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

s014g14   Lent 3  23/3/2014

'The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’   John 4.14

Jesus doesn’t just wish to accept a drink from this woman, this heretic, this person of dubious morality; he ordains her a minister and an apostle of the good news to the Samaritans.   And it is precisely the utter unlikelihood of this ordination that should cause us to pause.   How many other people has God ordained and put around us, most often the unlikeliest of people, people who aren't wearing white dresses, to give us some of the living water of God?    If the living water just comes out of one hose, God or one's pastor - how many others are missing out?   Why would anyone worship a 'god' such as this?   Did God send Jesus to die and to rise again just for the community of the church, and if so doesn’t this imply that God hates everyone else and condemns them to a life without an appreciation of the love of God for all, and then blames ‘christians’ for it?   Is the acceptance that people other than those who call themselves ‘christian' extend towards people regardless of their faith or lack thereof - not of God?   Or to ask the same question the other way around, is the lack of acceptance and affirmation of those who call themselves ‘christian’ towards those who do not - in the spirit of the love of Jesus, something that God demands to be counted faithful, or conducive to the well-being and peace of society as a whole?  Does a faithful literal reading of the bible demand rejection and condemnation of anyone who doesn’t call themselves ‘christian’, who holds sincere doubts, or who chooses to share intimacy with someone of their own gender?   Well, there are many who do believe this of the bible, but not I!

The ordination of this woman is done far from synagogue, temple, mosque and church!   So God is active outside of synagogue, temple, mosque and church!   It comes back to that single hose problem.   Who misses out if God is restricted to synagogue, temple, mosque and church?   And if God is restricted to the dictates of ‘christian’ theology, ‘christian’ tradition, a particular reading of scripture or theory of atonement, who misses out?   Literally millions!

And this ordination of the woman happens naturally, no ‘laying on of hands with prayer’ (1) ; she doesn’t need to be cajoled, exhorted or threatened to exercise it.  

And I suspect that it is precisely the fact that she was a woman, a heretic and a person of dubious morality that impressed her neighbours to realise that Jesus was instituting something completely new, something which included and affirmed all people.   If Jesus could ordain this woman, the lowest of the low in terms of religious status, clearly anyone could be included irrespective of gender, creed or morality.

For we need to see that Jesus ordains this woman to affirm and include her neighbours, not to follow Jesus - or to put it the other way around, we follow Jesus by affirming and including others, regardless of gender, creed or morality.

The old distinctions between Jew and Gentile, and therefore by extension, between saint and sinner, male and female, rich and poor, gay and straight are done away with.

And Jesus achieves all this by confessing his thirst and asking for a drink!   I notice that when the disciples return they have to urge him to eat, yet he dismisses their urging.   He confesses his need of sustenance to the stranger, the woman, the heretic, the person of dubious morality.   By contrast the church ‘proclaims the good news’ by only eating with the appropriately initiated; and telling others, strangers, women, heretics, and those of dubious morality how they need to measure up and become appropriately initiated before they can be fed with the bread of life and the cup of salvation.

When will the church confess her need for people beyond those who have been appropriately initiated like themselves?   When will the church realise that this is the key to the kingdom?

I observe that this conversation with the Samaritan woman comes after the miracle of the changing of the water into wine at Cana of Galilee, initiated by Jesus’ mother, with Jesus reluctantly complying.   I am lead to contrast Jesus' reluctance to ‘do a miracle’ to display his power (with his mother able to bathe in some reflected glory) and Jesus here ordaining the most unlikely of people, magnifying her.   Jesus seeks to magnify others and surely we as the church are called to do likewise.   Following the Cana miracle we hear Jesus and the representative of orthodoxy conversing, and Nicodemus being told he must be born again - to be hungry and thirsty - and so to allow others to minister to him.   Again, we are called as church to do likewise!

When we as church magnify Jesus are we, perhaps like Mary, expecting to bathe in some of Jesus’ reflected glory, by a sort of spiritual osmosis?

The Samaritan woman went to her neighbours with the testimony: ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!’   And her neighbours did!   What an unlikely reaction to such a testimony.   As a priest I suspect that some people avoid me because they fear that I have some divine ESP, so that, of course, I know all their sins.   I understand that psychiatrists have the same dilemma - people avoid them because they think the ‘shrink' knows what they are thinking!   So if I was told to come and meet someone who might know all the things I have done wrong in my life - I would run the other way!

No, something else is happening here.  The woman’s testimony is not just that Jesus has divine knowledge, but that despite knowing her background, it actually didn’t matter.   Jesus didn’t care, he still asked this woman, this heretic, this person of dubious morality for a drink, he still engaged her in conversation, he still ordained her to be a minister and an apostle of the good news!

And the testimony of the woman is not: He forgave my past indiscretions, but the question: ‘He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’  She doesn’t feel compelled to force others to believe.   She allows others to listen, to think and to make up their own minds.   This is a mark of a Messiah for all, rather than just another sectarian leader.

And Jesus accepts their invitation to stay in the Samaritan town; he accepts hospitality from more heretics!   The town was convinced, not by Jesus’ words but by his actions; by his willingness to share table fellowship with others.   I am glad to be alerted to the saying on ‘Kissing Fish”: ‘The world doesn’t want to be saved.   It wants to be loved.   (That’s how you save it)  -  Unknown’.

And I reflect that all this happened while the disciples were elsewhere!   Actually I think this whole incident wouldn’t have happened had the disciples been around.   How often do we, as disciples, get in the way of Jesus?   Clearly the disciples would have disapproved of him speaking to a woman and a heretic.   Much of the church tries to protect Jesus from gays and lesbians, unbelievers, sceptics, the list goes on and on!   But the risen Christ subverts all attempts to confine him to the tomb of synagogue, temple, mosque and church!   The ecclesiology of the Diocese of Sydney that the church is the gathered congregation alone is just a logical extreme of sectarianism actually manifest to a greater or lesser extent throughout most of the church.

I still recall after some services I took last century, across ‘the ditch’, the movers and shakers of a congregation used to engage me in conversation in the vestry so I couldn’t talk to others.   And much of the church is stuck in this paradigm, we think we are helping Jesus by engaging him in conversation about who can be admitted and who can’t, and forgiving our sins, healing our aches, keeping our kids on the straight and narrow, and blessing our lives - when the risen Christ is somewhere else, talking to a lone woman exiled from community or the comfort of synagogue, temple, mosque and church.

Much proclamation actually depends on the situation, the ambience.   As I go into one of the waiting rooms in the hospital and survey the people raeding their tablets, kindles or laptops, I wonder if any are reading the bible, the koran or the karma sutra :-)   Often I am engaged in conversation in the lift, a stairwell, a corridor or in a room when no-one else is there.   But these situations cannot be manufactured, and I have to content myself with the prayer that those who need some support get that support, and if it is not from me, then from someone else.

And a vital ingredient of ambience is the willingness to share table fellowship.   When we host or attend a dinner party, the first thing that happens is we offer a drink, and we sit down for some food.   It provides the setting for what can become quite serious communion between people, lubricated by the meal and the drink, amongst equals.   This is in stark contrast to our worship services, where the congregation is talked at, everyone has to sing from the same song book, and the food and drink are rewards for orthodoxy and perseverance.    Little or no actual communion happens between worshippers save small talk over morning tea afterwards.

Something fundamental is happening here.   The words: ‘a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ describe something which cannot be controlled, regulated or stymied.   Yet these adjectives describe the church to a ‘t’.   The traditional church deludes herself that she alone controls and dispenses the Spirit, holding endless reserves of the Spirit like Smaug hordes his treasure in the dragon’s lair.   While we retain this paradigm the church deserves to be treated as Smaug was treated, with fear; or with distain as that other Samaritan town did. (2)   The world doesn’t need another sect; the world needs the church to get out of the way of God working in the world, affirming and including all.

Clearly the risen Christ does not need the church to advance the kingdom, indeed if God were to wait for the church, God is likely to be waiting for an eternity!   And surely this story tells us that the risen Christ doesn’t need the church to actively oppose and filibuster the Spirit’s affirmation and inclusion of all.

1. Acts 6.6
2. Luke 9.51-53