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

Sunday, 15 March 2020

Sermon at Parish Mass, Lent 3 2020

Angelica Kauffman  (1741–1807), Christ and the Samaritan Woman.
Bavarian State Painting Collections, via Wikimedia Commons
Exodus 17:1-7
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

Although this is the Year of Luke, in Lent we take a bit of a tour through John’s Gospel. John is very rich, there are many levels and layers of meaning and his Gospel never exhausts further reading. But today this passage I think speaks quite directly and simply to our present situation, because there is a lot in it about isolation, and what might even be called “social distancing”.
Jesus goes to a Samaritan city. Something that is immediately startling, because, as we are told, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans”. Jews and Samaritans had shared a half kinship long before, but they had become estranged. The Samaritans worshipped on their own Holy Mountain, rather than in Jerusalem, they had their own priesthood, festivals and sacrifices. Samaritans and Jews regarded each other as foreigners and heretics.
Here, then, is the first distance and isolation. Salvation is from the Jews, says Jesus. And the Samaritans, seemingly, are outsiders to that. And yet Jesus goes to a Samaritan city and speaks to a Samaritan. He has already revealed himself as the Messiah and Saviour to the first Jewish disciples, but the message of salvation is for others, too. To Jesus, the isolation of the Samaritan people is no barrier. They must be included too.
But the person Jesus speaks to is a Samaritan woman. That too is startling. For an unaccompanied man to speak to an unaccompanied woman was very risqué. And this not just any woman, but one who comes to draw water on her own, at around noon.
That’s even more startling. Carrying water was heavy work, done at first light before it got hot. And the women of a place would usually go together to their well. But this woman is on her own, in the midday sun. She is isolated from her own community. Perhaps, in a deeply conservative and patriarchal society, the history of her marriages and relationships has led her to be shunned. What must her existence have been like, avoided, alone, doing heavy work in the worst part of the day? Cut off, probably, even from the religious life of her community, not able to gather with her neighbours for worship and prayer.
But this isolation too is no barrier for Jesus. He draws the woman into conversation that quickly leads from material things to awakening the deepest desire of her heart, her desire for God. In spite of her isolation from her community, and in spite of that community’s isolation from the stream of Jewish life, faith is living and active in her heart. Jesus awakens in her the deep desire for the living water of the Spirit. And, unlike Nicodemus, the leader in Israel whom Jesus met last week, her faith is immediate. The mood lighting of John’s Gospel reinforces this: Nicodemus came to Jesus at night; but Jesus meets the Samaritan woman in the blazing noonday sun.
To her is revealed a great truth: it is neither on Mount Gerizim nor in Jerusalem that people must worship. No place can contain God or claim a monopoly of worship. No community can fence God in and control whom he is dispensed to. God is Spirit, and true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. Anywhere. Any time. Whoever you are. Whatever your life has been. God is immediately present everywhere to anyone who turns to him in faith. No barrier, no human rules, no isolation, no social distancing, can keep God out.
The woman believes. As happens so often in the gospels, someone who has been excluded is included by Jesus, and that makes them a catalyst for change in their own community. The woman believes, and goes off and tells her neighbours. The excluded one becomes the evangelist. And barriers come tumbling down all over as the Samaritan people come out to meet the Jewish teacher who speaks to them words of eternal life. And as the Jewish teacher becomes the guest of the Samaritans, staying with them for two days.
The deepest isolation and distancing that human beings have is our hunger and thirst for God, the source of our true and eternal life. Jesus is the one who offers to all that living water for which we thirst, and which no barrier of human isolation can keep out.
At this time, we are being asked, for the sake of other people, to follow precautions of social distancing, and self-isolation if we have symptoms. But this is not a barrier to God. For a temporary period, we are being asked to conduct our lives a bit differently. It is possible that some people may not be able to come to church for a week or two. Our normal participation in sacraments and collective worship may be interrupted for a short while. But nothing can keep God out. God is Spirit, and those who worship him will do so in spirit and in truth. In the quiet of our own homes as much as in any church or great cathedral.
God in Jesus has reached out to us and overcome our deepest isolation, given us what we most deeply need, the living waters of the Spirit that enable us to call God our Father, whenever we are, wherever we are. And, as with the Samaritan woman, and so many others in the Gospels, that makes us into catalysts for change in our communities. No-one is to be excluded.
The present situation gives us practical opportunities to demonstrate the love of God that has included us, and that overcomes all barriers. Look out for your neighbours. Ask if anyone needs shopping collected or a prescription. Ring people up more often, just to have a friendly chat. Stay calm. The more people stay calm, the less panic is likely to spread. Reach out to others in whatever ways we can. Pray for them. Do observe the official advice carefully, and be patient about the inconveniences it brings, because it is about protecting others more than ourselves, particularly those who are most vulnerable, and that too is an act of love.
And when this is over, and everything returns to normal, let’s not forget the renewed attention to being good neighbours, and loving one another, that this time is bringing us. God is Spirit, and those who worship do so in spirit and truth. And in practical deeds of love. In normal times, and in abnormal, for there is nothing that can keep God out. 

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