In September 1972 I started my new job as Head of Biology at King’s School, Peterborough. For a while I commuted from Stamford but, the following year, Pat and I moved into our newly-purchased property in Huntley Grove, about a hundred yards away from the back door to the science labs at King’s. The house needed a lot of work to turn it into our vision for a home which we couldn’t afford to have done, but were confident that we could do ourselves. So it was that, on the day we received the keys at about 4 o’clock one afternoon, we set about pulling down an old lath and plaster partition wall to enlarge the kitchen. We were soon completely absorbed in what we were doing for it was something that we had planned for what felt a very long time. Eventually, when the wall was down and we had swept out the room, we decided to have a bonfire in our back garden and burn the old laths. Being thin and very dry they burnt a treat with flames climbing high into the night sky. The fire seemed a fitting finale to our evening of work. Then, to our surprise and horror, we found ourselves confronted by a very angry neighbour who was not in the least impressed by our fire. “What sort of time do you call this to have a bonfire?” he yelled. We looked at each other with not the slightest idea of the time between us. “About 10 o’clock” I replied hesitantly. “10 o’clock! You must be joking!” retorted the neighbour. “It’s 2 o’clock in the morning!” We hastily snuffed out what remained of the fire, made profuse apologies and drove back to Stamford reflecting upon our first evening in our new home and how we had managed to keep going until 2.00am without our evening meal and without noticing just how late it had become.
Some 35 years later I found myself engaged in another first, though this was in the morning, not the evening. It was the 24th February 2008 and I was here at this lectern delivering my very first sermon. Many of you were here. Easter was at its very earliest that year and it is at almost its latest this year, so then as now, it was the Third Sunday of Lent and the Gospel reading was John’s story of the Samaritan woman at the well. A brief two sentence reminder then, of what I had to say then:
There are several gems within the conversation which I could expand upon but they are all eclipsed by what is arguably the most dramatic scene described in the New Testament:
Jesus volunteers the information that he is the Messiah: ‘I am he,’ he said ‘the one who is speaking to you.’
For me, that remains the most important sentence in the reading. but it was only the beginning of a remarkable story. Immediately after Jesus had made this revelation the disciples returned and his conversation with the Samaritan woman ended. Its repercussions, however, were only just beginning. The woman rushed back into town, so enthralled by her conversation with Jesus that she forgot the original purpose of her journey and left her water jar by the well. When she arrived she told the people about her encounter with the Messiah and persuaded them to go out to the well to meet him themselves.
What an amazing transformation! Here was a woman who was ostracised by her own people because of her immoral way of life. So afraid of their taunts she had come out to the well in the heat of the day, rather than the cool of morning or evening, just to avoid making contact with them. Now, here she was, rushing back into the town to address them and tell them of her encounter at the well. Jesus had chosen to reveal that he was the Messiah, not to his Jewish friends, the disciples, but to a Samaritan woman. She, in response, had become the first Evangelist, spreading the word of Jesus to all whom she met.
The Samaritan woman was not the only one who was deeply affected by the encounter: Jesus too was excited. As the towns’ people came out to see him his disciples urged him to eat, but he would not. He knew that his mission was to spread the good news of the Kingdom of God to all people, not just to the Jews. He had spent 30 years preparing for this moment, and now it was happening. Of course he was excited, so excited in fact that he stayed in the town for two days to continue his conversations and, as John tells us, “because of his words many more became believers.”
Two days, of course, is a long time. Talk for much more than 10 minutes here at the Lectern and you can guarantee at least one person will be taking a sneaky look at their watch! What on earth did Jesus talk about for two days? John does not tell us, but he does tell us the result: “Now that we have heard for ourselves,” the Samaritans said, “we know that this man really is the Saviour of the World.”
The Title “Saviour of the World” would have been well known to the Samaritans for it was claimed by the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus for himself. Now, after two days in the company of this itinerant Jewish preacher who had first appeared in their midst begging for water from a woman of ill repute, they were ready to proclaim him as the Messiah, the true Saviour of the World. Not just the Saviour of the Jews, but the Saviour of the World including, of course, the Samaritans, and you, and me.
In contemplating the enormity of this it is interesting to note that the Samaritans were expecting a teaching Messiah, like a second Moses, rather than the Jewish hope of a conquering Messiah, like a second David. Perhaps that helped them to recognise and accept Jesus as their Saviour.
Week by week, as we come to church, we hear the words of Jesus that were recorded by the Gospel writers specifically to enable future generations to hear what had excited them so much. We hear them, yes, but are we excited by them? Do they have such an impact upon us that we forget what we had planned and rush off after the service to repeat them to our family, friends and neighbours like the Samaritan woman? Are we ever so excited by the prospect of building the Kingdom of God that we cannot eat because we feel compelled to continue the work, just as Jesus did after his encounter at the well?
We Brits are not terribly good at being excited are we? Apart from certain sporting events and the occasional pop concert we prefer to keep our emotions under wraps. I recall a swimming gala at the all-girls school where I taught in Sussex when the Headmistress stopped the proceedings to admonish the girls for cheering and whistling which she considered unladylike. “You may clap” she conceded, “and you may say Hurrah – once.”
The message of today’s Gospel reading is clear. We should be excited about the Good News of Jesus Christ. We need to stop hiding the light of Christ under a bushel or a dirty old bucket and stop being apologetic about our faith. In the words of our Gradual hymn, we need to change our love for Christ and for one another from a spark to a flame. And if that flame leaps up so high that our neighbours can see it from the next street then let us say Hurrah for that – but only once, of course!
Note: The Gradual Hymn was Beauty for brokenness by Graham Kendrick which includes the chorus:
God of the poor,
Friend of the weak,
Give us compassion we pray,
Melt our cold hearts,
Let tears fall like rain.
Come, change our love
From a spark to a flame.