Sermon given at a Service for Queen Anne’s School, Caversham
21 October 2011 at 15:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Ruth; Living water
I wonder whether you have ever really thought about Ruth. She is an amazing character, a strong and determined woman, clear and faithful. And she has a whole book of the Old Testament to herself. We heard the beginning of the story earlier in the service. It starts a little like a soap opera story, but there’s much more to it; some elements of Romeo and Juliet.
What do you think of when you hear that Ruth’s mother-in-law, Naomi, born and brought up in Israel, and her husband and two sons have moved to Moab? Perhaps not very much. But Moab is not Israel. Would it help to think of this Israeli family going to live, shall we say, somewhere like the Gaza Strip? Now it’s becoming clear. Their sons each marry a local woman, a Moabitess, a Palestinian in our modern understanding. One is called Ruth and the other Orpah. So now we have the houses divided. And then the soap opera kicks in. All three men die. So the Israeli mother is left in the Gaza strip with her Palestinian daughters-in-law and she decides to go back to her own land. She tells her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, to stay; she will go back on her own. Orpah decides to stay. But Ruth says, No. I will go with you. Wherever you go.
That’s the story we heard. What happened next? Well, Ruth’s dead husband’s cousin Boaz takes her in and marries her. That is what he should have done in Israeli custom – but he certainly didn’t have to do it, because Ruth was after all a Moabitess, a Palestinian. This is powerful and carries a real message, which reaches forward into the very person and mission of Jesus Christ. What is really important for us is that Ruth and Boaz’s son becomes the grandfather of King David. So David’s line, which leads to Jesus, includes this amazing Palestinian mother. Both the gospels of Matthew and Luke make something of this. And it makes an important statement for us to ponder about living with difference and about inclusion and about how we should respect every individual even if they are very different from us in many ways.
This is also a beautiful story, with one of the most tender and poignant moments in the whole of the Old Testament. Hear again those words of Ruth to Naomi and take them to heart.
Ruth said, Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried.
I have to say that for me the words themselves are beautiful in any translation but in the version I have just used and that we heard this afternoon there is something extra special, a sense of balance and dignity. They are words from the King James Version of the Bible, which is celebrating the 400th anniversary of its publication this year, its quatercentenary. It is particularly wonderful for us here at Westminster Abbey and for me as Dean of Westminster, because one of my most illustrious predecessors Lancelot Andrewes was in charge of the group of scholars who translated those words and they met here in the Jerusalem Chamber in the Deanery, a room adjoining the west end of the Nave of the Abbey. I hope you are already familiar with the King James Bible – and with the stories of the Bible itself. Recently Melvyn Bragg gave a lecture here at the Abbey, when he said that it is impossible to understand so much of English literature, and western music and art, without knowing the Bible – and that everyone who wishes to be well educated, whether they are a Christian or not, should know the Bible stories really well and make the connections. And they are powerful and beautiful. It makes it well worth while.
We also heard another powerful and beautiful story from the Bible this afternoon, the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. Here too there is more than meets the eye. At first sight, it might look as though Jesus is being really stereotypical and expecting this woman to do all the work. Pour me some water. But the powerful point is that Jesus is asking to drink water from the same bucket or cup as the Samaritan woman. No one in his day would ever have expected a Jewish man to drink from the same cup as a Samaritan woman. You know the account of the Good Samaritan which depends for its power and meaning on the fact that Jews and Samaritans lived apart and mistrusted each other just as much as Israelis and Palestinians do today. Jesus is breaking down the barriers of separation all the time. That is an important part of his history and his person, as we have already seen, and of his mission. And for us, who are inspired by him or seek in any way to follow him, breaking down barriers that divide people is an important part of our mission too.
But of course it isn’t easy to live like Jesus Christ. We like barriers; they make us feel secure, just as the terrible barrier wall the Israelis have erected against the Palestinians makes them feel secure. But Jesus calls us to live like him – and to become more – and do more – than we ever expect, or even feel comfortable with. But he doesn’t just make demands of us and then leave us comfortless.
Did you notice that Jesus told the Samaritan woman that if she had asked for it he would have been able to give her living water? She didn’t understand and perhaps that is difficult for us to understand as well. What could it mean – living water? Well, of course we know that we can’t live without water, for more than a very few days. We are mostly water ourselves anyway. If you weigh eleven stone, the average weight of an adult, you will probably have about 40 litres of water in you; that’s about 85 pints. It seems an awful lot. So drinking water is vital for life.
But Jesus must mean more than this. He said,
Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.
A well of water, constantly refreshing us. Something deep within us that renews our spirits; that gives us real life, not just life here on earth but everlasting life.
This spiritual refreshment is God’s great and wonderful gift to us. But we do have to ask for it. And we do really have to engage closely with God if we are to be able to receive the gift when it is offered, through his Word and Sacraments.
Thank God that your wonderful school, which I was pleased to visit last month, understands the importance of this encounter with the living God and the spiritual refreshment we need and are offered. In a way that is the most important aspect of the education that Queen Anne’s School Caversham can possibly offer you. Maths and Science and English and History and Music and Art and so on are all really important preparations – not just for exams – but for life. But the living water and spiritual refreshment Jesus offers us and the breaking down of all those barriers that people put up to protect themselves – that is far more important: a preparation for eternal life.