12th Assembly 2009

Sermon at the Opening Service of the 12th Assembly

By the Rev. Alistair Macrae, President, reflecting on John 4

The inspiration for the theme of this Assembly came from a photograph in the Melbourne Age some years ago. It depicts a ute on a remote outback road. It is a poignant story. Two men set out to travel from Perth to Alice Springs on the Great Central Road. The vehicle runs out of fuel. They subsequently run out of water and days later are found dead in the shade of their vehicle.


Subsequent investigations by indigenous trackers reveal that the men had ranged considerable distances from the vehicle in a fruitless search for water. The trackers point out that had they known where and how to look, the men could have accessed life saving water within 200 metres of the vehicle.

The story has subsequently has become something of a metaphor for me for both contemporary culture and the church’s mission. There is a significant spiritual thirst amongst many of our neighbours in this land. Consumerist capitalism, the dominant ideology, doesn’t yield on its promises. Jesus knew that 2,000 years ago. People do not live by bread alone. Bread at least, yes. And Christian people should be in the forefront of providing for people’s physical needs. But not bread alone. Our thirst for meaning, for the giving and receiving of love go largely unrequited. And the church? Claims that the church is the repository of living water, or less grandiose, the dispenser of it, have been revealed as hollow.

But how about thinking of the mission of the church as pointing people to the source of the living water? Church as witness. Our woman from Samaria has much to teach us in this regard because she is an evangelist. More about that in a moment.

I want to draw out four themes evoked by this story. Some arise from the text itself. The first is influenced by the context from which we read today. Namely, water in particular — and the fragile bounty of creation in general.

The second relates to the universal cope of God’s offer of life in and through Jesus Christ and the imperative therefore for the church to be a fundamentally inclusive community.

Third, the importance of truth-telling.

And finally a focus on faith sharing in the spirit of this woman.

On the outskirts of town in the heat of the midday sun, the time of no shadows, Jewish rabbi meets Samaritan woman. Their conversation starts with the literal search for water from Jacob’s well and Jesus turns it into a spiritual metaphor, as he often did when he journeyed through the territory of John’s gospel!

The image is a striking one for us at the literal level. Water, thirst, dry land. What a vivid image Rronang shared with us earlier — the beautiful and constant outpouring of sweet fresh water from the very ground of his country — bringing refreshment and growth, mingling with the salt water of the great ocean. And the source of those springs linking through story and dreaming to creation.

Many parts of this land are experiencing extraordinary drought due, most scientists claim, to climate change induced by the impact of human beings. Our sisters and brothers from island nations in the Pacific, from the same changes, are under threat of inundation! Is environmental health a concern for Christian people? It hasn’t featured much in theological writing til recently; but surely we should be bringing all our biblical and theological resources to bear on such matters; and challenging ourselves and our neighbours to live in sustainable ways. We pray to the Creator and sustainer of the whole cosmos who gave human beings an explicit command to be stewards, carers of the earth, not despoilers.

Are we going to contribute the unique insights of the Christian faith to movements to sustain the earth, to protect the living water, the air, the soil, the trees and the creatures of earth, sea and sky?
It is becoming clear that the industrialised world’s collective failure to regulate pollution and curb gross over-consumption has put millions of the world’s most vulnerable people at increased risk of hunger, thirst, flooding, and disease. We cannot claim to care for the poor while complicit in the destruction of the most basic resources our neighbours need for survival. “Love for neighbour” — a plank in our Lord’s great commandment - and care for the environment in which our neighbour lives — cannot be separated.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading authority on the issue, an additional 40 to 170 million poor people are at risk of hunger and malnutrition this century, and 1 to 2 billion people already in poor areas could see further reduction in their water supplies. More than 100 million people could be affected by coastal flooding.
The scriptures do not directly address the benefits of coal vs. nuclear vs. solar power, or carbon taxes vs. carbon markets etc. But they do indicate clear priorities for Christians that should frame and guide this debate. With any legislation, policy, or personal behaviour we should ask: Does this further our God-given mandate to “serve and preserve” God’s creation? And, how do our decisions affect the world’s most vulnerable people? Decisions as basic as what we wear, what we eat, how we travel, how much and what type of power we use are becoming key questions for Christian disciples. If it costs more to purchase non sweat shop garments, or install solar panels, or that water recycling system, without sounding banal, put that down to the cost of discipleship. It sounds like a very middle class response, but hey, if we got serious about these sorts of things who knows where it might lead us?
Second, what an extraordinary encounter this is in the middle of that Middle Eastern day — a Jewish rabbi and a woman of a race whose company any respectable Jew would shun. There is the obvious gender divide. There is the very significant racial divide. And there is an implied moral divide although we shouldn’t jump to too many conclusions. Jesus’ questions about her marital status are not to expose moral guilt but to uncover the pain of the woman’s life in her intimate relationships.

But, whatever, she is an outsider even amongst her own people. That’s why she’s out at the well in the middle of the day! She’s a pariah who encounters the Pariah Messiah. The source of living water and abundant life who will be crucified outside the city, despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief – so that outsiders would find a way in — pariahs welcomed as honoured guests at the table of God — by our Pariah Messiah

We don’t need to rehearse the divisions between Jews and Samaritans in Jesus’ time. Ironically it is the woman who points out the faux pas reminding Jesus of the barriers between them and wondering aloud why he seems so impervious to them! Suffice it to say that Jesus’ bridging of this chasm surely challenges the Christian Church to overcome such divisions. The Uniting Church claims to be a multicultural church. We could give much better witness to Christ reconciling love by being more cross-cultural in how we live as church. Too often we remain, by and large, isolated in our ethnicities, more like a federation, a network of interconnected communities.

This falls far short of what God calls us to be. When the NT talks about unity it is not about bureaucratic arrangements — it’s organic. It’s why we talk in terms of covenant in the church, not contract — it’s relational.

The Church is not called to be a coalition of independent units connected by lines on an organisational chart. It’s the body of Christ! There’s nothing more organic — more beautiful or messy than a body, more interdependent than a body. We have the same DNA, the same blood of Christ flowing through our veins, carrying the oxygen, processing the waste — all pumped around by the very heart of God. Can that image engage our imaginations?

Folks, if we even we began to approximate this reality what a powerful witness to the presence and love of Christ which is strong enough to hold us in one body despite our differences. In this community what unites us is symbolised, not surprisingly, by the water of baptism. In this community water is thicker than blood. Where race or gender or morality would divide us, Christ calls us into a new community, marked by water, where such divisions are rendered void. At that old well Jesus engaged in deep conversation and connection with another human being. Her Samaritan-ness, her gender, her lifestyle were secondary.

Third, let’s note that part of the dialogue where Jesus raises the uncomfortable question about her marital status. He wants to address the woman in the totality of her life and not get caught up in abstract theological discussion. He asks her to speak truthfully because unless we deal with truth anything built subsequently on such a foundation is questionable at best, more usually dangerous.

It’s no accident that the post apartheid process in South Africa was called Truth and Reconciliation. Reconciliation can only be achieved through truth-telling. Now is not the time or place to put a view about how the UCA best tells the truth about the relationship between First and subsequent peoples in this land. But I hope we can agree on some way because, as uncomfortable as it may be, the truth, said our Lord, will set us free. We like to say of ourselves that we are an Australian church. Let’s find ways, many ways to put substance into that claim by naming some truth and by renewing our efforts to build a fair and just society in partnership with our indigenous brothers and sisters. Let’s set the bar a bit higher for this nation, for other churches and most of all, ourselves.

And finally this text teaches us about sharing the faith. Obviously water here is used by Jesus as a spiritual metaphor for that which gives eternal life. The water that is the gift of Jesus slakes all thirst. Thirst serves as a metaphor in scripture for our longing for God.

Psalm 42: “As the deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for the living God”.

This woman is an evangelist. She hears the truth beside that deep well, symbol of the past, and receives living water, moving, flowing, changing water and she is filled, she is changed. We see her dropping her bucket, forgetting about her water jar, casting off the past in which she had no voice, ignoring the male disciples who are registering disapproval — she just steps out of all that and runs back to her village because she is so full of the living water that she just has to go and share it with her people — those same people who don’t talk to her, don’t listen to her, probably pretend they don’t even see her. Who have hurt her so badly for so long, condemned her to a life of loneliness and shame — it is to those people she goes bursting with the good news.

“Come and see” she urges them in a phrase reminiscent of Chapter 1 of this gospel when Jesus and then Philip use the phrase to inquirers. Come and check it out for yourself. Come and see!

This shunned and despised woman is believed! She is believed because of the empowering love and acceptance of Jesus who saw her not as a figure to be despised and avoided; not even as a figure to be pitied and forgiven; but as a person to be empowered. The male disciples will still marvel and question and struggle for another 17 chapters but she hears, understands, accepts, goes, preaches and converts just on one long drink of the living water that is Jesus.

Friends, what a gospel we have to share. Not imperialistically, but in humility and joy. We don’t possess it — we have been possessed by it! Can we exorcise our demonic preoccupation with survival and risk losing everything for the sake of the gospel, the pearl of great price? Can we cease being anxious about so many things and concentrate on the one thing needful? To call thirsty people to drink, bathe, wash and play in the living water poured out for all in and through Jesus Christ?

In some parts of this country farmers will tell you that in terms of managing livestock it’s more effective to use wells instead of fences. The person who told me this said he’d used this image once and a farmer came up to him and said, hmm, actually, water doesn’t really smell. If you want the stock to come you need to pour some of that water onto the ground and the aroma it creates will get them there quick. What an image! Throw the water around!

This past Easter I was camping as usual with my family in a secluded little spot in Gippsland. I was walking through the eucalyptus forest during a heavy rainstorm. The rain suddenly ceased and the sun came out and we found ourselves walking through a natural phenomenon I’d never experienced before. Rising from the ground was this beautiful light mist infused with eucalyptus oil. It was surreal; it was like walking in some great cosmic humidifier. The water from above met the thirsty earth and the oils of the leaves and released this glorious aroma. So, courtesy of that farmer I pass on to you that image for the mission of the church — casting the good news around, the living water who is Jesus Christ, releasing the fragrance of God’s glorious grace, mercy, justice and joy.

A new appreciation for the gift of water and God’s gifts in God’s beautiful yet vulnerable creation; and our vocation of stewardship of the earth.

A challenge to express the universal all encompassing love, grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ in the life of our church.

A reminder from him who embodied grace and truth, to the prophetic vocation of truth-telling and reconciliation.

And a challenge to share the abundance of God’s living water, the gospel itself, with creativity and joy.