St Francis, Terriers - Lent 1 (19.03.2017)

Tony Dickinson

There has to be a very good reason for someone living in a hotter, drier country than our own to go and fetch water from the well in the middle of the day. Normally you would expect people to do that at the beginning of the day, before the sun is properly up. That is the time to fill your water-jar, to meet other people, and to catch up on all the gossip.

However, you might not want to do that if you suspect that most of the gossip will be about you and the complications of your love-life. In those circumstances, sneaking out to the well during siesta-time might seem like a very good idea, even if it does expose you to the heat of the day.

So it must have come as a nasty shock to find someone else there, sitting on the stone surround of the well-head: though perhaps not quite so nasty, when you realise that he is Jewish, so a stranger, not a local, and therefore very unlikely to have all your personal history at his fingertips. Also, being Jewish (and a man), he is unlikely to strike up a conversation with a Samaritan woman.

And then he asks you for a drink.

What exactly, you might wonder, is going on here? This Jew, whoever he is, doesn’t seem to have any boundaries. Doesn’t he know that Jews and Samaritans don’t share things in common? Well, clearly he does, but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care about your marital status, or lack of it, either. And how did he know that, anyway? Is he some kind of a prophet? Better test him out, perhaps; see how he responds to a question about the right place to worship.

Once again, he doesn’t care – at least, not as you would expect a Jew to care. He repeats the standard line about the Jews knowing God in a way that other peoples don’t, but he doesn’t make a big thing of it. And he doesn’t make a big thing about Jerusalem. He takes the whole question onto another level. He’s been doing that all the way through, with his talk of “living water”. What did he say? “A spring gushing up to eternal life”? What’s that about then?

“That”, as so often in John’s Gospel, is about the life-transforming encounter with Christ, about recognising and responding to God’s love revealed in him. That love is unconditional and universal. It knows us through and through. It knows our failures, our foolishness (and worse). When we encounter God’s love, truly encounter it, it reflects back to us the whole of our life, “everything [we] have ever done”, the good and the bad together, and it tells us that none of this matters by comparison with the love poured out upon us.

St Paul knew that. In his letter to the Christians of Rome he writes, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” When we unpack that statement, we begin to realise that the death of Jesus didn’t happen to change God’s mind about us, but to change our mind about God. “While we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Not “instead of us”, as some imagine, not “in our place”, but “for us”, “on our behalf”. In his new book “God with us”, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams writes about the death of Jesus as a “rescue operation.” “Its purpose” he writes “is to turn aside terror and catastrophe, pain, suffering, punishment. It breaks the chain between evil actions and evil consequences.”

Once that chain is broken, we are set free. Listen to St Paul again: “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand”. Five hundred years ago those words inspired a young Augustinian friar in Wittenberg to rethink the whole religious system in which he had been brought up. Martin Luther’s life – and the history of the Western Church – was changed when he began to realise that the key to the relationship of humankind to God does not depend on our doing things to try to please him, but on simply accepting what he has done to break that chain of which Rowan Williams wrote and living as free human beings. He wrote later: “I had lost touch with Christ the Saviour and Comforter, and made of him the jailer and hangman of my poor soul.” What sparked the reversal of this grim interpretation of Christ was the realisation that, as St Paul writes to the Romans, “If while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.”

Rowan Williams again: “[The death of Jesus] seals the alliance, the peace treaty, between God and humanity. It brings afresh into the world the reality of God’s committed relationship to this community.” It’s that unconditional, universal love again. God is committed to us, and all he asks of us in return is our commitment to him. That is what faith is. It isn’t about believing “six impossible things before breakfast”. It is about a fundamental, total trust in God, that whatever happens, no matter how disastrous in human terms, “all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” We know that because the very worst has happened. God has entered his world in Jesus of Nazareth and the powers of this world have risen up against Jesus and had him done to death in the most agonising and humiliating way. God has taken his place alongside the poor and the powerless, the despised, the outcast, the vulnerable, the people who have been pushed to the margins of life. “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”

Because of that a woman with a lurid past can bring good news to her tormentors. Because of that a scholar anguished by the awareness of his own imperfection can enable the whole Church to recognise that God’s gift of himself is all that is needed. And because of that we can go out from here in the confidence that God is with us, and that within the depths of our being there is “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life”. The man without boundaries is the incarnation of a God without boundaries. To him Father, Son and Spirit…