Sunday, March 23, 2014

nothing is hidden in the light

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

When I was in the army, serving at Ft Bragg, we used to do field exercises in the summer when the heat in North Carolina was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The medics advised us to drink gallons of water daily in the time leading up to the exercise and then about a litre of water every hour while we were out in the field. Even so, every day numerous soldiers collapsed from dehydration and heat exhaustion, especially during the middle of the day. The only sensible thing to do at that time was to sit in the shade, drink your water, and take a little nap. Anything else was madness.

And when I was in Israel I observed the same pattern of behaviour. In the middle of the day, when the sun was hottest, people stayed indoors and rested. It's noon when the story in our Gospel reading begins. Jesus, resting from his travels, sits alone by the well outside the Samaritan town of Sychar. A woman, appears, alone, carrying her water-jar to draw water. Why does she come at the time when others rest? We'll come back to that later.

Jesus asks her for a drink. Her reply is what nowadays we might term cheeky or smart: How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ Of course, we should wonder what she is doing talking to a strange man in a lonely place. Later, when the disciples come back, they are astonished at seeing them in conversation, because it is outside the social conventions of the day. This woman is certainly no shrinking violet. She and Jesus get to talking. He tells her about the living water that she can have within her, water that brings eternal life. We, unlike her, know that by that he meant himself. The woman, thinking he means ordinary water that satisfies bodily thirst, is eager for this living water and asks Jesus for it.

And at that point he says something curious. He says 'Go call your husband.' It seems an odd thing for him to say; and yet I think it is a pivotal moment in the encounter, for it is her reply that gives Jesus the opportunity to display his divine power to her; and changes the course not only of the conversation but her life. 'I have no husband,' she says. That's right, says Jesus – you've had five husbands and the man you're with now isn't your husband at all.

Now the evangelist gives us no more details about the woman's life, but he doesn't need to. His hearers – indeed all hearers up until quite recently – would have heard all they need to know that this was not only a sinful woman, she was a scandalous one. Five previous husbands and now living with a sixth – that would raise eyebrows even today … and evoke a far stronger reaction in Jesus' day. This is probably why she's at the well at the one time she could be sure the other women wouldn't be there. So having gone to the well at noon to avoid the gossip, the stares, the hostility, and accusations that her sinful life provokes, she meets a strange man … who bluntly tells her all about the life she was leading.

Her reaction to what Jesus says is very interesting, especially from our modern perspective. She had, after all, tried to conceal from him the fact that she was living with a man she wasn't married to. Does she bluster? Does she get angry? No. Her first instinct is to call him a prophet – a holy man sent by God, for he has seen into her heart and told her things about herself that he should not have known.

And I am reminded here of the parable of the publican and the Pharisee. She, like the publican, does not try to pretend that she is better than she is. She is not living as she ought to and she does not try to deny it. This is a first and necessary step toward salvation. Remember, in the parable it is the publican who goes away justified, for he has said before God: have mercy on me, a sinful man. Confronted with her sins, the woman attempts neither anger or denial. Instead, she shows humility. 'Sir,' she says, 'I see you are a prophet.' She confirms and accepts what he has to say about her; and sees what he has to say as neither accusation nor judgement but simple truth; as she later says to the people of the town - Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!'

And, of course, she has gone into the town to share the news of the Messiah with the townspeople – the same townspeople who had rejected and marginalised her. From her eagerness to bring others to Jesus we are to infer, I think, that she is well on the road to salvation herself. As Origen says, she is almost turned into an apostle. Later, these people will say to Jesus that at first they believed because of what the woman said, but now they believe because they have heard for themselves and know that he is truly the Saviour of the World – indicating that not only have they become a community of believers, but that the woman has been reintegrated into their society; something that could not have happened if she was continuing in her old way of life. 

We know that the early Church was quite strict about such matters. In Matthew 18, Jesus tells his disciples that those who offend and refuse to listen to the Church are to be treated as Gentiles or tax-collectors; that is, as being outside the Church. And in First Corinthians five, St Paul very starkly says that the immoral brother must be expelled. This was done for both the good of the sinner and the good of the Church. It is medicinal in the case of the sinner; they are to be expelled in the hope that this strong action may bring them to their senses and lead to repentance; and for the good of the Church so that all may know that this is not what Christian living is and they may not be led astray in the mistaken belief that the Church that Christ established condones such behaviour. So I think we can be sure that the woman Jesus met at the well in the heat of the noon-day sun has by the end of the story repented of her ways. And, as I have said, the pivotal moment was when Jesus confronted her with her sins and she acknowledged them. This is as it must be, because no one can repent of their sins without first admitting what those sins are. It is like one of those 12-step programmes, designed to help those with problems in their lives, all of which begin with the person accepting that they have a problem.

This season of Lent is a penitential season, a time when we strive more than ever for our own spiritual growth, and a turning from our own sins. And we cannot do that unless we, like the woman of Sychar, first acknowledge them. Over the weeks that remain of Lent I urge to reflect upon your lives, examining them in the light of the Commandments. Turn to your Bibles or your Prayer Books and read over them, slowly and carefully, not just once, or weekly, but daily – every night before you lie down to sleep. In the presence of no one but your God honestly consider how it is that you offend against them. Remember them when you next come to Church to make your confession and receive Absolution. It is in this way we deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Christ. We must not fear or hesitate to take up that cross, for in the cross, as St thomas A Kempis reminds us, is salvation, in the Cross is life … in the Cross is the perfection of holiness … therefore, take up your Cross and follow Jesus and you shall go into life everlasting.'

The woman at the well met with Christ in the bright light of the noon day sun and found that nothing in her life could be hidden from him. In the great and terrible day when we stand ourselves before the Light of the World, neither we will be able to hide anything from him. Pray now for the strength to take up your cross so that you may, like the woman, gain the water welling up within you to eternal life. Amen

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