Sunday 29th March 2020

Service sheet: Fifth Sunday in Lent

Call to worship

Out of the depths, I cry to you,

O LORD.

Lord, hear my voice!

Let your ears be attentive

to the voice of my supplications!

O Israel, hope in the LORD!

For with the LORD there is steadfast love,

and with him is great power to redeem.

Psalm 130: 1, 7

God of Life, lift us out of the valley of bones.

God of Life, brings to life in all your abundance.

God of Life, breathe on me now, here in this place to worship you.

Worship song

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7PjSO5Ihl0M  – Faithful One, so unchanging (Singing the Faith 628)

Prayers

As you enter into a time of prayer, firstly focus on your breathing, on your inhale and exhale. Spent a few moments considering the breath of God within you. Consider the breath of life within you. Now spend some time thanking God for the gift of life, for the lives of those you love, for the life around you in the newness of spring. When you are ready, make this your confession:

We are in Your presence, Holy One, knowing that without you we can do nothing;

without the breath of God, we are dry bones;

without the word of God, we have stumbled and fallen;

without being part of God’s people, we have put ourselves above contradiction,

and lived as though we only had ourselves to answer to. 

We see that the world is not as it could be,

and we confess the part we have played;

things we have done which have been hurtful;

things left undone, and choices which have been unwise or worse.

We have failed to see you in our neighbour;

we have misunderstood, and we have not recognised your signs,

your work in the world through so many surprising partners;

Forgive us God; and hear us now in the silence as we make our own private prayers of confession, speaking those things which can only be offered in quietness.

(silence)

These words of Jesus are strong and true, so believe them: your sins are forgiven.

Amen. Thanks be to God.

Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-14

Reflection

Well that was weird, wasn’t it? Don’t you think that was a very odd reading from Ezekiel? Bones, scattered, being talked at, and sinews and flesh growing back – it’s not a nice image. A bit spooky if I’m honest. Not being a fan of horror films, I’m not sure I want those pictures in my head.

If you’re of a certain generation, when you hear this passage from Ezekiel, there might be a song which springs to mind? About the toe bone being connected to the foot bone, the foot bone connected to the heel bone – dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, now hear the word of the Lord… This was written by James Weldon Johnson, and African American who worked for Theodore Roosevelt and was a civil rights activist around the turn of the 20th century. He campaigned against racial segregation laws.

Ezekiel was writing at a time of civil unrest. He was used to seeing battle scenes and the backdrop to his narrative is one of war and his writing bears these scars. James Weldon Johnson lived in difficult times, in a divided land where violence against those of his skin colour was commonplace. And yet it is this passage he wants to sing about.

Ezekiel offers us hope in unexpected places. He shows us that through speaking God’s word even the most desperate situations can be improved. However deep those scars run, there are none so damaged that God’s love cannot reach them. James Weldon Johnson knew it, he kept hope that one day we would see an end to racism, that God can breathe new and transforming life into the most unlikely of places.

As we have entered into a period of lockdown, we can feel in a very ‘dry’ place, removed from some of the people we love the most, and possibly we might be feeling removed from God. Not being able to engage in collective worship means we are having to find new ways of being church. Of learning that church is definitely NOT the building, but the people. So one of the things I find in this passage is that even in this most desperate of times, God is seeking to breathe new life into us. God’s love reaches out to us wherever we are. Now that’s the word of the Lord I need to hear right now.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVoPG9HtYF8 – Dem Bones (well, it had to be this!)

Reading: John 11:1-45  – you can find Rev Phil Summers storytelling version of this reading: https://youtu.be/3eYiQgp6NAI

Reflection

Perhaps the lectionary could have given us a break this week and not a reminder of the presence of death. Or maybe I should have chosen one of the other lectionary readings and ignored this one. Both of our readings today are visceral, messy, putting the realities of our corporeal beings at the centre and showing us bits of ourselves we normally cover us. If you happen to be reading this passage from the King James Version (not one I normally turn to), in verse 39 Mary says, ‘Lord, he stinketh.’ Did we really need to be told that?

Let’s do a quick recap: Mary, Martha & Lazarus (all of them siblings) were good pals of Jesus. He’d eaten and socialised with them. He loved them and they loved him back. Jesus finds out Lazarus is seriously ill, but chooses not to go and visit, and stays put for two whole days. He seems indifferent. Mary & Martha must have been going stir-crazy at this. Did they feel let down I wonder, when Jesus doesn’t come in their hour of need? Then someone tells Jesus and the disciples that Lazarus has fallen asleep. The disciples say, ‘Phew!’ But only Jesus realises this is a euphemism. One we still use today, using words to cover up the messy reality, using words to put up a barrier between us and death because social niceties mean we can’t talk in plain language, as if the words we choose will lessen the hurt. Jesus heads to the tomb of Lazarus. He’s late. Four days too late. Martha sounds cross – if you’d been here, Lazarus wouldn’t have died, she cries. In other words, it’s your fault, Jesus. Jesus talks to her about death and resurrection and life and she says she understands, she says she believes, but she is grieving and all she can do is turn to God. Crucially she turns to the God with a human face. She turns to Jesus. Mary then appears on the scene and repeats Martha’s sentiment: where the hell were you? Everyone is crying. Including Jesus. Now why would Jesus be crying when he knows in just a moment Lazarus will appear alive again? Why is Jesus upset here? He asks for the tomb to be opened – Martha is horrified. After four days the body will have started to rot and that will stink. Please don’t, I can hear her say. Jesus prays and then calls to Lazarus, and like something out of a zombie movie, the walking dead appears. Except, of course, this isn’t the walking dead, this is the walking living.

And that’s where the lectionary cuts off.

Keep reading – go on, have a look at where this story actually ends.

The powerful ones, the religious leaders and not happy with what has happened, and they panic. They are terrified their power will be taken away by this man and his followers, that people will stop listening to them and start listening to Jesus. He has to be stopped before the whole fabric of society starts to crumble. The high priest, Caiaphas (we’ll come across him again in a couple of weeks) is plotting already, and in his arrogance says (and for anyone who has watched Game of Thrones we can’t help but hear these words in a northern accent): ‘You know nothing.’ The arrest, trial and execution of Jesus is now a foregone conclusion.

This is a resurrection story. Of course it is. We’re not at Easter Sunday yet but already we’re talking about death and life and resurrection. Jesus was killed because he offered life. All the Romans could do was offer fear and punishment and death. But Jesus offers life. He is life. He was powerful in a way that couldn’t be understood because he didn’t threaten, he didn’t condemn, he didn’t have long lists of rules and consequences.

He calls to Lazarus, ‘Come out,’ and he’s doing the same to us. Perhaps even more right at this moment, when we are cocooned in our homes and questioning how we can be together as the church. Please don’t misunderstand me: stay at home, don’t come out…but for some of us, the isolation and separation will feel like we are living in a sort of tomb, and even here, even in the depths of our solitude, Jesus calls to us, he reaches into the graves we dig for ourselves and he pulls us out. Jesus gives us new life in the most unlikely of places.

We have been given a unique opportunity through this lockdown, of doing things differently. And that’s scary but also exciting. It shakes us up and takes us out of our comfort zones. Who now is ever going to worry about what seat they sit on in church on a Sunday morning? Who now will ever worry about stumbling over the words of a bible reading in a church service? Who now will get upset if the service overruns by 10 minutes? This experience is giving us each a fresh perspective on what is important: life. That’s it. Life is the most important thing. Jesus understood that and offers it freely, unencumbered by convention or tradition.

We may feel like Mary and Martha right now, pleading with Jesus to come and save us, upset when we think all hope has been lost because he didn’t step in in time. The raising of Lazarus shows us that there is always hope and there is always life. We might be in that waiting period known as Lent (how apt for the lockdown to be now), we might be in a dark place, we might feel despair but in that despair Jesus weeps too. Jesus is waiting with us in this time. He is alongside us right now, reaching into those ugly, messy, stinking places and transforming them, showing us that it is never too late for hope. Although we are not protected from the realities of pain and loss, Jesus shows up, reaches out, calls our name and speaks life into us. Amen.


Now,
it is no longer
an exegetical puzzle
to be solved in our study;
it is no longer a pericope
with which to wrestle;
it is no longer a (really)
long reading to get through;
it is no longer a story
we blow the dust off every 3 years.
now,
it is our story;
now
it is about us;
now
it is us inside that
dank, dark tomb:
stinking of fear,
wrapped in the bands
of loneliness;
blinded by the handkerchief
of weary worry.
now,
we hope,
we pray,
we yearn,
we listen
for just a footstep,
just a tear dropping on the ground,
just a whisper of Jesus
pacing before the stone,
growling in his spirit
in anger and frustration,
before he cries out,
in hope and joy and life,
“come out!”

now,
we are not casual bystanders;

now
we are Lazarus

waiting . . .

(c) 2020 Thom M. Shuman

(Please note: additional lectionary readings set for today: Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11)

Worship Song

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cGoBJ6R18qg – Ain’t No Grave

Prayers

You already know what we’re worried about, Holy One. ‘Worried’ seems a bit of an understatement, though.

Some of us have already been laid off.
Some of us were already working three jobs.
Some of us are already living payday-to-payday.

Yeah, worried doesn’t quite cover it. We are tired. We are scared. We are grieving.

So because we’re really not sure what’s next or when ‘next’ will even come, we’re going to take the advice Paul was said to have given Timothy, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone,” so here we go.

For the teachers and education staff who know exactly how much their students rely on school for routine, inspiration, relationship, and their next meal, we pray.

For students who worked so hard to get to the finish line, but now everything is cancelled, we pray.

For the parents who are trying to work from home, but who now have tiny co-workers who really do not care about deadlines or toilet breaks or conference calls, we pray.

For the truck drivers, food preparers, shelf stockers, care givers, farmers, produce pickers, and the overlooked and underpaid on whom we are discovering the world actually turns, we pray.

For first responders and medical personnel who keep showing up, keep gloving up, and keep masking up, we pray. For first responders and medical personnel who keep showing up, even when there are no more gloves or masks, we pray.

For the spirit of community effort that puts the whole before the one that we might all get through this, we pray.

Help us hold fast, Holy One, for we have a way to go. You’ll be hearing from us again. Amen.

(Prayers by Rev Lori Walke, Mayflower Congregational UCC, Oklahoma)

Hymn

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxpPIa-BskY – All I once held dear (Singing the Faith 489)

Blessing

May the spirit be with you

The spirit takes brokenness, dust,

absence of life, and long time death.

The spirit gives life, renews, it revives,

it gives life, it causes hope, it causes joy.

 May the spirit put breath in your lungs

and you will come to life.

The church has left the building

We are only at the beginning of learning news ways to be church in the current pandemic. We will experiment, get things wrong, enjoy the novelty of some things, horribly miss collective worship and still remain part of something bigger than ourselves. Inevitably this experience will transform us and change how we exist as the church in the future. Over the past few days I have been pondering on what it means to be church in the time of lockdown and am concluding the building has ceased to be important. There is a difference between saying it doesn’t matter and it doesn’t matter at all, but our community of faith exists for the people and not for the building.

There is a church in Atlanta called the Church of the Common Ground. The website reads, “We’re like any other church—we just don’t have a building.” They meet in a public park where worship is conducted, encouraging those on the margins. The Birmingham District of the Methodist Church has run an initiative called ‘Church Without Walls’, but this takes no walls to a whole new level. They are both host and guest within a shared space.

This current lockdown will have severe and negative implications for many people. But maybe not for the church. Maybe, in time, after many discussions and heartfelt prayer and theological reflection, maybe at some point in the future we will be able to look back at this time of isolation and claim the church was with us because we are the church. Maybe we will see the church with fresh eyes.  G.K. Chesterton wrote, ‘Your religion is not the church you belong to, but the cosmos you live inside of.’ I pray that during this time, despite not being able to physically gather in our church buildings, that you may feel connected to your faith community like never before. Because for now, the church has left the building.

Sunday 22nd March 2020

Call to worship

I lift up my eyes to the hills –

from where will my help come?

My help comes from the LORD,

who made the heaven and earth.

Psalm 21:1-2

Hymn

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZugvUQ4m90U – Be still for the presence of the Lord (Singing the Faith 20)

Prayer of thanksgiving

God, we thank you for the wonder of sight.  For the beauty of the world we see each day, for the ordered loveliness we see in nature, for the majesty of the heavens and the marvels within the tiniest object, we give you thanks.   

For people who have lit up our lives by their goodness and service, for people who have led your church in wise and even wonderful ways, for people of courage and vision and loving perseverance, we praise your name.  

We thank you above all for Jesus, who walked in the light and gave light to others,  our Saviour who has shown us your light and let it illuminate our lives, our friend who has brought heaven and earth together,  the one who prays for us continually,  who listens to our concerns,  who shares our hopes and our fears.  

We thank You for every good person, for every bit of service that makes our journey cleaner and easier and happier, and for everything that bring light and joy into our lives.  Blessing and honour be to the God who is above all things  yet present in the world as it changes from day to day; to the God who is shrouded in mystery yet wonderfully brought into view by Jesus;  to the God whose Spirit brings light and love to our daily lives.  

Glory to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as in the beginning, so now, and for all time, Amen

Prayer of confession

If we say that we have fellowship with God while we are walking in darkness,  we lie and do not do what is true;  but if we walk in the light as God is in the light,  we have fellowship with one another,  and Jesus restores us to a right relationship with each other and with God.  

Lord God, we do not come before You without sin –  against you,  against others,  against the image you have placed within us –  but we come in the name of Jesus,  bringing ourselves into his light and love,  asking, claiming,  finding the mercy promised to every penitent sinner,  humbly rejoicing in the way he became human,  to straighten out our lives  and offer them as perfect in His life and death and resurrection.  May your Spirit make this wonderfully clear to our minds and hearts, through Jesus Christ. Amen

Bible readings

1 Samuel 16:1-13

Psalm 23

Hymn

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pN4tPkX0MG0 – The Lord’s My Shepherd (Singing the Faith 481)

Reflection

I am sat at my desk as I write this resource for worship, wondering what I can possibly say which is of any use to people in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. What hope can I bring? What care can I offer? This certainly wasn’t covered at ‘Vicar School’!

Let me start by offering some thoughts on the Samuel reading.  

David’s name appears over 1000 times in the Jewish Scriptures, what we refer to as the Old Testament. We know him as a great leader who had humble beginnings and his leadership is known for its victories and defeats. David experiences blessing and tribulation and we see him demonstrating both the best and worst of power.

If you skip back into the very last verse in chapter 15, this tells us God feels regret at having made Saul king. I am fascinated over the possibility that God thinks this was a mistake, that God made an error of judgement. The only other time the Bible tells us that God regretted anything was back in Genesis when God had decided upon the flood, having regretted creating humanity. God’s intention in creating humanity as well as anointing Saul as king was that they would serve harmoniously, but Saul let God down, just as humanity had done centuries before.

So there was a lot of pressure on David, a lot to live up to. And he was the last choice for Samuel. Jesse had lined up all of his sons with the expectation at least one of them was destined for greatness. David, although perhaps resembling Poldark or James Bond, was young and so unimportant Jesse hadn’t bothered to ask him to attend.  In that society your position was often determined by the order of your birth, and David was the bottom of the pile. Young, there were no expectations he would do anything other than manual work, and here he is, shepherding. The contrast between Saul & David is stark – Saul came from a wealthy family, David had nothing. He was insignificant.

But when God calls, David steps up, unlikely though it seemed, and he serves God willingly.

God continues to choose unlikely people and in our own way we have each responded to that great invitation by being part of this faith community.

But a word of warning; David’s anointing did not protect him from making bad decisions. True, he was a great king and his achievements are remembered millennia later, but he was far from perfect and we need to be careful not to whitewash over his abuse of power. He sees the beautiful Bathsheba, rapes her, conspires to have her husband killed and then forces her to marry him. He does nothing when his own daughter Tamar is raped by his son. We have a tendency to categorise people into goodies or baddies, but we are far more complicated than that.

Psalm 23 is the most well known of all the psalms, and this acknowledges the existence of stark opposites in the world. There are green pastures but also dark valleys. A table is prepared but enemies are near. Instead of being consumed by the darkness and overcome by enemies, we are reassured by the presence of the shepherd who offers blessings of goodness and mercy for all of our days.

The regret God articulates at having chosen Saul as King, or having created humanity prior to the flood could easily lead us to wonder whether our current global crisis is evidence of God’s displeasure at the behaviour of humanity. I believe this is toxic theology and spiritually damaging and I utterly resist this message. By turning to our Psalm for today, we know that we cannot stop bad things from happening. But this suggests to me that instead of engineering disaster to punish us, God wills blessings upon us. I do not believe that God ever conspires to do us harm.

There is a well-known story told by Eli Weisel, a survivor of the Nazi death camps, of when a child is publicly hanged by the Nazi guards in front of the Jewish prisoners and they are made to watch. They stand in agony as the child struggles dying before their eyes and Weisel hears a voice behind him asking, ‘Where is God? Where is he?’ and another voice replies, ‘Where is God? God is there, hanging on those gallows?’

Instead of causing disaster and remaining at a distance, God is located in our pain, seeking to envelop us in goodness and mercy. I invite you to reread Psalm 23 now. God gives us what we need. God makes us rest because that is what is good for us. God restores us. God leads us to good places. And whatever we experience, the good stuff and the bad, God is right there beside us, offering us deep comfort, and with extravagant generosity pours a healing balm onto us.

In these times of isolation, know that God steps into your loneliness, seeking to be alongside you and give you comfort. Amen

Hymn

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H9_0jiO5ZRM – Lord I come to you (Singing the Faith 471)

Bible reading

John 9:1-41

Reflection

Who sinned, asks the disciples. What bad thing did someone do that caused this blindness? Whose fault is it? Because these things can’t just be random; there have to be consequences to actions and this disability must be evidence of sin.

Jesus, of course, challenges this interpretation. He pushes back. He resists the toxic theology I wrote about earlier. He turns it round and rather than accepting that God punishes, and people deserve their fate, he explains that God works through these tragic circumstances and if only we opened our eyes, we might just glimpse God in them.

The photograph below is from my very favourite building, Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, known locally as Paddy’s Wigwam. If ever I feel that God is distant, I think back to the many occasions I have been inside this cathedral knowing I was standing on holy ground surrounded by God’s presence. The sanctuary is built in the round with lengthy blue stained glass windows flooding the space with light. If you are observant, you can spot shards of red hidden within the blue. In his homily one Sunday, the priest told us that the designer wanted to remind us that the Kingdom of God is always breaking through, and if we look for it we will always find it.

As I read John’s gospel, it took me back to this cathedral, remembering these windows. We might be asking questions about why this pandemic has happened, what actions of ours might have caused this, what punishment is God giving us? In this reading, I find Jesus pushing back at those questions, saying you’re looking for answers in the wrong places, because your starting point it wrong. You’re asking the wrong question. Jesus reminds those listening that it is them who cannot see the truth and not the man who was blind.

I invite you to try and notice God. Wherever you are sat, right now, in your homes. To look for glimpses of God breaking through. You might be able to hear birdsong. You might have had a telephone call yesterday. You might have experienced someone’s kindness recently. You might have read a story about generosity in the news. Find God in those experiences. Just as the psalmist writes, we might be walking through dark times, but like the stained glass windows, light is breaking through and God is with us. Amen

Worship Song

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=itiB52mVJ9Y – My Lighthouse by Rend Collective

Prayers

I invite you to spend some time praying in order for the following:

  • The government and advisers, that they may be given wisdom
  • Those who are working hard to keep us safe and well; NHS workers, teachers, delivery drivers, supermarket workers, cleaners, police and many many others
  • Those who are currently ill and feeling frightened
  • Your friends, neighbours and family
  • Yourself for however you are feeling

We bring our prayers together in saying the Lord’s Prayer in what ever language or version is most familiar

Hymn

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sw5ZCZeS32M – Love Divine (Singing the Faith 503)

Blessing

God as we go out, stay beside us: along the deep valleys of the world, through the dark hillsides of the world, beside the still waters walk with us, lead us, show us and be our companion for we are ever your people, this day and always. Amen

Some material adapted from ©2013 Spill the Beans Resource Team & Church of Scotland

Today's ramblings

My brother is a secondary school teacher. His favourite biscuits are custard creams and he gave up chocolate for Lent about 40 years ago and hasn’t eaten chocolate since. Yesterday he said goodbye to his GCSE and A level students, some of whom he has taught for many years. He received this letter:

Dear Mr –

Thank you so much for your incredible hard work over the past 4 years. Every lesson of yours I went into I knew that my mind was going to be filled with boatloads of information afterwards.

For months I was convinced that you had an eidetic memory but you’re actually just that knowledgeable about Biology. It’s truly incredible how amazing a teacher you are.

Now I have to admit that I tried to get you some custard creams but everywhere I went they were all sold out! How abysmal!

Unfortunately I do not have the opportunity to demonstrate to you the hard work that I’ve been putting in to try and get the highest grade possible however; I know in myself that I wouldn’t have been in the position I am if it wasn’t for you and for that I will be eternally grateful. All the best

Lots of love –

Excuse me a moment, I think I have something in my eye…

I wanted to share this with you because I think saying thank you has suddenly become one of the most important things we can do (apart from staying apart, obviously!). My brother frequently complains about the pressures of teaching and I haven’t yet met an Education Secretary he likes, but I know he will treasure this letter. A small, kind gesture that reached out to him in these difficult times.

Many of us are experiencing time on our hands, rather than rushing about wondering how we can fit it all in. We are having ‘Sabbath’ forced upon us whether we like it or not. So perhaps we can take time. Take time to tend to our own needs. Take time to say thank you; thank the shop workers, the neighbours, the friends, the rubbish collectors. Maybe write a letter – I can’t remember the last time I sent a letter rather than an email. Being forced to rest, most of us have been given the opportunity to revaluate what is important; health, friendship, human contact. Sabbath theology is about stopping for a while. Saying thank you. Taking time with God. And when we come through the other side of this, these acts of kindness will be remembered.

The Samaritan Woman at the Well

Sermon John 4:5-42 preached at Bishops Cleeve Methodist Church 15th March 2020

If we were to head back to the previous chapter in John’s gospel (Chapter 3) we would find another encounter Jesus had, this time with Nicodemus, a leader, a teacher, a Pharisee. He comes to Jesus at night, curious, wanting to know more, but not prepared to ask questions under the scrutiny of his companions. He has a detailed theological conversation with Jesus, where Jesus says some peculiar things about being born again, about how it is necessary to be born both of water and of spirit. Nicodemus is a clever man but doesn’t get it. He might have been told there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but oh boy does he get it wrong by asking about crawling back up the birth canal.

And now we have another encounter and there are some points here to make about the differences between these stories. The first encounter was with a man, who is educated. Here we have an encounter with a woman, highly likely to be illiterate. Nicodemus is named. The woman, like so many others in the bible is not. Nicodemus is like Jesus; he shares the same ethnicity, the same religion, he occupies the same space and frequents the same places. The woman, by comparison, is an alien, a foreigner, and a hated one at that. The Samaritans had a different way of worshipping God, a different temple, a different moral code. Nicodemus is respectable, he holds a position of influence. The Samaritan woman is morally dubious with a messy sexual history. And finally, Nicodemus comes under cover of darkness, ashamed we assume. The Samaritan woman is out in the open in the middle of the day for all to see.

Women sometimes get a raw deal from the lectionary – the three-year cycle of bible readings Methodist preachers are encourages to follow, which misses out great chunks of the bible (some for good reason!), and the lectionary is not terrific on focusing on the female voices and stories. But it should be pointed out that nowhere else in the Gospels, do we have virtually an entire chapter taken up with a women’s story. Peter might go off and build the church, but the block of verses he occupies are not as many as this unnamed woman.

The woman comes to the well in the heat of the day and she comes alone. Only mad dogs and shunned Samaritans go out in the midday sun. It suggests that she was ostracised by the other women in her village. Women generally would go together to collect water – safety in numbers and all that. But she has to wait. Her solitude and the timing are dangerous to her, but she has no choice. Her sexual past is known about and gossiped about and judged and she is pushed away.

And she comes to the well and there is a man, sitting there. She would have been afraid. Another man who would want something of her. To use her, to exploit her. But she sees that he is a Jew. Relief would have flooded through her. At least he would leave her alone. He wouldn’t want anything to do with her. Her very presence would offend him, and he would surely walk away. He wouldn’t risk being alone with any woman, let alone a foreigner. Let alone a Samaritan.

But he speaks to her. Perhaps he hasn’t heard of the Billy Graham rule, that rule that states a man should never be alone with another woman who isn’t his wife. He asks her for a drink. She is puzzled. He would have to touch something she has touched and surely that’s against the rules? But he’s already spoken to her, so clearly this guy doesn’t play by the rules.

And they strike up a long conversation about the essentials for life; water and God. And things seem to be going so well, until he suggests drawing her husband into the conversation. Uh-oh. Now he’s ruined it. Perhaps with hesitation, certainly with shame, she stammers, I have no husband. And then he tells her he already knows about her life. He knows her but isn’t interested in gossip or judging her. He has seen deep into her and hasn’t condemned her. And there is no awkward pause in the conversation; it moves on and suddenly they are talking about the common roots in their religions and now he’s talking about spirit and truth and life.

To be known is to be loved, and to be loved is to be known. Well, that’s not been her experience. She isn’t loved and no-one truly knows her – they know the labels they put on her, but they don’t know her. They see her but only to whisper in corners. The bits of her that are known are hated and she is castigated because of them.

But suddenly she knows what it is like to be loved and known and known and loved. And that feels extraordinary. That’s never happened before. And despite the fact she shares NOTHING in common with Jesus, her gender and ethnicity and religion pose no barrier to her evangelism. And suddenly she is full to over bursting and she can’t keep it all in. Like a bucket that has water poured into it, if it doesn’t stop it can’t be contained. It spills over and yes, that’s a bit messy and she’s messed-up, but for the first time in her life she is known and loved, and loved and known and that’s like feeling clean for the first time in she can’t remember when.

Suddenly she forgets that her village hate her and judge her and gossip about her, because of course, it is only a woman whose sexual history is gossiped about and never a man’s. Suddenly, she forgets she has no friends and no husband, just a man who has moved in because she is considered easy because she is clearly damaged goods with so many men in her past. Suddenly she forgets that she’s considered worthless, I mean, a woman with that kind of past can’t be respectable can she and if she’s already damaged doing a bit more harm to her won’t matter. Suddenly she forgets that she has lived her life afraid, afraid of men and neighbours even the other women. Suddenly she forgets that she has no voice, no power, no-one normally listens to her. Suddenly she wants to share this experience of being known and loved, share it with people who have made her life so difficult, because she knows this feeling is so extraordinary that even those who have done her harm she wants to experience the same. Suddenly her past, her unhappiness, her loneliness and her fear are forgotten. Because she has been known and loved and loved and known.

And you see, that’s what love does; it drives out fear. Now where’ve we heard that before – perfect love driving out fear. That passage starts by saying, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. It goes on to say, God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. We love because God first loved us. It is, as you will know, from the first letter of John.

Jesus doesn’t tell this woman, I will love you, but you really ought to have a ring on your finger first. I will love you, but first you need to become a Jew. I will love you, but you need to say sorry first for your past. I will love you, but first you need to learn to read so you can study the scriptures. He doesn’t even say, well ok, I will love you straight away, but I will be wanting some evidence that you have been changed by this. Love is the primary reaction for Jesus. His love is indiscriminate and has no strings attached.

We are living in times of fear. There have been incidents of supermarkets running out of basics such as pasta or toilet rolls, because peoples fear has taken over. There have been incidents of people of east Asian origin who have been subject to violent attacks because peoples fear has spilled over into causing harm. People are behaving badly because they are afraid. A few years ago I read Albert Camus’s book, The Plague, about a French town that becomes exposed to a deadly virus. Whilst the virus itself is to be feared, the more frightening aspect of the novel is the reaction of the people. Suddenly money and power provide no protection against this disease and normal rules of behaviour disintegrate. Perhaps it wouldn’t be good bedtime reading right now…

Perfect love casts out fear. It casts out fear of those who are different from us. Whilst fear stops us from seeing the humanity in other people, love ensures we look with compassion. Love stops us from being selfish and putting our own needs first.

Jesus, in his encounter with both Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, demonstrates his understanding of the physical and the spiritual. He doesn’t put one above the other, he knows in order for us to live, to flourish and not just exist, we need our physical needs to be met, and also our spiritual needs. We are diminished if we neglect one of them.

Was Nicodemus changed by his encounter with Jesus – we are not told. Perhaps he was. Perhaps he went away examining again the scriptures he has studied for many years and found he is now reading them through the lens of Jesus. I’d like to think that’s what happened. But perhaps his position of privilege prevents him from allowing Jesus to change him because he knows that to change risks him being shunned by his companions and that might be a step too far. The Samaritan woman was utterly transformed by her encounter with Jesus and her testimony and faith changed her village and changed how her village saw her.

Just like the waters of baptism are about our belonging, belonging to God and belonging to each other, symbolising growth and refreshment, this story has much to teach us about how when we don’t fear one another, we can be known and loved, and we can come together without shame or judgment. Some of us might identify more with Nicodemus, educated, privileged, questioning, curious, but not quite ready to commit. Some of us might identify more with the Samaritan woman, a shady past with shameful secrets, lonely and careworn. Jesus seeks to know us to show we are loved. And when we accept that we are known and loved and loved and known, it transforms how we see ourselves and it transforms how we treat other people. We want them to know this experience too, we want them to belong to Jesus, so that like an overflowing bucket of water, our experience of love overspills into everyone we encounter. And like Jesus, we don’t allow social boundaries to put limits on who we love. Amen. 

New to blogging

Well, despite my kids calling me a boomer (I’m not btw, I’m definitely Gen X), and my ineptitude for all things technical, I’ve decided to give blogging a go. So what’s this all about, I hear you ask? We face a new normal with coronavirus meaning many of us will be self-isolating over the coming weeks and months. The purpose of this blog is to try and stay connected with my congregations and perhaps even a bit wider. I’ll be posting worship material for Sunday’s with access to reflections (sermons, if you’d prefer) on bible readings, designed for those who cannot attend Sunday services.

I’m new to all this, so please do comment; I’d like folk to join in the conversation as we journey together, just in a different way.