Earthly Goodness and the Kingdom

Sunday 27th March 2011
Year A, The Third Sunday of Lent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Exodus 17:1-7
John 4:5-42

Have you ever noticed how quickly people adjust to their new circumstances. Recent events on the Libya/Tunisia border reminded me of the war in the Balkans when thousands of refugees gathered on the Macedonian border, exposed to lashing rain, with only bits of polythene sheeting for cover. The Macedonians didn't think that they could handle the situation but, with some international promptings and promises of  help, the border was opened and the refugees were given food and shelter. Within a week they were complaining about the arrangements for flying them out of Macedonia to somewhere better. It is, as Dickens might have put it, the best of humanity and the worst of humanity. We were created to strive and compete but when we fail to exercise self discipline, things go badly wrong.

So here we are, in the desert, with a vast train of people who have just been freed from slavery in Egypt but they have already forgotten their miraculous liberation, the plagues, the first Passover, the dividing of the Red Sea; and are they grateful? No they are not. Are they cheerful? No, they are not. Are they trusting in the leadership? No, they are not. And are they content to rely upon the God that liberated them? No, they are not. Here they are, in the desert, desperate, resentful, bereft of trust and hope, about to die alongside their parched animals. And, what's worse, they are talking with affection about the place that enslaved them and from which God freed them, bringing to mind the leeks and the garlic and the cucumbers; they are, literally, recalling the flesh pots of Egypt. Moses is beside himself with frustration; and the people are threatening to kill him; so he turns to the Lord for help. In the other account of the events at Massah and Meribah in [Passage=Numbers 20]Numbers Chapter 20 [/passage], God accuses Moses of losing faith himself and punishes him by saying he will not enter into the promised land.

Fast forward to the Samaritan woman who doesn't really know what Jesus is saying; but he is promising her entry into his very own promised land on apparently easy terms which is as well, as these are the only kind of terms she seems to know. Here she is, forced to come to the well in the heat of the day because she's a disgrace to herself and her community, a serial adulteress, who seems none too apologetic, talking to Jesus. It’s a kind of Massah and Meribah in reverse: Jesus asks the outcast for water and she asks how an outcast Samaritan can give water to a Jew; but she's an extrovert lady and she gets over it pretty quickly. There then follows one of those rather muddled, part clumsy, part profound passages in John where the two of them talk at cross purposes about water and worship before she makes a triumphant exit, not because she knows about eternal life but because she's met a celeb; and given him water; and, for all we know, got his autograph or even given him her phone number!

At one level this is all very folksy and on first reflection we might be rather pleased that the precocious little minx got away with it. But, on further consideration, do we really like the idea of a serial adulteress chatting to Jesus as if he's her next target? And are we comfortable with the idea that she goes rushing into her community to show off?

All through Lent, it seems to me, the readings have been asking us questions about the relationship between how we live here and how that relates to God's promises. Last week, for example, we were contrasting Nicodemus coming in from the dark and Judas going out into it in the context of the underlying discussion about the relationship between the Jewish Law and Jesus' commandment of love; and the week before we were considering the temptation of Adam and Eve and the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness.

What I have been moving away from in thinking about these passages is any notion of connectivity between what we do and how we will fare in our relationship with God. Now this is a bitter blow for anyone who likes an ordered moral life firmly tied to Christianity and overseen by the Judge Eternal; but I can't get away from two conclusions which are not bound together in a legalistic way: the first is that it's our human nature as creatures to be good and that, therefore, to do wrong is to deny our own nature as well as denying God's purposes; and the second is that that proposition, and how we respect it, has nothing to do with our ultimate prospects. Perhaps the best way to put this in simple terms is to quote part of Caswell's translation of a 17th Century Latin Hymn, My God I love Thee:

My God I love Thee
not because I hope for heaven thereby
nor yet because who love Thee not
are lost eternally.

Not from the hope of gaining aught,
not seeking a reward ...
(but) solely because Thou art my God,
and my most loving king.

These are beautiful but hard words. What they ask us to do is to take our moral behaviour out of the accountancy of salvation and be good for its own sake and love Jesus for his own sake; but what they also ask us to do is to leave the ultimate state of our relationship with God in God's hands, as a matter of faith. We remove our people-centred approach which says that God will 'reward' us if we do this and refrain from doing that; and we accept our creatureliness as quintessentially vulnerable, as a life pilgrimage of absolute openness to the other; as the kind of catalogue of risk that would shock any sensible auditor, accountant, strategist or legislator. In order to get closer to God we simply have to get further away from anthropomorphising the divine. it's a kind of inside-out Lutheranism which separates faith from works but whose starting point is that we are fundamentally good and not fundamentally sinful.

The incident at Massah and Meribah pre-dates the establishment of the Jewish Law which appears in many ways to be a response to faithless intransigence; but for us the significant factor is the love which Jesus proclaims, which transcends the Law, and which puts us into a dialogue with him, regardless of our earthly conduct and prospects. Seen from that perspective, the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is ordinary. Jesus explains to people how they might lead good lives; and he promises the kingdom; but he never puts the two together and, indeed, goes very close to saying that the opposite connection is more realistic, that the sinners will be at the front of the queue for eternal life with the virtuous, or apparently virtuous, at the back. In other words, the really bad news for the comfortable is that there is no connection between earthly goodness and the Kingdom.

Characteristically pugnacious and rhetorical, Saint Paul asks in Romans whether, therefore, it's beneficial to do wrong. Of course it isn't; but we should expect no thanks and no gratitude for behaving well and that, perhaps, is the hardest thing of all to accept.