Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The road that leads to blindness: a reflection on John 9

Over the last few weeks, I have rediscovered the wonderful metaphors and layers of meaning that are part and parcel of the gospel of John. The juxtaposition of night/day, light/dark, coupled with the symbols of living water and bread of life, metaphors about shepherds and vines, make this gospel both a spiritual and literary goldmine.

And we find that in this week’s lectionary reading, the story of the healing of the man born blind, Jesus again begins with statements about day and night, and light and dark. If you know John’s gospel, you would know this is a preface that alerts readers immediately to expect a story about ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. And in this story, we meet another symbol used by John. You know the old phrase “seeing is believing”? John is doing something similar here, and uses "seeing" as a metaphor for “believing”.

The man whose sight is restored by Jesus starts a journey towards understanding and belief. Unlike the Samaritan woman, the man does not understand who Jesus is suddenly or easily. He needs Jesus to seek him out a second time for that.

Now this blind man might have been a little slow to grasp the truth. Nevertheless, his openness and growing faith contrast sharply with the doubtful questions of his neighbours, the reluctance of his parents to admit to knowing anything, and the judgmental reaction of many of the religious establishment. John’s description is quite evocative, and you can almost hear the controversy.

‘What?’, the Pharisees cry. ‘Healing on the Sabbath, and breaking with tradition? How can this Jesus be "of God"?’ The blind man’s parents are fearful, and the Pharisees dispute with one another over these questions. The obvious moral of John’s story is that those who see physically in this story, do not “see” spiritually. They do not know Jesus. "The man born blind" comes to see God's truth much more clearly. All the other characters in the story remain unchanged through the story; by the end, they have learnt nothing. By contrast, the healed man's life is transformed, and he finds himself in a very different place by the end of the story.

This to me was the obvious storyline a sermon should pursue. But other things were niggling away at me, initially raised by a general discussion of John’s gospel at the lectionary study group John and I convene in the Central zone of our Presbytery. So I could have followed this course for a sermon. But for me, there is much more to this story than the obvious meaning. I decided to take the opportunity to explore other things in the story. And at this point, I need to express a debt of gratitude to Rev. Dr Jione Havea, Lecturer in Hebrew Bible at United Theological College, who taught me the importance of considering “the other” (meaning the other characters, the ones other than the one I naturally identify with) in the story.

So who are these ‘others’ in the story? What is their story and should we consider how we might identify them? Are some of these ‘other’ characters closer to ourselves than what we are prepared to admit?

For most us, I suspect that it is very tempting to identify with the man born blind, rather than with the disciples, the neighbours, the Pharisees or the parents. We want to see ourselves as humble believers, convinced that we would have recognised Jesus if we had been in the village when the miracle happened.

But in all honesty, I also suspect that at different times, we belong more rightly with the disciples, the neighbours, the Pharisees and the parents.

Let us consider this further. We are probably not used to even thinking about these characters, and what their motivations and feelings might have been.

Firstly, let’s look at the disciples. They are faithful servants of Jesus. They have given up much to follow him. But they can’t help being prey to superstition and some awkward grass roots beliefs. They assume, on the basis of such community rumours and beliefs, that the blind man has sinned, or his parents have sinned. Why else would he be blind?

Surely here is something we can identify with. How many times have we listened to community rumours and retold the stories as fact? How many times have we blamed someone for their situation? If only that person got a job, or stopped drinking, or attended church, their life would be different. The homeless, the poor, the desperate of our society are seen as bringing ruin on themselves. They have sinned, and this is their punishment. Can we honestly admit to ourselves that there are times when we have acted and thought this way?

Next we meet the neighbours. They would be people involved with their community, and with each other. They probably shared a grinding stone, some livestock and some crops together. The women may have worked together. The men would have made decisions at the town gate, or public area. This is how first century communities fed, clothed and policed themselves. They were probably hard working decent people. But they do not all recognise the former blind man, despite his protests as to his identity. The implication is that they have often walked right past him, but never really seen him.
Presumably he sat on the street every day, and every day they walked right by him. After his sight was restored, they weren’t sure who he was -- others had to fetch his parents before to identify him. Or maybe they'd previously identified him by the sin they thought was inside him. For whatever reason, it would seem that they had never looked him in the eye or really noticed his face.

How much direct notice do we take of the poor and marginalised in our society? Do we look at them directly and know them, or creep past averting our eyes? As God's people, can we look people of all the poorer nations in the eye before we take their money, or buy the cheap goods produced for us in sweatshop conditions? And in the face of the recent election, are we seduced to see our fellow Australians who are less fortunate as columns and figures representing social problems? Can we face the people in need of shelter as refugees, or do we reduce them to symbols to use for political or financial gain, or to prop up the worldview we are comfortable with? Can we honestly admit to ourselves that there are times when we with the neighbours?

Next, we have the parents of the man born blind. They deflect the Pharisees’ questions, and while acknowledging that he is their son, they refuse to give an opinion as to how he received his sight. Ask him yourself, they say. They are afraid of the consequences if they tell the truth. John tells us that if anyone confessed Jesus as Messiah, they were put out of the synagogue. These parents must have known they were guilty of fudging the facts, and not bravely saying that Jesus healed their son. They want to keep on good terms with their neighbours, and fellow worshippers. This is entirely understandable, when you live in a community where everyone is dependent on each other. But their silence may have contributed to their son being driven out of the village.

I suspect that many of us behave this way sometimes. How often do we see an injustice and look away, because we don’t want to be involved? How often do we fail to take action to protect the vulnerable of society? How often do we fail to speak out when we should? We do not share our faith openly because we fear criticism. We do not invite people into our church because we fear rejection. I think we are like the parents much of the time, keeping quiet. Unlike the blind man, we are unwilling to risk all to support Jesus.

Last of all, we have the Pharisees. The puzzled neighbours have fetched them. After all, they think, we can trust those who are our church leaders to guide us. But the Pharisees are divided. Some think because Jesus appears to have broken the law, he cannot be a man of God. Others saw it differently. Someone who performs signs must be from God. By the end of the story, they drive the man out of the village.

Christians tend to condemn all Pharisees because of this sort of behaviour, behaviour commonly represented in all four gospels. We use "Pharisee" as a synonym for "hypocrite". This is very unfair. The Pharisees were not moral or legalistic bean-counters who didn't care about justice. They were not in the habit of lurking in grain fields to catch unwary Sabbath transgressors. Indeed, the prophetic books cited most by Jesus, Paul, and the early Christians, were books like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Micah. They are in the Jewish canon of scripture because the Pharisees saw them as inspired works. The Pharisees were also the ones that worked in the rural communities of their day, helping people to live in accordance with God’s will, interpreting the intricacies of the Law to them, offering pastoral care. As a result, they were very popular leaders.

The particular Pharisees in this story talk more about God’s law than actually putting it into practice. They spend so much energy figuring out how God's justice and God's compassion were operating in the situation, that they have no energy left to believe the reality of the blind man’s restored vision when it's right under their noses.

Do we as people devote more energy to talking about what Jesus said rather than emulating what Jesus did? Churches are often unwittingly guilty of this. Or perhaps we might find ourselves occupied with our own modern version of "ritual purity" and "preserving the law". Does tradition matter more than change in our church today? Do we have unspoken rules about ‘how things are done’ and where the furniture goes? Do we fail to see what really matters and judge others who do not conform to our standard of Christian? Like the Pharisees, as the respectable religious establishment, we might be blind to the truth right in front of us, especially if that truth is outside the normal borders of whow we define the practice of religion. Can we honestly admit to ourselves that there are times when we most closely identify with the Pharisees of the story?

In our world, as in the world of Jesus, what we see, what we know and how we act will really determine who we are. The story gives us many different ways of seeing the world. All these positions have their strengths and weaknesses. But one thing is clear in the story - it’s not just what we see or don’t see, but how we interpret what we see that determines our actions, our responses and our beliefs. We can look at the poor and see unfortunate victims of circumstance, or as lazy people who refuse to work. We can see them as dignified human beings making the most of a tough situation, or as foreigners with no right to be here.

We can look at climate change and its science and see a natural cycle which has just coincidently happened to hit us now, or we can accept that human actions are putting our planet under pressure.

We can look at issues of consumption, oil use, immigration, education and health care, and see every issue from different perspectives. Ultimately, what we see and what it means to us must flow from the example of Jesus. What did Jesus say and do about poverty? How did he view the natural world, political power, the use of violence, the treatment of sickness, and equality and human dignity?

I am grateful to John van de Laar, on the Sacredise website (http://sacredise.com/lectionary/2011/03/lent-4a/), for raising these questions. He gives expression to this issue far better than I can. He states that “If we are to follow Christ into a world of justice, we will have to wrestle with these questions and not see them as outside of the realm of faith. “

I will conclude by giving the last word to John van de Laar. He says:

In our daily lives we all make choices (consciously or subconsciously) about what we will see and what we won’t. It’s tempting to choose not to see the suffering and injustice in our world – to switch off the news, and to ignore reports of grief, war and trauma. It’s tempting to avoid seeing certain people and to allow them to just blend in with the landscape, removing their need and struggle from our vision. It’s tempting to avoid seeing God’s truth and grace in those we disagree with, and who we would rather see as “all bad”. It’s tempting to avoid seeing the brokenness in those we support and agree with and to see them as “all good”. It’s tempting to avoid seeing the resources, the opportunities and the capacity we have for making a difference, and to rather believe we can do nothing. But, if we have really seen Jesus, and if we have truly seen God’s reign proclaimed and manifest in Christ, then we have to confront how we see things, and allow God’s grace and mercy, God’s truth and justice to change our seeing and shed light on our world, our relationships and our neighbourhoods. And, once again, our seeing must be informed by God’s different perspective where the greatest are the least, and where everyone – even a young shepherd boy, or a carpenter from the countryside – can make significant differences in the world.

Amen to that.

Seeing the Signs
by John van de Laar
© 2010 Sacredise

It would be much easier, Jesus,
to ignore the hard truths around us:
the widening gap
between rich and poor,
the consistency with which the powerful
get their way,
the bending of rules and self-enrichment
of the connected and influential,
the lack of adequate care, protection and resources
for the most vulnerable among us;
we would rather not see these signs.

It would be much easier if we could just pretend everything was alright,
if we could prophesy goodness and light,
and ignore the darkness and evil;
if we didn’t have to offend the status quo,
or challenge the comfortable;
if we could convince ourselves that the cross,
was just a one time thing –
your calling, not ours.

But, we can’t do this, Jesus, because we know too much;
your Gospel has captured us and opened our eyes,
and we have become slaves to love,
the love that must speak for the voiceless,
the love that must challenge injustice,
the love that draws lines of division
between truth and denial,
between compassion and expediency.

Give us the courage to acknowledge what we see,
to name the signs of the times,
to disrupt the ‘way things are’
in the name of what should be,
to divide in order to heal and restore,
and to be crucified for the sake of love.


http://www.sacredise.com/pages/RCL/Year%20C/Prayers/seeingsigns.html (accesses 30/3/2011 at 4.50 pm)

Monday, 28 March 2011

The public face of politics?

The last few weeks have certainly proved to be an interesting time up here in Wauchope. We have weathered an unrelenting and negative advertising election campaign, and have seen NSW Labor get a severe punishing at the polls. Deservedly so, I might add.

Our local Member, Andrew Stoner, has been returned with a thumping majority. He has been nicknamed “Mr 72%” as a reflection of his voter popularity. Probably “Mr 69%” is a more accurate figure, but there is no arguing his majority vote.

The sitting Independent member of Port Macquarie electorate has been ousted, and another National party person has comfortably won that seat.

What has drawn my attention during this time has been the unrelenting public and personal attacks on the sitting Federal member, Rob Oakeshott, the now ex Independent State member Peter Besseling and Tony Windsor, who is not really very close to this electorate at all, but who has also come in for a caning for his association with our Federal member. I don’t know if this was peculiar to this area, or whether this is normal National Party behaviour.

What is going on in Australian politics that have allowed defamatory personal attacks against someone’s character to become accepted? Why is this more important than policy statements or performance?

I find it deeply disturbing that this trend seems to have become the norm. I am tired of hearing statements such as “Well, politics is a rough game. If you don’t like being attacked, you shouldn’t be in it.”

I expect our politicians to be role models as they are the public face of the Australian people. I expect them to be reasonably polite, to have some ethics as to how they interact with each other, and to respect others’ work and opinions. I do not expect them to lie, to humiliate people, or to bully other politicians not of their own political persuasion.

Pie in the sky, all you who read this are probably thinking. Maybe you are right. But isn’t it time we demanded our elected representatives behave themselves? Isn’t it time they treated their political opponents with some respect? Can’t we have an election campaign that does not set out to deliberately misrepresent and defame other politicians?

I would like to think that voters are interested people who elect our representatives on their track record of how hard they work to represent their electorates. Up here in Coalition heartland, apparently this is not how it works.
Our erstwhile federal opposition leader, Tony Abbott, is alleged to have offered Rob Oakeshott a deal. The following excerpt appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 22 March, 2011:

The result there and in Tamworth, where independent Peter Draper also lost out to The Nationals, prompted the party's federal leader Warren Truss to take aim at Mr Oakeshott and New England MP Tony Windsor.
The message from voters was that "they got it dead wrong", he said, referring to the two MPs' crucial backing for a Labor minority government following the 2010 federal election.
"Both Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor sold out their core constituencies to support Labor, and people are not happy," Mr Truss said.
The Port Macquarie result already has led to speculation the coalition might be prepared to give Mr Oakeshott a clear run in his Lyne election at the next federal poll, provided he switched sides in Canberra. (end of quote)

This same question of Mr Oakeshott’s alliances was again raised on the ABC’s Q and A last night. Mr Abbott has not denied it. However, I understand from what was said on the program, that Mr Oakeshott has refused the offer as he is a man of integrity, who is prepared to stick with what he believes.

So the moral of this story is that if you are an Independent member in our area, you will be left alone if you become a de facto National. You will be ‘allowed’ to win your seat back. However, if you have enough moral integrity not to buy into this deal, then come next election you will be bullied, slandered and harassed to ensure that you lose. Never mind what you have done or achieved for your electorate. Never mind how many times you have voted to support Coalition bills. Never mind that you had visions of a cooperative parliament, all working together to better Australia. No, it is support us or die electorally in the attempt.

Such tactics may win the Coalition seats. But such wins surely come with the sacrifice of all that is ethical and decent in our political scene.

If this is the future, then it is a very sad day for the state of Australian politics.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Standing at the edge: the Samaritan woman at the well

Standing at the Edge:

the Samaritan Woman at the well

(John 4)

This Sunday, the Gospel reading in the lectionary is the story often described simply as “Jesus and the Samaritan woman”. We find this story in the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel, as it narrates an encounter that took place beside a well outside the Samaritan town of Sychar. As they meet, Jesus and the unnamed woman of that town speak of thirst, drinking, and living water.

I find myself getting increasingly annoyed at the standard view of this unnamed woman. Most of the accepted views of her originate with male biblical scholars. These views are usually moralistic, and border on misogyny.

I invite you to join me in the redemption of the Samaritan woman, and explore the story from different perspectives, engage with different assumptions, and I hope this will lead you to different conclusions. You will need to use your creative and imaginative abilities, and place yourselves back in time, in a very different location, amongst people of vastly different cultural customs.

I will make a couple of points about the text. Firstly, in a literaary sense, the woman is at the well at noon because John needs her to meet Jesus in broad daylight. This serves to directly contrast with Nicodemus, in the previous chapter, who comes to talk with Jesus at night. Between the stories, John has a lot to say about dark and light, so we can be sur that the story has a symbolic literary purpose.

Secondly, the translation in the NRSV in 4:18 is misleading. It says:

...for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.

This certainly gives the impression she is with her sixth sexual partner, and perhaps is a potential adulteress who is not properly married. This is the favoured way of viewing this verse, which then colours the rest of the interpretation of the whole passage. In fact, the Greek clearly includes a masculine participle, and could equally read:

...for you have had five husbands, and the man you have (or "regard" is a lesser known meaning of this verb, echo) is not your husband.

As woman in the ancient near Eastern world needed a man to protect and help her survive respectively, the man with her could have been a protector, a relative who looked out for her in the same way Boaz was meant to protect and help his female relatives in the book of Ruth.

I have retold this story in the form of a dialogue. In effect, this is an attempt to transport you back into biblical times, and offer you the opportunity to listen in to a conversation about living water and quenching thirst.

The conversation we will be listening to is not the conversation between Jesus and the woman beside the well of Sychar—although, as we shall find, it will figure in the discussion that takes place. Instead, we will find ourselves beside another well, a little outside of Jerusalem, at a time just a little later on from that most famous conversation. This well is a familiar stopping place for travellers making their way towards Jerusalem. The two travellers who will be conversing with one another today, are a Samaritan Christian woman, Erebekka, and a Jewish Christian man, Baruch. They have never met one another before; their meeting is quite by accident.

Baruch and Erebekka are somewhat different people: a Samaritan, from the north; and a Judean, from the south. What they do have in common, is that they each know the stories of the death and resurrection of Jeshua, the prophet from Nazareth, and they are travelling to Jerusalem in order to seek out fellow believers. She is with her family, but they are encamped a little way off. He is travelling alone.

So now, please imagine yourself watching this scene.

B: Ahem. Good day. Shalom to you. I see you have a bucket with you.

E: She ignores him.

B: Look, I know it isn’t etiquette for me to speak with you, after all you are a women and alone, but desperation makes me ask you for a loan of your bucket. I have no means myself of getting to the water and am desperately thirsty. Please help me.

E: She quotes: From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ The book of Exodus. Seems some things do not change. Look at you: Why are you so unprepared for your journey? Why do you venture forth into unknown country without the provision of water? Is this the Jewish way? Perhaps you expected a miracle, such as the one that happened to my people’s ancestor Jacob, at the famous well in our homeland. Perhaps you expect the water to gush to the top, as it did for him?

B: Ah, I see you must be a Samaritan.

E: Yes, I am – a woman of Samaria. So how is it that you, a Jew, ask me this favour? You are taking some liberties. And I have not forgotten how the Samaritans were treated by the Jews long ago. Your rulers, Ezra and Nehemiah, blamed the men of Israel who had married foreign women for their defeat by Babylon, and they demanded that all such men immediately divorce their wives. Rather than abandon their wives to be humiliated and exiled, our men of Samaria did the honourable thing and refused. For their pains, they got this kind of treatment, reported as the words of Nehemiah:

I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair (Nehemiah 13:25-30).

B: Well, I can understand how they felt!! Now, I don’t deny that hostility between Samaritans and Jews is rife. But you Samaritans are also happy to aggravate us Jews in a number of ways – what about when you scattered bones of dead people in the Temple precincts and so defiled the Temple? To say nothing of your long and wholesale rejection of Jerusalem and our priests, despite many prophecies that salvation will come from the Jews. You seem to thrive on this conflict! You forget that the prophets have foretold that salvation is from the Jews.

E: Can your remind me which prophet says that salvation is from the Jews?

B: Well, maybe not a prophet as such, but as good as one. You know, the evangelist Johannan, he believed this. Based on the book of Isaiah, I am told.

E: Isaiah was talking about gentiles, not Samaritans. While we may not share water buckets with each other as a general rule, we do share a history, and we do have the same Torah, that the Lord God gave to the great teacher, Moses. But I dispute the biblical interpretation that you offer. I am of the opinion that Johannan was more likely saying something about himself and his community hierarchy, rather than making prophetic statements sent from God.

B: I believe I am speaking the truth.

E: Maybe you are – but you seem to forget that I am the one with the bucket, and you are the one with the thirst. Are you going to quarrel with me like the people of old did with Moses, in the hope this will produce water for you? No wonder we no longer share things in common with each other!

B: (backing down) You are right. I apologise. I will not quarrel with you. It is true I have come unprepared – as a matter of fact, I was rather disturbed and excited and not thinking straight when I left home. So please accept my apology. But having said that, I do want to return to the passage from the Torah which you cited; in fact, I want to dispute your biblical interpretation. Surely the passage you are referring to in Exodus is about lack of faith, not lack of preparedness. (He quotes:) Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?’

E: I confess I have often wondered about this passage. It stresses that the “people thirsted there for water”. They were hustled out of Egypt by God; told there was no time for preparations as such. They were thirsty. THIRSTY!! What are you doing now because you are thirsty in a dry land? You are begging for water. What would you have done back then if you needed to get water for your children to survive? Maybe the people were right to quarrel with Moses.

B: Hmmmmm, I see your point. Of course we all need water. And the Lord did supply the water the people asked for – though don’t you think that we must wonder – if they had not asked, would the water have ever appeared? Which brings me back to my original request of you. Please may I use your bucket?

E: I do not even know your name. Why should I do this for you, a Jew? You must realise that if I served you in this way, I would surely leave myself open for criticism and scorn.

B: I apologise. My name is Baruch. I am travelling to Jerusalem to meet up with some…um…friends. Yes…friends. Fellow travellers on the way, so to speak. I have had some startling news from them.

E: You speak of The Way. Do I understand you are perhaps referring to the one who was promised?

B: (hesitantly) Yes, I speak of Jeshua.

E: Ah, then this is all right. My dear Sir, my name is Erebekka, I am from Samaria, but my family and I are all followers of Jeshua. I am from a village that has become famous for its faith. And such a coincidence – here we meet at a well in the same fashion that one of our women met Jeshua at a well.

B: (reservedly) Yes, Erebekka; I have heard of this woman. And her, ah, questionable morals. A serial monogamist, I have heard. Living with someone not her husband, sneaking to the well at noon, such an odd time…you can see the problems, surely? I am not sure that I would put much trust in what she had to say about her encounter with Jeshua.

E: If Jeshua was happy to speak to her, then what is your problem? Who says she was morally deficient? Just put yourself in the place of us women. We live in a world where we have little, if any, say about what happens in our lives or what happens to our bodies. What if the poor woman was barren, and divorced as a result? What if the series of husbands that she had, came as a result of the death of her first husband? What if she was caught in a situation where her family passed her around from brother to brother, to find someone who would take her on and care for her? In other words, weren’t they just obeying the Levirate laws? Baruch, you place great value in these laws, don’t you? So surely you should be prepared to listen to the story that this woman told us? And you must know, also, that meetings at wells are common in our scriptures. Jacob meets Rebekah at the well of Haran, remember? and Moses and Zipporah meet at a well in Midian.

B: My point exactly. I've heard all the old stories about Jacob's well – everyone goes there to find someone to marry, right? So what is your woman really doing there? Was she planning on finding a man? Imagine how the villagers must have reacted to that one when she returned – “I’ve been at that well and met a MAN”. She was clearly some sort of outcast.

E: I would remind you that she came to the well to draw water, and it was Jeshua who approached her for a drink. There could be many reasons why she was at the well in the heat of the day, and not at the normal times for drawing water, when the temperature was cooler. Maybe it had nothing to do with being an outcast, but had everything to do with the fact she needed water. Remember what it is like to be thirsty? Maybe her child was sick. Maybe the goat knocked over the last bit of water she had. If Jeshua didn’t judge her, why should you?

Have you ever thought that perhaps she was at the well during the most miserable part of the day because she was avoiding the judgement of people like you? Maybe she was thirsting for something that plain water could not quench. And Jeshua knew this – and her. He did not judge her; he accepted her and entered into conversation with her. He did not preach at her; he invited a response from her.

B: So, you are claiming that the law of Levirate marriage was the reason why the woman had five husbands? I am thinking that this claim is a little extreme. Imagine being passed through five brothers like that! I believe she may have been divorced five times. Adultery is a logical reason to divorce the woman.

E: If adultery was the problem, then I doubt that four more men would have married her. The likelihood of no one knowing about the adultery in a small village like ours is really rather slim.

If she was divorced, I expect it is because she is barren. Her current non-husband is probably her protector. Women do not fare well in our society without some kind of male presence in their lives. There is absolutely nothing that is said about her that suggests she is a bad woman, other than the fact that she is living with a man who is not her husband. It might be her brother. Or a brother-in-law who has taken her in. There is nothing at any point in the story, as it has been told to me, to suggest she was an adulterer, or a prostitute, or of dubious moral qualities – and yet this is the reputation you would give her.

B: That she was not married to the man she lived with at the present, is quite enough to raise doubts about her. No doubt this is why Jeshua mentioned this piece of information.

E: Maybe this woman was there looking for something else, as well as water. Maybe she went to this well seeking for the wisdom of Moses, of our ancestor Jacob, of all the others who had found comfort at the well. She was looking for something more than water to fill her. And Jeshua knew this –he offered her something special.

B: I grant you that this meeting between Jeshua and the woman of Samaria is unusual. The request he makes is somewhat shocking, as he is a lone male addressing a woman in public. Men normally only speak to women in public like that if they were related by blood. No wonder she was suspicious of him, just like you were suspicious of me earlier on.

Now tell me – I have heard that Jeshua addressed her as “woman” – the same term that he used to refer to his mother (John 2:4). This is astonishing! He meets a woman who is probably an outsider, and he receives her as an insider, an intimate who has no cause for shame. I am also told he raised her past, and her present situation, but that he did not shame her. Is this true?

E: I have already pointed out to you perhaps she actually had nothing to be ashamed about. You men are so quick to judge!

Whatever her situation – and I do not concede she had anything to be ashamed of – Jeshua received our Samaritan woman in such a way that she was profoundly transformed. He offered her living water. After talking to Jeshua, she reaches out and asks for that living water from him. By the end of the conversation, she leaves her water jar behind and rushes to the village, proclaiming what she has heard. And we know that many believed in Jeshua because of her bold testimony. That doesn’t suggest an outcast, does it? It suggests a woman brimming over with spirit! It suggests a woman of truth, accepted by her peers.

B: Well, it is clear she was affected by Jeshua. Very affected. So much so, that she left behind her precious water jar and the water in it – water that she must surely have needed, seeing she had ventured forth at noon to get it.

E: You forget what Jeshua offered her: Living water. Living spirit. True life. Perhaps she came spiritually empty, and then was filled to overflowing in her encounter with Jeshua. She didn’t need the jar any more because she became the vessel herself for the good news, and it overflowed and spilled out to everyone around her. Perhaps if I changed profoundly because I had my deepest thirst quenched, I might have a story to share too. Imagine, then, how really thirsty for water and for life this woman must have been when she went to the well.

B: (enthusiastically, he has grasped what E is on about) Ah, now I see what you are saying! What transformed this woman could transform our world, and our two peoples. Think of it. The Samaritan woman at the well was despised by Judeans, whose ancestors had been humiliated by Babylonians. It is simply the perpetuation of hatred that runs from people to people, and from generation to generation. Yes, I can see that humiliation, resentment, and violence have been passed down by people who are keeping score, just so that they could try to get even. Jeshua, with his acceptance of others and his offer of living water, has set aside this style of score-keeping. He treats her as if she were forgiven, and so he makes forgiveness possible for everyone – even for self-righteous people like us.

E: Speak for yourself, Baruch. Although, I do confess that I hear something of the prophet in you now. It is Jeshua’s unconventional attitude and behaviour that appeals to me – an attitude that can heal these historical rifts and create community. When we are dealing with Jeshua, we should expect the unexpected. And I like the relationship with God that the story implies. Even though Jeshua offers the woman living water, he asks her first for a drink from the well. He asks her to give him something, even though he offers something much more valuable to her. It is all about give and take. I think God wants that kind of relationship from us humans.

B: Imagine – a whole town full of people who could do that – who could reach out to each other in love and acceptance. Who could, in spite of a centuries-old hatred between these two peoples, accept that they are all equally loved by God, and that their faith and worship could be shared and celebrated together. This is indeed a miracle. What is to stop it happening now?

And I can see that this story symbolizes so much. When we are thirsty, the natural thing to do is to ask for a drink. This simple human act of asking for a drink of water should not be a problem. Why is it that we all just cannot talk to one another and help one another? Why is it that race or gender or religion should determine how we treat each other?

E: Perhaps if we all allowed ourselves to be filled with the living water, we might all live life in the way that God intended. Like the Samaritan women, we all need to acknowledge that we come empty before God. We too can become the vessel for the good news, and spill it out to everyone around us. A living world needs living water. Where would we be without water? Where would we be without living water?

Now, about that drink for you……

As we return in our imagination to the twenty-first century, we focus on some issues for consideration today:

As water is essential to physical life, so Jesus, the living water, is essential to spiritual life. That much is obvious from the story of Jesus and the woman of Samaria, which is recounted in John’s Gospel. But there are other dimensions in this complex story for us to consider.

The Samaritan woman at the well is not just a passive recipient of what Jesus offers to her. She is aware of the potential barriers and boundaries created by her society, all of which make sure that she stays in her place: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (4:9). Yet this does not stop her challenging Jesus' authority and tradition: “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” (4:12).

At the start, the woman is uncomplimentary to Jesus; she uses the word “Jew” in a derogatory way. Her respect for Jesus increases as the encounter proceeds – she addresses him as “Sir” in verses 11, 15 and 19. By the end of the story, it is clear that the woman is quite dazzled by Jesus’ insight into her personal history; as she said to the people in her city, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” (4:29). The concept of “living water” becomes intertwined with what Jesus knows about her; she becomes a vessel of living water because of the relationship she has formed with Jesus, and his insight into her gives her insight into him.

Nevertheless, she is not at all certain that Jesus is the Messiah. When she asks the question, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” (4:29), the way that the question is posed in the Greek text clearly leads us to expect a negative answer. However, she does not let this uncertainty stop her from leaving behind her water jar, going into the city, and inviting the people to their own encounter with Jesus: “Come and see this man”, she exclaims (4:29). As her enthusiasm spills out, she demonstrates what can happen when we actually engage in conversation and questions about our faith.

Later in this Gospel, Jesus is reported as speaking about this overflowing of enthusiasm as he quotes Hebrew scripture: “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water” (7:38). This living water is not simply a gift which Jesus offers to us; it becomes our gift to others who are encountered along the way.

The woman at the well shows us that faith is about dialogue, about acceptance, about asking questions, and about growth. It is not about having all the answers, but about believing in the possibility of revelation. Faith is not contained within certainty, but is fostered by curiosity. It is not governed by stark absolutes, but is encountered in exploration and discovery.

The Samaritan woman at the well responds to Jesus in such a way that leads Jesus to reveal his true identity to her, and in doing so, her own identity evolves. She becomes aware of who she is – and she becomes different as a result of this. This then leads to change in others. She tells them, and they in turn learn, and grow. We learn from the Samaritan woman that when we encounter Jesus, when we accept the living water, not only are we changed, but that revelation has the capacity to change others as well.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Nicodemus meets Leonard Cohen

Whilst we are settling into life in Wauchope, reading the local papers, visiting the local farmers’ markets, and becoming accustomed to the different pace of life, we also have to work! For us (as the name of this blog indicates), that includes working on Sundays.

Worship for today, the second Sunday in Lent, was focussed on the story of Nicodemus, a teacher and leader who “came to Jesus by night”, for a somewhat interesting theological discussion. Nicodemus is best remembered because as he talked with Jesus, he heard the momentous words that, in order to enter the kingdom of God, a person must “be born from above”.

We weren’t going to get into a detailed exegetical exploration of the meaning of this little phrase (and the complex theological baggage that has become associated with it, courtesy of the less-than-accurate translation popularised by the King James Version – “be born again”). We covered that ground in Wednesday’s Lenten study group; the sermon was opportunity to look more broadly at the story.

So today a member of the congregation read all three passages on Nicodemus in John’s Gospel (not just the bite from chapter 3, but also the end of ch.7 and ch.19). And the sermon comprised a series of imaginary first-century conversations, in the Jerusalem house of Boaz and Deborah, about the strange way he was acting and the curious ideas he was exploring. It was the self-styled prophet from Galilee who was (in the eyes of these first century Jewish neighbours of Nicodemus) leading him into dangerous territory.

To his credit, Nicodemus, we are told in John’s Gospel, followed through after his initial conversation with the Galileean prophet—in fact, he supported him in a debate in the Jerusalem council, and after the prophet had died, he joined in the task of anointing the body and laying it to rest. His belief in what this prophet had taught, was now clear for all to see. Nicodemus had taken risks, explored his faith, and made significant changes.

He was no longer just dabbling in ideas “during the night”; he had come out in the open for all to see. No more “secret life”; now he was a follower of Jesus.
Our hope for the congregations where we were preaching today, is that they might catch a sense of what it means to follow Jesus in this way—to ask questions, to take risks, to discover new things about faith, to launch out into new ways of being people of faith. Of course, this won’t happen after one sermon. But we are planning a series of Lenten studies and Sunday sermons which will follow through the characters in John’s Gospel who encounter Jesus, take risks, and set out on new ventures. (More about them in the coming weeks!) And we are working with the church council to consider ways in which the congregation might take risks and seek new developments.

Driving back from the lunchtime service today, we were listening to Leonard Cohen’s song, In my secret life. Gradually the connections with Nicodemus became clear—moving from clandestine discussions “at night”, to public declarations in the council, to assisting at the burial of Jesus.

Cohen sings, “I’d die for the truth in my secret life.” But in his song, he hasn’t quite found the gumption to act that way in his real, public life. There may well be many people who feel like that. I think we are hoping to develop a kind of committed faith that doesn’t hide things in a “secret life”, but speaks and acts in brave and risky ways. I guess we’ll take a rain check and report back at a later time about how it is going!
Wauchope is a pleasant place, with friendly people. They say hello, and wave at you on the street, even though they are strangers. The churches have lots of fellowship and friendship groups. People leave their cars and houses unlocked up here. They trust in the friendliness and integrity of the place. The NRMA gave us a hefty car insurance refund for moving here. It seems that the risk of theft is much less in Wauchope.

The headline in the Wauchope Gazette came as a surprise then. Apparently Wauchope is engulfed in a crime wave, and people are afraid. A crime prevention meeting has been organised for Wauchope, for next Wednesday. The aim of the meeting is to increase community knowledge of actual crime in the Wauchope area. Over a number of sessions, residents will learn how to identify and report crime, learn about crime trends in the Port-Macquarie Hastings local government area, and be given information about crime reports over the last 12 months.

There is only one solution to this criminal activity, says the Gazette, based on a reader poll they recently took. It is to man the police station at Wauchope for the full 24 hours each day, for 7 days a week. The readers apparently rated the idea of increased police patrols, or extended daylight presence at the station much lower. Only police presence for the full 168 hours per week would stem the tidal wave of crime.

Sadly, the Local Area Commander of Police has said this is unlikely to happen. The only chance Wauchope has of achieving its police presence aim, says the Gazette, is the looming State election. The other suggestion made in the paper is that people need to report crime. If not enough crime is reported, then police are allocated accordingly less.

Mmmmm. We have conflicting scenarios here. Waucope is a safe place, and people don't lock their doors or cars. But Wauchope is also a hotbed of criminal activity and we need police here all the time. Puzzled yet?

The Gazette asked each of the local candidates to state their position.

The National candidate (who is the sitting member) referred to the over-resourcing of police in Labor seats in Sydney, and was confident that the excess number would be removed and could be sent to the mid north coast under a Coalition government, resulting in more police on Wauchope's streets.

The Independent candidate called for a reform of the whole justice system, the removal of red tape, and new legislation so offenders would not get off lightly.

The Greens candidate was extremely concerned about the general loss of numbers in the police force because of the stress of the job, and felt they deserved better pay. He felt more support staff could be offered to police to help out with paper work and admin duties. He pointed out that Wauchope was much better off than many country areas (Police are present in the Wauchope 'cluster' for 16 hours a day, every day). He also noted that preventative action, such as programs to curb alcohol related violence, should have increased funding as these programs were shown to reduce crime.

At this point I decided to look up crime in this area, on the government NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research website. This local government area is well below the national average for nearly all crime. Looks like the NRMA and the the unlocked house people are right.

I can't help wondering if the law and order concerns of the cities have drifted north, probably due to the imminent State election. Are people's fears being unnecessarily increased so that the candidate offering the simplest and most obvious solution will be the most popular on polling day? I question the ethics of such political manourvering, if indeed this is what this is. Rather than getting residents all het up about a problem that really isn't a great problem, why not get them engaged on issues that really matter?

I think many of our politicians use their positions to pander to the underlying fear and insecurity present in all of us. Elect me, they cry, and I will fix it. Mostly they do not. Yet they flame the fires of controversy and debate on issues beyond their ability to solve, and bring out fear, racism, and scepticism in people in a way that can fracture community and blind ordinary folk to the true realities of the situation.

Time to grow up, pollies. Stop pandering to the lowest commmon fear in the community and use your positions of relative power for good, not evil.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Carping on

Finding myself rather unwell this morning, I am resting up and reading the local newspapers. There are a number of free papers here, plus a modestly priced local paper for Wauchope. Three come from Port Macquarie, and two of them, as far as I can see, are really just giant advertisements. However, they do keep one abreast of what is happening in the area.

The Wauchope Gazette featured the bus accident and alleged sabotage on the front page, along with an article about the need to man the Police Station in Wauchope every day. The regular Port Macquarie Express had the annual Comboyne show goat race highlighted on the front page.

The third Port newspaper is a new one, at least to us. It turned up yesterday in the driveway. We don't know who prints it, or who owns it. There is no information of that sort to be found in it. Its editors and journalists are anonymous (there is one name noted under 'news department' but no by-lines on indivdual new items). And just as an aside, some of the contributors apparently cannot spell or proof read accurately. Apostrophes run riot in irregular places, Tony Abbott has become Tony Abbort (a Freudian slip?) and at the base of one page we find Puzzel Answers.

Why does this matter, I hear you cry? It matters because this paper appears to function mainly to endorse the National candidates for the coming State election and to smear everybody else. The front page announces that the National Party member for Oxley is "Mister 72%". I want to know who is putting it out, and what their vested interests might be. It seems that impartial journalism and this paper have nothing to say to each other.

The page three article highlights the misdeeds of the sacked General Manager of the Port Macquarie-Hastings Council. It also features photos of the two sitting independent members. Apparently they had lunch with him a few times. It is a great example of guilt by association.

The paper does print the policies of the various candidates as received. Fine and good, and I appreciate this. But the (nameless) editorial again picks up the alleged dubious association of the sitting Independent members with the last General Manager, as reputedly they were ongoing beneficiaries of his misuse of funds, in the form of lunches. Sadly, the National Party member for Oxley apparently only ever received a cup of coffee from him. The inference about who is honest is clear.

However, the best (??) part of the paper is a little (also anonymous) editorial piece called 'Carp's Corner'. It is a sustained, ill-informed piece of invective against anyone who thinks our planet is in trouble from climate change. I won't go onto all the errors of fact that it contains, and there are many. Its primary purpose appears to be to smear the Independent Federal member, predict the impending bankruptcy of the mid north coast due to the carbon tax, and to suggest that states who are low emitters of CO2 should secede from Australia and go it alone. Ignoring the nuclear crisis in Japan, it also suggests that a swag of nuclear reactors should be built in W.A. It then goes on to say that the people of this elecorate could then become a loyal Eastern satellite of W.A., which should secede ala a resurrected Lang Hancock. This, says Carp, would be preferable to subsidising Newcastle, Sydney and Wollongong's carbon tax bills.

Mmmmmmm. I see. Time to come clean, Mr Carp. Who are you and who pays you?
Far from being a calm rural paradise, Port Macquarie has suddenly become a hotbed of innuendo, political skullduggery, and sabotage. The Independent member from the Port Macquarie electorate I mentioned in my previous post has allegedly had his campaign bus sabotaged, causing a serious oil leak on the road and resulting in an accident involving three cars.

During our morning coffee I note that the shock jocks of Syney's radio stations are turning themselves inside out to prove the accident was indeed just an accident, and that the member for Oxley was? is? delusional in his claims of sabatage.

This state campaign appears to have become rather dirty in its tactics. The TV ads being run by the National Party (with the exception of the National candidate for Port) are in my opinion, disgraceful. Poor Rob Oakeshott has been smeared from breakfast to dinner and back again, and Peter Besseling (the Independent member for Port) has had to put up with downright falsehoods being told about him. Now his bus appears to have been tampered with.

What happened to fair play and winning fair and square? Why can't these parliamentarians be judged on their performance and their policies in their respective electorates? Neither is less hard working or doing things differently since the Federal election as far as I can tell. Why do their reputations need to be destroyed?

In my first field education placement as a student minister, the incumbent minster in that particular parish told me that when there is no real evidence of misconduct by a public figure, be it a politician or a minsiter, some of those who disaprove of that person's opinions or affiliations will always be capable of conducting character assassination by innuendo and rumour. Seems that she was right.

What a sorry state of affairs. I hope one day those responsible will come to the realisation of how badly they have acted. In the meantime, I will be writing letters condemning the smear campaign to the smeared, so they know there is at least one sane person out there who will judge them on their performance.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Living in a rural area is rather different from living in the city, and not just for the obvious reasons. There is much less traffic, pollution, hustle and bustle, and people. There are many more acres of green, in the form of fields and trees. Life feels much less stressed here.

As well as these obvious things, there are more subtle differences. I have been reminded a number of times in church meetings, after I have made a suggestion or remarks about church structures, that we are in a rural area. Things are done differently here, and the normal rules of the church do not always apply.

I find this an interesting condundrum. What makes rural people above or below following the rules? Why is there an exception to the rules lurking in every church committee? Why is this considered normal?

This studied avoidance of refusing to understand what is required by the church seems to spill over into other areas. For example, many people I have heard talking in public places are all experts on climate change, and know that it doesn't exist. Have they studied the science, I ask?
And the poor greenies are to blame for many things, from lowering herd numbers to causing floods and fires because they made someone do something somewhere that has led to the catastrophe. They are the favourite community scapegoat. I still scratch my head about this.

And the local independent member for Port Macquarie can't be trusted as there is a National TV ad that says he votes with Labor. The poor man states (correctly) in vain that in over 89% of bills before the State parliament, he has voted with the Coalition. Yet the TV ad must be right (musn't it?), especially as it shows him with the Independent Federal member, who we all know didn't support the coalition because he secretly wanted to side with Labor policies.

Once upon a time, ignorance of rules and poor communication means might have been the reason for not knowing. But with TV, newspapers, radio and the internet all available at least in this rural area, not knowing is no longer an option. Perhaps the answer is one that Jane Austen suggested in Mansfield Park, where the 'sturdy independence' of the rural folk in one scene meant that they could not bought with any amount of money to move a harp in a cart during the harvest.

Nonconformity for a reason can certainly be a good thing. But nonconformity for the sake of nonconfomity is not really helpful and can be dangerous. Should this really be encouraged?

Sunday, 13 March 2011

This Sunday (the first Sunday in Lent) we found ourselves in a number of different situations. This morning we visited a neighbouring congregation, one in our Presbytery area, at their usual service time. We knew it was to be a harvest service, and we knew this was the first Sunday in Lent. We waited to see what these two things would have to say to each other.

As it turned out, they had nothing to say to each other. It was an interesting lesson in rural religious politics, where the calendar of the Fellowship group (who meet every second Monday of the month) took precedence over the lectionary calendar. You might be wondering what the meeting time of the Fellowship group has to do with what happens on Sunday. Tomorrow night is the annual Harvest festival auction there, the big fundraiser for the year. The Fellowship group organise it. The Sunday immediately before is always Harvest Sunday. The two calendars collided and autumn produce and God's abundance was the winner.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with a service that celebrates God's gifts to humanity in this most basic form - none of us can live for long without food to sustain us. The service acknowledged this through prayers of thanksgiving, as well as including prayers for others who are in difficult circumstances and who know what it is to be without many of the essentials of life (remembering especially the people of Japan and Libya, and casting our minds back a few weeks to the floods in eastern Australia). We prayed for God to guide, support, and comfort the people who were in those situations. We remembered those who were working to assist those in distressing circumstances, and we prayed for leaders of nations to consider carefully how they might act in dealing with the the army of the Libyan dictator.

Perhaps there was an opportunity at this point to bring the two calendars together; we could well have reflected a little more on what actions we might undertake, as individuals, to live out our faith in practical and ethical ways. We can't be directly involved in solving the Libyan situation or helping out in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami. But in order to ensure that the abundance of God's creation continues, we can turn our minds and our actions towards living ethically and sustainably. With 'carbon tax' as a major issue in domestic Australian politics, we need to be thinking about what we can do to lessen the impact of our own lifestyles on the planet. This feels like a very appropriate thing to be doing in Lent -- what can we give up in our lives? (although it should be something we implement right throughout the year). If we don't modify our lifestlyes and start to live in a way that uses less resources , there will be little opportunity in the future to celebrate the abundance of God's harvest. We western-world people can't keep on living as we currently do, consuming the greater part of that abundance. Without ethical living, harvest festivals will become a thing of the past.

So perhaps Lent and Harvest Festival do have something to say to each other?

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Hi! We are Elizabeth and John, and you might find some of the information the blog has saved about us rather misleading, as in 2011 we have moved and taken up ministry in the mid north coast of NSW. This is a LONG way from Cambridge, England (site of our last blog, Living with the angels), and as soon as I work out how to change it, I will.

In the meantime, join us as we journey through the forests and hinterland of the Hastings Valley on our new adventure as the 50% minister of Wauchope congregation and 50% Presbytery Minister of the Cenral Zone of the Mid North Coast Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia. And I hope nobody asks me to fill that one in under 'job description' on a small form.