The Power of Story and Symbol

The Power of Story and Symbol

What a feast of stories we are having from John’s gospel over these weeks of Lent –Nicodemus going by night to question Jesus, the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, today the healing of the man blind from birth, and next week the raising of Lazarus. These extended stories with their vivid characters and dialogue bring the gospel alive in all its complex humanity. They engage us with people exploring difficult issues that are still relevant – the tension between legalistic and spirit led religious expression, liberation from gender and cultural stereotyping, the empowerment of women in ministry, a redemptive theology of suffering, the spiritual blindness of judgmentalism, healing as re-creation, death, grief and resurrection. The advantage of a story in exploring such deep and meaningful themes is that it shows the dilemmas and questions, the motivations and emotions. A story does not come to us with the black and white categorizing of dogma, but instead shows us the overlapping greys in a subtle and universal picture of people wrestling with faith and life. In the poem “Another Way of Seeing”, I wrote the following lines about the shift in our perspective given by stories, using the metaphor of looking at a landscape without my spectacles on:

I slip my glasses off and lift my eyes:

my gaze turns outward to a world grown blurred,

the edges softened and the shapes more strange.

Expected outlines shift before my eyes.

Here certainties dissolve and sight is drawn

to blends of colour and the wash of light.

The world is made like this with layered veils,

and stories patched like quilts, ambiguous

to naked eyes, and yet perhaps the lens

we look through tames awareness to plain sight.

We miss the warp of chaos, interlaced

in patterns underpinned and edged with grace.

Gospel stories and Jesus’ parables challenge our theological and cultural preconceptions. In other words, they take off the lenses through which we view the world. We see this happening at the very beginning of the story of the blind man. The disciples ask a question: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Here we have characters we identify with expressing a theological assumption that has had a damaging impact down the ages, and still does, the assumption that if someone is afflicted in some way, then they are being punished by God for sin. I was devastated as a young adult when my dear devout grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she asked the question: “What have I done to deserve this?” It’s a question that is ingrained in our thinking, but I was so sad that she agonized over whether she was being punished by God. Why would God punish a godly and loving lady who worked tirelessly for family and disabled children? It seemed to me that either God or our common view of God was at fault, not my grandmother. The theological explanation that suffering is a consequence of sin may have some validity at the level of the whole society, which I gather is the Jewish understanding. For example, pollution does have a causal link to cancer, and that knowledge helps in prevention. For the individual, blame by self or others is not helpful in facing affliction. Just imagine the number of times in which the man blind from birth and his parents faced the judgement and rejection implied in the disciples’ question. No wonder his parents were so fearful of being rejected yet again.

Why do we ask this angry or self-harming question: “Why me?” I guess it’s part of the search for meaning, but it often cripples that very search. For observers, like Job’s pastorally inept friends, the assumption that suffering is a punishment for sin is an attempt to distance themselves from the suffering, and assure themselves of their own safety. The theological assumption that suffering is a punishment from God is challenged dramatically and thoroughly in the book of Job. Jesus turns it upside down: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” What a healing change in perspective for the afflicted man! God is not judging him but treating him as a special focus of grace. This is another case of God’s preferential option for the poor that we see throughout Scripture, and which the liberation theologians focus upon. As in the archetypal story of the Exodus, God liberates people from bondage, whether it be political or economic oppression, prejudice, rejection and marginalization, or physical, mental or spiritual disabling. As Mary says in her great liberation hymn, the Magnificat, God has “brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” That transposition is seen in this gospel story – the blind man is healed, the spiritual authorities who reject him and refuse to believe his story are seen to be spiritually blind, but resistant to awareness and healing. This creates an ironic new perspective from Jesus on the themes of sin and judgement. He says: “I came into the world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,” your sin remains.”

The healing of the blind man is a symbolic action which confronts the spiritual blindness of those who dare to judge both the man and Jesus, and who will not accept healing for their distorted view of religion. They invent every excuse to disbelieve the man’s story, and judge Jesus as sinful because he mixes mud and heals on the Sabbath. Over and over again, Jesus confronts the legalistic abuse of religious authority by healing on the Sabbath. He heals the woman bowed down by a spirit of bondage not only on the Sabbath but in the synagogue, and she stands up straight symbolically by publicly praising God in the synagogue, an action forbidden for a woman. There is a powerful symbolic aspect in all the key healing stories of Jesus. He liberates through healing the people marginalized and rejected by the society’s attitude to their affliction, and he heals the physical afflictions that parallel the spiritual malaise of the society. It is the society that is spiritually deaf, blind, crippled, leprous and possessed by destructive spirits. The physical or mental healings are symbolic of the healing needed in the people, the country, and particularly among the authorities. The contrast of the healing of the blind man and the conspicuous failure to hear, to see or to be healed among the religious establishment makes the point so powerfully.

Jesus underlines the symbolic aspects of this healing story in his use of the contrasting metaphors of day, night and light. He says: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Another fascinating aspect of symbol in this story is the use of mud and washing in the healing process. Jesus’ mixing of dust with his own water, saliva, to make mud, and putting it on the man’s eyes suggests a new creation aspect to the healing. Just as creatures were formed from the earth, so this man’s eyes are transformed through earth and living water. The washing suggests baptism and rebirth, but also empowers the man to take part in his own healing. It’s a symbolic enactment of what Jesus says to other people he heals: “Your faith has made you whole.”

There are so many layers of meaning in this story that we could keep on exploring them all morning. Perhaps we can already begin to see how a story engages us with developing an authentic theology of experience, rather than an inherited and unexamined theology. A story asks us to empathize, and to connect to our own related stories. The stories that Jesus told and the stories that he lived out with others have a unique capacity to overturn our expectations, and so to unsettle our preconceptions. If we were challenged on those grounds in debate, we would become defensive and entrenched in our position, but a story sneaks up on us, seeking our identification with that which will open us up to transformation. That is the power of Jesus’ parables but also of these beautifully crafted stories in John’s gospel.


Lent 4—Mothering Sunday

Lent 4—Mothering Sunday 26-3-2017 Bridgewater

1 Sam 16 1-13 Ps 23 Eph 5 8-14 Jn 9 1-41

For the third week in a row, we’ve read an extended story from John’s Gospel. Each one has been a story of someone meeting Jesus. And for each of them, it’s a life-changing encounter: so important that they go and tell others about it.

It’s as if we can hear them say, “I’ve met Jesus; he’s changed my life, and no matter what people say, I will share this. Everyone needs a chance to meet Jesus, and I’m helping you to do just that.”

Two weeks ago, it was a leader of the Jewish religious establishment; a man called Nicodemus. He visited Jesus secretly at midnight (Jn 3.1-17).

Remember how baffled he was by Jesus? Jesus told Nicodemus that if he wanted to see the kingdom of God, he must be born again—born from above. Nicodemus didn’t get it then, but later on, he was re-born. Later we’d see him abandon his prestige and security and become one of Jesus’ disciples. (Jn 7 & 19)

Last week, it was a Samaritan woman. Perhaps a dubious personality in her own community, she met Jesus at Jacob’s well. This meeting happened at midday. As they talked, she came to see her own life through Jesus’ eyes. She was utterly transformed by the experience. She left her bucket at the well and hurried off to call everyone in her village to come and meet Jesus too.

Today, it’s the turn of a man who’s been blind from birth. We just heard how Jesus gave him his sight. The religious authorities feared Jesus. So they said they’d expel this man from his faith community unless he denounced Jesus as they did. But he refused to lie down and be walked over. And later, when he met Jesus again—and this second time, he could see him—he declared his belief in Jesus, and worshipped him.

So three people meet Jesus; three people who go out from that first meeting and tell others about Jesus—three people who try to help others meet Jesus – even when they’re under pressure to reject him. Nicodemus stuck up for Jesus in the face of his brother Pharisees (Jn 7). The Samaritan woman ran to the community she’d seemed to avoid and called them to meet Jesus (Jn 4). And today, the man born blind willingly accepts the life of an outcast if that’s what it’ll cost him to follow Jesus.

Each story challenges you and me to do the same – to say, “I’ve met Jesus; he’s changed my life, and no matter what people say, I will share this. Everyone needs a chance to meet Jesus, and I’m helping you to do just that.”

Someone must have done that for you – maybe your parents or brothers or sisters or friends. They must have thought, “I’ve met Jesus; he’s changed my life, and no matter what people say, I will share this. Everyone needs a chance to meet Jesus, and I’m helping you to do just that.” And then they made sure you did meet Jesus, just like they had.

It’s really important that we do this too – that we help people meet Jesus. Because people are shy. People who don’t know Jesus don’t often come here and ask us to introduce them to Jesus. Not with all the things people are saying and thinking about Jesus’ followers today.

You must have noticed how we’re called God botherers, flat-earthers and fanatics. Apparently everyone knows how we ram religion down unsuspecting people’s throats; how we all want to interfere with other people’s personal relationships, tell them who they can and can’t marry. We’re obsessed, apparently. So why would anyone bother to come here?

But don’t you wish they’d give it a try? I mean, for the third week in a row, we’ve seen Jesus meet someone and he hasn’t judged them or forced scripture down their throats. He’s simply given them his attention, his time and his love, and it’s turned peoples’ lives around – then, and ever since.

We’ve seen him do it: John has given us a ringside seat each time – really close so we can feel the peace and joy as his love prises open the chains of legalism and exclusion they’ve lived with all their lives. We’ve seen all this. So how will we respond? Isn’t it obvious? Is there anything to hold us back from sharing these stories with people we know?

People live with extraordinary stresses: people carry terrible burdens. We know Jesus sets people free from the tyranny of those burdens. He’s given us faith, hope and love – just like he did for Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman and the man born blind.

We’ve heard from people in this parish who’ve shared their stories with us – and Jesus has transformed our lives too. If we know all that and we see another person struggle under burdens, don’t we invite them to meet Jesus? The Samaritan woman did it after knowing Jesus for five minutes. The man born blind did it before he even knew what Jesus looked like.

They met Jesus, and they invited other people to get to know him. We’ve met Jesus, so it’s obvious what we do next. Bring people here: fill this Church with people who have questions. We’ll discuss those questions. Fill this church with people who are burdened with fear or loneliness. We’ll spend time with them and leave off talking with close friends to some other time. Let’s help people meet Jesus, and let his love do it’s healing, freeing work in their lives.

“I’ve met Jesus; he’s changed my life, and no matter what people say, I will share this. Everyone needs a chance to meet Jesus, and I’m helping you to do just that.”


Mothering Sunday Cake and Posy Blessing

God, giver of all joy:
We ask that you bless this cake and these posies,
that they may be to us
symbols of our communion with you and with each other.
As they were once scattered over our land
as blossoms and blooms, grasses, vines, trees and cane
yet are now one,
so let us in our diversity
be your one redeemed people,
and your delight. Amen.


Reflections on Sunday’s Gospel

Reflections on Sunday’s Gospel

Another Way of Seeing

I slip my glasses off and free my eyes

to sense the stirring touch of wind and sun.
These lenses can’t expand what this mind sees
when all I look at is the ground ahead.
I walk the dog through landscape widely spread,
but peer instead at ruts and heavy ground
where circling thoughts are plodding unaware.

I slip my glasses off and lift my eyes:
my gaze turns outward to a world grown blurred,
the edges softened and the shapes more strange.
Expected outlines shift before my eyes.
Here certainties dissolve and sight is drawn
to blends of colour and the wash of light.

The world is made like this with layered veils,
and stories patched like quilts, ambiguous
to naked eyes, and yet perhaps the lens
we look through tames awareness to plain sight.
We miss the warp of chaos, interlaced
in patterns underpinned and edged with grace.

See how the Spirit broods upon the waters,
bringing form from chaos, and the Word
says: “Let there be” and so there is, and three
in one Creator God will see and show
that it is good. So in this image made,
we co-create. Let water and the word
inform our mind and sight. Let dust take shape!
Let words and spit and tears be mixed like mud,
while wind we cannot see, but gladly sense
will mould the clay and challenge it to be,
and wake our eyes to life with healing touch.

Then I’ll see trees, like people, move in time
to music still beyond the reach of ears.
Speak to the dust of which my flesh is made.
With word and touch make something more than clay.
Let reshaped ears discern beyond what’s heard,
and vision take in more of depth and height,
the sight revealed by wisdom and the light.

Barbara Messner 2012


A Man Born Blind

A man born blind finds more to see than those
who choose to set aside the gift of sight
for fear of what may face them in the light:
the chasms gaping in the path they chose,
the pools of darkness that their shadow throws;
for these, without awareness of their plight,
refuse the vision which might set them right,
and miss the hope which light might yet disclose.

The man born blind found light enough to see
the healing offered in the spit and dirt,
to find the pool to which he had been sent,
to wash away the darkness and be free,
and then despite rejection, scorn and hurt,
proclaim the truth of what his healing meant.

Barbara Messner (undated)


‘I am the light of the world,’ says the Lord; ‘those who follow me will have the light of life.’

Prayer of the Day

                Gracious God,

in order that we children of earth
might discern good from evil
you sent your Son to be the light of the world:
as the light of Christ shines upon us,
may we learn what pleases you,
and live in truth and goodness;
through the same Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.                        Amen


A reading from the First Book of Samuel,

Chapter 16 beginning at Verse 1

                        1 The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

                        6 When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11 Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” 12 He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

[NRSV 1 Samuel 16:1-13]

Hear the word of the Lord,                                          thanks be to God

Psalm 23 [Page 243 APBA]

The Lord is my shepherd:

therefore can I lack nothing.

He will make me lie down in green pastures:

and lead me beside still waters.

He will refresh my soul:

and guide me in right pathways for his name’s sake.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil:

for you are with me, your rod and your staff comfort me.

You spread a table before me

in the face of those who trouble me:

you have anointed my head with oil,

and my cup shall be full.

Surely your goodness and loving-kindness

will follow me all the days of my life:

and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.


                A reading from the Letter of Paul to the Ephesians,

                Chapter 5 beginning at Verse 8

                                For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light – for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10 Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13 but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,

“Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

[NRSV Ephesians 5:8-14]

Hear the word of the Lord,                                          thanks be to God.


The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John,

Chapter 9 beginning at Verse 1

                                                Glory to you Lord Jesus Christ.

                As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10 But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11 He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12 They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

                        13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

                        18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19 and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20 His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21 but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

                        24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25 He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28 Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

                        35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.                                                                                                                                                                                                        [NRSV John 9:1-41]

This is the Gospel of the Lord,                                    praise to you Lord Jesus Christ.


‘I am the light of the world,’ says the Lord; ‘those who follow me will have the light of life.’


Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well

Lent 3A

19-3-17 A & C

Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well

John 4.5-42

We can easily think of two other Samaritans connected with Jesus. There was the Good Samaritan of the parable (Lk 10) and the only one of the ten Lepers healed who thanked Jesus (Lk 17). And now there’s this woman. They’re all very positive pictures.

But Samaritans were outsiders: Jews and Samaritans didn’t get on at all. Samaritans were very unorthodox Jews. Their Passover was celebrated on Mt Gerizim near Nablus / Shechem – not in Jerusalem. They revered different scriptures; only the Torah. Yet even that was a version with about 6,000 differences from the Jewish one. Samaritans were hated outsiders. Yet in the Gospels, these outsiders seem to understand and receive the truth about Jesus very clearly. So how are the gospel-writers looking to affect us with these stories? To be tolerant, for sure; but how do they explain why we should? What’s John trying to tell us through this story?

Today’s is a story which calls up very rich associations. And we shouldn’t expect anything less of John’s Gospel. First, we’re told that the encounter happens at Jacob’s well in Samaria. Jacob also had something to do with another well. He met his future wife Rachel by a well in the land of the people of the east Gen 29. Samaritans are ethnically at least partly from the East. When Assyria conquered Israel, they forcibly populated it with settlers drawn from cities in an area we now call Iraq. So it’s no wonder the indigenous and settler populations had an ancient, deep hatred for each other. But I digress. The point is that this is foreign soil for Jesus too.

So today’s gospel presents us with Jesus, another lone Jewish man in a foreign land, meeting a lone foreign woman at a well named for Jacob. This woman will also provide water from the well to drink. Marriage will again be a significant topic. And seasoned listeners will know that the other, earlier well in the Jacob story Gen 29 had a large stone covering its mouth; a stone which had to be rolled away to provide the gathered flock with its life-giving water. John evokes that ‘stone rolled away’ image deliberately; John always has lots of irons in the fire.

We’re told it was about noon. Do you remember last Sunday’s encounter between Jesus and his visitor, Nicodemus? It was night time then. Today’s story happens in broad daylight. Jesus isn’t hiding this meeting with an outsider like Nicodemus did. Such a meeting would have caused great scandal among the Jews. (cf Jn 8.48 they accuse Jesus of being a Samaritan and having a demon). It sure shook his disciples!

So a focus of this story is Jesus’s ministry among people considered to be “outsiders.” Jesus does some extraordinary border-crossing in this story. For a start, he enters Samaria, then he starts a conversation with an unaccompanied Samaritan woman, and finally, he even accepts two days’ hospitality from the Samaritan community. None of this was thinkable in decent Jewish society.

Jesus asks this woman for water. In today’s Psalm 95, it’s God who provides life-giving water. In today’s story, this ‘heretic’ woman gives water to Jesus. Later, she will take the water of life – the good news of Jesus – to her village. By this stage in the gospel, her only equals as witnesses to Jesus are John the Baptist and Mary.

And another extraordinary thing; Jesus and this woman have a serious theological discussion. She knows her traditions. She’s waiting for the coming Messiah. In the synagogues, men and women sat separately. Here at the well, Jesus and this woman sit and speak together about the things of God. These are big changes.

And as a theologian, she’s no slouch. She misunderstands Jesus at first. But that’s no surprise. Pretty well everyone in John’s gospel looks rather silly when they first do theology with Jesus. This woman makes much faster progress than most. She moves from scornful sounding doubt:

12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”

to a partial understanding, but still feisty:

19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”

and on towards the truth

25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”

and once he’s identified himself, she rushes to her city to share the good news.

28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

The really exciting thing about this story is that the most unexpected person can become the bearer of the greatest news of all – that the divine gift – living water; eternal life – is something an outsider can bear for the world. Something that the Stations of the Cross reminds me every Lent is that we’re all foreigners really. And yet we can be the means by which people can discover what those Samaritans soon proclaimed: 42“we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.

The beginning is breaking down barriers – being open to laying aside our preconceptions and our certainties. That’s the heart of our Lenten study series this year. People who are treated as foreigners in their own land – Aboriginal Christians – are introducing us to a Jesus we never knew.

What do you think will be next? Let’s have a few moments of silence to ponder that question, then I’ll lead us in an anonymous prayer.

Five-finger prayer

This prayer can be a model for the children’s prayers.

Have them draw around one hand on a sheet of plain paper.

Go over what each finger can represent

When they pray:

  • thumb – friends and family
  • index finger – people who help you learn about God and Jesus
  • middle finger – leaders in our community and the world
  • ring finger – people who help persons in need
  • little finger – ourselves

Have the children write these categories on the fingers. If time, pray together using the five-finger prayer.



O Jesus,

Image of the invisible God,

Word made flesh,

tired stranger,

waiting in the noonday lull

at Jacob’s well.

Are we all

the woman with her water-jar,

bent on the chore of the moment,

angry memories in our bones,

our thirst for God

hidden in the business of the day?

Do you meet us gently too,

hardly recognized,

quietly leading our thoughts

towards the deeper waters,

where our souls find rest?

Probing too,

uncovering secrets

we would rather forget.

Lord, you have probed me,

You know when I sit and when I stand,

You know my thoughts from afar.”

Is the woman,

sure and strong,

our reflection:

sure but unsure,

strong but so weak,

seeking but afraid to find

our Saviour so close by?


Author unknown


The Samaritan Woman at the Well – Women in the New Testament

The Samaritan Woman at the Well

Some people still use passages of Scripture as evidence that women should not be priests or pastors. Women, like me, who believe that they are called to ministry, find support for that conviction in several of the gospel stories in which we see women inspired by Jesus to act as ministers and leaders.

Today we have heard one such story. After her transforming encounter with Jesus, the Samaritan woman goes out to testify to her community, and to evangelize – to bring people to Jesus. She leaves behind her water jug, having been offered the gift of living water springing up within her, the gift of the Spirit, the gift of God’s grace which brings her new life, and satisfies the thirst for understanding and love which has gone unsatisfied through a series of relationships with men.

Even though this promiscuous lifestyle has meant that most people don’t want to associate with her, she goes in public and alone to speak to people in the town, testifying to Jesus, and asking whether or not he might be the Messiah.

She is one of several women in the gospels whose stories provide the Scriptural authority for women to be priests and ministers, at least in the opinion of many who support women’s ministry.

Admittedly, those stories are set against some of the statements in the Pauline letters, that women should not teach in church, or be in positions of leadership, but even the Pauline literature provides examples of women who appear to have been leaders of house churches and evangelists, Priscilla, Lydia and Junia amongst others.

Women in the gospel stories perform various roles included in the job description of a minister: proclaiming the good news in public, bearing witness, testifying and evangelizing, debating with Jesus publicly about theology and healing, learning at Jesus’ feet along with the disciples, being called by the risen Christ to an apostolic task, and enacting a priestly ritual.

Let’s put the Samaritan woman’s story into the context of the experience of these other women. The woman in Mark’s gospel who anointed Jesus’ head with oil was led by the Spirit to perform this priestly and prophetic rite. Jesus said that she was preparing his body beforehand for burial, which would be enacted prophecy. Anointing of the head with oil by a prophet or a priest is the way in which kings and priests were acknowledged as the ones chosen by God. People present were angry with her, supposedly for her extravagance, but also I imagine for putting herself forward to perform this anointing ritual in public. It must have seemed both embarrassingly intimate, and trespassing on priestly prerogatives. Yet, Jesus said she had performed a good service for him, and that she would be remembered for it wherever the gospel is told. We don’t know if this was the same woman and the same incident as that described in John’s gospel, chapter 12, when Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus’ feet with oil and wiped them with her hair, in thanksgiving for the raising of her brother Lazarus from the dead. We know that this Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, learning from him as a disciple, despite the disapproval of her sister, Martha, who wanted her to do women’s work instead. Later, Martha herself joined the ranks of women leaders among Jesus’ followers, publicly proclaiming Jesus as Messiah just as Peter did, and receiving important teaching about the resurrection.

Other women speak out in public places of worship, proclaiming Jesus and praising God. Luke in chapter 2, verse 38, tells us about Anna, the prophet in the temple, who greets Jesus as a baby and goes “to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem”. The woman healed of a spirit of bondage in the synagogue stands up straight and begins praising God publicly, a symbol of what Jesus did for all women, giving them a voice and releasing them from bondage, in religion and in society. Mary Magdalene was commissioned by Jesus to bear witness to the resurrection, acting as the apostle to the apostles. Women, including Jesus’ mother Mary, are part of the group in the upper room to whom the Spirit comes at Pentecost, to prepare them for leadership in the early church.

As for the Samaritan woman at the well, some commentators call her the first Christian missionary. It seems clear that the woman, after her life changing encounter with Jesus, goes back into her community and tells everyone about him, causing crowds to come out to see and hear him for themselves. We are told in verse 39 that ‘many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony: “He told me everything I have ever done.”’ Actually in Greek it says that the people began to believe because of the “word” of the woman. The word for “word”, “logos” is significant, because it also refers to the Wisdom of God, and Jesus himself. Usually in the gospels the only person to speak “logos” is Jesus, but two women do as well – the Samaritan woman in her proclaiming of the good news of Jesus to her community, and the Syro-phoenician woman, who argues with Jesus to get him to heal her daughter. Jesus says to that woman that it is because of the word or “logos” which she speaks, that her daughter is released from the demon possessing her.

The Syro-phoenician woman and the Samaritan woman have much in common. Both would normally be ignored by a Jewish religious man like Jesus because of their gender, because of their ethnic origins, and because of their life style. Jesus interacts with these women on an equal footing when they speak out and challenge him, rather than rejecting them as his society would have expected. In fact, he sets up a situation in which they are given the opportunity to speak to him as an equal. With the Syro-phoenician woman, he acts at first according to his society’s religious and social prejudices, saying that food is to be given to the children, that is the Jews, and not to the dogs, such as this Gentile woman. It’s a pretty confronting comment, but then she has come in from the streets, a woman travelling alone in public and accosting him in a private house. Also she comes from a place known for its licentious behaviour, and she speaks in the elegant cadences of a courtesan. The woman does not accept his harsh statement, which is perhaps a challenge to respond rather than a brush-off. She answers him cleverly, saying that even the dogs under the table get the crumbs. He seems to value her cleverness as well as her courage and faith, and he empowers her by attributing the healing of the daughter to her word, not his power.

With the Samaritan woman he asks for a drink of water, which breaches two taboos of his culture. A Jewish man on his own should not speak to a woman in a public place. A Jew would not share a drinking vessel with a Samaritan, because they were held in contempt for their religious differences. The woman challenges him on both these points. Like the Syro-phoenician woman, this woman is alone in a public place. She has gone to the well alone at noon, rather than joining with a group of women going there in the cool of the day. That in itself is an indication that she does not live by the accepted standards of propriety in her society. It seems that the Samaritan woman is a promiscuous woman by her society’s standards, therefore an outcast. Jesus doesn’t hesitate to name the situation: “You’ve had five men, and the one you’ve got now isn’t yours.” The word translated “husband” in our version can mean either man or husband in Greek.

As with the many tax collectors and sinners who sat at table with him, Jesus offers hospitality to this woman. Instead of the drink he asked for, which she is uncomfortable about giving, he offers her living water, the Spirit of God, the source of eternal life. Instead of her attempt to contrast Samaritan ideas of right worship on the mountain with Jewish temple worship, he offers her a new way of worship in spirit and in truth, a way that does not exclude those of diverging backgrounds but rather includes even someone like her. Perhaps the gift that makes the most difference to her, the thing that stands out in her testimony about him , is his knowing of everything she has ever done, and the fact that he still values her and wants her to understand his truth. He understands fully who she is and yet he does not hide who he is from her. When she speaks of the Messiah who is coming, he answers “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” He wants her to know him, and the Samaritan woman receives what he offers, and is she transformed. She goes to the people who have excluded her, and she tells them that she has met a man who knows her fully and yet includes her. She asks them the question to which she already knows the answer, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” They have to go to find out for themselves. He stays with them for a while, and they listen and relate to him as she did. They come to accept, first on her word, and then on his word, that he is truly the Saviour of the world.

Are we as ready as the Samaritan woman was to know Jesus fully and to be fully known, and to receive the gift of grace, the living water that satisfies our deepest longings?



(BYO drinks and Irish jokes)
Venue: St Michael’s & All Angels Church Bridgewater
Date: Fri 17th March Time: 6.30 for 7pm Cost: $25
Nibbles and complimentary glass of Champagne
If you have special dietary needs, Please let us know!
Menu: Irish Stew with Dumplings—Gluten Free,
Mashed Spuds, Peas and Soda Bread
Bread & Butter Pudding /Fruit Salad Tea/Coffee Raffle
RSVP ASAP to Barbara Riches or Vee Noble


Nicodemus visits Jesus in the night

Lent 2 a
A & C
John 4.1-21, Gen 12 1-4, Ps 121, Rm4 1-17

Nicodemus visits Jesus in the night

We’ve heard stories of two people today who risk everything on the basis of am impossible challenge. There’s Abraham, who leaves everything to obey God, and Nicodemus, who visits Jesus in the night. He’s our subject today.

Like others in Jerusalem, Nicodemus had seen the signs Jesus has performed. He may well have been there when Jesus cleared the Temple of the people selling birds and animals for sacrifice, and the money changers. Fascinated by this man, he arranges to meet Jesus. But he’s not game to be publicly associated with Jesus. Jesus cleansing the Temple might have been called a terrorist act these days – or the act of some fanatic from a religious fringe group. So Nicodemus visits Jesus, but secretly, in the night.

Nicodemus is just like many people here – educated, committed and faithful, and with a respected position in the community – a reputation that’s taken years to earn. Who here would visit a revolutionary new spiritual teacher like this in broad daylight? Would you meet with Jesus at Essence or Ruby’s on Wednesday morning for coffee? Might be noticed! What would they say?

So yes, Nicodemus visits Jesus in the night. John’s Gospel makes a lot of the symbolism of light and darkness. Think of the last few verses from today’s gospel: 19And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’

Maybe Jesus meant Nicodemus chose to come out from the darkness – came to the light of Jesus; so he was somebody who does what is true.

If so, he was right. But poor Nicodemus got more than he bargained for. No sooner had he paid his respects to Jesus than he was utterly confounded by a saying about being born from above – born anew – born again. He took it literally – and who wouldn’t without a lifetime of teaching on Christian baptism. Jesus takes him off into another realm of understanding about being born not of his mother, but of the Spirit. You’d think that with such obscure sounding teaching, Jesus would never see Nicodemus again.

And maybe he doesn’t; but we do – twice. The first time, Nicodemus risks his reputation when he challenges his fellow Pharisees; they want to haul Jesus before a kangaroo court(ch 7). The next time, he joins Joseph of Arimathea burying Jesus’s body. By doing so abandons his ritual purity (ch 19). So he won’t be able to participate in the Passover the next day. That’s like a priest on Holy Saturday deciding to give up the chance to celebrate Easter the next day.

Nicodemus also gives up as any pretence to secrecy. He is by now so deeply a disciple of Jesus that even after Jesus’s execution – which made other disciples run away and hide in fear and doubt – he has become so profoundly a disciple of Jesus that he risks any social standing he has to pay his last respects. The Spirit has done just what Jesus said; she breathed where she chose, and Nicodemus was born anew; born again; born from above.

But that takes us several weeks down the track, doesn’t it. What about now? As we journey down that track? Does Nicodemus’s visit to Jesus in the night have something to say to us, who are like him in so many ways? I think it must.

It’s sometimes really tricky for us to have our faith identity and our social identity open to view at the same time. They don’t necessarily match.

At our soup supper, we discussed where we get our identity from: our family, faith community, nationality, career, things we do with friends, our language, where we live, things that we’re passionate about, things we love about people and things we hope people love about us. It’s quite a mixture, isn’t it. And we protect these things; we don’t want them laughed at or called into question. An attack on the things that make us who we are is really threatening.

Sometimes our faith identity and personal identity can contradict each other. We’re finding in our Soup Suppers how our national identity and the plight of fellow Christians who are Aboriginal are deeply at odds. Our studies are giving us the chance to hear the stories of faithful Aboriginal Christians; to read the same scriptures as these brothers and sisters through the same set of glasses. And that experience brings us all into the presence of Jesus together.

And that’s the point. Jesus came for us all – for the whole world. We heard him say it this morning: 16 ‘…God loved the world in this way: he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

No-one is left out of God’s love; God sent Jesus in order that the world might be saved. Was it that insight which made Nicodemus choose to risk his identity – career, friendships and social standing – to rethink his own people’s whole reason for being? This son of Abraham made the same choice as his ancestor. He left everything to follow God wherever the breath of the Spirit might lead. The purpose was the same: that all families of the Earth – the whole world – might receive God’s blessing. May we be courageous enough disciples to follow these very clear examples! It’s about God’s Grace; God’s Love. Everyone needs it and we are the chosen vessels. Amen


Nicodemus and the Importance of Questions

Nicodemus and the Importance of Questions

When I went to an EFM group here with John Stephenson, and then on to a Bachelor of Theology, one of my most liberating discoveries was that I was free to question who God is, what Scripture means, who I am, and what makes life worthwhile.

There might not be simple answers, or the answers might change as I change, but the questions open doors to transformation for me.

Our Clinical Pastoral Education centre director, Les Underwood, always says to our groups that asking the right questions is more important than finding the right answers.

Richard Rohr, in a foreword to John Dear’s book The Questions of Jesus, writes: “I am told, for example, that Jesus only directly answers 3 of the 183 questions that he himself is asked in the four Gospels! (I will let you find them!) This is totally surprising to people who have grown up assuming that the very job description of religion is to give people answers and to resolve peoples’ dilemmas.

Apparently this is not Jesus’ understanding of the function of religion because he operates very differently.”

Rohr goes on to say: “Instead, Jesus asks questions, good questions, unnerving questions, re-aligning questions, transforming questions.  He leads us into liminal, and therefore transformative space, much more than taking us into any moral high ground of immediate certitude or ego superiority. He subverts up front the cultural or theological assumptions that we are eventually going to have to face anyway.  He leaves us betwixt and between, where God and grace can get at us, and where we are not at all in control.” Later Rohr says: “Easy answers instead of hard questions allow us to try to change others instead of allowing God to change us.  At least, I know that is true in my life.”
The dialogue between Nicodemus and Jesus is a powerful example of the importance of questions to and from Jesus. I want to illustrate that by reading a portion of a letter I imagined Nicodemus writing to other faith leaders:

“I address this letter to several of those I consider most open-minded in matters of religion. Like me, you have probably been examining the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, trying to decide if he is misleading the people. As I listened to him, I began to ask myself whether he is challenging us, as the prophets did, to see that there is something missing or distorted in our present understanding and practice of who we are as people of God. Do we need to change our perspective? Until I had heard Jesus speak, I had been quite content to follow in what I believed to be the ways of the law and the teaching of the prophets. Jesus made me more aware of the great principles in our Scriptures that are the essence of the law and the prophetic writings. In Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, we are instructed to love God and to love our neighbour. That love is the basis of everything. The prophets have frequently reminded our people of that. In Jesus, perhaps that love of God and neighbour is fully expressed.”

The more I thought about Jesus, the more I felt disturbed by awkward questions.

As a Pharisee, have I got my priorities wrong? If I practice the letter of the law but use that legalism as a substitute for love of God and neighbour, do I focus on a superficial conformity, and lose the Spirit that is meant to give it life?

New life in the Spirit is what Jesus spoke to me about in challenging terms when I went to see him the other night in secret, trying to get some answers.

He said, “Are you a teacher of Israel and yet do not understand these things?” At the time, I felt quite angry that he could dare to challenge me so. I have spent my life studying the law, yet he said that he and his followers have a different kind of knowledge. He said to me: “We speak of what we know and testifies to what we have seen, and yet you do not receive our testimony.”

He claims to have knowledge from his experience that was more immediate and compelling than anything I had found in my studies. He looks at things through different eyes, and he believes he sees the kingdom of God from the inside. He says it’s like being reborn. I tried to resist that idea, making fun of the thought of going back in the mother’s womb and being born again. Yet I could see in him something I wanted to experience for myself. I ask myself: Can I experience this new life in the Spirit? Is there a spiritual reality that could make my life more meaningful and connected to God’s purposes?

If I come to accept Jesus’ teaching fully, it would change everything. One minute I believe that this change is life giving and I want to embrace it. The next minute, it all becomes overwhelming because it affects my understanding of God so deeply and it asks me to make a commitment that could be dangerous. I see in Jesus’ face the knowledge that being true to his convictions might cost him his life and that his followers might be equally at risk. I’m not sure I would be ready to be counted as his follower when other religious leaders decide they want to be rid of the challenge he represents. Sometimes I wish I had never heard of Jesus. However, I can’t help but ask myself: Do I merely want my religious practices to be comfortable and familiar, or do I really want to discover new life and enter the kingdom of God?

I wonder about what new life in the Spirit might mean to me, I hope that as I write I will gain the courage and confidence to support Jesus publicly.

I am coming to believe that Jesus does not undermine old truths, but reinterprets them in ways that can change lives. His teaching is consistent with the tradition, particularly that of the prophets, but he makes tradition meaningful and alive in ways that bring us fresh possibilities.

Micah says that being right with God is to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. When I talk with Jesus, I feel as if I see the power of loving kindness and justice. When I allow myself to walk humbly with Jesus, I realize that he is the living answer to my questions about what it means to be born from above, born of the spirit and able to see the kingdom of God. He said that “what is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit”. Flesh and Spirit are not in opposition, as some of the Greek philosophers believe. Our Jewish understanding is that flesh and spirit are a united whole, but flesh without Spirit is dead. That’s why we think of the Spirit as breath or wind. You can’t see it, but a body without breath is dead, and our world without wind to bring the rain would be a desert.

We believe that our God is Lord of the seen and the unseen, yet too often we focus only on what is seen, which we can predict and control. The unseen is mystery and risk. Like the wind, it comes and goes unpredictably. To be born of the Spirit is to be responsive to what is unseen, to be moved by this energy from God which cannot be limited or controlled.

That is what I sense in Jesus, this strong link to the energy of God which creates and shapes the world in ways we cannot control. Yet our religion often seems to want to control people and to limit our relationship to God to the example of the past, the traditions of worship and Scripture interpretation. Yet God is not contained and defined by our boxes. The big question for me is this: Am I ready to follow Jesus beyond my comfort zone? I wonder what questions arise for you as you examine the teaching of Jesus and this letter.


Lent 1 A – temptation

Lent 1 A 5-3-2017

Gen 2 15-17 & 3 1-7, Ps 32, Rom 5 12-21, Mt 4 1-11

Today we’ve heard two very familiar stories from the scriptures – a pigeon pair – about people tempted to abandon their loyalty to God. The story from Genesis often gets described as the story of “The Fall” – or the story of “Original Sin”. It’s about the first humans being tempted to ignore God’s warning about forbidden knowledge, and then what happens when they give in to that temptation. So it’s about humanity’s loss of innocence; about our expulsion from paradise – becoming strangers to God, and about the origin of death. We might call it the story of becoming strangers.

A Canadian Theologian, William Danaher wrote that in this Genesis story, human flourishing is compromised. It’s a tragedy. Trust is eroded, loyalty is abandoned – people who were faithful people, faithful friends, suddenly become strangers, not only to God, but to each other and even to their own selves as well. When we act on a choice like this, somehow we stop being the people we knew we were only moments earlier.

It’s a terrible spot to get into. Betrayal always leads to destructive silence; a secret loneliness that alone we have no strength to overcome. As the Psalmist says, whilst I held my tongue; my bones wasted away … your hand was heavy on me day and night. Yet we’ve heard today that there is a way back from it. Paul stressed it again and again today. No matter what lie has been told; no matter what a stranger we’ve become to those we love and who love us, and even to our true selves, the free gift of Jesus’s integrity and grace offers us the way back.

The joy of this experience is beyond normal language to tell, but as ever, the Psalmist knows the words; whoever puts their trust in the Lord, mercy embraces them on every side.

The Gospel story of Jesus’ temptation in the Judean wilderness is the pigeon pair to the story from Genesis – a mirror in which much is reversed. Where there was the lush Garden of Eden, now there’s a harsh, dangerous desert. There, two people with all they needed; now Jesus alone and at the brink of survival. And the temptation to ignore God’s words is more sophisticated; now it’s presented as a temptation to hear God’s words falsely; to imagine they’re only about personal gain. The packaging is more sophisticated, but the basic temptation is the same; forget your loyalty; forget your integrity; forget your honesty and go for self-sufficiency, invulnerability and power and glory.

If we go down this path, can we see how it will lead us away from our own humanity? Everything precious to us is shared with our loved ones; it’s received with grateful joy, or suffered in the embrace of compassion. Outside of relationship, none of it has meaning. Knowing this, it’s clear how gross and destructive each of the temptations in the wilderness actually is. Each demands the abandonment of trust, of loyalty, the abandonment of being in relationship – in short, the abandonment of being truly human. And in the wilderness, Jesus withstands them all. We might call this the story of sticking with your friendships.

But for now the wilderness is the image we need to stick with. The desert is lonely and dangerous. Yet it is an essential place for us.

It’s the place we end up when we’ve succumbed to temptations which all derive from the temptations we’ve heard today – and they all lead to isolation. The emotions out in that wilderness are likely to move from bitter sadness through angry self-justification to overpowering self-pity – then back again. We’re tempted to give into those feelings – blame others for what we’ve done; choose to cut ties and go it alone – imagine how sorry they’ll be. It’s a place where we have to choose between becoming a monster, or going back and owning up to the idiot we’ve been.

The Spirit led Jesus into that wilderness – and he went.

This is not the only time Jesus went into the place of our weakness; our vulnerability. It’s the story of his life – his birth and his death. And we need to keep most firmly in view what those choices of his were for. If the Genesis story is one about becoming strangers, his story is about seeking us in the wilderness. As soon as he’s been baptised and commissioned, he marches straight out to us in our wildernesses – our desert; opening our eyes, un-stopping our ears, calling us back a sense of who and where we are. The desert isn’t something we can avoid or ignore. It’s part of every human life. We discover it in Lent as a space God allows – creates – to receive us. Our meeting place with God 

In the ABM Lenten desert reflections, Celia Kemp writes; …there is no space that God opens up in our lives that God doesn’t fill. The challenge is to leave the busy surfaces of our lives and enter the desert at our heart in the wild hope that a way may be prepared for us to see God. Amen.




Saying the mantra is like unlocking the door of our heart. The mantra is like the key unlocking the door to allow the pure light of love to flood in. Although powerful, it is a gentle process. Do not expect dramatic miracles. In fact, do not expect anything. Be humbly content every morning and evening to return simply to the practice. In the practice itself you will find the powers of gentleness, forgiveness and compassion, all revealing themselves. Do not fear their power to change you.”

Daily Readings with John Main, July 31st


Adelaide Hills, South Australia