Monday, February 25, 2008

Learning from a sermon

Below I am posting the text of a sermon I preached at Nativity Church in Blenheim.
At its a conclusion are some suggested questions for small groups meeting during the week to study the passages from Scripture. Please feel free to use any of these material in your church.

What do you think of the text? If this were a seminar on preaching then this is what I would ask attendees to look for and underline:

- what are the points of transition ... between one Scripture passage and the next ... between ancient times and our time ... between the sermon and life in the world as we will live it in the week to come? How are these points of transition achieved?

- what are the specific connections made between the original context/culture/location of the Scripture passages and the context/culture/location we live in?

- is there any application to our lives which is made? How effectively is this application laid out in the text?

24/2/08 Encounters on the way Exodus 17:1-7 John 4:5-14 Peter Carrell

Later this year Anglican bishops, including our Bishop Richard, will gather at the Lambeth Conference to discuss many things. They will study the Bible together and the book they will work through is the Gospel of John. So Nativity Church is in good company this Lent as it works its way through John’s Gospel.

What an amazing book this gospel is. One of its most notable features is the quality of the stories within it. In today’s world where we seem to be so confused about the ethics of human relationships it is particularly pertinent that two stories in this Gospel – the one we have read from today, and one in chapter 8.1-11 – touch on difficulties in human relationships.

But in today’s story – a narrative of an encounter between two strangers, Jesus and a Samaritan woman – I want to think more about the theme of water than the domestic life of the woman.

Now water is something we take for granted until we are on the verge of running out of it, and then we get very passionate about it. Some of you will know about this as you fight for water rights and the like!

Our first reading – Exodus 17:1-7 - takes us to the heart of human anxiety when water runs out:
‘there was no water for the people to drink. Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink”.’

But the story involves a much deeper quarrel than one between people. At the end of verse seven the narrator tells us that in the course of this incident the people had
‘tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
That’s often the way, is it not: behind any human quarrel lie deeper and more profound issues which are ultimately about God.

But this specific question, “Is the Lord among us or not?” is more than a little bit interesting.

Consider, for example, the recent explosion in sales of books promoting atheism. Reading such books you might think believers in God have never questioned the existence of God until now. But the fact is that lots of stuff happens in life which makes us wonder what God is up to, whether he really cares for us, and sometimes even whether God exists.

Perhaps that is our question today because of some hard circumstance in our life: Is the Lord among us or not?

And perhaps as we ask that question we yearn for a miracle. After all the Israelites got one – Moses whacked the rock and the water gushed out. If we got a miracle like that then we would definitely believe in God. All doubts washed away!

But let’s pause to open our eyes and take in a little more of Exodus. In the preceding chapter we read the story of the miraculous provision of food for Israel via the manna. So the Israelites have full bellies yet question whether God exists or not!

Perhaps God has worked out through painful experience with Israel that miracles do not lead to faithfulness and constancy. In fact miracles can lead to a dependency on miracles and not on God.

All this might just be relevant background to our story in the Gospel of John where water is at the centre of the story, but the human encounter involves genuine enquiry and curiosity and not quarrelling and complaining.

Water figures right from the start of the encounter. Jesus says to the woman, Give me a drink. And the woman does not give him a drink but engages with the message within the message. (Not unlike a lot of conversations between men and women – each wondering what the other is really saying).

“How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?”

The woman is blown away by the fact that this man, this enemy wants to talk to her.
She does not understand at this point that this is the gospel in action – the message of reconciliation between God and humanity and between humanity and humanity.

Then the conversation gets a little complicated as the woman is talking ordinary water and Jesus is talking about the living water.

But in this conversation is a pearl of a question when the woman says, ‘Are you greater than our father Jacob?’
She is beginning to understand.

But let’s think about this question for a moment. This is a very modern question. Except we might put it like this: ‘Is Jesus greater than Mohammed or Buddha or Krishna?’

The answer to this question is very, very important. Increasingly it’s a matter of literal life or death. And it lies at the heart of the future character of the world in the twenty-first century. Who will dominate? Followers of Jesus or followers of Mohammed?

So, what answer does Jesus give to the question ‘Are you greater than our father Jacob?’

Of course he gives a brilliant answer. Note the beginning, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water I will give him will never be thirsty again.’

Jesus connects directly with the woman’s level of understanding water as ordinary drinking water and makes a statement no one can deny, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again.’

But then he draws the woman into his own level of understanding of living water, ‘but whoever drinks of the water I will give him will never be thirsty again.’

But the brilliance of Jesus is not just in the connection; it’s also in the content.
Jesus is greater than Jacob because Jesus offers something Jacob does not offer (nor Mohammed nor Buddha nor Confucius nor Marx).

‘The water that I will give him will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’

Does God exist in our midst or not? The answer lies not in a series of miracles but on the life of God itself entering into our lives, filling us up with the love and power of God.

Is this our experience of God? Is God through Christ and the Spirit an ongoing, continuing, life-giving presence within us?

Do not look for the next miracle: invite Jesus to pour the water of eternal life into your life.

Do not worry about the latest diatribe from a smart atheist: live out the existence of God – be a living proof that God is alive and well.

When people encounter us on the road of life, who are they encountering? Is it merely John Brown or Mary Smith … or is it Christ alive within us?

We cannot conclude this study of God’s Word other than to make the prayer of the woman at the well our own prayer:
‘Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty’.

Questions for Study Groups

Read the passages for this week’s sermon

Think about an occasion in your life when you have seriously wondered whether God exists or not and/or asked why God has not responded to an important need expressed in prayer:

- what then happened?

Think about the many people you have encountered in your life. Among those people is there one who stands out as someone who made you feel as though you were in God’s presence or, put slightly differently, someone who shone with the light of Christ into your own life?

- try to find words to describe this encounter with others in the group.

What does the water of life mean to you?

Most of us will feel that as we journey through life we ‘leak’ – the living water of Christ seeps or even flows out of us. The tank is empty and we need refilling. How can the ‘spring of water welling up to eternal life’ be replenished?

From either or both passages for this week’s sermon is there anything that stands out for you which has not been mentioned in the sermon and which you feel worth drawing to the group’s attention?

If Jesus could do anything for you right now, what would you like to ask him to do?

Why not go ahead and ask Jesus to do just that!

It might be appropriate to spend some time together thanking God for encountering us through Christ and for blessing us with the living water of eternal life.

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