“What must we leave behind?”
A sermon preached by The Very Reverend Nicholas Papadopulos
Sunday 12 March 2023, The Third Sunday of Lent 10.30am Eucharist
Exodus 17: 1-7
John 4: 5-42
“What must we leave behind?”
“Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city.”
Any journey – long or short, domestic or foreign, for business or pleasure – requires us to leave something behind. On Friday evening I made a journey to the Cathedral cloister and spent the night there as part of The Big Sleep. I left behind central heating, a comfortable bed, and the prospect of a modest lie-in on my day off in order to raise funds to help homeless people (this, by the way, is a shameless attempt to win your sympathy and – more importantly – your donations to Alabaré: please go to my Just Giving page, or see Angela Foster, who made the same journey, afterwards).
Any journey requires us to leave something behind. On an exotic holiday of a lifetime a suitcase can accommodate only so many pairs of shoes, despite the best efforts of the packers. On a perilous crossing of the English Channel a small boat can accommodate only so many passengers, despite the best efforts of the smugglers.
If any journey requires us to leave something behind is there anything remarkable about the little detail in St John’s text with which I began? “Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city.”
At first glance, not: it’s the middle of the day, a water-jar is heavy, and the woman has exciting news to share. But the text demands a second glance: for water and its sources have a massive significance for the people of first-century Palestine, both Jew and Samaritan.
Water and its sources. Some employers have lamented the Covid-induced demise of the office water-cooler moment that home-working has brought about. On one view these random interludes in the working day are unproductive opportunities for the exchange of gossip; on another, it’s at these unscheduled, unscripted, unsupervised moments that the truth about a situation emerges. And this latter view is certainly true of those ancient equivalents of the water-cooler moment that are recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures: stories of encounters that happen beside a well. The first hearers of St John’s Gospel knew this. They knew that when boy meets girl beside a well God’s truth emerges; that a meeting between a man and a woman beside a well signifies a decisive moment in the unfolding of God’s plans for humanity.
The betrothal of the patriarch Isaac to his wife Rebekah is agreed beside a well; the betrothal of Isaac’s son Jacob to his wife Rachel is agreed beside a well. At these water-cooler moments God’s promise that Abraham would be the father of countless thousands is realized: God’s truth emerges.
As we say: there must be something in the water. The clearing of a space in the primeval waters is God’s first act in creation; it is through water that God leads his people from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. It is in water, struck from the rock in the midst of the parched and unyielding desert, that God’s provision for his people is realized, as we have heard. The well is not only the stage-set for the unfolding of God’s plan: water is not only what guarantees physical survival; water is what symbolizes God’s faithfulness to Israel and Israel’s dependence on God.
“Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city.” Coming to St John’s apparently innocuous detail with that background we must be ready for a moment of monumental significance. The Samaritan woman abandons the tradition that has formed and sustained her community, because in Jesus she has found its fulfilment. She hastens back to Sychar and proclaims, “Come and see a man who has told me everything I have ever done”. She has discovered the living water; she has encountered the prophet; she has been face-to-face with one who calls himself the Messiah. There is no longer any need of a water-jar; there is no longer any need of water as her people have understood it. Any journey requires us to leave something behind. The Samaritan woman’s journey is a journey of discovery and proclamation, of new life, and fresh hope. Jesus comes to her city – the Galilean rabbi comes to the Samaritan city – and spends two days among its people, as we discover if we read on in St John’s text.
We often speak of Lent as a journey. As we approach its midpoint, what might we need to leave behind if for us too it is to be a journey of discovery and proclamation, of new life, and fresh hope?
On Friday night as the lights were turned off in the Cloister I was struck by how similar we all looked. It’s unsurprising – I was wrapped in six layers of clothing and two sleeping bags. I think most of us were, and the acreage of cardboard insulation, colourful fleece and woolly hats made it difficult to tell us one from another. It made me think. How easy it is to see a makeshift bed in a doorway – and to reach an easy conclusion. How easy it is to see small boats – and to think of stopping them.
Others – of higher profile, greater net worth and, I don’t doubt, superior expertise – have made the point that the slogan of the week is deliberately impersonal. It is not: stop the women and the men, stop the children and the teenagers. It is not: stop Hassan and stop Ephraim; stop Nada and stop Maryam. It is not: stop the architect and the nurse; stop the bus-driver and the pharmacist. In our journey towards a settled policy on asylum what has been left behind is any sense of the identity of the boats’ occupants; their unique stories and gifts and characters.
I am not pretending that this is not difficult issue, and it is not my place to suggest how it might be better handled. But when the Samaritan woman meets Jesus he knows everything she has ever done, and when she leaves her water-jar behind a city is brought to faith. When a due sense of human identity is left behind – when all we see is boats or sleeping bags – all that happens is that our common humanity is left behind too.
What might we need to leave behind this Lent if our journey is to bear fruit, as did the Samaritan woman’s? I believe: whatever in our eyes makes our neighbours less than our neighbours.
Here is the Dean’s suggested Lenten discipline: leave your desk, leave your screen, leave your role, and get back to the water-cooler. Get back to whatever allows you to meet as neighbours, as allies, as friends, as children of God known and loved from all eternity. Then, then, his truth may emerge; then, then, his truth for you may emerge. Amen.