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Time to choose for God
Donald Phillipps

A reflection that Donald Phillipps shared with
congregations, February 2005


‘The woman said to him, "I know that Messiah – that is, Christ – is coming;
and when he comes he will tell us everything."’ – John 4: 25

It has taken me quite a long time to realize, or admit, that Dunedin is a very quiet place without its tertiary students – what a wonderful change comes over the town when they return.   We have good reason to complain about some things – but, on the whole, they make this small city into a big and lively and exciting place.   What a pleasant photo it was of them dressed in their white togas marching up George St the other day – though some of them were less well covered than their Roman counterparts would have been two thousand years ago.

Which gives me a starting-point for what I want to explore - the Latin word for the toga is candidus, those who stood for election to the Roman Senate wore a white toga, and that is where our word candidate came from.   But the same Latin root gave us a word for straightforward honesty – ‘candour’.   It is ironical that from one source come two words which have developed along such divergent lines.   Political candidacy and straightforward honesty don’t stand well together.

This is, of course, election year – in fact, it is an election year with a difference, because it commenced with an election process of appalling violence in Iraq.   A principal factor of this ordeal was that it was largely imposed on the people of that country by a foreign power bloc – as the country itself was the artificial creation of that same power bloc 80 years ago.   We too easily forget that the animosities that exist between Sunni and Shiite Moslems and the Kurdish minority were deeply ingrained when the borders of Iraq were drawn on the map of the Middle East in the 1920’s.  Western-style democracy may be trumpeted as the answer by Western political leaders, but it provides no automatic solution to such deep-seated hatred as has been uncovered.

Later this year we will undergo a short but concentrated frenzy of story-telling, crystal-ball gazing, and crass promise-making that we dignify with the title of a ‘General Election’.   No longer is our choice limited to just two or three parties – there are (may God defend New Zealand) seven or eight serious contenders for our vote, and all of them, just about, know they haven’t a hope of success unless they find a partner, or two, or three.   It surely is to be hoped that our politicians realize that we do not take seriously their posturing and their promises at election time – and, in fact, that we are skeptical most of the time about their politics.

What does the ballot paper symbolise – a genuine opportunity to choose, or simply a democratic charade which has little connection with the realities of government by bureaucracy?   So the first issue with which we have to wrestle is the nature of choice – with the too easy assumption that even you and I make, that we are free when we choose.   Are we not influenced by or our country’s history – are we free of the prejudice (at worst) or the unquestioned values (at best) we have inherited throughout our Christian pilgrimage, when we think about religious choices.   I am not, in the end, so certain that there is such a thing as ‘freedom of choice’ – nor even that there is always one right choice to be made - and I want to say why that is in the light of the Gospel of truth.

Let’s look first of all at the Exodus story, not because of the miracle of Moses finding water in the desert, but because it so well illustrates how recalcitrant, how stubborn, how conservative we human beings tend to be.  Over a long period the Jews who had moved into Egypt had been absorbed into the local population – they had almost lost their identity, and maybe because of that had fallen into a position of serfdom.   Whatever their status, life wasn’t all bad, and they had become used to it, it seems – at least they had a form of protection, and almost the certainty of food to eat and shelter over their heads.

The way the story is told suggests that it was almost too easy for Moses to motivate his people to rise up and escape en masse from their slavery – to take the enormous risk of leaving the security of life in the Nile delta.   It didn’t take long for the complaints to surface, and as soon as the going got tough some, or many, of them wanted to turn back.   The immediate crisis was the absence of water in the desert – the deeper crisis was, as Moses well knew, was that his leadership was at stake – the willingness of these people to stand by their choice of him was crumbling.   Not the first time such a thing has happened – and without being too cynical about the biblical story, I can well imagine our leaders will, later in the year, perform miracles of their own – promising new sources of nourishment to satisfy voters who need to be induced to support them.

It was a great thing that God did through Moses – but even God’s leadership was at risk – this was just the first occasion when, as Moses said in his rebuke to his people, they had put their God to the test.

The Gospel story, which only John tells, is in my judgement, of the same sort, and just briefly let me give you enough background to justify this view.

The history, as recounted in the OT, suggests that when the wandering in the wilderness was over, the newly created people of God made a total conquest of their promised land.   That this is not so is amply and tragically demonstrated by the age-old animosity that wracks present day Israel and Palestine – two countries and two peoples who both have an ancient claim to the land.   That a Jewish nation was finally established under David and Solomon cannot be doubted, but that it was a homogeneous, united population, all sharing, in particular, one common practice of religion is simply not true.

The Samaritans were a people whose religion had the same roots, but as the centuries passed their practices diverged - the orthodox Jew regarded them as heretics and schismatics whose centre of worship was not Jerusalem but Mount Gerizim, where they had built their own temple.   They were a proud people - their history was very different, because it involved a much greater influence from Assyria in the north, their whole culture had developed along different lines.   Jesus of Nazareth, maybe because he had been brought up in Nazareth, a part of Israel that was also distant from Jerusalem, had more of a fellow-feeling for Samaritans.

The parallel between our two stories is, of course, the need for water – Jesus is travelling through what the most orthodox Jew would also have called a desert-land, at least from a religious point–of–view.   No miraculous source of water is involved – the incident is simply about a Samaritan woman who puts Jesus to the test by asking how it can be that a Jew should deign to ask a Samaritan for a drink.

I omitted the other verses in today’s lectionary reading about the matter of the Samaritan woman’s four or five husbands, and her coming to the conclusion that he must be a prophet if he knew so much about her.   I did so because I see the whole point of the story in the discussion the two of them had about the nature of true religion – that God is not God because God supplies a wonderfully new sort of thirst-quenching water.   When, to put it crassly, the woman seemed to be saying that she would vote for Israel’s God because of the possibility of an improved supply of high-quality water, Jesus bluntly puts her in her place.   Worship of the true God is not about that sort of a bargain – it’s not about a relationship based on supply and demand – it’s not about satisfying the need for daily bread – it is about worship in spirit and in truth.   At that level, at the deepest level of human need, choice is not a matter of going to the highest bidder.

There is a second and deeper issue that we must consider in this connection – it has to do with belief.   When we finally take our triennial dip in the election pool are we engaged in something we actually believe in - or are we so disillusioned by the political process that we regard it as no more than a sort of civic duty?  

One of the phenomena of the past twenty or so years in particular has been the rise of aggressive nationalism – the terrorism of the present time is, in one respect, the inevitable outcome of such unthinking patriotism.   I find myself squirming when the leader of the world’s wealthiest country continually tells us how great his nation is – I see that same tendency within Aotearoa/New Zealand at the moment, and it deeply concerns me.   Does belief in one’s country require so great an emphasis on flags and anthems – is such a thing a matter of belief?   I really don’t know the answer to that – I want to be proud of my country, its different peoples, its concrete achievements (and not just in sport), its reputation for fairness, its care and concern for its environment, and so on.

I suggest there is a timely message in that story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman – for when Jesus was challenged by her to compare the different claims their religions made he as good as said that it was an irrelevancy.   There may be many different ways to worship the one God – it may not matter too much that that is so – despite the claims of fundamentalists of all faiths, the one true God is above and beyond our limited understanding.   How can there be any glimmer of hope for peace, any beginning to negotiation, if we say to the terrorist, whose actions are justified by his faith in God, that there is no God?

It’s no longer a choice between Mount Gerizim of the Samaritans and Mount Zion in Jerusalem – it is no longer a choice between Rome and Geneva or Epworth or the Destiny Church.   It’s no longer a matter of choosing between Christianity or Islam or Buddhism or another of the great world religions – I think the time has come to choose for God.   What a strange thing to say, but I suggest that Joshua’s words to his people, at the moment of their entry into the Promised Land have enormous relevance today: ‘But if you will not serve Yahweh, choose today whom you wish to serve…. As for me and my house, we will serve Yahweh."

This is the issue that is close to my heart - not the differences between various faiths, but the silent and even insidious conflict between belief and non-belief.   Non-belief is negation – it is, I suggest, a world of denial, a world that denies and does not create – a world in which the only reality is the self, and it is, thus a small and selfish world.

I believe in the God we have seen in Jesus of Nazareth, who is at the same time the God of all creation, of all people – not a God who is ours and ours alone, but the God who binds all people into one compassionate whole.


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