Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Third Sunday of Lent 2017
19 March 2017 at 11:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
How is your Lent going this year? If I am anything to go by, it is not very easy to keep a really strong Lent amidst all the pressures and expectations of daily living. A Preface we have been using in the Abbey, the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer, tells us something of what the Church expects us to be doing in Lent. It is addressed to God the Father, ‘Through fasting, prayer and acts of service you bring us back to your generous heart. Through study of your holy word you open our eyes to your presence in the world and free our hands to welcome others into the radiant splendour of your love.’
We are to fast, to pray and to undertake acts of mercy. And we are to spend time studying God’s holy Word, the Bible. Christians have never been that good at studying the Bible. St John Chrysostom, the golden tongued 4th century archbishop, complained to his congregation that, if they were rich enough to own a Bible, they left it on display rather than reading it. ‘Is it not strange,’ he said, ‘that those who sit by the market can tell the names, and families, and cities of charioteers, and can give exact account of the good or bad qualities of the very horses, but that those who come here should be ignorant of the number even of the sacred Books? Keep the Bible in your hands; for in it you shall see the skill of the righteous one.’ Worldly knowledge against spiritual wisdom!
Today, the Church offers us for our edification one of the great set pieces from St John’s Gospel. So, let us attend to it.
The context is this. Jesus and his disciples are travelling north from Jerusalem in Judaea to Galilee. Unless they are to make a wide by-pass, they must pass through Samaria. We remember from the parable of the Good Samaritan that the Samaritans and the Jews have been estranged for centuries, and have grown apart, most probably ever since the invasion of the Assyrian empire in the 8th century before Christ. Modern day Sychar is Nablus on the West Bank and Jacob’s Well survives to this day and is a place of reverence for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Jesus rests by the well while his disciples have gone to look for food.
St John makes it clear that what happens next is extraordinary. Jesus asks a Samaritan woman to draw water for him. The woman herself is astonished and Jesus’ disciples are also astonished when they return and see what has happened. We must presume that the Samaritan woman draws the water and gives Jesus water to drink.
We see Jesus breaking taboos, established ritualised customs, all the time. He heals on the Sabbath when the law requires him to do no work. His disciples pluck grain on the Sabbath and are rebuked by the Pharisees, but Jesus defends them reminding them that David took the shew bread to eat that was supposed to be reserved for the priests. He drives out a demon from the daughter of a Syrophoenician woman, that is a foreigner, who has persuaded him to let crumbs fall for the dogs from the table.
None of this is incidental but central to our Lord’s programme. He re-writes the law. He breaks down barriers. He relates to women as powerfully as to men. He sees no distinction between races or ethnicities but reaches out to all. His disciples stumble through all this and find it hard. St Peter himself takes time to come round to the idea, even though St Paul has grasped it, that non-Jews, Gentiles, can follow the Way, that is be Christians, just as Jews can. The Church has found it hard even in our own day to recognise that inclusion, drawing in people of all kinds and characters, of any or every gender and ethnicity and sexuality, is godly work, a reflection of Christ our Lord: is therefore itself ‘biblical’.
But Jesus has a higher ambition for the Samaritan woman than simply drinking her water. He challenges her complacency in this everyday environment. If she had known the gift of God and who was asking her for a drink, he would have given her living water. She cannot grasp this, even when Jesus tells her that the water he would give her would be a spring gushing up to eternal life. She would like not to have to come to the well day by day and can only imagine that Jesus is offering her some way of avoiding that chore.
What do we make of this idea of living water? The prophet Jeremiah in one of his most vivid images speaks of his people deserting the Lord their God and running after other gods. He quotes the Lord saying ‘my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.’ And the prophet Isaiah uses a similar image, ‘For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring.’ We know from the sacrament of baptism, in which we are given the gift of the Spirit, how rich is the imagery of water. The priest blessing the water of baptism recalls the meaning and value of water, ‘We thank you, almighty God, for the gift of water to sustain, refresh and cleanse all life. Over water the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through water you led the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. In water your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us from the death of sin to newness of life.’ The gift of living water is as the gift of the Spirit, God in us, gushing up in us truth and life.
Next we have an insight into Jesus’ knowledge of the woman. ‘Go and call your husband.’ ‘I have no husband.’ But there is much more to this than originally meets the eye. She acknowledges Jesus as a prophet and immediately debates the question whether the Samaritan or Jewish approach to worship is the true one. So this is not really just personal. The image of a husband is used by the prophets for the relationship between God and his people. In Hosea, the Lord God says to the people, ‘On that day, says the Lord, you will call me, ‘My husband’. For I will take you for my wife for ever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy.’ In Second Isaiah, the Lord says, ‘For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.’ St John plays with the question whether the Samaritans or the Jews are husbanded by God? Surely, he says, the relationship between God and his people is restored through his beloved Son. The true worship is through Christ our Lord.
The woman speculates with her friends whether this Jesus really could be the promised Messiah and eventually comes to believe in Jesus as the Christ. Her friends are interested and quite impressed and wonder whether they might believe too. Finally they spend time with Jesus and come to know him for themselves. The woman’s testimony is now reinforced by their personal experience. They say to the woman, ‘We have heard for ourselves and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’
Throughout his Gospel, St John is fascinated by how people come to faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Saviour of the world. ‘We saw and we believed’ is a constant refrain. Finally, the risen Jesus says to doubting Thomas, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
We are those who have not seen but have come to believe. We know that the true worship of the Father is not in a particular place, neither on the mountain nor in Jerusalem, but in Christ, who draws into a covenant relationship, akin to a marriage relationship, with almighty God the husband, his bride the Church.
Above all, our Lord Jesus Christ knows us intimately and loves us. He says this morning to us, as he said to the Samaritan woman, ‘I am the Messiah, the Christ, the one who is speaking to you.’ And as he said to his disciples that he had food that they did not know about, so he gives us this morning the bread to eat, his flesh, food that will enable us to do the will of the one who sent him, God our Father.