The woman at Jacob’s Well – risk taking – a sermon preached on Sunday 19th March at Hale by Mark Ward
I don’t know what it is about this gospel passage but I’m often drawn to it. Last Tuesday I was invited by the Bishop of Bath and Wells to present to his area Deans and Lay Chairs about the Deanery Mapping process we have undertaken in this diocese and deanery. If that doesn’t mean much to you, we all did a benefice map a couple of years ago which set our direction of travel and then we did another map for the deanery. I used this passage that day to talk about taking risks.
So why am I so fascinated by the story? Well you only have to watch a piece of period drama to realise that until not so long ago there were tensions and etiquettes to keep around meetings between a single man and a single woman, indeed if you had lived in my parents’ house in the late 1970s you would have witnessed my mother turning up in the living room about every 3 minutes to check Margaret and I weren’t up to something she disapproved of – which naturally we weren’t! Well Jesus, a single man broke every rule in the book by talking to a woman alone, and what was worse she was married, or at least she wasn’t married to the man she lived with which made the whole thing worse, and to cap it all she was from Samaria, and the Jews and Samaritans had a bit of an English-French thing going. So the whole situation was wrong.
We all know what happened – he met the woman, they had a tricky conversation about her domestic arrangements and then she took him home to meet the neighbours, who also incidentally were Samaritans. Doesn’t sound like much of a recipe for success does it but at the end of the passage we learn that many people came to know him.
But given all the risks – why on earth did he do it? I think for more than one reason:
He wanted the woman to change her ways, and as far as we know he succeeded. He sat on the well cover in the middle of the day because he knew that was the only time she would be there as she wanted to avoid the neighbours, and so she really couldn’t argue with him about her situation.
He wanted to meet the local people and heal the rift between his nation and theirs – and he achieved that too.
But more than that, he wanted his disciples to see that what he had to offer wasn’t just for the Jews but also for everyone else, you and me included. He was saying I can offer you something that exists way outside ethnic boundaries and something which is open to everyone without having to obey all the rituals of past religion. He went in human form to be with people where they were – notice that – he went to them; he didn’t expect them to come to him.
He deliberately disobeyed the Jewish law, why, because the law had become all about ritual and hypocrisy and he wanted no more of it – he wanted people to simply get back to being in a relationship with God and the only two rules were, love God and love one another.
But let me come right back to this – he took an enormous risk and it could have all gone very wrong – his disciples could have left him, the Jewish leaders could have tried to haul him up before the religious courts and his reputation could have been torn to shreds.
Was it worth it – was it worth the risk? Well clearly he felt it was.
I talk a lot about risk in my day job. It’s my job to weigh up the risks of doing or not doing things according to what I refer to as the Trussell Trust’s appetite for risk. We have decided the level of risk we are willing to take in different circumstances and I have to decide if the idea in front of me fits within or outside that, and if it is outside it can we change the plan to bring it inside, or alternatively should I suggest that on this occasion the extra risk is worth it. Do you remember the Baron’s trail we had in Salisbury in 2015 – that was a huge risk which could have been a financial disaster but it seemed like an opportunity we could not miss, so we went out on a limb and it payed off and earned us almost £250,000, I just didn’t sleep for a year.
I have no idea whether Jesus weighed up the risk or not, or whether for him any risk was worth taking to bring people to faith. I suspect, given what happened to him, he felt that any risk was worth it.
So then – here’s the tricky bit. This isn’t just a story with a happy ending. It is an example to us all. That’s why I’m quite fed up with the Bishops at the moment about their attitude to gay marriage. Ignore the actual issue itself. In my view they should come out and say what they think rather than coming up with an unworkable compromise – being gay is ok, being a gay priest is ok, we still love you, but if you get married and you are a priest we won’t recognise you. I’m not saying any of the issue is right or wrong, although I do have a view if you want to ask me, but in my view the bishops should stand up and tell us what they think rather than attempting to please everyone and pleasing no one.
Let’s bring it a bit closer – we live in this safe world of church, or so it seems. We come here, we all know what’s going on and we expect pretty much the same thing every time. Yet this safe place and the way we go about has put Christianity in the UK, especially in the Church of England onto a trajectory which could wipe us out in a few years. We are losing people at a vast rate of knots but we continue to do the same thing.
If Jesus is our model what should we do? I would venture we should take more risks. We need to be out there meeting people in places where we engineer interactions – it doesn’t have to be with the local lady of ill repute, it could be propping the bar up at the Horse and Groom but we won’t spread the Gospel of God’s love in here.
Hopefully we will soon get a real chance to experiment. Last October some of us went to the diocesan conference for a week and whilst there we discussed twelve possible projects for the diocese to undertake over the next three years or more. In Bishop’s Council 12 or so of us whittled these 12 down to 4 based on the feedback from the conference and on Thursday evening we put those four items to Diocesan Synod who decided to risk backing us. One of those four may have a very direct effect on us here, because our benefice of Avon Valley is one of only three pilot projects called “The benefice of the future” which is all about working out new ways that rural churches can work together to provide all the things that the community they serve needs. We will have pretty much a blank sheet of paper, a dedicated mentor and some money to try out how to make ourselves relevant to the communities around us. It means we won’t try to do everything everywhere but we will have the resources to be able to tell people what we do in different places and I hope to develop new ways of being church.
Let me finish with just one idea that occurred to me. Everyone goes on and on about getting new people, young people into the church, but that’s all well and good as long as we don’t forget all the people who have faithfully kept these places going. In Salisbury there is a health care company that looks after people who are housebound. As part of the service they install a monitor in the house just like a TV screen. Each morning and evening, irrespective of whether a visit is planned, the company calls up each of their clients and they have a conversation where each can see the other. That allows the care company to assess the person very easily – do they look ok, have they got dressed, do they look happy or not and the client can also see the person they are talking to so it’s proper company at least twice a day.
What if we could dial up Vivian this morning so he could see us and we could see him and he could be part of this service. We could have as many people dialled in as are here – one of them could lead the readings or the prayers – they could be fully part of this service even though they struggle to leave home, how amazing would that be? If we got known about we could have a virtual congregation with us from almost anywhere as long as we could make the technology work. And I haven’t even thought about what we could do outside the church.
So, I know we can’t go around breaking the law otherwise we find ourselves doing as I have to next Friday, attending a speed awareness course in Eastleigh courtesy of Norfolk police Last Christmas Eve, although in my defence I was certain I was in a 40 limit! But it doesn’t mean we can’t take other risks that help us share God with others.
I for one can’t wait.