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

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Homily at Parish Mass, Lent 3 2017

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

What do we most deeply desire? Our gospel reading this week is a story of desire, but as we read it our understanding of desire is transformed.
Jesus begins with bodily need, for water. It is midday, he is tired out by his journey, and he is sitting by a well. He needs a drink, and asks a woman who comes to the well to draw water. So far, so everyday.
But Jesus uses this situation, and his natural thirst, to explore a deeper thirst, our need for God. As he did with Nicodemus last week, he speaks of the life that is “from above”, the life of the Spirit. This is the living water Jesus gives, which becomes in those who receive it “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life”.
This is in truth our deepest need, and it is our deepest desire, though we may not know it. Our desires need to be trained and transformed, our minds opened to the life “from above”. Our bodily desires and needs may be what we are most immediately aware of, but they are not what we most deeply need. They belong to this life that passes away; they will not give us eternal life.
But this does not mean that the body and its needs are evil. One of the central truths of Christianity is that creation is good. The good things of this life are to be received with thankfulness, as gifts from God our loving creator. And they are to be used and shared generously, for God gives them generously.
But it is also true that our natural desires are disordered by sin. We tend to desire, not what we need, but what other people have got. This leads to envy, rivalry, conflict and violence, feelings often focussed on some scapegoat or outsider against whom the violence is turned. Our rivalrous desires create victims. This is the exact opposite of the generous desire of God, who gives himself without ever being diminished.
In the words of Saint Augustine, we are “turned in on ourselves”. Our desires need to be converted, turned outwards in generosity and love. If we do that, then our natural desires open to us our deepest desire, the desire for God. The thirst for the water that the body needs uncovers for us the deeper thirst for the life of the Spirit. This is the life of grace, which is not opposed to nature, but heals and perfects it.
The woman in today’s story brings up with Jesus an ancient rivalry between the Jews and the Samaritans, “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you (Jews) say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”
Her desire is for God, but that desire is trapped in a rivalrous understanding. There is no answer to her argument, because the argument itself is wrong. “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem [but]… in spirit and truth.”
Her complicated relationship history, too, hints at the destructive effects of disordered desire. She has had five husbands and is now with a man who is not her husband. There is nothing in this gospel reading, by the way, to suggest that this is her fault. In a patriarchal society she is likely to be the victim of the rivalrous desires of these various men. And this has left her as something of an outcast, as she comes to fetch water on her own in the midday heat, instead of at dawn with the other women of the town.
Jesus cuts through all that tangled history, and all the social conventions about not associating with Samaritans and not speaking to women. Jesus leads her to her deepest desire, the living water gushing up to eternal life.
Discovering our deepest desire for God reorders and converts our lesser desires, and changes our priorities. The desire for God leads us to the living source, the spring of water gushing up to eternal life. This is deeper than the desires of this passing life. It is not contained in outward forms of worship. The mountain where we worship God is not enough for us: it is God himself who alone can satisfy our need, in spirit and in truth.
In Lent we are thinking about the question, “what do we need to flourish as a church?” Today we think about our deepest desire, our desire for God, and how that desire is satisfied for us as a church. What for us unseals the living water? What refreshes and renews us spiritually?
As a church of the Catholic tradition in the Church of England we have a particular style and approach to our worship. The Sacraments are central to our worship, though that of course does not exclude Bible reading, prayer, meditation and service to others. What aspects of our life as a church help us in our quest for God? What other resources might help us from elsewhere, from other traditions, or perhaps even from outside the church altogether?
And we need to think too of what might get in the way, and of when attachment to outward forms might become an obstacle. We share our building with Grace Church, whose evangelical tradition is very different from ours. We are reflecting on what helps us to flourish as part of the wider question of what it might means for our two churches to flourish more fully together.
We need then to be aware of the kind of rivalry and polarisation that the Samaritan woman imagines about her own tradition – should we worship God on this mountain or in Jerusalem? The reply of Jesus speaks to us, too. Neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem: we are to seek the Father in spirit and in truth. Outward forms and traditions are meant to lead us to God, but if we become attached to them they will stop us reaching our goal.
So in twos and threes, please, could you talk for about five minutes about the questions on the news sheet:
         What practices, devotions and kinds of worship quench your spiritual thirst? What, for you, helps to satisfy your need for God? They may be things we do in this church or from somewhere else, or from outside the church altogether.

•         How could we build on these things at St Peter’s, or use them if they are not already part of our life?

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