Sunday, 19 March 2017

Encounters at the Well - the Samaritan Woman and witnessing in Nablus today

Homily - Lent 3     Year A            19.iii.2017             

(Lectionary: Exodus 17.1-7; Romans 5.1-11; John 4.5-42)

We’ve just heard a Gospel reading that’s too long to print into the weekly pewsheet - and so long that you might wonder where to start unpacking what it’s about. It’s about Jesus, of course, and more importantly again it’s about Jesus and his relationship to other people and to one person in particular. It’s the story of an encounter - his meeting with a Samaritan woman at a place known traditionally as Jacob’s Well. It’s a dialogue which doesn’t follow one particular thread but goes off this way and that. It breaks off as the woman goes away and later returns - with other people including the disciples and the woman’s fellow-townspeople coming on the scene as well. At the end you might feel confused. Where did the conversation get them? What happened to that woman? What is the point of all that discussion about the place of true worship? What might have happened next? - to the woman? to the other Samaritans who come to belief in Jesus? What happens during the two days Jesus spent with them? - but we don’t hear anything of what went on during that time…

We’re not going to get all those questions answered in just a few minutes now. Except to say that this is a human encounter. St. John’s Gospel so often has a theological point to make. But here the point is that critical issues about our faith have to be worked out in everyday circumstances - in the encounter with strangers, in confusion as to what anybody is talking about, in hospitality, in the need to break off to attend to other things that demand our attention. If you wonder what is going on between Jesus and the woman he meets at the Well, then perhaps you could ask what would be going on if you were part of that encounter. What would you think of Jesus, what would he make of you, how would your conversation go - and where would it get you? How would things go on from there? These are questions to reflect upon, not to answer in a hurry.

If there’s one verse from all those long readings we’ve heard today that might serve as a key to help our understanding, I think it’s one in today’s reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “While we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly…” It’s part of a bigger argument for St. Paul. What the death of Jesus does is something we’ll explore in the days of Passiontide before Easter. But for now, it’s those words, “at the right time…”

Time and place are all-important. The distinctive thing about the Christian faith is that it grows out of the relationship of God and humanity. God is seen to be at work in human history, God is revealed in human flesh, God meets us in Jesus - often unexpectedly as in the case of today’s Gospel story - but always “at the right time…” - in the right place.

Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman is at a particular time in a very particular place. “Jacob’s Well was there,” we’re told. That would resonate with any Jew - a place marker on the journey of Jacob as he came to understand God’s purpose for him and for his people. But it’s also a place which would emphasise the divisions between Jews and Samaritans, two peoples with an ancestor in common, but divided on how to practise their religion and put their faith into practice.

Jacob’s Well is in Sychar, to use the Biblical name. For Israelis, it’s now known as Shechem; for Arabs, it’s the modern city of Nablus. I remember nearly 40 years ago, having Samaritan residents pointed out to me as I was driven through the streets - in 2015 there were only a total of 777 Samaritans recorded throughout the whole of Israel and the West Bank, a tiny remnant, and since the 1990s they’ve been unable to live in Nablus itself following the violence of the first Palestinian Intifada. But it’s likely that many of their ancestors were assimilated into the predominantly Muslim population of this third biggest city on the West Bank.

And the city of Nablus today is a bustling city. Visiting it again last month as part of our pilgrimage, I’d carried preconceived ideas. I’d remembered the first time I’d gone there - just a quick visit to the place said to be Jacob’s Well, that place where Jesus met with the Samaritan woman. I’d remembered looking up and seeing Israeli soldiers watching from the rooftops. And I think that left me with a feeling that this was a town to get in and out of as swiftly as possible for the sole purpose of visiting that Biblical site.

But now I realise I was wrong. So much of the West Bank is scarred by occupation by Israeli forces, by the incursions of settlers, by restrictions placed on those who live there as to where they can go and when; and they live with uncertainties about whether there’ll be water in the taps or electricity to heat and light their homes - as well as lots of rubbish in the streets. But as we drove through Nablus people were simply getting on with life: in the centre the streets were choked with traffic; there were stalls on the streets and shopping malls too; life and work were carrying on. I’d expected hostility - but instead this was normality and if people in other cities of the Middle East were able to live in such a positive fashion the region would be the better and certainly more peaceful for it.

The Christian presence is tiny - about 650 in a city approaching 200,000 - and Anglicans are very much a minority amongst the Christians. There’s much we can learn from them.

The majority of Christians are Orthodox and we visited their church, built over the place where Jesus is said to have talked with the Samaritan woman. We drew water from the Well - some were brave enough to drink from it. We prayed and sang in the crypt around the Well - and then there was time to look at the church. When I’d visited it five years ago, I couldn’t remember it from my previous first visit. This time I found out why - it hadn’t been there 40 years ago. It was built as a memorial to the parish’s previous priest, Philoumenos, a Cypriot who had served his congregations in Palestine for over 40 years until he was found murdered by the Well - probably killed as he’d said his evening prayers. Jewish extremists had issued threats a week before, demanding that all Christian symbols should be removed from the shrine. No one has ever been charged with the murder. Distrust and hatred could have held sway.

But his successor, Fr. Justinus, dedicated himself to building the new church which stands there now. It’s a fitting resting place for Philoumenos who is buried in the upper church - and it’s both a place of beauty and a living witness to Christian faith in this overwhelmingly Muslim city. Philoumenos was not the first inhabitant of the city to have died for his faith. In the middle of the second century a pagan Palestinian philosopher called Justin came to faith in Jesus Christ. His was to be one of the most important contributions to the Christian understanding of how Jesus could be both God and human - and for the sake of his faith he died. He’s been remembered ever since as Justin Martyr. The word martyr has a double sense: these days normally used for someone who has died through religious mistrust and hatred; but the more basic meaning is simply “witness.” It’s to believe something and act on that belief, regardless of the inconvenience or cost.

So we visited that Orthodox Church which so visibly maintains a witness built on a faith expressed in that city for 2,000 years. But we also visited a rather smaller and humbler place - St. Philip’s Church, which has been an Anglican presence in Nablus since the middle of the 19th century. Its witness may seem less obvious, but the Anglican Church has maintained a school - now a kindergarten - there since 1846, and during the last 170 years it has provided for Jews, Muslims and Samaritans as well as Christians. For over 100 years there has also been a hospital, built by the Anglican Church: St. Luke’s Hospital with its 60 beds. Both school and hospital are open for people of all faiths. The parish priest, Fr. Ibrahim, spoke of the pressures of life in general and for Christians in particular. For such a small community it meant a lot that visitors should come from other countries. For our part, we could only be struck by how much he and his people were doing with so many difficulties and constraints set against them. And perhaps we need to recognise how our failure of perception has been part of the problem. There had been an Anglican presence in Nablus since the 1840s, but the first Arab priest was appointed only in 1901. The first Anglican missionaries preached only to the Jews of the town - but they had the Bible in Arabic from 1865 and it was the Arabs themselves who asked to learn more. And so now it is an entirely Arab congregation - and one which works to foster harmony. The cloth on the church’s altar had pockets sewn into it where people can leave their prayers. It’s not only Christians who make use of it - Muslim visitors also leave their prayers there.

Our visit was a humbling experience. How important is our faith to us? How much difficulty will we put up with to practise it? What do we hope to share with others? Do we trust that our prayers will be heard? - and encourage others in their prayer?

Today’s Gospel reading - set in that city now called Nablus - shows a clash of cultures, a confusion of faiths, deeply held and contradictory convictions. But in the end the encounter of Jesus and the woman at the Well is about two people who practise mutual hospitality, who overcome suspicion, listen to one another - and so come to a better understanding. If only we could do the same!

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Saturday 4th March: “Come and See”

11am - 3pm Parish Open Day

Our Parish Event in the Talking Jesus initiative

Find out more of what we’re about:

·         Why do we build churches like this?
·         What are fonts and altars for?
·         What about the stained glass?
·         What does it have to do with what we believe?
·         No big talks - a chance to look around, explore our beautiful church, see what we’re up to and ask questions

Drop in & displays.
Take a good look at our church and hall - refreshments & more!

Please note service times on Sunday 5th March:

8.00a.m. Eucharist
- said, from the Book of Common Prayer at St. Cuthbert’s
9.30a.m. United Eucharist
- at Christ Church, Consett

Our regular Sunday Service time is 10.30a.m. all other Sundays

You’re always welcome!

Saturday, 25 February 2017

I met the other evening with Pat Craighead and Stephen Herbert, my fellow-leaders of our recent Pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The purpose was to talk through how we felt it went, what was good, what could have been better. And we’ve now sent in our report to the pilgrimage company.

And what do I feel? First, I think, that it exceeded all my expectations. Asking pilgrims to pay as much as such a pilgrimage costs, to give up their time, in one case to give up their job(!) - and with half the pilgrims coming as a party from St. Cuthbert’s - I worried about whether it would measure up. But we were so well served. There couldn’t have been a better way to see all we saw, to do what we did and to experience something of what it meant to live in a land with such a history, such a deep significance to people of three major religions and such an on-going story which includes tension, repressed conflict, joys, sorrows and hope.

Second, it’s actually too soon to know how I really feel. So much went into the 11 days we spent in the Galilee, the West Bank and Jerusalem - not to mention the 26 or so services we shared! It will take some reflection to work out the difference the pilgrimage has made to us. We’ll need to be ready for what was sown in our experiences to take root and emerge in weeks, months, even years to come. The purpose of pilgrimage is to be open to what you find - to allow it to change you. That’s an openness to God’s grace. And pilgrimage doesn’t necessarily require going somewhere physically. We can make it in daily life - Lent, as it gets underway in March, is a sort of 40 day pilgrimage, asking where do we want our journey with Jesus to his Passion, the Cross and Resurrection to take us?

Third, it was so good to travel together with other people - and especially with people I knew. Such were our numbers that there was a real sense of being the parish on the move - not only seeing where our faith comes from, but living it, and asking where it might take us. Along the way we encounter problems that need to be overcome (thankfully very few), causes for joy and anxiety, challenges to our perceptions - even to our understanding of who we are. That’s what pilgrimage should be!

Martin Jackson

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Come and See!

That’s the title we’re giving to an Open Day we’ll be holding at the beginning of March - see the full page advert on page 10 in our Parish Magazine! It’s our parish contribution to the Talking Jesus initiative which is bringing bishops from all over the North of England to share in doing just that - Talking Jesus. I think quite a few of us have felt a bit threatened at the prospect; all those bishops and being asked to think about what our faith means to us, and inviting other people to share it! So I wondered if the suggested title for our Open Day, Come and See, was an attempt to tone it down. Then I noticed the title that I’d suggested for use on the orders of service we’re producing for this month’s Holy Land Pilgrimage - it’s “Come and See: A Journey in the Steps of Jesus.”

So I have no cause for complaint! Come and See - it’s a chance to invite local people to see what we’re up to at St. Cuthbert’s in both the church and the hall: lots is going on, there’s lots to be proud about, there’s lots that speaks about our faith. We’re asking people to help make the day happen and work. That’s something more than getting a few reluctant people to sign up to put on teas or keep a cold church open for the odd visitor. It’s an opportunity for us all. Come and See - the invitation is to us all. Please come in great numbers - just being there is the first things we need you to do - and bring people along. It’s not onerous but an opportunity!

We’ve got the bishops and a team of ordinands from Cranmer Hall to do the “talking.” Come and chat with them (no heavy lectures). I’m going to be there and ready to talk about special aspects of the church - what do you see in those wonderful windows? what are those different features about? why have a font or an altar? I hope it will appeal to the curious. We should all be curious! Lots of people milling about, I hope - a new appreciation of why we are here.

Come and See. That’s the invitation Jesus gave to the first disciples - we don’t know quite what he said or what they found. But it made a difference. That’s my hope too - for our pilgrims, and for us all.    MJ

Friday, 16 December 2016

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Time is of the essence

This two-month issue of the Parish Magazine covers three seasons of the Church’s year: Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. Of the three it’s Advent which is probably the most neglected. Christmas has carols, cribs and shepherds, Epiphany has wise men and glorious gifts. Advent is more abstract. Its traditional themes of the Four Last Things - Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell - are not easily dealt with, and not really matters that most people want to think about. On top of which Advent tends to get pushed out of the way. It’s become “pre-Christmas:” a time of anxiety in shopping for presents, worrying about who will get missed off the greetings card list, and getting ready for the day or two when supermarkets will be closed and we fear we might run out of the excessive amounts of food and drink we plan to consume (and all those parties before Christmas).

But Advent properly observed is a corrective to this. The one aspect which survives in popular culture is the Advent Calendar. It’s become a sort of countdown to Christmas with a chocolate a day. But fundamentally it is about “time.” We number the days. The Psalmist had prayed that we may learn to “number our days” - and that’s to say that we need to recognise the preciousness of time. Time we are given - a gift, God’s gift to us. Time which is an opportunity not to be wasted.

In the Church’s Calendar, Advent is the beginning of a new year - so can we use it as a time of resolution? Right from the start, be patient even as we get anxious about Christmas preparations. Learn how to pace ourselves. Give up being so caught up in activity that it leaves us only fit to slump. How can I best use my time? - for my own benefit; to help others; to spend time with God. “We wait for the Lord” in this season of Advent. Let’s recognise that virtue of waiting, and be all the more joyous in our Christmas celebration. MJ

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Cryogenics and the Feast of Christ the King

Homily at this morning's Eucharist 

One of the saddest news stories of the last week must surely be the one about the 14 year old girl who knew she was dying of a rare form of cancer - with no hope of any cure. She wanted to live, and she wanted to live so much that she asked if her body could be cryogenically frozen in the hope that some time in the future -  perhaps hundreds of years in the future - a cure for her condition might be found and somehow the doctors might restore her to life. She isn’t the first to have made that request. But because of her age she was too young to make a will and too young to determine what should be done with her body when she died. So she asked her mother, who agreed. Her grandparents came up with the £37,000 it would cost to dehydrate her cells so that they wouldn’t be destroyed by ice crystals and to drain her body of blood which would be replaced by a sort of anti-freeze, to pack her in dry ice and send her to a storage facility in America where her remains would be stored in a canister of liquid nitrogen. But her father objected - which is why her request became a news story. It required a High Court judge to determine what should happen - and he ruled that the girl’s mother should have the right to decide. So the mother set in motion the process for freezing and storing the girl’s body. The girl died within 10 days of the court ruling. The girl and her mother spent her last hours together - the girl apparently was comforted by having her request granted, though reports are that the mother was distracted by knowing just what would have to be done immediately following her daughter’s death.

The story of a young person’s death is tragic in itself. This story is so much more tragic again. So much more life that could have been lived - the girl, her family and the judge knew that; we know that. The desperate clinging to life - that is human in itself. But the still further element of tragedy is that the whole process of letting go in the face of death is denied - this cannot be a good death - in a sense because death is denied: the hospital could not do its work properly; the father was denied access to his daughter; the mother herself seems not to have been able to be attentive in a time when every moment of the present is so precious; the girl herself clung to a hope - but we are left asking if she was sold only an empty hope. And no one seemed prepared to explore the aftermath. How can loved ones grieve for someone who has died but then been left in a state where there’s that most remote possibility of some sort of resuscitation? No grave to visit or place to lay flowers, but the knowledge of a large aluminium canister in which bodies are hung upside down for centuries or until the money runs out or there’s a power failure or leakage in the coolant system. And to what state could life be restored? Would anyone have the will to bring the girl back to life even if it should be possible? What sort of life after the damage of disease and the complications of the preserving process? And with whom would that life be shared? Our living is made worthwhile because of the context and relationships in which we live. Who would be this girl’s loved ones for her?

It’s a sad story for our secular age, where God doesn’t get a look in. Actually I think there are plenty of ethical issues even for the most hardened secularists - at least if they approach them from a properly humanist perspective. What is it truly to be human? That’s the question we need always to ask. It doesn’t seem to have entered the equation in this tragic case. And there’s no sense at all that to be human is to be made in the image of God. We are made in God’s image, even with all the flaws we possess of human character, frailty and disease. We are God’s creation, not lightly to be handled, even if we might be aware most acutely of its imperfections as we perceive them. And because we are made in God’s image, we have a hope - even in the face of death - of redemption. Our bodies and our minds, even our abilities and our relationships, are less than perfect - but we are loved. That’s the affirmation we can hold to as Christians, even in the darkest of circumstances, even when we can’t make that affirmation ourselves. If only there could have been someone there for that family to affirm it for them as that poor girl faced death. If only they could commend her to God’s care and protection - to know that he holds her in his heart; to say in the words of that simplest of prayers, May she rest in peace.

That needs to be our prayer for them now. I’ve thought about their plight as I’ve pondered today’s readings for the Eucharist. The plea of one of the thieves crucified with Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus’ response from his own cross: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Is this a real promise? There’s no theological underpinning: Christians and others continue to argue over the nature of life after death. There’s the other thief who simply mocks from his own cross - hard words denying hope in the imminence of death from one who is paying the penalty for his own failures in life. But that is not to say that he himself is without hope. Jesus promises hope to the one we call “the repentant thief” / “the penitent thief.” But he doesn’t himself speak words of condemnation against the thief who derides him. And Jesus’ words of hope in Paradise are not an anodyne response. We look at Jesus on the Cross and see one who will himself cry, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Forsakenness is a natural emotion in the face of death. And it’s one that Jesus himself feels. He shares it as he dies on a Cross under the inscription, “This is the King of the Jews.” This is our King, Christ the King. But a King with a difference. Without special protection, without bodyguards. Whose throne in this world turns out to be a Cross - but who can because of that all the better reach out to us from it. Vulnerable - as any of us. God’s Son - and affirming our call to be his children. Let’s remember that for all who face their own Calvary - and for ourselves.

(Readings at the Eucharist: Jeremiah 23.1-6; Colossians 1.11-20; Luke 23.33-43)