On the way to Easter – Lent 3

Exodus 17.1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5.1-11
John 4.5-42

In our preparation for Easter we have been looking at the different aspects of the resurrection that are presented to us in the Scripture readings for the five Sundays of Lent. We are thinking through here what we are doing when we gather in Church and spelling out some of what is going on, on Easter Sunday morning. We want to show when we say ‘Christ is risen’ we are referring to a question, and to a promise, about our own identity.

We said that the Christian confession of God helps us to hear the question of God, ‘Where is your brother?’ The Christian faith is a real listening, to the world and to God, and it prevents us from making ourselves secure without one another.

So far we have said that the Church is the fellowship created by the love of God for us and God’s act of witness to the world. Next we have to say that the Church is the whole company of heaven, making itself felt here and now for us. This company are our servants, and together they make up the service of Christ to us. This company is also in disguise, so it is not obvious that this is what is happening.

Everything here is said to the Christian people: all this Scripture is for the Church, and only through the Church is it for the world. The Church hears and fails to hear this voice, deals with it and suffers it. The Church is given to the world so that the world can watch the Church hearing this voice, or and failing to hear it, and suffering the consequences of hearing or not hearing it. The Church is picked out just so that the world may watch and enjoy a more comfortable spectator status. This gospel makes itself tangible and palpable as this particular public community – the Church. The Church is despised because it fails to hear (though of course it is only the Church that is able to say what it is that it has failed to hear). But ultimately the Church is despised because Christ is despised. Christ has committed himself to us, to this little people, and he suffers and puts up with our contempt still.

The Church has to pray and to speak up for the world. We have to speak for them and we are here for this very purpose. The world does not always celebrate with us. They rely on us to do this for them. We pray for them. The world delegates some of its own responsibility to the Church.

The Church hears Scripture, wrestles with it and so cross-examines this Lord. It examines him to see whether he is up keeping to the promise he has made, and whether he can do better at answering the question of our identity. This week our readings come from Exodus, from Romans and from the Gospel of John again. Let us start by looking at John.

I The gospel
The gospel of John asks us question is here is what is the source, what is it the source of, and who is able to serve whom? The next question is who is doing whom a service here? Who is able to provide for whom? There are two acts of service going on – the woman at the well’s and Jesus’s. So let us start with two acts of service. There are two places from which we may source our being.

Jesus came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink.’ The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ Jesus answered her, ‘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.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well? John 4.

A well is vital. Nothing happens without it. If you can get the ground to open and water to flow all sorts of things can follow. You can sow crops, irrigate fields, build a settlement and a whole society will form out of that river. This is what Jacob managed to do and this well is still regarded as his.

Service and liturgy
Who is doing whom a service here? Who is able to provide for whom? There are two acts of service going on. Jesus asks the woman at the well the to draw water for him. She does so, and then he offers to draw water for her. She can draw water to refresh him, but he can draw water from much further down, which is much more refreshing, or refreshing over the longer term. Can he locate water from a deeper source than Jacob, she asks? Only God can open this barren earth to bring water out of it and with it the wherewithal for life.

So there are two acts of service and there two places from which we may source our being. Who can get down deeper than Jacob, or go back even beyond Jacob? Who can go back to the very beginning to source the water of life? Who can go deepest into the past to bring up the resources that will give us a future? Last week the gospel of John told us that was over our heads – ‘you must be born from above’. This week it is buried in the past, so deep that we may doubt whether anyone can recover it now. Who can descend to those depths and access that fresh relationship with God? Who is it for whom nothing is dead, nothing out of reach?

Jesus serves us
But there are two sources in another sense. There is Samaria and there is Jerusalem. Jesus agrees that only the well at Jerusalem is deep enough to take us all the way into Israel’s youth when the relationship with God was fresh.

‘Can you get this water for us?’ is the question the Samaritan woman asks Jesus. Jesus replies,

‘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.’

So there are two sources. Jesus agrees that only the well at Jerusalem is deep enough to take us all the way into Israel’s youth when the relationship with God was fresh. But the question changes again. The source will finally turn out to be neither place.

The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.

It turns out that Jesus is the source, and Jerusalem is not. The people of God will be sourced directly from God. There are two sources, then in the sense that there is a penultimate source, or even many of them, but there is also the ultimate source, who is God. Everything comes to us from Christ and is available to us in Christ.

But there is something else going on between Jesus and the woman at the well. There is a debate, a wrangling, even a teasing. Let us look more closely at this talking and talking back.

II Answering back
There is more talking back in the reading from Exodus. Israel is talking back to Moses, and to God who has brought them out of Egypt and into the desert.

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The LORD said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.’ Exodus 17.1-7

Christ is the rock from which water and life will gush. Christ is the covenant of God with man, which is the whole foundation of everything that we have been promised will follow. That rock is the covenant of God with man, which is the whole foundation of everything that we have been promised will follow. Moses wants to test the reliability of that rock. It is the only source of water, and of life and the possibility of the people of Israel getting their new start. So Moses strikes the rock. And the rock opens and water appears and a new spring has been created. The covenant holds good and so Israel survives.

Complaining and protesting
But Israel is also complaining and protesting. They are not convinced that what these very high ambitions can be made good.

But there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?’ But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’ So Moses cried out to the LORD, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’ He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the LORD, saying, ‘Is the LORD among us or not?’

The people of Israel complain to Moses. They are unconvinced by the whole project. ‘Is the LORD among us or not?’ On Israel’s behalf Moses, embarrassed, passes this complaint on to the Lord, and complains to the Lord that he has to do this. The Lord told him to put up with it. God shows us what it is like to bear us by letting us bear one another. Moses shares in the labour of God and bears Israel. Putting up with complaining, and the prognostications about the impossibility of everything.

So the Lord gets us to test the covenant. We have to ask ‘Is the LORD among us or not?’ The Lord expects us to tell him what is wrong, and what we don’t like about life. We can charge him with being unfair and we can argue that his project of life with mankind cannot possibly work. It is always easier to knock things down of course and so to prosecute. We can mount the prosecution against him. To be advocate for the defence is more difficult, because it involves saying why, despite all difficulties, things will work out. It involves a degree of faith and hope.

We may speak to God and ask him whether he is faithful, to us. We may raise prayers and petitions. Our prayers and protests quite different from resentment and victimhood. We speak up for those who either do not speak up for themselves or who only know the culture of blame and resentment, and who are content only to blame God for everything that is wrong. But we are embarked on an apprenticeship in love, and which means also in suffering. We protest, but we do so in hope, and this hope allows us to hope and to expect more from others than it so far occurs to them are embarked on an education in love. In the course of this education we pick up some the traits of Christ, and we do so in some of the disciplines that we may associate with Lent. What does the Apostle say?

‘We know that experience produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope will not disappoint us. Romans 5.1-11

Our apprenticeship in love is and through it we acquire endurance. Christians are able to slog it out. It is good for this nation to ask itself – Is the Lord among us or not? Do we want to hear about this much higher ambition that is reflected in the apprenticeship in love.

III God listens and hears
We have said that God listens and hears. God is his Word, and so is communicative and articulate; God is the conversation of the Son with the Father – in which they not only speak, but also hear one another. God communicates with us. The conversation of Father and Son has brought the world into being, and the world itself continues to be many conversations.

But God does not simply speak to the world. Having spoken, God listens and waits for it to answer. God listens. By speaking gently and patiently to it, God brings the world up to be his creature and a partner in conversation with him. He intends to the world to answer back.

He intends that the world not only hear him and really receive him – but that each human creature should really hear and receive each other human creature. God intends that we should hear one another and respond to the prayers and requests that we make of one another. We are to be listening creatures, who can hear one another and are able to respond to one another. We will learn how to hear and so we will not be deaf to one another. Anyone, no matter how humble or far away, may expect to call anyone, no matter how important, and get a hearing from them.

In our intercessions we are learning to hear the world, that is to pick up the many voices, and we are learning to represent and speak up for those who do not get any other hearing. We amplify the voices of those not heard by any one else. It is our job to make them no longer voiceless. We are to be their voices.

The Church is the event in which God hears man and God is heard by man. It is the community brought into being by this conversation. The Church is a foretaste of the life and freedom that God intends for the world as whole. The Church engages the world in conversation, to tell the world that it is loved, and addressed and heard by God. Christians listen to and intercede for the world, passing the complaints and requests they hear on to God, bringing to the attention of rulers to the situation of their people. With patience God will overcome our resistance to one another, enable us to hear one another and come into a clearer conversation.

God who is intrinsically vocal, makes his people vocal and communicative, and the Church is this vocal people, charged with speaking up and interceding for the rest of the world.

IV The public service of the Church
First we said that there one service or liturgy is the liturgy of God. God is love, a fellowship or society of persons. God is a public, the true and real public, who brings into being and sustains all publics. Society is truly established in God. These persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one: society is established in God. In him is all plurality and community. On the one hand there is the liturgy of God. This liturgy spells itself out in the Church and it contains the whole world. The other is the liturgy of the world.

Our public political discourse is all about freeing us from the past, and starting again. Our rulers have got stuck in one trope – there is always a shortage of ideas in politics. They want to free us from the past. They don’t want our society to be supplied from the old source but from new sources.

But the past is not the problem, in fact it may even be the place to look for the solutions. After all it this country’s past has provided it with civil society, the rule of law, the welfare state, a free market, and prosperity and stability. Nonetheless, our public political discourse is all about freeing us from the past, and starting again from a new and tighter legislative basis that will close every loophole so that we are made entirely safe from the possibility of doing one another any harm. But freedom is the freedom also to do one another harm. Society cannot be entirely managed and all possibility of anything going wrong made impossible by legislation. If nothing we do makes any difference to anyone else what we have arrived at is not society. We cannot be made safe. There is always a risk to us. We must not box our leaders in by the expectation that they can make us safe from one another or safe from ourselves. For this would mean only that nothing we did would be of any consequence – this would be the abolition of man.

V Resurrection – the well and the cup
In the gospel of John we see that the one well which is able to supply us is Christ. We are plunged into this well at our baptism. Christ is our font, our spring and our source. The water that runs from Christ waters the Church. Jerusalem and Samaria are way stations on it. Christians are dunked in it, and they are fed sip by sip from this same source, given to them in the form of the eucharistic cup. That cup overflows to us and never runs dry.

But more than that, the water that runs from Christ waters not flows through the Church but flows out of the Church again into all our parts of our national life. It feeds the arts and culture and other intellectual industries. The Church of course re-imports some of this from what it perceives to other sources – ‘culture’ – but they have found it slopping over the sides of font, splashing down the steps from the altar and running out to supply the whole world. Of the many things that come out of that cup that we call love we could more sociologically call ‘society’ or ‘civilisation’ or ‘culture’. These are byproducts of that living water. The society that hears the Church receives this refreshment.

The Church takes responsibility and blame
We have said that the Church has to pray and to speak up for the world. We are here for this very purpose. The world relies on us to do this. We pray for all those who do not pray for themselves, and for all for them. We pray for those who do not pray for themselves.

We take on the odium that attaches to this office. This means that the world always has someone to blame, because the Church is here for this purpose. The Church has a priestly office: we take the knocks, and we do so publicly, for our disciplining involves a public humbling. ‘We boast’, the apostle Paul says.

We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. We boast in our sufferings. We know that this experience produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5.1-11)

The Church can take this because it lives in faith and hope that there is a good reason for this humbling. The world is afraid of being hurt. But perhaps when the world sees that the Church gets hurt and yet survive, they wonder.

This cup springs to eternal life. The cup we drink is not all sweetness. Some of the bitterness comes from Christians attacking other Christians. But the generosity of God to man is much greater than the hesitancy and meanness of man to man. What is being administrated in that cup is not merely material. It is not merely the funding, the personnel or education or administrative skills or counselling. All this is necessary. But the material distribution of such material and therefore partial and temporary resources is just a small part of the whole spiritual (and therefore permanent and complete) resources of the historic Church. The Church always needs the immediate resources, but it is only the long-term (intellectual and spiritual) resources of the Church that tell us what the short-term resources are. Without the spiritual resource, we would just pass out the same resources as the world, with the result the Christian body would be indistinguishable from the world.

Christ has committed himself to us, to this little people. We have said that the Church is given to the world so that the world can watch the Church hearing and suffering this voice that we hear in Scripture and worship. This gospel makes itself tangible and palpable as this particular public community – the Church. The Church is despised because of its own slowness and reluctance to love – but ultimately the Church is despised because Christ is despised. He suffers and puts up with our contempt still.

The worship and confession of God is our business. We do not know or comprehend or control Christ or his worship. Worship of God is not just our worship of God, by Christ’s, for it is simply an expression for us of the love of the Son for the Father.

We know that we are heard, that God hears, and that we have been commanded to hear all the voices of this and every nation and to pass them on to the Lord in prayer. The Lord wants us to speak up for them, and this is what is going on the intercessions and offertory prayers of every eucharist. ‘Let us pray for the Church and the world, and let us thank God for his goodness’.

This worship and liturgy generates all our public activity. All our activity is just a particular expression of the liturgy of Christ, that is the liturgy which is Christ’s and which cannot be separated from him. Our activism is not ours, but his, and ours only in the Holy Spirit. All our outreach is the work of the Holy Spirit who hides and glorifies Christ and conceals and reveals us in it. He alone knows who we are and therefore what the end of activity is. Our activism flows out of that cup. We cannot control it. There is nothing more frightening than looking down into cup, for there is no bottom to it, and no end to the life that Christ holds out to us.