The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s014g11  Lent 3  27/3/2011

They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman  John 4.27

In the name of God, Life-giver, Pain-bearer and Love-maker.   (Fr Jim Cotter

Jesus engages in a theological debate with a heretic woman.   It might be noted that Jesus doesn’t have this sort of discussion with any of his disciples!   The fact that he would converse with a woman was astonishing to Jesus’ disciples, yet it was really how he consistently did his ministry.   The disciples themselves were not the theologically literate in society, and nor did Jesus try to make them so.   Jesus accepted his disciples as they were, and Jesus accepted this woman, heretic and multiply married at that.   Even the blessed virgin Mary doesn’t have this level of theological discourse with her son.

A woman, heretic, less than devout, even less than moral and an outcast - yet Jesus engages her in theological conversation in an age when women were meant to be silent - and even St Paul didn’t extricate himself from this perversion.

This woman is no fool.   When Jesus offers her living water she scoffs that she is the one with the bucket, not he.   Jesus has nothing to offer, but himself.   And the living water he offers is not something to satisfy her thirst, but something that will flow out of her, for others ..    And that gift was given, and she didn’t need a bucket either, for, like Jesus, she had nothing to offer but herself, which she does .. and the people of the town find faith that she did.

And it all stems from taking this woman seriously.

So time ago I was talking about the mission of the church where we hope people will be brought into the church by osmosis.  People will see the good things we do and want to be a part of our community.   Or else people will see the bad things that people outside the church perpetrate and seek our fellowship as a safe haven.   But Jesus points to a different way - an incarnation into society - completely removing that ‘selectively-permeable membrane’ on which osmosis depends.

Giving people dignity enables them to give other people dignity.  

Currently I have been helping a parish move from a being a local shared ministry parish to a new model of ministry.   Some years ago this parish had found that it either couldn’t afford a full time resident priest or there wasn’t one available and so four people were trained and two were ordained deacon and two more deacon and priest.   And these people have done a remarkable job.   But I reflect that the church has done this to try to maintain a clergy centred ministry.

Paul Collins has recently written a piece entitled ‘Australian Catholics facing disaster’
in ‘Eureka Street’.  It details the vast lack of vocations in the catholic priesthood, and again I reflect, like my Anglican experience, it assumes that only a return to a clergy centred ministry is authentic.

But if we look at clergy centred ministry, it has been assumed that clergy are essential at every stage of life.   Babies are not acceptable until they are baptised, marriages must be ‘in church’ (which of course is code for ‘our church’), people can’t go to heaven without ‘extreme unction’, and of course when and with whom one may be intimate is determined by this church.   And there are as many Anglicans who think like this as any others.   We just can’t do anything without the priest being there.   How is this conferring dignity on others?   Isn’t this not treating others as infantile?   Unable to make any decisions themselves, unable to come into this world or leave it without help!

It is no wonder that modern society looks at this paradigm for what it is - a load of codswallop.   The days when the parish priest was the only literate person in the village, sheriff, judge, lawyer are long gone.   Real people have expertise, indeed people have read the bible, along with other religious and spiritual tracts.   They are educated and they are able to reason and they do not need clergy to mollycoddle them.

I have often commented that I’ve had my most interesting conversations with atheists and agnostics, for these people have actually thought about the faith and why they don’t believe.  And I learn so much from internet conversations I have with people who express things differently.   Just recently someone commented that he got nervous about ignoring sin which inspired me to respond that I get more nervous ignoring evil, for it was evil the put Jesus on the cross, not sin (thanks Garth :-).   This may well find its way into my sermon for Good Friday.   It is these sorts of exchanges that move me along on my journey of discovery.   I am not the fount of all wisdom, I’m just a learner like everyone else.   And there is no one from who one cannot learn something.   And it is these sorts of conversations that sustain my enthusiasm for reading the scriptures .. again .. and thinking about them .. again ..

The church is finding herself more and more on the margins of society.   So much more is done by governments, industry and service organisations, and we ought to be grateful that this is so.   People have learned their lesson well, that each has a part to play in the ongoing welfare of society and of individuals within it.   And they do.   While we are trying to re-assert the centrality of the church into society, society knows how much the church has resisted the findings of scientific discoveries and has sought exemption from most anti-discrimination legislation.   In doing so the church has shown herself to be divisive, myopic and curmudgeonly.  

How much healthier and happier the church would be to engage in conversation with others, not to convert, but to affirm.    To engage in conversation with the heretical, the less than devout, the less than moral, even someone other than male!!!

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