14 May 2017

The Coming God - Homily for the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, 14th May 2017, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, Mayfair, London

The encounter of Jesus with the woman at the well is very like the Prodigal Son, and the Good Shepherd and that lost sheep – a description of loss and disconnection, of hopeful restoration and return (John 4.5-42).

Blessed John Henry Newman captured the feelings in the verses he wrote after he had become so dangerously ill in Sicily that he expected to die and lose everything.

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!
Lead, kindly Light, The Pillar of the Cloud, 1833

Here we have the sensation of human beings who have almost lost all that is worthwhile. Some doubt it; some deliberately stray from it, forgetting what they have lost and yet they hardly reconcile themselves to the things that they have preferred: there is something missing. The sheep, lost from its fold, bleats to reconnect with its flock. The prodigal son spends the comfort-blanket of his father’s wealth, but is left to contemplate the bare nothingness of who he is, until he imagines he was only something in his father’s love. The woman at the well is on auto-pilot – she has been through five husbands and is on to a sixth partner; empty within, she goes through the routines, drawing water at again and again, day after day. Spiritually she is in a rut. The fresh water does nothing to quench a thirst that she barely knows is withering her body and soul from within.

Newman in his own mortal danger, however, sees the power that leads on, and through. He contemplates the loss of love, and holds on to the happiness of communion with those whose lives on earth are lived in heaven. He understands the coming of God to bring him through, and back; to end his disconnection and return him to his place.

Such a coming of God is in each of these stories in the Gospels. The prodigal son makes his own way back to his father, but the decisive moment in the story is when the father sees him from afar and runs out to meet him, forgive and restore him. The sheep wanders with the purpose of returning but cannot make it along; it is searched out by a shepherd, who risks all the others to go and find what is lost, so that not only some but all may be close to him, in the pasture as well as in the fold. The Samaritan women has no idea she is lost, as she lurches from one man to another and goes about her life in some attempt on normality. Yet Jesus takes the disciples off the road from Galilee to Jerusalem, out of the Judaic world into that of the Samaritan Hebrews. He goes aside from their company and rests, while they go into Shechem and He waits. Sure enough, the aimless woman He was searching out arrives.

How does He bring her to who she is meant to be in His Kingdom? By reconnecting her, not with a father’s home or the flock of sheep, but with the truth about herself that she had avoided, the truth about her predicament that she had insulated herself from. She argues; she confronts; she blames; but she sees herself, and knows herself as she is known. She leaves the fresh water, because the filling of her days with auto-pilot chores is over. Now she lives in the light that has been shone on her; and many more believe, when they in turn come to be told truth, and dwell for two days in the presence of God Who comes in the Name of “Lord” (Luke 19.38). We are to conclude that, on the third day [a day of water-purification of those who have touched death, Numbers 19.12], they rose to their new life by a foretaste of the forthcoming Resurrection of their Saviour.

It is remarkable that the disciples miss this light dawning on the Samaritans because they have gone into the city to buy provisions. We are reminded of another of Jesus’ stories – how it was the wise virgins who were admitted to the wedding feast, while the others, who ran out of supplies and went off to get more, missed the big moment. Once again, the Lord turns our wisdom on its head: “the knowledge of the secrets of the Kingdom” (Luke 8.10) have been given to those who did not expect it, and withheld from those who believed they were in possession of them: a woman, and not them; a Samaritan of the sacred mountain, and not the Jews of Galilee and Jerusalem. The disciples are lost for words, as they begin to realise that the Gospel is never about what I can get out of it for my own sense of salvation and spirituality, but what God can get out of me for the salvation and sanctification of all that He has made for love alone.

Sometimes - is it not true? – our mind and heart returns to dwell on those we have lost and see no more, on regrets for what we once did and cannot put right, on paths we took in life that mean we could not take others that now we might have desired to; we dwell on openings, promptings and vocations to love and be loving that we feared, on those shadows and ruts that we are used to for living in, so that we can avoiding the true selves God wants us joyfully to be. Yet what connects us with what is lost, and missed and lacking, is not the dismissal of past errors, or present regrets and predicaments, but encountering them in truth and with light. The Holy Father’s approach to the discipline of marriage is not to be seen as wiping away the indissolubility of the exclusive marriage bond, but - as the Samaritan woman found - to find it again through mercy and conversion to what is true and holy; not otherwise. Similarly, all of us, from the first disciples onwards, hold our breath when we realise the God has come to speak not just to us but about us to our faces. As Charles Wesley put it, “Tis mercy all, immense and free, for – O, my God! – it found out me!” Everything we are, with everything we have missed out on being, is encompassed in the forgiveness that is the opposite to loss, because it retrieves the truth about us and puts it into God’s light; it is the opposite to disconnection - and the falsity of “being realistic” and “moving on” - because it takes what was broken up and puts the whole back together; it does not avoid and cancel the past but embraces it with courage and love, to purify and redeem it. It completes our integrity. It makes the sinner righteous. It makes the one who is distant from God reconciled. It makes the one whose life confronts God to be returned, and restored to face in the right direction.

If you look at the icon of this Sunday, you see the Lord sitting on the edge of the well. You notice it is in the shape of the Cross. You may also notice that the well is in the shape of the stone from the tomb of Christ’s resurrection which in icons can be shown as broken in two on the ground in the shape of a Cross on which the Risen Lord tramples in victory. In other words, to be faced with the truth of who we were and who we are is not shame but joy, to face the truth of who we are to become: the false person trampled into death by the Cross, the one being saved free at last to stand with Christ in His Resurrection and worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth. A fourth verse added to Lead Kindly Light, that hardly anyone ever sings now, see this clearly:

Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life.

Edward Bickersteth, Anglican Bishop of Exeter,
for the Hymnal Companion to the Book of Common Prayer, 1870

This is no mere after-life that is described, but setting the present earthly strife in the calm of the divine and uncreated light. “Home to my God” is not after; it is now. For as the Lord has promised to everyone who sees their sin, who falls short of the glory of God and dares to come beside Christ to be sanctified: “You shall be with me in Paradise today.” (Luke 23.42)