Sermon – At the Well

Here’s this morning’s sermon. I went a little off piste from the text, but essentially what I wanted to say is in both the video and the words below.

Let me begin this morning with a poem. Just a short poem – so slight that you need to listen or it will pass you by. Water – by Philip Larkin.

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

I want us to think this morning about what it means to construct a religion – a way of being spiritual and to reflect on that with the woman at the well – the source of the water, that Jesus himself wanted to drink from.

Now. We seem to have forgotten what significance wells have had in attempts to learn to be spiritual.

Later today, those of you who are here with the Friends of Cathedral Music will make your way to the Medieval Cathedral in Glasgow to take part in a service there. It is the rock from which we were hewn – or the well from which we here once drew water. For the people who became this congregation were turfed out of there for keeping the Episcopal faith in 1689.

Should anyone find their way into the under-church in the Medieval Cathedral they will find one of the clues as to why that church is where it is. Just by Mungo’s tomb, set now into the walls is a well. It is easy to ask why they would build a well into the walls of a church but of course that is to get it the wrong way round. The Saint Mungo came to a holy place to minister. Came to a holy well where he lived and died and was buried. And above and around him and the well, grew the building that now stands there today.

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

So great is our need of water, so powerful is the need to quench our thirst that it should not be difficult to understand why wells were holy places. They were places which made life possible. No water – no life.

In the next few weeks we will use water again and again to build up symbols that will teach us afresh the joy of God.

Next Sunday I’ll be taking water from the font – none other than a stand-in for a holy well and baptising a new member of this congregation.

Then within days I’ll be taking a towel and a bowl and offering to wash feet on Maundy Thursday.

And then, if Christ rises, I’ll no doubt find myself flinging water, freshly blessed by the Bishop, around the church with giddy abandon on Easter Day. A reminder not only of our own baptisms but also that God’s grace is neither scarce nor absent nor wanting. For God’s grace like God’s indiscriminate love is something the world is simply drenched in.

Symbols using water recur in Lent. Too often we think because we begin in the desert that Lent is dry. But as someone I once worked with used to remind me – Lent isn’t dry it is wet. This time of year is dripping in symbolism. Keeping Lent and especially keeping Holy Week together plunges us under the fountain of all that is good and holy. For it is not just a once in a lifetime splash from the font that the Christian religion promises but a life with so much love, grace and goodness that we might worry more about being drowned by it than by being parched and thirsty.

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

Yet being parched and thirsty in the desert is where we find the Saviour in the gospel this morning. He turned to a women in the stark heat of the day and asked for a drink.

And they had this conversation. This chat. This debate. By the well, a source of life for both of them. And I always get the sense that it is a very real debate. The question is – what are they going to make religion out of. Is it from the traditions of Samaria or those of Jerusalem?

Jesus lived in a sectarian time just as we gather today in a sectarian city.

And shining out of that conversation, the insight that “a time is coming when those who worship will worship in Spirit and in Truth”. It is a reminder of the realities that lie behind the forms which we use to build a spiritual life. The forms of religion work so long as we remember that they are merely types and shadows that are a stand in for ultimate reality. When we imbue ultimate reality onto the symbols of our religion themselves we will surely end up either disappointed or fanatical or both.

I sometimes muse at this time of year that I wonder what the church would have been like if it had chosen to make footwashing a sacrament rather than the bread and wine. (After all, John’s gospel which we read today mentions nothing about bread and wine at the Last Supper and majors entirely on the footwashing).

But had the church done that, no doubt we would have had a schism between those who would want to wash feet daily or just a few times a year. No doubt we would have had a schism between those who wanted to warm up the water and those who wanted to have it cold – the way God intended water to be. No doubt there would have been divisions between those who would have white towels though the year and those who would change the colour of the towel according to the liturgical season. No doubt there would have been those who believed you should wash the left foot first and those who needed to first wash the right one.

Types and shadows. All this is to do with types and shadows.

Shall we worship according to Samaria. Or according to Jerusalem?

God is spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth.

If I were called in
To construct a religion – said Philip Larkin’s wee poem
I should make use of water.

I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

I like that image – any-angled light congregating endlessly. It fits with the open, inclusive welcome that we’re trying to build here in St Mary’s.

But what will you use? What signs and symbols and images will you adopt? What spiritual practises will you take to yourself? What spiritual places will go you to? What will you read? Who will you associate with? From what well shall you draw water in order to taste the living water that means you will never thirst again?

Lent invites us to ask those questions of one another.

But it also reminds us that the types and shadows by which we know God are just that – types and shadows.

You can’t be reminded too much that types and shadows will have their ending. The truth about God is the truth about love – not a truth about what you do in order to know that love.

Religious practice matters so much because it takes us so close to God. Religious practice matters not at all though if it gets in the way of the simple truth that God loves us enough to drench us in grace.

Together as we journey towards the cross we know the promise. One day we will drop all the delicious, rich and enticing types and shadows that religion offers us in this life and know the ultimate reality that being loved by God is for all eternity.

Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Him,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

Amen

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