I did not know it at the time, but this would end up being the last sermon which I would preach before the Archbishops of York and Canterbury, following the Government’s advice concerning the Coronavirus (COVID-19) and social distancing measures, would suspend all public worship in the Church of England. This was preached at Eucharistic Services in both St Andrew’s South Lopham and then St Remigius’ Roydon on the 3rd Sunday of Lent – March 15th 2020.
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Each week throughout Lent our aim is to be open to the realities which we hear depicted in our Gospel readings; mindful to resist the temptation which is so prevalent through our society of assuming a sense of reductionism and rationalism which seeks to deny the divine and supernatural by ‘explaining it away’. To that end each of our reflections is centred on a prayer which I wrote while at Theological college:
“Lord, open my eyes to more than me.The Samuel Prayer
Open my eyes to the things that be.”
Last week we heard of Nicodemus’ conversation with Jesus where he struggled with the idea of ‘being born again’. He wondered, in a grossly literal fashion, whether we would need to return to our mothers wombs in order to be born once more. It was a good example of a situation we ourselves may experience, that of hearing the words of scripture, of Jesus, and of feeling like we don’t understand God.
We have something similar happen in today’s Gospel reading with Jesus and the woman at the well.
She’s confused. Why is this Jewish man asking a samaritan woman for water? Jews don’t talk to Samaritans. Jesus then confuses her further by saying “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water”. She replies “Sir, you have no bucket and the well is deep. Where do you get living water?”
As with Nicodemus, the woman doesn’t understand what Jesus is talking about. She mistakes his speaking of spiritual realities for physical realities. I wonder how often we find ourselves feeling confused like this? If we’re honest, probably quite often. However Jesus’ encounter with the samaritan woman at the well is not a gospel story where the woman does not understand Jesus. Rather it’s a story of how well Jesus knows the woman at the well, and, in turn, how well he knows each of us.
He says to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.”
“I have no husband”, she replies.
“You are right in saying I have no husband, for you have had five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband.”
In this moment everything has shifted for the woman. A moment before she had been trying to understand this strange man, Jesus. But now she realises that she’s in the presence of a Prophet of God who knows and understands everything about her.
For us, this same realisation is where our faith can grow from being an understanding of a set of ideas which we call the Christian faith and doctrine, to becoming a relationship with God where we realise that we are known by God.
Some of you may have heard me share this story before but I think it’s worth sharing again. When I arrived at theological college I felt like everyone else around me was a better Christian. And so I decided that I would pray every night before I went to bed. I did this for several months and… nothing happened. I didn’t see a single answer to prayer and I didn’t feel any different. So I told God that I would still pray when I went to Church or chapel and so on but I’m not going to bother with praying every day because it clearly wasn’t working.
The next day after Chapel a woman called Brendall came up to me and told me she needed to talk to me. She’d dreamt about me, she said. I was rather puzzled. She told me that she’d dreamt that I was praying by my bed and that God said to her “Samuel is going to stop praying. I need you to tell him that I hear his prayers and he is not to stop praying.”
I was blown away. I hadn’t mentioned anything to anyone and yet here she was telling me that God had told her I must keep praying and that he hears my prayers.
It left me with a strong sense of being ‘seen’ by God, and although this is a story of something which happened to me I share it because I am convinced that it is true of each of us. God sees us and hears us and knows our lives and our hearts.
While growing in knowledge and understanding is a good thing, perhaps we can sometimes focus too much on what we think about God and not enough on what God thinks about each of us.
I find it interesting that it’s only after the woman realises that Jesus is a prophet – that he has a divine knowledge of her life, that Jesus admits that he is the Messiah, the Christ who is to come so that all true worshippers may worship God the Father in Spirit and in Truth.
There’s something profound here.
It’s not that we must try hard enough to understand God. It’s that God comes to us, and shows us that he knows us and, by dying for us upon the Cross, shows us that he loves us. The revelation that Jesus is God unfolds to us as we encounter him and journey with him, so that by being known by God we become children of God, set free to grow in love and holiness.
That means that for us this Lent, and in this season where we are surrounded by concerns for ourselves and our loved ones during this Covid19 Pandemic, our reflections are not to be based on saying “I don’t understand how God could let this happen”.
Instead our hearts should take a moment to slow down,
take a moment to pray :
“Lord, open my eyes to more than me, open my eyes to more than me.”
And in the quietness, and in the sacrament, we can just hear the whisper of God say: “I am here. I know you, and everything you’re going through.”