In Jesus, God’s desire is to change what we desire into what God desires
Sermon by Andy Wurm, Lent 3, 15th March 2020
You may be remember the controversy which arose a few years ago from a video of two people having a discussion. The Bible Society released a video involving two Liberal Party politicians discussing same-sex marriage: one for it and the other against it. The Bible Society neither advocated for, or against same-sex marriage, but encouraged a ‘light’ discussion of the subject. To symbolise that, the politicians were engaged in their discussion over a few bottles of Coopers’ Light beer and the slogan ‘Lighten Up’ was used. It was not a Coopers’ advertisement, or even sponsored by Coopers, although Coopers did at the same time, release a special beer commemorating the two hundredth anniversary of the Bible Society.
In response to the video, some people said they would never drink Coopers’ products again and some hotels announced a boycott. Coopers went into damage control and pulled the commemorative beer from the market, apologising for any hurt caused and stating they are supportive of all sorts of people and make no judgements etc. The Bible Society also pointed out that their video was not a Coopers’ production. In response to Coopers’ decision to take their beer off the market, there was a second backlash, but this time, from people who were angry at Coopers for pandering to people who they saw as engaging in the very discrimination they complained about. So, in the end, there were people boycotting Coopers’ products for completely opposite reasons. I may be blind to what was really going on there, but fail to see how suggesting that taking a ‘light’ approach to a controversial issue is an act of discrimination or hatred. If it was only suggested that those on one side of the argument should ‘lighten up’, then that would be unfair, but surely suggesting it to both sides can only be helpful.
Today’s gospel story also involves two people having a discussion and there is some of the same dynamic at play. That dynamic is rivalry – here involving competing or fighting with others in order to reinforce or create your identity (understanding of who you are). In the case I’ve been talking about, we see how destructive rivalry can be. In the gospel story, it’s not so obvious, yet it is revealed as that which prevents human flourishing, which is referred to as ‘eternal life’, which is sharing in God’s life.
Jesus arrives at a well in a Samaritan city. He is tired from his journey. It’s not the physical journey that has worn him down, it’s the spiritual journey – trying to teach people who are too foolish or resistant to his message. Fools drain us of energy. Wise people, humble people, loving people, energise us. Jesus’ disciples have gone into the city to buy food. This too is symbolic. They think they have to go and get nourishment, yet it is in their midst – i.e. in the form of Jesus. Their blindness and slowness to ‘learn’ allows us to see more clearly how different the woman Jesus encounters is, so we will pay attention to her and then do what she suggests to those in her city, which is to ‘come and see’ Jesus. Notice she doesn’t say come and believe (in the sense of accepting certain ideas), but just come and see. It’s a message we get throughout the gospel – to see for yourself and work out for yourself what Jesus is about and what he might have for you. Something which takes time.
Jesus opens the dialogue by asking the woman for a drink. That’s strange considering this is an interaction between a person and God (in human form). Isn’t it meant to be the other way around? We are the thirsty ones, the needy ones, and isn’t God meant to provide for us, meet our needs? That’s true, but here Jesus shows it’s not the whole picture, for in fact, while on the surface, he is thirsty for a drink of water, underneath the surface, he is thirsty for the opportunity to help her. It’s a play on words. But that’s a profound picture of God: that God’s greatest desire is to help us. And we discover
that the help God has for us is that we might be able to desire what God desires.
The woman is at the well in the middle of the day – the hottest part of the day, which is when there is unlikely to be anyone else there. Why does she go at that time? Firstly, because she’s a woman, and it was customary for women to not be spoken to by men. She would be keeping out of their way, so they wouldn’t be in the awkward position of having to avoid her. She has had five husbands too and that would have hardly made her the pin-up example of the ideal Samaritan woman. But none of that is relevant to Jesus. He breaks the taboo of not speaking to a woman and later actually addresses her as ‘woman’, a term indicating equality. He also ignores the taboo of interacting with someone regarded in her society as a social failure and as well as all that, he also breaks the taboo of Jews not interacting with Samaritans, who Jews considered inferior. When they come to talk about worship and where the best place to worship is, Jesus says there is something much bigger here than petty differences, which really are just about point-scoring.
And indeed, there is something bigger – embodied in him. He refers to it as something which rises within, producing eternal life. In other words, whoever has it, has divine energy bubbling up within them, so much so, that it could be said that through them, the Creator is creating. Jesus is offering this to the woman.
She can only have it because she has met Jesus and been willing to receive what he wanted to give her: she has quenched his thirst, symbolically by giving him a drink, but in reality by humbling herself and being prepared to let go of who she thought she was, until she met Jesus. Who did she think she was? As a woman: a second-rate citizen; having had five marriages: a social failure; as a Samaritan: a racial inferior. What does it do to a person to be identified in that way? What does it do for them to come to see themselves as that? We all have our own versions of that, e.g. I was never as good as others, I was a failure at marriage, I have never been popular, or perhaps the opposite: at least I was president of the Lobethal Hamster Society in 1970. And we all have ways in which we have defined people like that, and continue to do so: labelling, defining, in terms of good or bad, success or failure, superior or inferior, for and against, friend or foe, for Coopers, against Coopers, for same-sex marriage, against it.
Labels are not all bad though. They can clarify where we stand on something and help us face reality. At Alcoholics Anonymous’ meetings, people face up to their truth by stating ‘I am an alcoholic’. The label is meant to help them break free of kidding themselves they don’t need help, but there is no sense that the person saying that is any worse than, or inferior to, anyone else in the room. In fact, it’s really just their turn to state their version of what is true for everyone, which is that we all need to rely in some way, on a ‘higher power’. It’s virtually the same as us saying our corporate confession in the Eucharist.
The same thing as in the AA meeting is going on between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Jesus names her truth: five failed marriages, but he does so, not to bring her down, but to help her see how her problem has been desiring the wrong husband – symbolic of desiring something or someone to give her an identity. Each time her desire, or thirst, has been only temporarily satisfied, because, caught up in rivalry, it has made her into an outcast, so she’s always thirsting for more. This is what Jesus wants us to see: that when we are victims of, or driven by rivalry, we just keep trying harder to find satisfaction, but never will. In contrast, Jesus can ‘satisfy’ us, because he offers us no rivalry whatsoever – just unconditional love, acceptance and encouragement to be what we are: energy which flows without ceasing, because it is free of rivalry, threat or competition with others, and only desiring the same for them. And that’s something we might want others to c0me and see.