THE GIFT OF LIVING WATER

Sermon delivered on the 3rd Sunday in Lent the 19th March 2017 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.

Scriptures: Exodus 17: 1-7     Romans 5: 1-11     S. John 4: 5-42

Romans 5:2ff We rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. Not only so, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

Suffering has been an indelible component of the human story from time immemorial. Disease, for instance, has affected man from our earliest records of his existence. I have read somewhere that scientists believed on the strength of the evidence from a certain set of bones that they had found an early type of man or hominid that crouched and shuffled as he walked. They believed they had discovered a significant missing link between the world of monkeys and the world of man. Later they found out that their interpretation of the evidence had been wrong, and that the particular individual whose bones they had pieced together had in his lifetime been suffering from acute arthritis. It was the disease that had caused the crouching and the shuffling, rather than the species.

Disease, of course, is only one out of a whole range of causes of suffering of body and soul with which man has been afflicted. We are aware of the pain of physical wounding in accidents or in circumstances of war, and of persecution and torture. Clandestine authorities and military police of the recent totalitarian century have refined the art of inflicting unendurable pain. Even now someone, somewhere, is likely to be screaming in agony in some grim torture chamber. May such a one be joined in spirit to the Christ suffering within and for him. And then there is the whole range of the modes of pain that are psychological rather than physical - the terror of the silencing of companionship, or of loneliness, sore embarrassment, rejection and heart-brokenness. More refined than the old tortures, a more Orwellian brand is currently being perpetrated, through legal frameworks that subjugate the exercise of conscience to demands for equalisation, such as are in place in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. These are even now at work punishing by physical sanctions, and torturing psychologically through their very processes individuals who point out uncomfortable or so-called "politically incorrect" truths, teachings or opinions.

The disciples of Jesus like all the rest of us were interested in the removal of pain and suffering. Pain and suffering are not ordinarily our choice. If we are sick we follow whatever medical procedures are available for alleviating its painful effects. A person in a fight dodges the blows of his opponent. Someone being interrogated tries to give the softest answer consistently with his conscience. Ultimately however, this was not Jesus' programme for dealing with His own call to pain and suffering. Jesus knew that God's will was not that He should set up on earth a special suffering-free kingdom for Himself and His disciples. This perhaps is rather what the disciples had in mind; it is sometimes what we would dearly love to be the case, and it is certainly part of the utopian mind of our times to eradicate such causes of suffering as poverty or being brought into contempt. But Jesus knew that God’s programme would require something different. In the Christ the problem of pain was to be accepted and addressed, rather than eliminated. This was His divine vocation. As recorded in today's Gospel, He would say, "My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work." So if we are minded to rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God (as St. Paul puts it), being identified as in Christ, we will have the perhaps unusual kind of privilege of sharing the special programme that He was signed up to.

We saw in our Old Testament lesson today what happened to the people of Israel in the wilderness when they found fault with their sufferings in the form of a lack of water, instead of having the spiritual and mental capacity to bear with the problem. What comes over strongly is that the people were no longer grateful to God. They had been led to safety from the slavemasters, and all along the way they were being taught that they would survive by being mindful of and responsive to the will of the Lord, whether, for instance to stay in a place or whether to move on. The first verse of our Old Testament Lesson is "All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the Lord, and camped at Rephidim; but there was no water for the people to drink." If the Exodus narrative in the previous chapter and here preserves the order of events, we can observe that they had already seen how the Lord provided them with Manna when they were hungry. Now when they were thirsty, they did not recall to mind the great privileges that the Lord had already and repeatedly accorded them. We can say that they turned their mentality from a framework of grace and privilege into a framework of litigation. They wanted to try and condemn their humble servant-leader Moses because they found fault with him when the water was scarce rather than turning to God who had led them to that place and supplied them remarkably, relying upon Him to supply them with their needs now. The account says that they found fault with God. That's not a happy state of mind to be in, but one with which we are really quite familiar. In what is either a second incident of the same sort or alternatively another account of the same incident, the scripture elsewhere says that the attitude of the people caused Moses too to sin by not sanctifying the Lord in the eyes of the people of Israel. When Moses got water from the rock, apparently he failed to point out to the people that this was not by his own power, but by the Lord's provision. Under pressure we forget too easily that the framework of our life, the provision made for our life and the boundaries surrounding it, the factors with which our human free-will cooperates, are by the Lord's gift.

What of ourselves and suffering? Surely we are infinitely the poorer if it is not permitted to us to suffer and express the pain of mourning or some other loss. There are circumstances and there are states of the soul too in which our great need is not how to avoid the suffering but how best to bear it. For instance, to embark on some significant project and bring it to a successful conclusion is surely to invite sacrifices. Was Solomon's temple built without sacrificial offerings? Did Nehemiah rebuild the walls of Jerusalem painlessly? Is the many-fold mission of the Church to the community to succeed without sacrifice and pain? Who would dare to suggest that the great project in which all of us must be engaged, the reconstructing by God's grace of that life which we call our life into a likeness and a portion of Christ's life and obedience, day by day, should be without pain or cost? No: rather, to take the easy way of minimum cost where it comes to things that really matter is the way of selfishness and ultimate failure, and not the Way, the Truth and the Life. To seek to avoid suffering altogether can indeed lead to actual suicide. But by bearing suffering we can be made the wiser. We look forward to pain's relief, but for now, until pain is relieved, what we need only to know, is how best to bear it.

Our Gospel shows Jesus telling first the Samaritan woman and then his own disciples, the irreducible minimum of how our needs are to be met, and how suffering is to be borne. To the woman Jesus said, “Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” To his disciples He said, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to accomplish His work.” But at that time His own disciples could not listen to such words, or know the explicit witness of the Cross; however, we can. Let us praise God without ceasing for His great gift in Jesus Christ of living water: and praise His name that He rejoices in the giving. May we too even in the 21st century rejoice in the gift and in the giving, and in our hope of the glory of God. The care and love of God for us is real, and through Christ, as the Father and the Son dwell within us, will teach us love’s endurance.