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Deanery Licensed Ministers: Sermons

Familiar Stories?

Sermon Preached at St John's, Fulham, 24/02/2008
Revd Sue Groom, Director of Deanery Licensed Ministers

Lent 3
Readings: Exodus 17:1-7, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42.

If you live with the biblical story long enough, you bump into scenes that seem familiar. Throughout scripture, stories appear that have much in common with earlier events – characters that act the same, or do similar things, and places that evoke a ‘we've been here before’ response. Scholars call these recurring patterns ‘type-scenes’. Given the similarities, readers come to have their expectations shaped by the recurring plots and outcomes. The encounter of a woman at a well triggers certain type-scene memories. So, what happens when such an encounter takes place? Whether in the case of Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, or Moses and Zipporah, the pattern is the same:

A man comes to a well, finds a maiden there, asks her for a drink; they talk; she runs home to tell her people what has happened; they return with her to the well and approve the man; he returns to his home and marries the maiden. And one other outcome – in every one of these well meetings the marriage radically alters the course of history for God's people.

Now we listen to John tell us a story: Jesus is returning from Jerusalem and goes through Samaria. He comes to a well – Jacob's well – near a Samaritan city and he sits there, tired out from his journey. By now, our sense of expectation is alerted and we look around for a woman... Sure enough, ‘A Samaritan woman came to draw water.’ Except, as we shall soon see, this is no maiden looking for a husband, but a worn woman simply looking for relief. And Jesus is searching not for a bride, but for ‘true worshippers’ who will ‘worship the Father in spirit and truth.’ ‘Give me a drink,’ Jesus says to the woman. In so doing, he violates some cast-in-concrete conventions – attitudes and actions that have separated Jews and Samaritans for centuries. Each community has carefully taught its children about how different they are from us, how much worse, how much in error concerning God's ways. The children of each people are carefully taught that the other is their enemy. And yet here is Jesus. Why didn't he go around Samaria like pious Jews should? What is more, even within each community, a man would not dare to initiate a conversation with a strange woman in public, unless he didn't care about his reputation at all. So Jesus transgresses all sorts of barriers and boundaries, ancient ones that have been hardened and reinforced time and again. The woman notices this right away: ‘How can you, a Jew,’ she replies, ‘ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?’ And each knows the conventional answer to her question. He can't. He shouldn't have asked her in the first place. This should have been a ‘no meeting at the well’ scene. Or a ‘they both come to the same well but totally ignore each other’ scene.

Still, in spite of the woman's not too subtle reminder of the barriers between them, Jesus does ask her for a drink, and he adds that if she knew the gift of God ‘and who is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ Here it is – the opportunity to drink of the living water that is the Lord himself, to come to those waters and to go down into their cleansing and freeing depths.

Except... the woman at the well stops before the water. She pauses right there. She backs up, slowly increasing the distance between herself and Jesus. She uses two strategies to re-establish the distance between them. First, she plays the ‘I am not worthy’ script – she responds to Jesus' directive about her husband by answering ‘I have no husband.’ Of course not, responds Jesus. ‘You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.’ Now this is, at a personal level, an incredible insight into this woman's past and present life. But at another level, it is common knowledge among the Jewish people that the Samaritans all had five husbands – the gods they brought with them when they settled there, gods that are still honoured and worshipped. And the one they have now is Imperial Rome, and nobody gets married to that Power! Occupied, maybe, but not married. Now, with that past, the woman has an excuse for backing away from the offer of living water. Clearly, she is not worthy enough to deserve it. Have you ever heard someone say they don't receive Communion because they aren't good enough? The woman at the well puts the same logic between herself and Jesus. She isn't good enough either.

Then, as if that weren’t enough reason to distance herself, the woman uses the old ‘two shrines’ argument. ‘Samaritans worship here, while you Jews worship there,’ she reminds Jesus. These ancient places of meeting with God came to have an authority and a cult of followers, and an ideology that God is really present at our shrine and not at any other. So the woman is playing competing shrines with Jesus! But he will have none of it. True worshippers are those who wherever they gather to worship, worship the Father ‘in Spirit and truth.’

Now another type scene comes to mind. Just as Moses heard the voice from the Burning Bush announce, ‘I am who I am!,’ so, Jesus tells the woman at the well about the Messiah. ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’ What is revealed to her, only John the Baptist knows so far in John's Gospel. The Baptist and this woman at the well. Or to be more precise, so far only Moses, John the Baptist, and this Samaritan woman have been privileged to hear such a Word of God.

We are not shown the precise moment of the woman's conversion. But, she stops backing away. John doesn’t give us any evidence of her actually receiving the living water – he simply reports that she leaves her water jar right there by the well and rushes into the city, witnessing to all about the source of living water. At this very moment, the disciples return from their shopping trip (they had been in the city buying provisions) and they notice the woman hurrying away. They spot her now obsolete water jar left by the well. And like so many others down the centuries, they think they know what is in that jar of hers, it’s spelled ‘s-e-x and s-i-n.’

I suspect our Lord has seen what was really in the jar she left behind. Shame, certainly, and maybe a habit of hiding her gifts and her talents. But look at her now, she’s not hiding any more, she’s using her gifts to proclaim the Gospel to everyone she meets. Her passion for the Good News of Christ and her gift of proclamation must have been compelling, for many of her townspeople left the city and came out with her, back to Jesus at the well, to receive the living water.

I wonder what resonances this story has for you... weariness... thirst... someone reaching out... crossing boundaries... an invitation to receive living water... an awareness of unworthiness... excuses... shame... an encounter with the source of living water... a desire to share Good News...

Part of my role as Director of Deanery Licensed Ministers in the Kensington Episcopal Area is to help people discern vocations, particularly to ordained ministry. The church today in this area needs both to extend its pastoral ministry and to strengthen its mission. Is God calling someone here at St John’s to minister in this deanery as a deacon or priest? Someone who has a deep thirst for the things of God? Someone who is keen to reach out across boundaries to share the love of God with people? Is there someone here who may have thought about ordination before but because of a lack of confidence, a habit of hiding gifts and talents, or because of family or work commitments, did not feel able to respond?

For Deanery Licensed Ministry we ask for a commitment of fifteen hours a week, training is given within the Kensington Area and once ordained the minister serves within their home deanery, in your case Hammersmith and Fulham.

If you can identify someone here who may be called to explore a vocation to ministry then do encourage them to speak to Father Mark. If you want to know more about Deanery Licensed Ministry then please speak to me. I’ve brought some leaflets and prayer cards with me. Thank you.

As with any sermon, various ideas come together over a period of time and it isn't always possible to retrace my steps to every source of inspiration. I will gladly acknowledge any specific sources if brought to my attention. Thank you.

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