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Thursday, 22 October 2015

Au revoir, Sue Riddlestone

I said goodbye to someone I much admired yesterday. I don't know when I'll see her again, but I'm absolutely certain I will. She had a great gift of being extraordinary, but seeming ordinary. Approachable enough to be friends with anyone. Wise and skilful enough to make friends with people whose language you would never have thought she could speak: from bishops and politicians, to single parents and immigrants.
I once asked her how many children she'd got, and she struggled to give me an answer. Not least because of the two Albanians who became part of her family, but also because she could be mother to thousands. How could she count the number of people she cared about as a mother cares for her children?
I was always a little in awe of Sue. I was in awe of the problems she dealt with, any one of which would have floored me, yet she juggled many of them simultaneously. I was in awe of her energy, spending all day every day making lives better all around her. Yet to be with her and talk to her was the easiest thing in the world.
The first time she invited me and my family for a meal, she said "we haven't actually got a kitchen at the moment ..." and cheerfully showed me the hole where her kitchen was going to be - currently lacking a floor, as well as anything to cook with. But there was a row of slow cookers on a table, and a delicious meal taking shape inside them. I can't remember how many people she fed that day, with no kitchen, But I soon realised this was nothing unusual. This is what Dave, her husband did. He didn't just redecorate, he rebuilt.

The last Balkan war was a terrible thing. Countries that had co-existed for 50 years or more divided and religious or ethnic lines, families were ripped apart and neighbours took up arms and began systematically butchering each other. And some fled - including a teenage boy who made his way to this country. An email went round the churches, asking if anyone could give a home to a traumatised youth whose foster care arrangements had broken down. I had a phone call the same day, asking if I could help. Another problem beyond my ability to deal with, so I phoned Sue. The next I knew, she had taken him in, and Valdet became her son. She fought for him to stay in this country, even though the Home Office seemed to have decided that he would be sent back home and I actually thought it would be best for Sue to accept the inevitable. She wouldn't accept it, and in the end his case was won, and he stayed. Later, another miracle occurred, and he found his mother alive, after years of searching. "Now I have two mothers," he said.

Diagnosed with liver cancer three years ago, Sue should have died quickly, but somehow she managed to sustain course after course of chemotherapy, keeping active despite a raft of side effects. Although I had moved away and no longer saw her in person, she kept in touch, bothering to contact me by phone or online.
Finally I heard that she had died, and yesterday I went to say goodbye.
No, not to say goodbye. Because Sue and I share one unshakeable belief - the hope that this life is not the only one there is, but that heaven is not a dream or a fantasy but a reality in which no good thing will be lost. She had a firm faith in Jesus Christ, as do I, and would tell anyone who asked what it was about. She would never preach - that wasn't her style - but if you wanted to know, she would enlighten you. And being around Sue for a while made you want to know. How did she do it? How could she do it?
She loved, because God first loved her. And so her funeral yesterday wasn't a farewell, it truly was au revoir, Sue Riddlestone.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

First Light - A Passion Play for Hertford

Easter Saturday saw me at St Andrew's to see the Passion Play so long awaited. Written by Kate Miller and directed by Trevor Georges, this was not just some Am Dram production, but a play with some pedigree.
On Good Friday morning, in the town centre, we heard four monologues, also written by Kate, which whet our appetite. From them, it was clear that the play wasn't just set in the past, but dealt with the present day sufferings of rich people in a comfortable county town.
Yes - people do suffer in comfortable Hertford. To a surprising degree. Whenever people point the finger at God, and ask angrily why he didn't prevent a particularly hideous example of suffering, I usually think of the pain of so many people, carefully concealed behind what look like successful lives. No one ever blames God for not sparing their suffering, but any time there's an earthquake, or a child dies of cancer, God cops it with both barrels.

So I was expecting a play that would be floating on a sea of pain.
Instead it began playfully, with Jesus and his disciples dressed in bodywarmers and beanies, trying to gatecrash a private function at the Temple. A little fundraiser, organised by Caiaphas and his pals, schmoozing the rich and well connected, aimed at creaming off a little of their spare cash while leaving them with a warm charitable glow.
Predictably, Jesus (or Yesh as he is called in this play) spoils the party. Played by John Holden-White, Yesh has a playful innocence about him, His cleansing of the Temple isn't a calculated act, aimed at provoking political action against him: it's a thing of the moment, prompting him into a rerun of the beatitudes. Judas steps forward, trying to coach Jesus into action, giving us the clue as to how this play sees the betrayer. Like a footballer's agent, Judas sees his role as getting the most out of Yesh's talent. He gives him little pep talks like an anxious manager.
Soon Yesh is organising his Last Supper. It's a curry above a pub, in a room that's too small for the table. Organised it isn't. Perhaps he should have put Judas in charge. But it led to a great line - "Was that my last meal? Should have had a tandoori."
The disciples are an example of inclusiveness - a complete mixture of men and women, and Mags, (Mary Magdalene?) has her own clear ideas of what her Messiah should be doing. She argues passionately against his risk-taking, while it is dawning on Yesh that he really is in danger, and perhaps, danger is just where God wants him to be.
Peter is a small and whiny man, not a natural leader, found fishing on a reservoir after being made redundant. He can't believe or accept Yesh's trust in him. The big man is John - with few words during the first half of the play, but a solid reassuring presence. But it is Judas who drives the first half - his nervous crackling energy sets the pace - electric acting from Rob Madeley. He sounds confident even when he isn't, but we sense that he is driving blind and heading for disaster.

After the interval, the tone darkens. There are scenes with the excellently sinister Thom Jackson-Wood, playing Annas as a weaselly collaborator who has Pontius Pilate's ear. Caiaphas is manipulated by his shady colleague into forcing through an execution, and Yesh is duly arrested. Judas thought he's arranged it nicely - a few nights in prison just to get his man out of a tight spot, then he'll be free to ramp up his message and build up a following who can fight. But events slide out of his control, and Yesh is on trial for his life.
We see the agony through the eyes of Mary, who pleads to be allowed to see Yesh and speak to him. Superb acting from Julia Thomas moved the whole audience, as her shrieks of a mother's misery tore through the church.

How hard it is to stage a crucifixion! After a somewhat clunky whirring, as the cross was winched slowly upwards, the answer here was to use a kind of lightning/electric shock effect (perhaps I'm reading too much into it to see a nod to One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest?) and Jesus is dead and buried, thanks to the offices of a bookish Joseph of Arimathea, who remembers Yeshua as a 12 year old prodigy, answering questions in the Temple.
Peter and Judas have moving monologues, Judas brandishing his noose, and then comes the finest moment for me - the harrowing of hell. In the dark, Judas stands, surrounded by all the cast who walk round and round him, echoing words that shift in and out of a conversation with Jesus. Yeshua and Judas both ask each other for forgiveness for trying to use the other, and when Judas finally struggles to find forgiveness in his heart, he hears the offer to follow his master our of his place of torment.
As the lights come up, the resurrection scenes are played out - back to the reservoir for a spot of fishing, big John comes into his own as Mary's adopted son, and Yesh reappears, back to his jaunty self, lighting up a barbeque, commissioning little Peter to "feed my lambs" and tenderly receiving his mother's love.

Weaknesses? There were a few. It's hard to make slow painful death look convincing, even with some expert writhing during the electric shock moments. The resurrection ending, for me, felt too static. There wasn't enough sense of the disciples being sent out, and Yesh was there right to the end, as if everything was back how it was. No Ascension to force the disciples to move on. Joanna's self-unmasking - Catherine Forrester calling herself by her real name at the end - fell flat for me, which was a shame after she had drawn her character so well throughout.
Honourable mentions for Sarah Lawn, who played her several small parts with great aplomb, Charlie Abbott showing both strength and tenderness in her role as Mags, and the amateurs Wayne Matthews, who became more and more convincing as the play went on, and Stuart Handysides, whose James had the role of tidying up after everybody else, and propping up a drunk Peter, filled with remorse for betraying his Lord.

I was warned that it was not a conventional play, that as a Christian there would be things I wouldn't agree with. Actually there were few such moments. I suppose the sense in which Yesh felt his way into events, rather than operating to a divine plan, might raise certain theological eyebrows, but Mark's gospel in particular hints at a Jesus who made quite a lot up as he went along, so I was comfortable with this. The treatment of Judas? No shocks there - his character has to be rehabilitated somehow, after 2000 years of opprobrium, and this was a coherent attempt.
One final big feature to mention is the references to contemporary pain. By stepping in and out of a present day setting, and a Bible times setting, the play draws in a number of current sources of pain. So redundancy is explored, bereavement of course, exploitation by the rich, self-image, and more. This is the way in which we are invited to place ourselves into this age old story, and hear the message of liberation afresh.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Ashes to Ashes

I preached this sermon on Ash Wednesday, and slightly modified, used it again on the Sunday following.
The Bible passage I mainly used is John 8:1-11.

What do you think God is like?

I’d like you to put yourselves in the shoes of an interested visitor to our service today. Imagine someone who has probably read the service booklet by now, listened to the words of the hymns and the Bible readings, and who is probably wondering what “Imposition of Ashes” might be, and whether it hurts.
What might they think we are about?
Would they be concluding that we are a nervous, somewhat paranoid bunch of people, who feel the need to check that God isn’t cross with us, rather than confidently making our own way in the world?

What would our visitor think of the God we are worshipping? Does he sound like a stern and strict enforcer of the rules?
Or is he like a violent husband who, unless his wife keeps saying that everything is her fault and she’s so sorry, will let fly with his fists again? That may be what they would think.

But I don’t think we believe in an angry sort of God, and I don’t think we are a nervous sort of people.
So I want to take a closer look at what we’re like and what God is like. I want to suggest that we’ve got a God who loves us no matter what we’re like, and that we’ve got a God who has found a way of dealing with the wrongs in the world.

The Gift

During the week I saw a programme on telly about a man who as a boy had quite mercilessly bullied a school mate. Now grown up and my age, he was tortured with guilt and shame about what he had done, and desperately wanted to meet the man he had wronged, and ask for his forgiveness.
The programme built up the tension by interviewing a psychologist, who spoke about the immense damage that bullying can do. Then Matt Baker, the presenter, did the detective work of tracking down Simon, the bullied boy, and asking if he would be prepared to meet Jon, who had done him such harm. 
Jon was a perfectly decent family man, yet as a child he’d picked on another boy and made his life a living hell. It made me think that something is very wrong in people. Even people who ought to be perfectly decent and good don’t always behave in a decent, good and righteous way. 

Jesus came for sinners

It made me think how that old fashioned word that the church still uses – sin – still has some currency. Jesus said, “I haven’t come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” So if you are righteous, holy, decent and good, I’ve one thing to say – there’s the door. Just close it on your way out, and keep us sinners warm. Because we’re the ones Jesus has come for. And in this service, we are confronting the reality that none of us are good through and through. 

We believe in Love

The truth is, we’re not all bad. Alongside that crookedness inside us all, there is also a great deal of goodness. We respond to love. We have it within ourselves to respond with kindness when we see a need. 
But the dividing line between good and bad doesn’t separate US, the good people, from THEM, the bad ones. Oh no. The dividing line runs right through the middle of our souls. And that’s the problem.
And or course God knows all about it. He knows we aren’t perfect, so he gave us a book with rules to follow, he taught us right from wrong. God’s ways, the Bible’s ways, are the basis of the law of our land.
The law is very good at telling us what we should do. But the law is a lot less good at telling us what to do when we’ve done what is not right. We tend to resort to punishment, in those circumstances. 
But punishment doesn’t put right what was wrong. It just makes the perpetrator suffer. The injured party is still injured. 
If I broke into your house and stole all your possessions, and if I was then arrested and sent to prison, you wouldn’t have your things back. I’d be suffering for my crime, but you would still be dealing with the shock of being burgled, the fear of it happening again, the loss of your treasured belongings. Two wrongs don’t make a right. 
And yet we still think that a little bit more suffering will cure our suffering. A little bit more violence will fix our own violence. One more war will end all wars. But it never does.
We need more than the law.
Jesus was different. He knew what to do with people who had done something wrong. And we’ve got a brilliant example in our gospel reading today.

Jesus and the woman caught in adultery

First of all, this is not about the woman. The pharisees weren’t wanting to know what to do with someone who had committed adultery, They knew perfectly well. They just wanted a situation to throw at Jesus, something to test him with. They just wanted to say “It’s all very well for you to criticise us for being judgemental and unloving, but let’s see you deal any differently with a crime!”

The man

He is concerned with everyone, the pahrisees, the woman, and the person who isn’t there. Let’s just mention him first. You can’t commit adultery by yourself. What happened to the man involved?
Nobody knows. All we know is that he managed to get away. Maybe he was hopelessly in love with this woman, maybe he was heartlessly using her for his own pleasure, whatever the situation, he was savvy enough to make himself scare when the religious police came knocking. He exemplifies our modern morality nicely, doesn’t he? The only thing that’s wrong is getting caught. Like HSBC thinking that making money out of tax evasion was fine, so long as nobody knew.  So the man, the absent man, is a very important part of this story.

The Pharisees

Jesus doesn’t confront them back. He crouches down.  
He doesn’t escalate. He finds something very interesting on the ground instead, until finally he says “who’s good and who’s bad here? Just show me where the dividing line goes.” And they can’t. They can’t draw a line that allows the adulterous woman to be on one side, and the upright, religious people to be on the other side. They find that it can’t be done, so they slink away.

The woman

At last Jesus turn to the woman and points out that no one has condemned her. “Neither do I condemn you, Go and leave your life of sin.” Jesus opened a door for her, and gave her the chance to step through into a new life. 
The key that opened the door was Truth.

The tv programme I saw last night had Simon, the victim of the bullying saying “Yes I will meet Jon. But I won’t forgive him. I’ll never forgive him for what he did to me.”
Jon the bully said “I can’t keep this a secret any longer, I have to put my cards on the table. I don’t know what Simon will say when we meet, but I have to believe it’s better to tell the truth about what I’ve done.”
When they met, Jon said “Simon, will you forgive me?”
And Simon said “Yes.”

The truth will set you free

The woman had no choice about telling the truth – the truth was told for her. Jon felt he had to tell the truth, because the secret of his shame was eating him up. 
We’re in the happy position of being able to choose. But if we want a door unlocked in our lives, maybe we need to tell God the truth about ourselves.
Jesus is the truth, he said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Jesus is present here, by his Spirit.
So we’re in good company, we’re in safe hands. 
And what does he have to say to us? “I do not condemn you. Go and leave your life of sin.”

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Jesus walking on water

Tomorrow I'm telling the story of Jesus walking on water. I started writing, and this is what came out.

Jesus had done another amazing thing. Yes, another one. 
What a day it had been. There was a huge crowd of hungry people, who needed a square meal but they were miles from home. All of us disciples had said to Jesus “Stop talking now, and let the people go home so they can have something to eat.” And he'd said, “No—you give them something to eat.” 
Well, we’d looked and we’d asked everywhere, and all we could find was one young boy who hadn’t eaten his packed lunch yet. Perhaps listening to Jesus had made him feel very generous, or perhaps he’d taken a look at the tiny little barley loaves (slightly mouldy in places) and the two little strips of dried fish, and didn’t fancy them. Anyway, he gave us his lunch, and we gave it to Jesus, and Jesus had given it to all those people, and then we’d spent the rest of the afternoon clearing up the bits!
And you know what? That’s not the amazing thing I’m talking about. 
No it isn’t. Because what happened after that was even more amazing. The people were so in awe of Jesus that they kept bowing down to him, and singing to him, and chanting his name, and one of them had this strip of shiny metal that he’d made into a circle and he kept trying to slip it on Jesus head—like a crown. I don’t know if it was a joke, or whether he meant it seriously, but when the crowd saw it, they all shouted for joy. “King Jesus!”
Jesus went wild. He flailed his arms about, he flung that little crown so far into the distance that nobody ever saw it again and he jumped up onto a little hill and started screaming with rage. Everybody was scared and went quiet. He started issuing orders—like I’ve never heard him before. He lined those people up like they were his soldiers, and told them he wasn’t going to be their king and he wasn’t going to be their general and if they didn’t stop thinking like that they were never welcome in his sight ever again. And he made them march away without looking back.
We stood there, not knowing what to do, and he gave us orders as well. “Go across the lake,” he said,” I’m staying here all night to pray. I’ll see you tomorrow. Go on! Go! Get out of my sight!!”
Well, we didn’t hang about. It was getting dark, and Peter had his boat, so we all climbed in and set off. The fishermen knew what to do, and they got us moving pretty fast. We wanted to get out of Jesus’ way as quickly as possible. We’d never seen him so cross. Jesus didn't wait looking at us, he turned on his heel and walked off up the hill. He always went up a hill to pray. Or a mountain. The higher the better.
We were sailing across the lake, but it was getting hard work. The fisherman puffed and pulled on the ropes, and turned the boat this way and that. Eventually they pulled the sail down and announced “We’re going to have to row.”
But there’s plenty of wind!” said Matthew.
And it’s blowing in the wrong direction, you idiot!” said Peter.
Matthew turned red and shut up. He hated being on the sea. I think it scared him. Peter was muttering under his breath. He hated it when he was on his boat and things went wrong. It made him embarrassed. Like that time when there was a really bad storm and Jesus was asleep. We had to wake Jesus up because we were afraid we would drown, and Jesus had just told the storm to be quiet and it died away.
Another amazing thing. Jesus was full of them. But Peter hated it. He never talked about that day, because that was the day Jesus had seen him in charge of his boat and totally unable to make it go where he wanted it to. He didn’t like Jesus seeing him at sea and being, you know, all at sea.
Soon, Peter’s irritation made him want to get at somebody. He chose Matthew again. “Oy landlubber—come and take a turn on the oar—perhaps you’ll learn what it’s like, pulling into the wind.” He didn't let James or Andrew stop rowing, but he stood up and held out his oar in Matthew’s direction. Matthew tried to stand up but he couldn’t keep his balance—the boat was tossing and turning, and it was nearly dark—there was no warning when a wave was coming to rock the boat. He wailed a bit, tried to take a step, and fell over Thomas’s feet. Nobody laughed, except Peter.
Come on lazybones! Get up!”
Matthew shouted back, “You think you're so brave standing there in your little boat, don’t you! You’re only doing this because you know I’m scared of water and I can’t swim! You weren’t so brave that night you thought you saw a ghost, were you?”
Yes, everybody knew that Peter was scared of ghosts. Ever since he’d had a bad dream one night and woken up shouting about it. That was the thing about Peter. He couldn’t stop his mouth, even when it blurted out secrets he didn’t want anybody else to know. We all had a joke: “If you want everybody to know something, whisper it to Peter, and tell him it’s a secret.”
But Peter didn’t say anything this time- he didn’t answer back. He was staring out to sea."What’s that??” he said.
Everybody turned to look. It was hard to see—it was very dark now, but it looked as though there was someone out there, quite close to the boat, standing still as if there was a rock just below the surface of the water, standing quite still even though the waves were going up and down. The figure started to walk, and seemed to be going past the boat—not slowed down by the wind or the waves, just walking calmly along as if it was a sunny afternoon.
It looked a little bit like Jesus.
Peter was crouching down now, hands over his face. But Matthew stared out at the figure and called out, “Jesus, is that you?”
Of course it is!” said Jesus.
When he heard his voice, Peter looked up, shot a glance at Matthew, as if to say, “Don't you dare say I'm scared.”
Jesus, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water!” he shouted.
We gasped. All of us. Even though Peter was stupid, unthinking sometimes, this was taking recklessness to a whole new level.
James called out “Peter, don’t be stu -”
But Jesus interrupted him – hand held out, he said “Yes, come.” He was walking half sideways, half backwards now, to keep pace with our boat which was drifting now, the oarsmen being too preoccupied to row. The waves splashed up and down his body, but in the half light I couldn’t see if they were making him wet.
We all held our breath as Peter lifted himself up over the edge of the boat (Matthew closed his eyes and leaned the opposite way, afraid that Peter’s bulk would capsize us). Peter put one foot, then the other, into (onto?) the water and stood up, rocking backwards and forwards like Matthew had earlier.
He glanced at Jesus, and a big grin formed on his face. A matching grin beamed back at him from Jesus. I suddenly realised – the last time I’d seen Jesus he’d been angry with us. Now – he just seemed to be having enormous fun.
But Peter couldn’t keep it up. He glanced down at the water, and breaking his eye contact with Jesus seemed to be fatal. He floundered, like a non-swimmer would, like Matthew would, and yelled “Save me Lubullubullub!” as his head disappeared under water. I saw Jesus darting forwards, bending over and straightening again with his arms under Peter’s shoulders. He grunted as one of Peter’s flailing arms caught him across the back of the head, and with a mighty heave lifted him back against the side of the boat, which lurched crazily, bringing squawks of alarm from Matthew and several others. As the boat lurched back again, Jesus bent down once more, shifted his grip to Peter’s waist and propelled him back into the boat, where he landed with a mixture of a splash and a thud in the middle of us all. A splud!
People scrambled backwards away from Peter, as he floundered to his hands and knees, half expecting him to shake himself like a dog. But he just crouched there, dripping, with his breath whistling in and out. Jesus swung a leg over the side of the boat, slapped Peter across the shoulders playfully and said, “Where’s your faith, big man?”
I looked round. Suddenly, the waves were dying down, the clouds overhead parted, and the moon peeped through.
A nervous laughter began somewhere in the boat, took hold and grew until we were all hoarse with hysterical relief.

What. An. Amazing. Day.

Monday, 18 August 2014

I love Vicky Beeching

There are three reasons why I love Vicky Beeching.
First - she's a Christian, therefore she is my sister in Christ. She is part of the same family as me, adopted by God our heavenly Father out of his great love, sharing with me and all other Christians the wonderful inheritance of eternal life.
Second - I love her music. She is an immensely talented lady, I play her songs, both on my MP3 player and (less well) on my guitar as I use them in leading worship in my church. She has great insight and the gift of communicating it clearly and attractively, as can be seen in her career in the media. She has become a Christian voice of reason - a welcome sound amidst the more strident tones of extremism.
And third - I love her because she has been honest and courageous. Some have criticised her for attacking the church in the way she chose to come out (giving an interview to a journalist known for anti-church sympathies, speaking about the harm done to her by well meaning but misguided Christian counsellors in youth camps and conferences) but they have ignored the hurt she has suffered. I admire her and applaud her.
I'll be saying more about what I think on the gay issue and why later, but what I don't want to do is wade in to an edifying mess with yet more words of fairly dubious wisdom.
Gerard Kelly once said "Religion at its best opens us to God's presence. At its worst its rules shut us down. God help us trade rigidity for relationship."
All I want to say is - I love Vicky Beeching.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Samaritan Woman: a theological discussion with a lady of ill repute

Today's sermon was based on the passage from John 4 - Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan Woman, re-imagined as a text conversation.

I love the exchange between Jesus and the unnamed Samaritan Woman - it's such a great conversation on so many levels.
But of course, it should never have happened.
There are three good reasons why the two of them should never have spoken.
First off, an unattached man would seldom initiate a conversation with a woman, unless he thought the woman was a prostitute, and he was propositioning her. And she would never reply, unless she was willing to entertain the proposition.
Secondly, a Jew would never talk to a Samaritan.
And if that wasn't enough, thirdly, a rabbi would not talk to a woman of doubtful repute. Rabbis, as upholders of the Law, would not risk defiling themselves with unnecessary contact with sinners.
So Jesus defied the conventions that said you only talk to a woman if you want sex with her, you keep yourself racially pure, and you shun her if you think she’s shoddy goods.
Remember what we were saying about subtext last week? There's a very cheeky subtext going on here, at least for the first half of their dialogue. This has led me to think what their conversation would look like if it was a flirty text chat.
First of all, you might want to read the whole passage in a proper Bible, so you know where I'm starting from.

Here we go - Jesus launches in.

Although the woman's reply sounds dismissive, it wasn't, because as I've said., the very fact she replied means that she was willing to consider his proposition. So the subtext was Come on pretty boy, let's see what you've got.

Jesus tries to move the conversation on to a different plane. I'm not exactly what you think I am, lady - that's his subtext.

The woman replies with the obvious point that she's the one with the water jar, and where is Jesus going to get this magic water from anyway? But she knows her Bible - She recalls a time when someone else asked a woman for a drink – Jacob asking his future wife Rachel, and defending her against rival shepherds.

Jesus persists, using a common theme of his. Drink this water, and you’ll get thirsty again. Drink the water that I can give you, and you’ll never thirst. He paints the fascinating and attractive picture of a stream of living water, welling up from within a person's heart.

The woman is half hooked, but still not convinced. But she asks Jesus for water. Maybe I won't have to come out here alone in the heat of the day. Of course, she only had to do that because she wasn't welcome for the girly chats that took place around the well first thing in the morning.

Then, suddenly Jesus plays hard to get. He asks her to pop home and bring her other half back so they can have a cosy family chat. This conversation is beginning to change tack.

In reply, the woman plays with the straightest of bats. Sometimes it's best not to give too much away.

The trouble is, with Jesus, the forward defensive doesn't work. He demonstrates that he knows an awful lot about her - far more than she could have imagined, or would be comfortable with.

So she deploys her diversionary tactics. This man's a rabbi, and a Jew - he won't be able to resist telling me that my Samaritan worship is all wrong. Clearly she is well practised  at deflecting unwelcome attention.

Surprise surprise - Jesus lets himself be diverted. Or maybe he wanted to talk about this all along. Either way, he tells her that a new day is dawning, when it won't matter if God is worshipped on this mountain or that mountain, but God the Father is seeking worshippers in Spirit and in Truth. He speaks as if it is an invitation - you could be one of these new worshippers, you know. God is looking for people like you.

And then she reveals her deepest hope. One day, Messiah will come, and he will explain everything. One day, someone will answer all my questions, tell me why my life has ended up like this - five times betrayed, now not daring to trust any longer, ignored and ostracised by my neighbours. One day, someone will come and show me a way out of this.

If this was a game of chess, we would shout checkmate. But this hasn't
been a battle, it's been a friendly contest of conversational wit, and both parties end up as winners. This Samaritan lady has met her Messiah. Jesus has a new believer. She rushes back, not just to fetch her partner, but to call out the whole town to see this man who told me everything I ever did.

And with the end of the passage we see the outcome. Jesus has made this woman into an evangelist. She fetched the whole town out, and they invited Jesus to stay.
They - the Samaritans - invited Jewish Jesus to stay in their houses, and eat their food and talk to them about himself. And they understand what the dense disciples don't yet - Jesus is the saviour of the world. In the verses before the final quote, we see the disciples in one of their classic dim misunderstandings:
Oh, has someone else brought him some sandwiches?
What Jesus promised this lady came true for her – there was indeed a spring within her, out of which came streams of living water, to the delight and refreshment of all who heard her.
This is the amazing privilege that we share, you and I. As Christians, we are not Jesus himself, we can’t necessarily do the things he did, but we can bring his refreshment and peace to others.
Would you like to share in this ministry? It is one of the most thrilling things to do, as a Christian, to meet people, talk to them, and have them find a well of refreshment that doesn’t come from you, but comes with you, that comes in alongside you. We can offer comfort, peace, encouragement, hope to people, not because we are skilful counsellors or trained listeners. We can do it because we bring Jesus with us into the room.
We bring his refreshment, his streams of living water, his promise of new life that surprises and delights.
It's wonderful.
Come and discover it afresh. Come and join in with Jesus' joyful harvesting of the fields that are ripe for the picking. Doesn't matter if you haven't done the groundwork - you'll find out it has been done for you, by others or by God himself. Just come, with the living water that God's Holy Spirit has put within you, and share it with the thirsty people all around us.

Nicodemus & Jesus: an elderly theologian discusses gynaecology

Today a Twitter conversation ended up in my promising to blog my sermon on the Samaritan woman Jesus met by a well.
But before I get there, I need to post last week's sermon. Stick with me if you can - the two are linked.

John’s gospel has some lovely ironies in it. One of my favourites is that in chapter 3, Jesus is in conversation with an elderly male religious scholar. In chapter 4, which we will be reading next week, he talks to a woman who has had at least five relationships, and who was a bit of a social outcast.
He talks theology with the Samaritan Woman, and he talks gynaecology with the religious scholar.
Poor old Nicodemus is doing his best. He is very open minded, compared to many of his colleagues, and he desperately wants to know if Jesus is genuine. But he’s afraid of what others will think, so he comes to Jesus at night.
Next week, we meet someone who comes to Jesus in the day, but she’s also coming at the wrong time, because everybody else fetched their water in the early morning. Because she was an outcast, she had to wait, and come in the heat of the day.
So two very different people both come to Jesus at the wrong time and get the right answer. I won’t say any more about the Samaritan Woman, I’ll save her for next week, but now it’s time to look at what Jesus said to an old man about childbirth.
Childbirth is a messy and painful business. So I’m told. What would I know? We were discussing it over the meal table the other day, and my daughter Ellie was wishing that humans laid eggs, because that sounds a lot less painful. I think if I was female, I would entirely agree.
When the Bible talks about it, it emphasises the pain and the danger involved. And before medical advances and painkilling drugs, that’s exactly what it was. But the Bible references to childbirth aren’t overwhelmingly negative – they talk also about the joy of bringing new life into the world. But it’s a joy that’s tinged with sorrow and anxiety. One very significant woman in the Bible dies in childbirth – Rachel, as she gave birth to Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son, and years later, at one of Israel’s lowest ebbs, another woman dies in childbirth and names her son Ichabod, which means “the glory has departed,” so prophesying that Israel were enduring dark days indeed.
Jesus himself, later in John’s gospel, expresses the agony and the ecstasy: “Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.” He’s telling his disciples about his impending death.


So when Jesus chooses being born as a metaphor for becoming a Christian, it’s got a whole shedload of subtext that Nicodemus would have been aware of.
What is subtext?
I think I'll let Mitchell & Webb explain.
So Jesus is saying, Yes this is a wonderful thing, but it’s going to be disruptive. Things are not going to stay the same, Nicodemus, this will be hard.
Perhaps Nicodemus can’t cope with this straight away, and so he takes refuge in not understanding what Jesus is talking about, prompting the discussion about being born of the Spirit, about the wind blowing where it wills, about or need to let go of control over what God is doing, and try instead to catch the breeze of the Spirit and be blown along in his direction.


We’re making changes at the moment – modifying our building to make it more welcoming, more suitable for our vision. Change is never universally welcomed, and perhaps some of us feel uneasy about what has been done. But it is important to remember why we are doing it. Two years ago, as we went through the Mission Action Planning process, one image grabbed us, and caught our imagination.
It was this – the image of an open door, and the light from within spilling out. It’s an invitation, which is for us to walk in and find all that God has got for us, but also that we might become like that to our community, the sort of place that people can come in to and find a welcome, find a home, find the love of God. We identified that we are a welcoming church, and we want to build on our strengths, build on what God has given us already. We want to do better, we want to be more welcoming, more including, to make it still easier for new people to come and fit right in.
So we need to remember that vision, and shape our building and our life together to fulfil the vision. We want to be blown along by the breeze of God’s Spirit.

Nicodemus – got some things right

But I don’t want to be too harsh on Nicodemus, because he he has gone out on a limb here, And it seems that he was convinced by Jesus. He is a secret supporter of Jesus for the rest of the story. He is not able to prevent the Jewish Council arresting Jesus and condemning him to death, but he does argue against it. And after Jesus’ death, he comes out and organises his burial, together with Joseph of Arimathea. So he moves a long way, if not quite all the way, as far as we see him in the story.


What are we looking for in church? Can we be more like Nicodemus, ready to look out for God’s new movement, ready to listen, ready to move, at least a step, towards what God intends? Perhaps we can.