|Minister's Sermon - 15th March 2020|
|Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen|
|Chandler’s Ford Methodist Church|
Sunday 15th March 10.30am 2020
Every now and then, I recall a conversation I had with my nieces, when Ellie was 4 and Nia 6. They wanted to know what my job was. Their mother said I was a minister like Revd Baines. Nia replied immediately, “but all he does, is talk!” Words. John’s Gospel - my favourite Gospel - begins like this. “In the beginning was the Word…” A few years ago, I heard a new translation of its beginning. Rather than translating the Greek word “logos” as word, Clive Scott uses “conversation,” following Erasmus in the 17th century. Scott says we don’t need choose one over the other, but should hear both, in parallel. So, here’s the translation we’re familiar with. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” And now the other. “It all arose out of a conversation, conversation within God. In fact, the conversation was God. So, God started the discussion, and everything came out of this, and nothing happened without consultation.” (1) Preachers are expected to be able to communicate the Word (with a big W) in words (with a little w). But what about our capacity for conversation? And since today’s readings are about conversations, between ordinary people and God, what about us all? If God is the conversation and communicating God, is part of what it means to be a Christian, what is the quality of our conversations like?
Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer (2) say that conversations take place on four levels. Each with a progressively better quality. The first isn’t really a conversation. It’s what happens when someone is trying to sell us something, or tell us something, and the only possible response is to do, or not to do, what they say. This is what’s happening in relation to coronavirus. We’re being told to follow guidance. The second level is an exchange of views. This is what’s happening in the Exodus story. The Israelites want water. They tell Moses, who tells God, and God provides them water. At the end of the reading, we hear that they called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites “quarrelled.” Quarrelling may not be, very constructive, but it reveals that there is a relationship. The third level of conversation is a dialogue. Two or more people share in a conversation in which they begin to see things and themselves through the eyes of each other. There is reflection and learning. And through it people begin to a bigger picture. This is what the Samaritan woman made possible when she invites her neighbours to come and meet Jesus. The fourth level of conversation is happening when people’s mind-set is changed. As conversation partners talk, they move from focusing on their own needs to seeking each other’s well-being, and the well-being of the wider community. This is what was happening in Jesus’ conversation with the woman he met at the well. And I want to spend the rest of this sermon, looking at what that looks like, and what is can lead to.
The encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman begins with vulnerability, and the most important vulnerability is not hers, but his. At first sight, it seems that as a Jewish male, Jesus has a clear advantage. Whereas she was an outcast in her community – that’s the implication of the phrase “it was about noon” – since no one chooses to collect water in the heat of the day. And because Samaritans and Jews were ancient enemies who did “not share things in common.” She was at a disadvantage. Yet, Jesus is a thirsty foreigner who doesn’t have a bucket to draw water, and has to ask someone to help. He’s the most vulnerable in this situation. And his vulnerability opens up the possibility of real, truthful conversation. For really honest, truthful conversations can only start from a place of reciprocal vulnerability, where each person, risks being seen and known by the other. Given that this conversation ended, with people believing Jesus was the Saviour of the world, this might sound surprising. Because, one of the reasons many of us are afraid of evangelism, is that we don’t think we feel vulnerable. We don’t think we can talk about our faith with certainty and clarity. So, we avoid conversations that might lead in this direction, and talk about church instead. But Jesus doesn’t start this conversation with faith, belief or church. He begins by recognising his own need, a need he can’t fulfil himself, so has to make himself vulnerable to satisfy them. I suspect that the idea of going to the activities for children and young people in this church, in order to meet them, will fill some of you with dread. Having them come here and do something in a service is much easier and safer. But if we want them to really be part of us, we will need to make ourselves vulnerable, and meet them where they are. The same is going to be true for all of us over the coming months. If we’re to care for each other and for the wider community - without making ourselves vulnerable to illness - we will need to find new ways to reach out to people. Vulnerability, the vulnerability of the Word made flesh and dwelling among us, is one of God’s fundamental characteristics and it invites a similar vulnerability in us. The Samaritan woman understood this, because when Jesus’ disciples come and find him talking with the woman, she goes back into the city and speaks to the people she’s been avoiding by going to the well in the heat of the day.
The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman proceeds with questions. The woman doesn’t just do as Jesus asks, she asks him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” How indeed! He’s breaking barriers of gender, race and religion here. Why? Jesus’ answer, isn’t an answer, but the beginning of a dialogue. Her questions tell us she is curious and longs for understanding. They’re thoughtful. They’re about things that matter. And they lead Jesus to reveal to her who he really is. So, unlike Nicodemus in last week’s reading, who seems to run out of questions as the dialogue progresses, this woman engages Jesus in a deep theological conversation. And the best conversations, are where a curious, thoughtful questioner, who asks questions out of their vulnerability, receive responses that reveal a reciprocal vulnerability. If that sounds scary when it comes to talking about our faith, it might help to remember, that we’re not Jesus and we don’t have to have all the answers! If someone asks about our faith, they’ve just made themselves vulnerable, and we should respond in kind. That means we can say, “I don’t know,” “I have doubts too,” and “I’m not sure whether the church has that right,” if that’s what we think. Questions, answered honestly strengthen relationships, and allow people to come back to ask more. Statements, especially those that we think are right, or to which we can only respond “yes” or no,” close conversations down. Children and young people are full of questions, and the educational culture they’ve grown up - unlike some previous generations - encourages them to ask them, and to explore them through activity and conversation. Worship like ours, that is relatively static, doesn’t suit their way of learning or worshipping. And it may not suit those who want to explore their questions either! It doesn’t surprise me that when the woman goes back to the city and invites her neighbours to meet Jesus, she didn’t say, “I have found the Messiah!” She asked a question. “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” This is different from the first evangelist in John’s Gospel. Andrew simply tells his brother Simon that they’d found the Messiah. But she was an outcast in the community. And I suspect they’d have found it hard to receive a from her. Yet they could respond to her openness, her honesty and her question.
Good conversations, in which there is genuine interest in the other, take time. They cannot be rushed. And they have to take time because they’ll include moments of misunderstanding and this is true of this one. This is another conversation – like his conversation with Nicodemus - in which Jesus uses words with a double meaning. But unlike him, the Samaritan woman doesn’t let these get in the way. In the first part of their conversation, the phrase “living water,” could have led her to collect her water and leave. The Greek word has two meanings, a concrete meaning - fresh, running water, spring water. The woman hears this rather than the metaphorical meaning. So, she naturally asks, “Where do you get that living water?” And even when Jesus’ answer challenges her again, she’s still thinking about how living water would make her everyday life, easier. She hasn’t yet seen his true identity. But she’s willing to receive what he’s offering and to recognise she needs him as he needed her. And it’s this that enables Jesus to challenge her further, and to raise the subject of her own life, that begins the second part of the conversation. Now just in case you think this is the moment, when his comment that she’s had five husbands and the man she’s living with isn’t her husband enables her to repent, you need to think again. There’s no repentance in this story. And that’s because the reason for her having five husbands probably has nothing to do with immorality. It’s either to do with the tradition that when a woman’s husband dies she’s given to his brother. Or that she’s a symbolic figure, representing the mixed marriages between the Samaritans, and the nations that had colonised them. And this is reflected in the way that the conversation moves on to her cultural and religious tradition. Some see her question about the true place for worship, as a ploy to evade Jesus’ comment on her life, but it can equally well be interpreted as a deepening of the conversation. A desire to hear his answer on an issue that has troubled her. The way Jesus and the woman share in conversation, it’s back and forth, it’s interweaving, reminds me another image Jesus used in John’s Gospel to describe the relationship between God, himself and his followers - the vine and the branches. And Clive Scott’s translation of John’s first chapter develops this further. “The subject of the conversation… came into the world, the world that had arisen out of his willingness to converse. He fleshed out the words but the world did not understand. He came to those who knew the language, but they did not respond. Those who did respond became a new creation (his children), they read the signs. These children were born out of sharing the creative activity of God. They heard the conversation still going on, here, now, and took part, discovering a new way of being people. To be invited to share in a conversation about the nature of life, was for them, a glorious opportunity not to be missed.” (1) I wonder what it would be like for the children and young people who are on the edge of the life of this church, if we were to meet them where they are, and engage them in conversation on their terms. Over the coming months, we’re going to find new ways keeping in touch. Maybe we can ask the generation that’s grown up with social media to help us. We may well have time to learn. Being invited to share a conversation of profound depth and seriousness, was a revelation for a woman who was shunned by everyone else. Being taken seriously, being given this gift of his time, was for her a glorious opportunity not to be missed. The fact that Jesus disagreed with some of what she said is the best proof that he was treating her with respect. (3) For when we are listened to, we can be listened into being. And into relationship with ourselves, God, and others. It’s one of the greatest gifts we can give each other.
When conversations with Jesus or about Jesus, begin with vulnerability, proceed with questions and are given time that allows a depth of exploration, we should expect to be surprised and changed. We should expect God to reveal something about God’s self that we’ve have never known before. The unnamed woman at the well is the first person to whom Jesus reveals his true identity. It is a response to her statement of faith. “I know that Messiah is coming,” she says, Jesus replies, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” The first “I am” in John’s Gospel is not to the Jewish leaders or disciples, but to her, a religious, social, political outsider. And “I am” is revealed as someone vulnerable and in need.
The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan changes them. It’s clear that the woman is changed as she leaves the well, goes into the city, and asks her neighbours whether she might have met the Messiah. This is symbolised by the detail that she “left her water jar and went into the city.” She leaves behind the past, her separated life, and her concrete understanding of what Jesus was saying. A future opens up before her, an unknown future, a future belonging to a community that transcends the boundaries of gender, religion, politics and race, and that engage in conversation with outcasts. But she wasn’t the only one to change. Jesus was also changed by their encounter. I suspect this conversation with the Samaritan woman in John’s Gospel, is similar to his encounter with the Syro-phoenician woman, in Mark and Luke’s Gospels. As a result of it, Jesus began to realize that he would not be bound by social, ethnic, or religious conventions. That God’s love and Jesus’ mission is for all.
I guess that if I were to ask, how have you been changed by a faith-filled conversation, very few of us would tell stories about the way a conversation with someone who wouldn’t call themselves a Christian changed us. And yet, in theory at least, we have the potential to have those conversations every day of our lives. So, what’s going on, and does it matter? Well, I think it does, because unless we’re vulnerable enough to be changed by a conversation, then we have no right to expect our conversation partner to be open to what we have to say. If we think we must to respond to those who ask questions, with authoritative statements, we’ve probably got it wrong. What people of all ages mostly want in conversation, is for us to reveal ourselves, to tell them what faith is like for us. And to take time, month after month, year after year, if necessary. That’s the way surprises happen. That’s the way we, and our conversation partners, are changed. It’s how the world changes as well. And that’s surely the point of it all. Conversations with these qualities, demonstrate the vulnerability, love and respect that are the characteristics of God. But they do more. They invite people to join in God’s life. Which is what evangelism is. And whether that happens within the church, or with people outside, it contributes to the opening up, the growing out, of the church community. And it enables all God’s people to be “born out of sharing the creative activity of God. To hear the conversation still going on, here, now. And in taking part, to discover a new way, of being people.” (1) Amen.
Sue Keegan von Allmen
15th March 2020
(2) Otto Schamer and Katin Kaufer Leading from the Emerging Edge 2013 p175-8
(3) Jacob Neusner, A Rabbi talks with Jesus. An Intermillennial, interfaith exchange (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 3.