Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Sermon at Parish Mass Lent 3 2014

Exodus 17:1-7
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

We are spending a few weeks in Lent in John’s Gospel, and this week’s story follows on from last week’s encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus, who came to him by night. These two stories form a contrasting pair, but they have the same message at heart.
Nicodemus was very much an insider, part of the Jewish establishment, respected. Nevertheless, he came to Jesus “by night”, which in John is a metaphor for unbelief. Nicodemus could not understand Jesus’ talk of needing to be born “from above”. Perhaps he thought his own natural birth into a position of security and importance in society was enough.
This week Jesus meets the woman of Samaria, by day, in fact at midday, and she and all her village come to believe. But unlike Nicodemus, this woman is an outsider. She is a Samaritan, of a different race and religion to the Jews. She is, moreover, a woman, in a patriarchal society she would not expect that any Jewish rabbi would speak to her. But she seems to be also something of an outsider to her own people, perhaps because of her complicated relationship history, having had five husbands and now being with a man who is not her husband.  Instead of going out to draw water at dawn, with the other women of the village, she goes in the heat of the day, and alone.
Her concern is water, which she is looking for in the sun-drenched heat of the day. But Jesus speaks of water which wells up to eternal life. To both the woman and Nicodemus Jesus is speaking about life which is a gift from beyond us, not earthly life but the life of the spirit, the life that God lives, eternal life.
But this is not some kind of dreamy idea for those who like that sort of thing. It is not just for those who think of themselves as ‘spiritual’. It is about our deepest human need and desire. What Jesus wants to explore is the deepest desire of human beings, what we most fundamentally need. What we most deeply need is not the water that will leave us thirsty again, but the water that wells up to eternal life.
In today’s story the Samaritan woman and her village discover what they most deeply need and desire: the life that God gives. That life is not like water that will leave us thirsting again, because it is inexhaustible. God pours himself out for us without ever being diminished.
Water, of course, is necessary for the life of the body, our biological life. But that will not last for ever; it is a life which is limited and conditioned by death. And water itself is a limited resource, when you use up what you’ve got, it’s gone. And because it’s limited it can be a cause of rivalry and conflict, as it was in the reading from Exodus. As it may be, perhaps, in the future in some parts of the world as climate change causes more deserts to appear.
So the water the body needs, in this story, stands for the desires which cannot ultimately satisfy us. Those desires which are limited and bounded by death and so are the cause of rivalry and conflict.
The death-bound nature of this kind of desire appears in other ways in this story. We’ve already noticed that the woman is to some extent excluded by the other women of her village. Some perhaps might think she has been living a loose life, with those five husbands and now with a new man. But in a patriarchal society such as this, women had little say over what happened to them. It was men who decided who women would marry and men who decided to divorce their wives when it suited them. So perhaps this woman has been the victim of the rivalrous desire of a number of different men. She is now a social outcast because of the conflict that their desire has generated.
Jesus’ perception of her history leads to the exposure of a deeper rivalry. The woman says, “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you (plural) say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”
Here is the age-old conflict between the Samaritans and the Jews cast in terms of a rivalry about God. And Jesus’ answer shows how this talk about God is really just a disguise for another desire bound up with death, a desire for something limited which cannot satisfy. God is not like that, says Jesus. God is spirit, breath. God is the life from beyond us which is without limit. All those who worship God worship in spirit and in truth. How foolish it is to be in rivalry over God. As if there might not be enough to go round.
Jesus delivers us from our rivalrous death-bound desires, the desires which can never satisfy, by giving us the life which God lives. The life which gushes up like a spring of water to eternal life. The life which is not diminished in giving itself.
Which I think is what St Paul is talking about in today’s passage from Romans where he says that we will be saved through Christ from “the wrath”.  Paul in the Greek doesn’t actually say “the wrath of God”, just “the wrath”; the words “of God” were added by the translator who for some reason thought they should be there. (The King James Bible, in this instance, gets it right.)
“Wrath” in Greek is orge. “Orgy” comes from the same word. It speaks of desire which is never satisfied, desire out of control, desire collapsing in on itself in a spiral of self-destruction. Wrath is the flip side of our death-bound desires, what those desires do to us if we are not saved from them. Our desires are fixed on what will never satisfy us, and so we experience wrath, rage, frustration. Because we are seeking life, true life, eternal life, where it can never be found.
But Jesus is saving us from “the wrath”. His gift is eternal life, the life God lives, which we receive as his gift because we cannot construct it for ourselves. We must allow him to liberate us from our death-bound desires so that we can be born from above and live according to God’s deathless desire, God’s desire which will satisfy us eternally because it is entirely without limit and without rivalry.
The life of the spirit is given to all who seek, because God is already present in our hearts as the ground of our being, the word of our creation. All who seek God in spirit and truth will know this spring of living water, which is at the heart of the prayer and meditation of all great spiritual traditions.
Jesus enters this story as the Messiah, the fulfilment of the spiritual desire and longing of the Jewish people. That is expected, if you read the prophets. What is not expected is that he comes as the fulfilment for the Samaritans as well – a different religion. Jesus is the universal Messiah, God coming to us in fulfilment of all human hopes and longings. In the Church this gift is received and grows in a new way through sacramental signs, the grace of baptism and the Eucharist.
Towards the end of today’s Gospel Jesus introduces another image of the life that he gives, the food that his disciples know nothing about. Jesus will enlarge on that later in John’s Gospel in his teaching about the Eucharist: Jesus himself is the bread come down from heaven; the bread that he will give is his flesh for the life of the world.
As the people of baptism we are reborn in the life-giving water that Jesus gives. As the people of the Eucharist we feed on the deathless life of God who liberates us from our death-bound desires. Through the life that God gives we too can live in self-giving love rather than rivalry, because we receive our life as a gift rather than grasping it as a possession. We too can pour ourselves out for others without fear of being diminished because we know that the true source of our life is not in ourselves but is God’s gift.
Jesus said, “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Lord Jesus, give us this water, so that we may never thirst. Amen.

No comments: