Sunday, 19 March 2017

Water, love and witness

This is the text of a sermon preached at Guildford Cathedral on Sunday 19th March: the texts were Exodus 17:1-7, Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42. The narrative about the Samaritan woman at the well is one of my favourite stories - full of intrigue and vulnerability.  Approaching it in the light of "The Woman of Lockerbie" added another dimension - particularly when set alongside Moses' leadership and Paul's vision of redemption. Water, love and witness flowed through the texts.

Water flows through today’s readings.

Water and love.

Love that reconciles.

Water that witnesses.

Witnesses to a love that heals. 

Our first reading gives us a glimpse into what that looks like in a gritty way: it’s an all too human scenario. People are tired, thirsty, irritable and quick to pick a quarrel. 

They’d been journeying by stages: a familiar routine of walking for many miles, pitching camp; some lighting fires, others seeking a water source. 

On this occasion, patience was wearing thin; the people wanted water immediately and their complaints escalate.  

Quarrelling over practicalities quickly became an expression of testing God’s faithfulness. 

As a leader, Moses cries out to the Lord with brutal honesty. 

He names the rising tensions which made him feel threatened; and in the face of his frustrations he takes responsibility - what am I to do with this people? And all this is couched in prayer.

Moses was a reluctant leader: perhaps that heightens his sense of dependance on God and on others in the fulfilment of the task entrusted to him. 

The answer to Moses’ lament is full of assurance: he’s reminded of God’s faithfulness from the flight from Egypt onwards. God will be with him - and will act through him.  

This time, he isn’t enabling escape through water, but the provision of water. And in all this he does not ‘go it alone’; he goes with the elders, with a company of wise and trusted people. 

Water flows. 

Water witnesses to God’s faithful love.

Love which heals tensions.

But the naming of place doesn’t gloss over the difficulties. 
Massah and Meribah:  Is the Lord among us or not?

That question takes us to the heart of human suffering. Last night’s performance of “The Women of Lockerbie” at Christ Church gave voice to that cry. A cry into the void created by atrocity. 

The grieving father, Bill Livingstone says: ‘If there is a God… and sometimes when I lie in bed at night I think that there isn’t… but if there is, he is absent from the world and pays no attention to the needs of men’.

This is a wilderness of a different sort: set 7 years after the Pan Am Flight 103 was brought down by a terrorist bomb, we’re drawn into the lives of those most immediately affected. 

The text encompasses the emotional, physical and physic trauma of grief; to see it enacted means taking time to hear cries of hope, despair, agony and determination. 

We wait with them for one night on a Scottish hillside when:
‘faith is hanging by a thread
ready to break
How easily faith is broken’.

Any yet water flows here too.

Those words were spoken by Olive, the leader of the laundry project; a project that sought the release of the clothes found at the crash site with a fierce patience. The washed, ironed and folded clothes and returned them to relatives whose grief filled the air. Why? 

So that they could: 
‘… give love to those who have suffered. 
So evil will not triumph’. 

Water flows in love.

Love that witnesses.

A witness that turns evil into love.

A love in which they could trust. 

Love was their answer to the ‘hate that had exploded over their town’, wreaking havoc their lives with wreckage. Water flowed into suffering. Resilience flowed from the release of emotions. Hate is turned to healing; grief to witness; darkness to light.  

Water flows. 

‘Let the washing begin…’ they say.

‘Hatred will not have the last word in Lockerbie.’

Water witnesses.

Love that reconciles. 

Water wells up.

At an ancient well, in the glare of the midday sun, we hear of living water.

Water offered, received and welling up.

John draws us into an encounter which is full of depth and intensity; vulnerability and disclosure. 

The Samaritan woman is part of a minority group. She was seen as spiritually ‘other,  politically powerless, and socially marginalised. Her identity was marked by fragmented relationships; by rejection, failure and fragile self-image. Alone, she goes to the well.

She needs water.

She longs for love.

She becomes a witness. 

‘Give me a drink’, say Jesus. He thirsts. He thirsts for God’s people to come together. He reaches out across the multiple divisions named by the woman herself. 

He asks for water.

He embodies love.

He brings reconciliation. 

We hear a conversation unfold: a relationship is created which restores trust, goodness and esteem. Perhaps as Jesus holds her gaze, shame becomes dignity. 

The Water of Life - Stephen Broadbent

Water drawn with a bucket. Thirst is quenched in practical compassion.

This is not enough: out attention shifts towards a deeper well. The wellspring of living water. Water with the power to sustain us. It’s an expression of everlasting life. It cannot be contained. Through the power of the Spirit it wells up in us. 

Jesus reveals that if we drink from the fountain of God’s love and compassion, we too become a source of love and compassion. He offers living water. He reveals himself as God with us: ‘I am he’ he says; I am the one is was and is and is to come. I am: the creator of all things, the Word made flesh, the life giving Spirit. 
The moment is disrupted by the disciples blundering in with their own preoccupations and questions. The moment breaks into a fresh movement of witness. ‘Come and see’ says the woman.

Her empty water jar is left behind because she is already living out of the deep well of living water. Her heart is full. She is desperate to share with others what she has received.

Water flows.

Love is revealed.

Witness wells up.

And what of us?

Like the people of Israel, we live with our own narratives of complaint: when projects take longer; when solutions aren’t obvious; when we lose sight of the original vision, or passion or motivation, when it feels as if disaster has struck. 

Yet like Moses, love must be expressed in personal prayer the wise leadership of a community.

Like the women of Lockerbie, we struggle with faith in suffering world: when grief makes its home with us; when the sudden disruption of death makes us howl; when hopelessness is met with kindness; when our love is wounded; when the intimate act of washing begins - of muddy kit, a soiled vest a much loved jumper. 

Yet for us too, hatred is denied the final word in creative and determined acts of trust and care.

Like the woman at the well, we experience hopes and concerns: when we feel excluded and ignored; when relationships are broken; when we get chance to explore the meaning of life and faith; when we discover our calling to love and witness. 

Yet each of us, as witnesses, become agents of reconciliation speaking joyfully of the life and forgiveness we’ve received. 

Water. Love. Witness. 

Like Paul, we are to speak of grace and faith; peace and glory. He speaks of suffering, endurance, character and hope - not to justify any form of human cruelty, hatred or violence, but to remind us that these to no have the last word. Love is the last word. Love revealed in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection; love which restores us, restores broken and sinful humanity.

Just as this sacred place is being transformed, may our lives also be transformed by the holy and healing Spirit. May we who’ve received new life in waters of baptism, witness to God restoring all things in Christ. May God bless our labours at home, amongst colleagues, in our communities.

Water flows through our readings today.

Water and love.

Reconciling love.

Loving witness.

© Julie Gittoes 2017