A Sermon from Sherborne

Into the depths

A sermon for Mattins at Castleton Church and Evensong at the Abbey, preached on Sunday 19 March 2017 by the Vicar, Canon Eric Woods

For me, one of the most chilling short sentences in all the Bible occurs in St Luke’s Gospel, where Luke adds a detail not found in Matthew or Mark to the incident in the High Priest’s house and courtyard, where Peter disowns Jesus three times. As the cock crows, Luke tells us that ‘The Lord turned and looked at Peter’. [Luke 22:61]

I imagine that the Lord’s look, so often gentle and full of compassion, could at times be horribly penetrating. After that act of betrayal Peter went out, so Mark tells us, and ‘wept bitterly’. And in today’s Gospel, the Samaritan woman no doubt felt her whole life and soul laid bare by that look. St John tells us that she left her water jar at the well, and went back into the city to say to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!’ [John 4:28]

The Lord sees into the very depths of our heart and our soul: yours and mine. And he knows – we cannot hide it from him – whenever we give in to our prejudices, to the temptation to be judgemental. And not least to being judgemental about people of other countries, races, genders, colours and creeds.

That is very much at the heart of today’s Gospel reading [John 4. 5-42]. Jesus and his disciples are travelling north from Judaea to Galilee. They take the shortest route – through Samaria. Many Jews would make a long diversion to avoid doing that, because there had been no love lost between Jews and Samaritans ever since some of the Jewish exiles in Babylon had returned to find that the central section of their ancient homeland had been occupied by people who claimed to be the true descendants of Abraham. They were of the same race: Samaritans claimed to be descended from the tribe of Jacob’s son Levi (one of the original twelves tribes of Israel) and from the tribes of Jacob’s grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh. Samaria covered much of what today we call the West Bank, but Samaritans are not to be confused with Palestinian Arabs. Genetically, after all these centuries, they remain much closer to Jews.

But that’s where the closeness finishes. Jews and Samaritans simply didn’t mix. They each claimed the superiority of their version of the historic religion of ancient Israel as practised before the Babylonian captivity. Then, as now, that bred suspicion which easily spilled over into hatred. So sometimes Jewish travellers were attacked if they crossed Samaritan territory, which is why Jews preferred to go to and from Jerusalem via Jericho and the Jordan valley.

But Jesus and his disciples take the shorter route and, in the heat of the day, come across a well, known as Jacob’s Well (which can be seen to this day). The disciples go off to buy food, but Jesus stays at the well. He is hot and tired, and when a woman comes along to draw water, he asks her for a drink.

To an orthodox Jew of the first century, this was an outrageous, a shocking, thing to do. In their culture, devout Jewish men did not allow themselves to be alone with a woman. If it proved unavoidable, they would discourage conversation and certainly wouldn’t start it. And this woman was a Samaritan. As we have seen, Jews avoided all contact with Samaritans. In particular they would not share eating or drinking vessels with them. And finally, some commentators suggest that only a woman known as a “bad lot” in her own community would come to draw water in the heat of the day. The women liked to gather round the well early in the morning and late in the afternoon – to draw water, of course, but also to gossip and joke. It was a social occasion. This woman comes alone, at a time when she would not expect to meet anyone who might shun her.

Most sermons on this passage focus on the ensuing conversation. There is so much there to preach about. But today I want to stay with the momentous significance of Jesus breaking those cultural and religious rules. You see, the starting point from which all of us make our judgements about what is right or wrong, good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable, is inevitably, and quite properly, where we are placed by nature and shaped by all the forces and pressures of heredity, culture, education and environment. These are the things – far more than the exercise of our intellects – which make us little liberals or little conservatives. Heredity, culture, education and environment: these are what give us our perspectives – on God, other people, and everything. Why, for example, do I have a different idea of God from my brother or sister on the other side of the world? The German monk Klaus Klostermaier puts it like this:

Theology at 120° in the shade seems, after all, different from theology at 70°F. Theology accompanied by tough chapattis and smoky tea seems different from theology with roast chicken and a glass of good wine. Now, who is really different, Theos [God] or the theologian? The theologian at 70°F in a good position presumes God to be happy and contented, well-fed and rested, without needs of any kind. The theologian at 120°F tries to imagine a God who is hungry and thirsty; who suffers and is sad, who sheds perspiration and knows despair.

Jesus was a Jew of the first century, with all the built-in attitudes, prejudices and frustrations which being a Jew of the first century included: towards women, towards Samaritans and Gentiles, towards the occupying power and its quisling agents. The wonder is not that he did not start with these sentiments but that he overcame them. And, as you re-read the passage, you will see again how the conversation develops as he looks into the woman’s soul with those piercing eyes, until she has to run into the town and announce that this wandering preacher has told her everything she ever did.

This encounter between two people of different culture, religion and gender could not be more relevant to the confusion in all these areas which today’s world is experiencing. Nature’s little liberals seem to be in a state of denial about it all, hoping that a large dose of political correctness will make all the nasty differences of race and religion, gender, colour and creed, go away. Nature’s little conservatives, on the other hand, all too often want to exploit cultural differences for their own ends – as we have seen over and over again in recent months. The lesson of this passage is not that we should deny our natural conditioning – we simply cannot help having our own perspectives and prejudices – but that we should refuse to let them become spiritually conforming. We are called to be transformed by the Spirit of Christ, not conformed to the spirit of this passing age.

We all look out on our world from the place and time where the accidents of birth have placed us. But unless we are careful, our being-in-the-world, with all the world’s priorities and values, will mould our entire mind and outlook. We all need a fresh encounter with the Spirit of Christ. Then it will be our being-in-Christ which will shape and mould our outlook, not our being-in-the-world. And from then on you will never again expect the people you meet to look, sound or think like you. And for that, thanks be to God.

The Vicar, Canon Eric Woods 19/03/2017
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne