Lent III, 12th February 2023
When I was the curate here, i.e. the assistant, my predecessor was often running a bit late in the morning. Morning Prayer is said Monday to Saturday at 9am and those of us who were waiting for my predecessor to turn up to start the service would be waiting just a minute or two. He would walk somewhat gingerly across the platform and in to the Vicar’s stall and one of the members of the congregation would sometimes pipe up from where she was sitting, “You’re late!” and everyone would smile, the Vicar looking even more embarrassed. Morning Prayer could then begin.
After the Angelus, the first main text to be read at Morning Prayer each day is what I grew up knowing as the Venite, Psalm 94/95. It’s the Psalm we heard just a few minutes ago: “Come, ring out our joy to the Lord; hail the rock who saves us.” It’s an obvious one to start the day with and it has the important exhortation, “O that today you would listen to his voice! ‘Harden not your hearts as at Meribah, as on that day at Massah in the desert when your fathers put me to the test; when they tried me, though they saw my work.’” It’s an essential daily task to set ourselves: to listen to God and not to harden our hearts to the promptings of His Holy Spirit. Even if we’re not able to attend Morning Prayer or get the app for it on our phone it could be a psalm worth saying at the start of each day.
Most days of the year for the last 15 years I have said that psalm here in St Mary’s. I mention this because I have an announcement to make: that I’m going to be leaving our parish later this year. It’s been a tremendously painful decision to make and I do not relish the prospect at all.
Coming to this decision has been for me been a roller coaster of emotions: frustration, anger, a great sense of loss and hopelessness. Some of you here will be upset and sad and that makes it even harder for me because of the love I have for you. Through all these things we have to stay focused on Jesus, our Blessed Lord, whose fasting and victory over temptation we commemorate in these days of Lent. In three weeks’ time we will walk through our streets just as Jesus entered Jerusalem. On Maundy Thursday I will wash feet during the evening Mass, just as Jesus washed the feet of His disciples and we will together follow the command to do this in memory of Him. On Good Friday we will gather to stand at the foot of the Cross and weep. On Easter Sunday we will gather to discover an empty for the Lord is risen. Holy Week is its own roller coaster of emotions because it is a full throttle encounter with Jesus.
Our long Gospel this morning is typical of St John’s Gospel in that it is a detailed description of an encounter Jesus has with someone. There’s quite a few of them: in chapter 3, Jesus meets with Nicodemus, a secret follower of the Lord; in chapter 9 Jesus heals the man born blind and it changes his life; in chapter 11 Jesus comforts Mary and Martha as they mourn the loss of their brother, Lazarus, and the stench of death is banished as Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. These encounters with the Lord put the problems in their context and allow the kingdom of God to shine through.
And we see this no less in today’s Gospel where our Lord and the unnamed Samaritan woman have this long conversation. It’s steeped in controversy, as becomes clear as the conversation unfolds: when the disciples return they’re surprised to find the Lord speaking to a woman, presumably because of the social expectations of the day; and moreover, as they both observe, the relationship between Jews and Samaritans was strained at best. The way St John introduces the scene highlights something of the historic scandal which permeates the conversation for Jews and Samaritans shared this common heritage: Sychar, a Samaritan town, was a place where a significant moment of Jewish history (Jacob’s well). Over the centuries the arguments had grown up between these two groups, made worse by the fact that their histories were so intertwined.
In the way St John sets the scene he also though gives us hope. Yes, this is a difficult place for Jews to be but it’s not all bad: in part because it’s the sixth hour. This is the middle of the day because the daylight hours were simply divided into twelve and so the sixth hour was always the middle of the day. It would be the hottest part of the day, the part of the day at which the full strength and heat of the Lord was revealed. At this same time of day, we are told in Genesis 18, God appeared to Abraham in the form of three divine beings. Abraham offers hospitality to the Lord here at Mamre. It is, as we’ll be reminded on Good Friday, at the sixth hour of the day that Jesus is nailed to the Cross.
Now, don’t misunderstand this. I’m not saying the middle of the day is the time of the day when we will most likely encounter God over our pot noodle for lunch or while we’re trying to sleep after the night shift. But it is a reminder that when we allow ourselves to behold the great expanse of God’s love, His mercy and His power we will indeed be reminded that all will be well. St Julian or Norwich was famously comforted during times of great threat to life around her, including her own through plague: “All shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.” This is not fatalism nor blind optimism because we need to make choices that give glory to God so that His light can be recognised. But it is a recognition of the unwavering hope we are each to have, in the words of St Paul, that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” (Romans 8:38-39). We can only pray each that love-filled glory we may see that more and more.
In our first reading we’re reminded of some of the things that get in the way of perceiving that wonderful Sacred Heart of our Lord Jesus Christ. The people are dissatisfied with their lot and so they grumble because they are thirsty. They are nostalgic looking with misguided eyes at their past life as slaves in Egypt. They are verging on hysteria saying everyone is going to die. Moses fears for his life in this context: it’s so precarious because they’ve not long started this journey together, which is far from over. And so he asks the Lord for help. Notice that Moses doesn’t tell God what needs to happen. He doesn’t say, “Lord, you need to provide us with water.” He humbly describes the situation and how he’s feeling and asks for help: “How am I to deal with the people? A little more and they will stone me.” It’s a good model for our own prayer life, not presenting God with how things need to look.
So, God tells Moses to strike the rock and “water will flow from it for the people to drink.” At St Mary’s, it’s depicted in a painting on the south wall of the Nave, “They drank from the rock.” So, also our Lord centuries later, tells the Samaritan that “anyone who drinks the water that I shall give will never be thirsty again.” It points us to this refreshment which the Lord alone can give. Hence so often, as at Walsingham and indeed in Lourdes, Mary the Mother of God appears and water flows too, indicating the nourishment and forgiveness God wants to give us. Water carries this symbolism too when it is used in baptism: it is life, we need water to live; it is about cleansing and forgiveness, just as we wash in the water from the shower. As the Lord says to the prophet Isaiah, “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isaiah 55:1).
And this is our parish’s goal. It continues to be now I’ve announced my departure. It’ll be true after I’ve gone and I urge those of you who are sad today not to let the task of spreading the Good News slip once the news has sunk in. This church community’s task is to welcome people here so we and they can see Jesus, so we and they can be nourished by Jesus, so we and they need never thirst again. May God bless us all that we may prize Him above all else.