A Sermon for this moment in our Shared Life- from Sunday 15th March
Romans 5.1-11, John 4.5-42: Covid-19
Friends, we gather here this morning in unprecedented times. We gather in an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear, of questions and hesitation. Those things are in us as well as around us. We are learning to think about things we normally don’t- is it safe to go there, is to safe to touch that handle, how can I control the world around me. Centuries of training is being undone as people get within inches of a handshake and then suddenly recall themselves. Very many people who would normally be sat here with us this morning- and will be again- are rightly sat at home instead. We are the less without them, we miss them but they are here in our missing and in the prayers and thinking which unite us in this moment.
These are unprecedented times, at least in our lifetimes. And it would be so easy and so tempting and so delusionally safe to forget who we are and give in to our least best thoughts. We could doubt everything, fill a Transit van with toilet roll, run home, lock the door and close the curtains and hate everyone else because everyone else is where the problem lies, everyone else is the issue, especially those who have travelled or look like they come from somewhere else. We could do that. It is, in some ways, a natural instinct and while we might not be there yet it might come, in some small way, in the months ahead. The thought is not the issue- it is our actions, what we do, that matters.
Because, while we are coming face to face with something of what it means to be human today, while we are asking questions about control and safety and interdependence which we have not asked in Europe for decades, we also have the chance to show that we are who we think we are in terms of our actions and attitudes and in how we respond as a Church and in how we respond as a community here in Wokingham. Are we who we say we are?
We cannot and must not lock ourselves away utterly until the storm is passed. We might rightly shut ourselves away practically, and might be obliged to do that, but we can still think of others and live generously and refuse to become embittered or overwhelmed, choosing instead community and kindness and hope and love. We can still write letters and emails, we can still pray for others and ourselves, we can still phone others, we can still be who we are. We can still be driven by hope and love. We can still be who we are.
These are unprecedented times, and yet, are they? I took the 8am BCP service last Sunday and I stood at the altar of this Church, which is really not that old compared to others but has stood here for five generations and more, and it struck me in the most reassuring way that this Church and those prayers have been there through so many challenges and threats. They have helped people to find their guiding star in the midst of turbulence and turmoil. They have been a comfort to people in the face of personal crisis and disaster and national crisis and disaster and global crisis and disaster.
Think of the people who have sat here where we sit today and prayed in this same space to the same God for the same things- during the Spanish Flu of 1918 and 1919, after their son was killed on the Somme, after news of the Holocaust hit the papers, after the death of a baby, when told they had cancer, when it all just felt too much to bear, and in all of the normal, daily stuff of life. We are not the first people to call on God in the midst of events which make us feel small and fragile. Nor will we be the last.
These might be unprecedented times for us, but they are not for the people of this town, and they are not for this Church, and they are not for our prayers and Liturgy and they are absolutely not, not, not for our God, the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ, and meets us where we are, in all of the messiness and disappointment and fear of our lives, and offers us living water.
This is the Gospel set for the day, this beautiful story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. It is a reading which is a repeated theme through my life because there is a large statue of that moment in the Cloister garden at Chester Cathedral. Chester is my home Diocese and that statue is woven into my journey of vocation. I sat by it when I went to my first meeting to say that I thought I might be called to be a priest, and I sat by it during my selection conference, and when I was told that I had been recommended, and before my ordination as deacon and again, a year later, as priest. A painting of it hangs on the wall of my study. I love it as a piece of art and I love it as part of the story because it is all about who Jesus is for us.
Jesus finds us where we are, in our daily lives, in our daily pressures. He is not interested in the careless mask we wear, the way we act out competence and fearlessness, the way we pretend we can cope.
He comes to us and he knows us and he loves us. He comes to us now, in the midst of rumours and self-isolation and all of the uncertainty and suffering which lies ahead. He comes to us now, where we are, and he sits down next to us and he breathes out and he looks at us and he smiles, and he chats and he is there with us, and he is here with us, and he will always be just here, with us, where we are. Not above us, not passing through, but with us, where we are, at our pace, by our side, with us. And not leaving us.
Hot soapy water is our best defence- caring for each other is our best plan- Living Water is our true and abiding hope.
The Living Water Jesus offers means fullness of life now and eternal life to come. It is his presence, his friendship, his salvation, his constancy. We will wash our hands and then have to do it again. We will drink water on the hottest day and our thirst will be quenched for a time. What Jesus offers is different- it is life, a constant stream, bubbling up and refreshing us. We drink from his presence and our weary hearts are irrigated. Plants bloom in the desert. Parched throats and hearts are refreshed. The Living Water is with us.
And then, through us, and because of us, and because of who we are, because of who we are together- the whole family of St Paul’s here and spread across the town at this moment- we become the stream bed along which the Living Water flows. Every phone call we make in these dark days. Every errand we run. Every prayer we offer. Every false rumour we reject. Every warm email we send. Every thoughtful act. This is Living Water, bubbling up in us and slowly, almost invisibly, inexorably, watering the desert of fear and isolation until the plants and flowers bloom again.
These are unprecedented times- yes, for us, almost certainly, but not for this building, and not for our liturgy, and not, not, not for our God, who comes to us over and over and over in Jesus Christ the Living Water, who sits with us and is with us, and stays with us, and offers us his Living Water which is hope and peace and presence:
and then gently begins to show us how not to be driven by fear and who we are not but rather how to be Living Water by the way we think and care, by the way we pray and live. We are called simply to be who we are. And in that sense nothing changes at all.