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Living with, or beyond, our fathers faith
By Ken Russell in Sermons
Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the wellA sermon for Lent 3, March 27, 2011.
John 4: 5 - 30
I know I am not alone in this Parish in being an avid reader of Ian Harris in his fortnightly Faith & Reason column in the ODT. Ian is a serious experienced writer. Son of a Methodist parson, the late Rev G R Harris, he regularly puts the blowtorch of enquiry and reason on to his father's faith. A journalist and newspaper executive by profession he has read widely in the field of theology and biblical scholarship, and writes provocatively, challenging many of the familiar but well worn dogmas of his father's faith, and daring to reinterpret or even dispense with them to make contemporary Christianity more relevant for the modern world. But what is new about that? Sadly, a universal rule that haunts all faith communities is that there are none so defensive as those who are raised in the belief that within their particular religious house resides all the truth from the past, and all the truth for the future.
Can I give you a pretty obvious but timely example. Arising out of earthquakes in Christchurch and the tragic terrible flooding in Australia, Ian Harris has held up the well known phrase "act of God" to examination. With a certain amount of tongue in cheek he cited a recent Australian movie "the Man who Sued God", featuring a one-time lawyer, annoyed that his insurance company turned down his claim for the burning of his boat by lightning as an "act of God" - decided he should test the validity of the term by suing God's representatives - a cardinal, an archbishop, a moderator and a rabbi.
It would have made for an interesting movie, but I don't imagine the lawyer got very far with his suit. But he made his point, as did Ian Harris, that the abundance of natural disasters around the Pacific rim, from the Canterbury earthquake, to the Queensland floods, and most recently the Japanese tsunami have forced God thinkers to seriously re-examine some old assumptions.
Ian says, and I agree with him, that phrase "act of God", predicated on a theistic God controlling all natural and human affairs, has a lot to answer for, and the sooner it is sidelined, the better. For too long it has been a convenient cop-out by Christians too lazy to address the deep issues of innocent suffering.
But let's be honest, most of our fathers or grandfathers, pillars of the faith, bought into the idea of an immutable God, powerful and holy - whose thoughts were not as our thoughts, and whose ways were not as our ways - and the test of faith was to yield to that wisdom. I vividly remember a very fine funeral director in Invercargill, in one of his more serious moments, sharing with me the difficulty he had with the stern Calvinist theology he found in many clergy of the time - fine upstanding men, all of them, but how terrible he felt when these men insisted on attributing the death of a child to the will of God, and parading that faith at funerals. I knew what he was talking about.
So would it be an exaggeration to say many good, reasonable people over the years have turned away from the faith because, as they experienced it in preaching and teaching, the image they saw of this God was long on immutability but short on charity.
The father's faith ... in many Christian traditions, including our own, defined as "the faith delivered to the saints" goes on attracting great loyalty from many who embrace it - but blind loyalty, uncritical adherence, has all too often obscured emerging truth and hampered the ability of many to give contemporary expression of the gospel in their time and place. It is that blind loyalty that Ian Harris addresses so forthrightly, and I am grateful to him for it.
Last week and this week we've heard of significant encounters Jesus had with two very different people - Nicodemus the Pharisee and the unnamed woman in the Samaritan town of Sychar.
I use the word "significant" of both these stories because both are unique to John's Gospel, and having in mind both stories survived at least 60 years of oral tradition before being incorporated into the manuscript under the name of John gives some idea of how important they were to the early Church in their understanding of Jesus and the gospel.
Both stories are about the faith of the fathers. In his masterly sermon last Sunday Donald (Phillipps) put his finger on the problem Jesus had with Nicodemus ben Gurion - a pharisee known from reliable sources for his holiness and generosity. As Donald said last week, and quoting him here "however holy and however generous, Nicodemus was a pillar of the traditional faith."
Jesus refers to God with terms of familiarity and intimacy, but Nicodemus thinks it's bizarre - "you can't re-enter the womb" you hear him say - it's ridiculous ! As Donald said of Nicodemus:
"His God conformed to what had been taught unchanged for centuries" - that was what was considered its strength and its authority - "whereas the God of Jesus was making all things new."
Well, so much for Nicodemus. Today we move to the second major encounter, and I cannot believe it is anything but intentional by John that it is with a woman. Jewish men, especially rabbis, were forbidden to associate with women not a wife or a relative, and in this case it especially a no-no because she is a woman of an allegedly apostate nation of which Jews were taught to shun. It is hard for us to appreciate just how irregular, scandalous, and religiously illegal was this conversation recorded in such detail by John. It would have been outrageous to the likes of Nicodemus that some 60 years later this encounter with a Samaritan woman could have been included in the record of the life of the young teacher he rather grudgingly admired.
But it did, and did you notice the difference? Both Jesus and the woman - once this unlikely conversation get under way, neither were afraid to explore territory that their respective religious conventions would have sternly forbidden, he to ask her for a drink, she to be so bold as to remind him that that he was a Jewish rabbi who normally would not, should not ask him for a drink. Yet did you notice there is instant respect between the two because they're relating as persons, conscious of difference, but ready to explore what this impromptu relationship might provide.
Jesus intrigues her with one of those "if only you knew" comments . . . "if only you knew who I really am . . . how about some special life giving water" It's a phrase almost implying superiority.
But the woman won't let him get away with that - she has no time for his Jewish prejudice, so she reminds him of the practicalities of where he is - he wants a drink, and he has no bucket - and its Jacob's well, the ancestor in faith they both revere. Can you hear what underlies what she says - "come on Rabbi, this well here, Jacobs well, it gives us a common identity. I'm not your servant just to do your bidding. We're actually cousins as far as faith goes - so don't you pretend otherwise."
The conversation goes on from there - they agree about some differences in their religious tradition, about their holy places - you get the idea that Jesus keeps on gently reminding her that he is after all an authority figure, and that Jewishness is better - even to giving her a dig about her marital status (which some might think was presumptuous of him) but the woman won't be put down. She's not interested in his supposed superiority but she has got wind of a faith of living water - not dry as dust tradition - not historic differences - but a living empowering spirit that knows not the cramping boundaries of history and tradition. She's excited about that - and why wouldn't she be . . .
John has told a remarkable story - leaving with me, anyway, the inescapable conclusion that this Jesus, (claimed in the same gospel as the light of the World) gained from that chance encounter with a Samaritan Woman a breadth of appreciation of wider religious traditions he could never have gained by staying stuck in a
Jewish synagogue, and an unnamed Samaritan woman who ran back to her village, her water jar forgotten in her excitement, to tell her friends of a conversation she's had with a remarkable rabbi who actually took her seriously as a person and a woman, and expanded her faith boundaries as never before.
I can only believe that John of the 4th Gospel intended us to see and grapple with the contrast of Nicodemus in Chap. 3 and the Samaritan woman in Chap 4. I am suggesting that intentional contrast is at the very heart, the core of the gospel, and it's the difference that Jesus continues to make as these stories are told and re-told
But let me digress again. There's a second columnist I like to read in my ODT. It's Joe Bennett, Sleeping Dogs. Joe has in common with Ian Harris that he often gets into trouble. For the most part it's because many people don't understand his quirky humour, or because he dismantles their sacred cows.
Friends, in these troublesome times when so much of what we had assumed to be safe and secure and permanent is not as safe, not as secure, and not as permanent as we thought, are we to be as stuck in our faith as it seems was Nicodemus, or are we to be released to a new fluidity, a new way of believing our fathers never thought of , as was the nameless Samaritan woman.
We have a lot to learn from Christchurch leaders who have displayed a strength of spirit, and a perception of where is the real source of strength and recovery in the midst of destruction and terrible loss. Leaders like the Cathedral's Dean Peter Beck have stood tall to articulate what today's people of faith want so desperately to offer to the people of Christchurch, our father's faith renewed and recast for these demanding anxious times.
Standing in front of the rubble, once the spire of his Cathedral, his hands beckoning to all the people who rushed to help in the Christchurch tragedy, the Dean spoke out. "God is in the midst of all of this. God is weeping with those who weep. God is alongside those who are finding the energy just to keep going. God is in the people who are reaching out and seeking to sustain one another. God is about building community, about empowering people" . . . . "at the core of my faith", he says, "is that life is stronger than death; and love is stronger than hate. I bring that sense of belief in life into situations like this, which are dire and awful and deadly."
Thank God for leadership like this - so much more authentic and relevant for the tough times so many people are living - offering a gospel from the heart of one who stood outside his own city, soon to be in ruins, and wept with compassion. Here's a God for these times of terrible loss and catastrophe - a God who weeps, who feels, who stands alongside - yes who stands in the rubble with those Christchurch businessmen, those bereaved colleagues, those broken families and simply says "I am with you."
-- Ken Russell.