Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Third Sunday of Lent

This is the transcript of my sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent on March 15, 2020.

The Third Sunday of Lent


Exodus 17:1-7
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

Today’s Gospel is a well-known reading.  It is St John’s account of the meeting between Jesus and the woman at the well in Samaria.  During this meeting, Jesus reveals his true identity to the woman as the Messiah that she and her people have been expecting and waiting for.

There is so much in this story that it would take several sermons to unpack them all!  For today, I want to focus on three things.

1. We need to hear the truth about ourselves.

When Jesus’ disciples return from having been into the nearby town to buy food, we are told that they are shocked to find Jesus speaking with a woman!  The woman had herself been shocked when Jesus spoke to her, a Samaritan woman, and asked her for water.  Not only was it shocking that he spoke with a woman, he spoke as a Jew with a Samaritan.  This was something Jews did not do because of the hatred that existed between Jew and Samaritan.

And this was not just any Samaritan woman, but a woman with both a complicated past and a scandalous present.  She had already had 5 husbands and, to make matters even worse, the man she was now living with was not her husband, thus breaking the moral norms of her day.  The fact that she was at the well at midday might indicate that she wasn’t able to socialize because of her lifestyle.  Normally, women came to the well in the morning when it was cool, not at noon-time when it was hot.

The difference between her and Nicodemus, whose meeting with Jesus we read about in the Gospel reading last week, could not be more stark. 

In the Gospels, Jesus attracts criticism from people like Nicodemus on account of whom he associates with.  In Luke’s Gospel, we are told, for example, that the Pharisees and scribes complained that Jesus ‘welcomed sinners and ate with them’ (Luke 15:2).  Here at Samaria he welcomes one and drinks with her.

To put it quite simply: Jesus refuses to accept the barriers we create that prevent us reaching out to people with the message of the Gospel.

It is, however, important to note that Jesus breaks down the barriers of his day for a purpose.  He doesn’t do so to shock or because he enjoys offending people, although in the process he does both.  He doesn’t do so because he approves of the woman’s choices, any more than he approved of the tax-collectors for stealing from people.  He breaks down the barriers because he refuses to allow man-made conventions to restrict him from reaching out to people.  The reason, however, he reaches out in this way to people, to all people regardless who they are or what they have done, is to save them.  That, he said, was why he had come.  He came to ‘seek and to save the lost’ (Matthew 18:11).

Notice though, that he didn’t come to seek the lost and tell them they weren’t lost really, and that people had simply got them wrong or misunderstood them.  Jesus came to save them from that which had caused them to get lost in the first place.

The Pharisees’ problem wasn’t that they had got it wrong in thinking that people like the woman at the well were lost, but in thinking that such people couldn’t be saved.  The Pharisees also, and perhaps more importantly, didn’t realize that they were as lost as she was.

To save the lost, Jesus tells them the truth about their lostness in a way that shows that he is not doing so to condemn them, but to rescue and change them.

We as Jesus’ followers today need the same courage.

The courage to defy the conventions and restrictions that prevent people from hearing of the love of God and the courage to tell people the truth about themselves.  And it does take courage for many will not like us reaching out to people they disapprove of and the people we reach out to won’t always like what we have to say to them.  Nevertheless, we must tell people the truth about themselves, not because we are better than they are, but because Jesus has shown us the truth about ourselves.

Jesus, later in John’s Gospel, speaking with the Pharisees and other religious people tells them:

‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.’ (John 8:32)

They protest at the suggestion that they need setting free.  They, after all, are descendants of Abraham.  They are good Jews, members of the people of God.  Jesus responds to their protest:

‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.’ (John 8:34)

Jesus’ words about the truth setting us free are often taken to refer to the truth about God and about himself as the Son of God.  It certainly involves that, but perhaps more importantly, as Jesus makes plain, it refers to the truth about ourselves.  The truth that we are sinners who are slaves to sin and who need saving.

It is this that makes the divisions we create and maintain between people so ridiculous.  In God’s sight, we are all equal; equal, that is, in our sin and in our need of saving.

This is the truth about ourselves that we all need to hear.  Not the lie that we are wonderful and can achieve anything we want to if we set our minds to it, but the truth that we are horrible and trapped in our horribleness.  It is only when we are willing to hear this truth about ourselves that we can find the way to freedom; a way that is only to be found in Jesus himself.

John Calvin, the sixteenth century reformer, began the Institutes of the Christian Religion, his most important work, with these words:

‘Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.’

Calvin continues to explain that when we come to know God and his greatness, we cannot help but see all too clearly our weakness and sin.  And when we know our weakness and sin, we are brought to the God who can alone help and save us.  It is for this reason that those who believe in their own wonderfulness and innate goodness can never know God.

2. We need to find God for ourselves.

The woman at the well, after her encounter with Jesus, immediately leaves her water jar and abandons what she had originally come to the well to do.  She forgets what she was doing and goes to tell people in her hometown about her meeting with Jesus and how he has told her the truth about herself.  She says to them:

‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!’ (John 4:29)

Her enthusiasm for Jesus overcomes the barrier between herself and the people of the town.  This is how we are to reach out to people.  We are to invite them to come and see the one who has told us the truth about ourselves and will tell them the truth about themselves.  There is no room for judgement or a sense of superiority, just a desire to tell people the truth that will set them free; truth that, again, is to be found only in Christ.

The townspeople are obviously impressed by the impact that Jesus has had on the woman and go looking for Jesus to find out what all the fuss is about.  After spending time with him, they tell the woman:

‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’ (John 4:42)

The one, who in the past, they refused to talk to is the one who tells them about Jesus, but they still had to come to know the truth for themselves.  And now they do!  They know that Jesus truly is the Saviour of the world.

People come to Church and believe in Jesus for many reasons.  Perhaps it is something they have done since they were first brought to Church by their parents as a child.  Perhaps because they want their own children to share the benefits they see in coming to Church.  There are many more reasons besides.  And there is nothing wrong with going to Church and believing because of them, but it is not enough.

We need to go a step further: we need to hear and know for ourselves.  This, sadly, is a step that many either fail or refuse to take.  It is, however, one that we must take and must take for ourselves.  No-one can take it for us.

3. We need to take what Christ offers us seriously.

Jesus in his conversation with the woman at the well says to her:

‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ (John 4:13)

At the moment, the world is in the grip of panic caused by COVID-19.  People, quite literally, fear for their lives and for the lives of their loved ones.  Desperate measures are being taken by governments to limit the spread of the virus and to prevent people from getting infected.  It is this fear that has even led to our Church services being cancelled.

We take the threat to our lives very seriously and fear the consequences of not doing so.  And we are right to do so.  It is a pandemic the like of which most of have never experienced.

And this is exactly how we should react to hearing the truth about ourselves.  We take the threat to our physical health seriously but are indifferent and complacent about our spiritual health.

Even if we survive this threat to our lives, we will get ill again.  We will all die.  That is the most basic fact of life.  We are equal in our sin and we are equal in our mortality.  Rich and poor, all will die.  As St Paul reminds us, we all ‘brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it’ (1 Timothy 6:7).

What Jesus offers us is the water of life.  The water he gives he says will give us life eternal life.  Life that begins now, but which will last forever.  It is life that, yet again, only he can give.

If only we realized the truth about ourselves and the life that Jesus can give, we would not be so causal about our faith and so unmoved by what Jesus tells us.

It is tragic that so many refuse to take their spiritual health seriously.  It is even more tragic that we who claim to be followers of Jesus behave as if what he has given us is no big deal and that we can take it or leave it depending on how we are feeling.

St Ignatius writing at the beginning of the second century described the Eucharist that I am about to celebrate as the ‘medicine of immortality’.  How ironic, then, that today because of our fear of sickness and death, we are unable to share that which points us to him who is able to heal us and give us eternal life.

Christ gives us the water of life!  Surely it is something that we should celebrate and treasure?

Today, then, may we hear the truth about ourselves and in hearing it come to know Him who alone can give us the ‘medicine of life’ to heal us and save us.

May we, like the people of Samaria, be able to say:

‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’ (John 4:42)


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