Sermon at Saint Matthias’ Church, Sunday 24th February 2008
“I can see that you are a prophet”. John 4:19
“The Tribunal of Inquiry into Certain Planning Matters & Payments”, I had to look up the title. After more than ten years, you would think it would stick in the mind. I’m not sure what has been achieved in that time, it has provided moments of high comedy and given regular work to some excellent actors, but much of the time those being questioned have avoided the questions they were asked. The waters have been muddied so often and so many legal questions have been raised that it has become hard to see the Tribunal ever leading to any conclusions that will be generally accepted. The questions asked are simply not answered.
The net result of the process seems to have been a considerable increase in cynicism towards all politicians, not just those under investigation. But before we become too cynical about our political leaders, it is important too realise that this tendency to avoid questions is nothing new. In Bible times the human tendency not to accept responsibility for things, to avoid the questions, to change the subject, to answer questions that weren’t asked, was every bit as strong.
The Gospel reading is amongst those I do with Sixth Class every year in the National School, we did it back before the mid-term break. One of the questions we look at is what the Samaritan woman did when faced with a difficult question. The answer was, of course, that she changed the subject.
Watch what happens when she is challenged by a matter that makes her feel very uncomfortable:
Jesus told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
“I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
Now, most of Sixth Class were immediately able to spot what the woman did when she found herself in a an awkward position.
She changes the subject. “Sir”, the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
An evasion worthy of a Government spokesmen. She is in a difficult corner, so shifts the discussion onto different ground. Jesus discusses the question of worship with her, but then we lose the thread of the conversation. The story continues, ‘Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?’
What other words passed between them? We don’t know. What we can assume is that Jesus shifted the questions back to difficult matters and didn’t give the woman a second chance to avoid the challenge because there is an immediate change in the woman. The story continues, ‘Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?”’
Confronted with the truth, the Samaritan woman, like our modern politicians, sought to shift attention to other matters. Watch questions in the Dail, there will be a question about the state of a school or a hospital and the minister responding will never bring themselves to say, “Sorry, this shouldn’t be”, they will talk about what they have done elsewhere. I wonder how like the woman we are. She knew the truth about herself, and each of us knows the truth about ourselves, and yet we pretend that God doesn’t know. We pretend that we can say one thing and do another. What sort of faith do we have, if we think we can fool God?
‘I can see you are a prophet’, say the woman, and, having said that, she tries to move the discussion away from herself. Had she thought seriously about what she meant when she said Jesus was a prophet? Did she seriously think her ruse was going to work?
How often are we like her? We hear the Scripture readings Sunday by Sunday, and there are times that they make us feel uncomfortable. There are times when we would rather not hear what God is saying to us. Then we stand and say the Creed and the prayers, and I think sometimes, maybe too often, we are like that woman. She declared her belief in Jesus, we declare our belief in God, but inside we want the awkward questions to go away.
The difficult questions don’t go away. The questions about the way we live; the questions about what of our lives we give to God, if what we offer God is not something that makes us joyful, then maybe we aren’t giving enough; the questions of what we try to hide, thinking that God doesn’t know—the questions remain. We go home and we go back to our lives and we think that by avoiding questions they will go away.
The woman’s response is very different. She leaves her water jar, for a moment she sets aside the things of everyday life, and she goes off, obviously filled with joy, to tell her community about this Jesus.
Despite her evasions, despite her attempts to avoid the hard questions of Jesus, the woman faces the truth and her life is changed. Dare we allow this to happen in our own lives? Or are we like the politicians who think that avoiding questions is convincing?
At the end of the story, the woman is able to sincerely declare her faith in Jesus. When we declare our faith, can we do so with complete sincerity? If we can’t, then it’s time we started looking at the difficult questions.