The Word of God – Exodus 17-1-7 and St. John 4;5-15
‘Is the Lord among us or not?
Covid 19 has certainly made a global impact but we cannot see the virus nor can we accurately predict the outcome of its endeavours. It has demonstrated the limitations of medical science. We may not be living through a medieval plague but our defencelessness makes us just as vulnerable.
People are encouraged to self-isolate. Workers are being asked to work from home. Travel is prohibited and conference calling is becoming common place. Instead of affirming the value of intimacy and physical contact, we are retreating into virtual technological communities.
But despite the disruption and fear, the virus has encouraged us both to value what is being lost and to imagine what can be done anew. For not only did the Chinese manage to build a new hospital in Wuhan in less than a fortnight but they have been exploring the possibility of using robots to work in them.
An experiment has just been taking place in a new hospital in a converted sports centre. On 7 March, there were two hundred patients who had tested positive for the virus. There were no staff inside the wards. They were outside programming a series of robots to carry out basic tasks.
They were delivering food, drinks and drugs to the patients whilst also keeping the ward clean. The patients were fitted with sensors which recorded heart rates and temperature. This was all recorded on a screen outside the ward for the staff to see and monitor.
With such a virulent virus, you can see the benefits. Seemingly, the patients loved it. The boredom of being in isolation was relieved by the fascination of the robots moving around them. Some had humanoid faces which made them even more human.
Clearly, the Covid 19 Pandemic exposes our vulnerability. The fragility of our humanity is laid bare by a hidden but virulent virus. Our creatureliness contrasts with God, the Creator and puts our relationship into its proper perspective. When we get back to basics like food and water, we are creatures and not the Creator.
It brings us right back to the desert and the wilderness wanderings of the people of God. Having made their escape from a cruel Pharaoh through the Red Sea, they are now heading for the Promised Land. But it’s taking a long time and supplies in the supermarkets are running out! They have no water to drink.
It is an interesting study in leadership. For the people turn against Moses. Clearly, they have forgotten how much he did for them at great personal expense. He didn’t want to be their leader but God called. And now he cries out to God, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me?’
Whereas the faith of Moses is undisturbed by the lack of water, it is said of the people that they asked the question which many have asked since, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’ If he was, wouldn’t he provide for our need? Since he hasn’t, what more can we say, ‘There is no god!’
The incident was never forgotten. It was seen as the classic case of the people’s faithlessness. ‘Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah.’ sings the Psalmist. Sometimes, this incident is seen as the people testing God. At other times, it is seen as God testing the people. Either way, the people are in a testing situation.
And so are we. Something unexpected has happened to our world which has turned our daily lives upside down. It tests us and challenges us to rethink the way we live our lives, the trust we put in politicians and scientists, the faith we have in God . ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’ we may ask with the Israelites.
Fast forward into our New Testament text. Here we have that beautiful tale about Jesus and his encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well. Like our Old Testament text, it is all about our need for water. How many days can we survive without it? Only three!
But in our tale, it is not the people of God who long for water to drink. It is the Son of God, the Saviour of the World. ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’ we may ask with the Israelites but not for long. There he is, tired out by the journey and sitting down by the well. He is absolutely exhausted. And his weariness makes him thirsty.
‘Give me a drink.’ he asks the Samaritan woman. This happened at noon. Strangely enough, it was in the noon of the day that Jesus was handed over to be crucified! Hanging on the cross, the dying Christ makes this request. ‘I thirst!’ And so we are introduced to the humanity of Jesus.
The thirsty Christ at Jacob’s Well and the thirsty Christ hanging on the cross, embraces our humanity in all its painful poverty and shameful indignity. And so he says to the righteous in the Parable of the Sheep and the goats. ‘I was thirsty and you gave me a drink.’
His request established a true community, a true communion. He not only asks for water at the well, he offers the gift of water in return, the life-giving water which will quench our thirst forever. It is like a spring bubbling up within us, nourishing the dryness in our hearts and bringing forth a joyful spirit, a generous heart.
In answer to the people’s question, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’ we not only have the alignment of God with our humanity in the person of Jesus but we also have insights into how God can transform our humanity into something divine. For Jesus illuminates three important things in our life together.
Firstly, boundaries are broken. In the time of Jesus, Jews would not naturally walk through Samaria. On their way to Jerusalem, they would skirt its borders. The people there were different at least, they belonged to a different branch of the religion and were treated suspiciously.
Jesus pays no attention to the conventional wisdom and walks through Samaria. He not only speaks with a woman but a Samaritan woman and a Samaritan woman with a questionable reputation. The disciples are astonished when they see him in action but they say nothing.
This is the Christian attitude to borders and boundaries. By their very nature, they inhibit the life of heart and soul. They confine our thinking and don’t encourage us to make more interesting and vital connections with people. We are called to be more reflective about reaching out to others not least the strangers in our midst!
Secondly, the ministry of women is celebrated. It took the Kirk a long time to acknowledge this. However, it is now over fifty years since the ordination of women to the eldership and to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. It is almost universally acknowledged that this was one of the best gifts to the twentieth century Church.
In this tale, the woman at the well is so deeply affected by her encounter with Jesus that she has to tell others. She is so excited that she leaves her water-jar behind and goes back to the city to tell everyone about the Messiah. They in turn come to the well to meet Jesus.
The beauty of her ministry is not so much her evident calling to share the good news but that in the end her ministry is forgotten. After the people had met Jesus, they said to the Samaritan woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe …’ She, like any minister, is not important. It is Jesus.
Thirdly, the harvest doesn’t necessarily belong to us. This is the most significant insight of all and it comes at the end of the chapter. Jesus is discussing what has happened through the Samaritan woman’s ministry and says, ‘I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured and you have entered their labour.’
In other words, the good we celebrate today may not have been the fruit of our labour but of those who have gone before us. And, conversely, the lack of evident success in what we do today in the kirk may in God’s time reap a harvest which will not belong to us.
The work which matters most in our day as in any other is the work of God working through us and across our manmade boundaries and borders. And the fruit of our labour may not be seen in our own day but that doesn’t mean it will not enrich another enormously!
According to Calum Brown’s study on ‘Religion and Society in Scotland since 1707’, the decline in the Church of Scotland did not begin in the mid-fifties and accelerate throughout the permissive sixties and seventies. It began over a hundred years ago with the decline of the Sunday School Movement.
In 1891, 52% of all children in Scotland between the ages of 5 and 15 were enrolled in a Sunday School. In 1911, it was 46%. In 1931, it was 38% and in 1981, it was 13%. ‘The fall in Sunday School enrolment after 1890 was followed by the reduced growth in Church membership after 1900.’ writes Brown.
‘The Presbyterian churches lost their most valuable outreach into the community and through this failure in evangelisation of the young were left vulnerable to losses thereafter.’ He’s right, of course. The Church has neglected young people for a long time and has been diminished as a result.
Whilst this explanation of our evident decline is strangely comforting because it is the result not simply of our neglect but the neglect of the past hundred years, it remains a challenge. For one thing is sure, without children and their parents, the Kirk is dying!
And we are thrown back immediately onto the ministry of Jesus who not only identifies where God is in our troubled world but also shows us how to play our part in transforming our world into the Kingdom of God. We must reconnect not only with the young people and their families but with our parishes!
The Kirk Session has paid me to work in the parish for one day a week. They have asked me to do some pastoral visiting and to pick up on the school chaplaincy. In addition, I have been asked to reconstruct a group of parish visitors which had been a feature of congregational life in the past. I am delighted to fulfil this ministry.
It highlights the two most important things about the church – nurturing the spiritual life of young people and being compassionate towards those in need. For if you were to ask me in your bewilderment, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’ I would say that he is here where children are welcomed and those who suffer are healed.
A young man enters the vestry after the Harvest Thanksgiving and tells me that he has an inoperable tumour in his heart. I am deeply shocked. He has a young wife and family. What is he going to do?
As it happens, he is one of only two people who ever asked me to anoint them with oil. I do – on his heart. But he dies at the end of the year. Of course, I return to visit the young widow and her family.
One day, she says to me, ‘David, thank you for visiting us. It seemed to me that when you came to the house, God came too.’
She had noticed something hidden but very profound. It wasn’t the diligence of the parish minister who was only doing what he was trained to do. It was the power inherent in the office into which he had been ordained.
It has nothing to do with the one who holds the office for they are largely oblivious to the transforming power of God. And that’s good because it tempers our pride and puts a value on losing ourselves.
The young widow’s remarks have been an inspiration to me throughout the past quarter of a century especially when I doubted the efficacy of what I was called to do. You see, as the Samaritan woman found out, it’s God who is the Harvester.
We simply go out to sow. Paul counsels us to do our work whether anyone notices or not. And Jesus says that some will sow and never see the Harvest of their labour. But all in the end is Harvest for the Lord has been among us afterall!