A sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, on 12 March, 2023
Watch the whole service on YouTube.
Who is qualified to be a member of the Church here on earth and what do we want from them? Maybe I should have preached this sermon before we welcomed Michelle and Paul as members of this congregation. That way, if they didn’t like what they heard, they could have baled out in time …
I like today’s Bible reading. Jesus requests a drink, then has a conversation with, a Samaritan woman, when she arrives to draw water from a well. For many years church congregations have had a reputation for being full of polite people with a strong attachment to notions of respectability, This unnamed Samaritan woman blows that idea out of the water.
First, she is a ‘foreigner’, which is to say she is ‘other.’ Jesus and his very first followers were Jews. She is a Samaritan, one of an ethnic and religious group that Jews in Jesus’s time regarded with suspicion or dislike. And the feeling was mutual.
Second, she was a ‘she’ i.e. she was a woman, in a time and society which allocated women the seats in second class. Fetching water was work for women or children, not for adult males. Thankfully, times have changed, but not completely. For example, after our most recent Christmas Eve Carol Service, someone commented on the fact that most of those reading the Bible passages were women, and they did not mean it as a compliment to the church.
Then, third, she had been married multiple times, though not to the man with whom she then was living. She may have been fetching water on her own, in the heat of the day, rather than in the company of others, and in the cool of the early morning, because she was a social pariah.
Yet none of these realities disqualify her from being a theologian, a Christian disciple, and an evangelist. Marginalised as she was, her meeting with Jesus tells us that if you think that you are not qualified to be a theologian, a Christian disciple, or an evangelist, you need to think again.
People take fright at the word, ‘theologian’ but it’s just a fancy word for someone who talks about God: ‘theou’/God + ‘logos’/word = words/talk about God. In this reading from John’s Gospel, we encounter an early woman theologian. She’s not a college graduate or a university professor, but she’s full of questions and convictions about God and faith. And she expresses this through having words with Jesus.
Why is he, a Jew, asking her, a Samaritan for a drink of water? (4:9) If Jesus can provide water that gives eternal life can she have some? (4:15) She identifies Jesus as a prophet. (4:19) She discusses with him where the proper place is to worship God. (4:20-24) She states her belief that God will send a messiah – a Christ – who ‘will proclaim all things to us’ (4:25). But how will she respond when Jesus says to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you’? (4:26)
It’s ok to talk about religion. It’s ok to talk about God. It’s ok to explore spiritual and other deep questions that concern us. If Jesus thought it was fine for an ethically and socially marginalised woman to do so, then it’s ok for us, whoever we are, to have those sorts of conversations. We want church members to feel able to talk about God – to be practical theologians, just like this Samaritan woman.
And then we want church members who are disciples. ‘Disciple’ is another word that frightens some people. A ‘theologian’ is someone willing to talk about God.. A disciple is someone who follows someone else, and who learns from them in that process. If it makes you feel better about it, don’t call yourself a disciple; call yourself a follower. Or call yourself a learner. You’re someone who’s wearing L-plates to travel through life, looking to Jesus for instruction and guidance.
And a social outsider was learning from Jesus. Jesus knew her situation, including the five husbands and no current marriage (4:16-18), but none of this could stand in the way of his establishing a relationship with her. Jesus talked with her and taught her. He moved her to a place where she could apply her beliefs about the coming messiah to himself. That’s when she leaves her water jar behind and returns to the city to tell others, ‘come and see a man’ (4:29) who might be the messiah we have been waiting for; someone worth hearing; perhaps worth following.
We want church members who are able to talk about God and faith. We want church members who do that through learning from and following Jesus. And we want church members who are evangelists. People struggle to realise that we are theologians. People worry about being disciples. Tell them that they should be evangelists and they head for the doors.
That’s because, if we need to rethink what many of us mean by ‘theologian’ or ‘disciple’ we really need to rethink what we mean by ‘evangelist.’ One form or image of evangelism has become stuck in our popular mindset – going to strangers in a public setting with a carefully packaged message about God and Jesus Christ. In our imaginations we’re being asked to go door to door, foisting religion on unsuspecting folk. Alternatively, we fantasise that we’re expected to organise or lead, public meetings or rallies where people come to faith. Not surprisingly, most of us run a mile at that idea.
Put that out of your minds! Instead, look at what happens when Jesus and this woman meet together. After their theological conversation, and Jesus telling her that he is the messiah (and so worth following), ‘the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the messiah, can he?”’ (4:28-29)
She did not button hole a load of strangers. It says, ‘city’ in the Gospel, but the great majority of their ‘cities’ were the size of our villages. The woman had a conversation with her neighbours, with people who knew her. She didn’t try to stage a Billy-Graham style rally. She simply said, ‘come and see a man.’ (4:29) Nor did she try to overwhelm them with the strength of her arguments and convictions. She asked a question, which they were invited to answer for themselves: ‘He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ (4:29)
There are all sorts of ingenious ways of trying to get people to participate in church, and possibly to come to faith. Many of these are based on some form of advertising. Research shows, however, that the single most effective method is as old as the hills. We see it in today’s Gospel reading. One person invites another person to come along with them: ‘come and see a man.’
One member of this congregation told me that they would hesitate to invite someone along on Sunday morning because they might be bored by the experience! Well, there’s a reminder to us to try not to make Sunday morning boring. It’s not our intention! Seriously, though, I wouldn’t worry about that. People will make of it what they will make of it. What matters is that they get the chance to, ‘come and see …’
So what does a Samaritan woman tell us about who is qualified to be participate in the Church of Jesus Christ here on earth? Potentially, anyone is qualified, whatever your place and position in society. This woman was far from being at the centre of things, but Jesus was happy to include her in the conversation. So then, why not you, and the people that you know?
What’s expected from those participants we call church members? That you be a theologian, a disciple, and an evangelist. Or if you prefer, that in the company of Jesus, you are open to taking about faith, learning your way through life, and inviting others along to give that a go as well.
Almighty God, you give the water of eternal life through Jesus Christ your Son. May we always thirst for you, the spring of life and source of goodness. Amen.
(Book of Common Order of the Church of Scotland, 1994)