Tuesday 21 March 2023

Thinking about suffering

Reflection for morning worship with the Community of Brendan the Navigator, streamed on Tuesday 21st March 2023 

‘Sickness brings patience, patience brings perseverance, and perseverance brings hope’.

If you’ve ever been to the Galway Clinic, you’ve most likely seen these words, written on the wall in the reception area close to the chapel, and attributed to St Paul. When I first saw them, I thought what a strange thing to write on the wall of a hospital. When I’m sick - in pain, frightened, suffering – I’m not inclined to feel patient. All I want is for someone to make my suffering go away!

These words are of course a variant of Paul’s words in his Epistle to the Romans (5:1-11), which we have just heard. ‘But we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.’

Now we all know about suffering – it is a part of our common experience as human beings. And surely suffering is a bad thing, a manifestation of evil within the world. I don’t mean pain. Pain can be a good thing, when for instance it teaches us as children not to put our hands in the fire. Suffering is more a psychological torment that comes from feeling bereft, out of control, in danger, unloved, hopeless, only sometimes from unremitting pain. Suffering drives us to forget everything and everybody else around us in our rage to be rid of it. Suffering is evil.

So how can Paul possibly ask us to ‘boast in our sufferings’? Doesn’t that sound a bit like glorying in something evil? Let me try to tease out some thoughts about suffering.

First let’s think about the causes of suffering.

Much of the suffering that we see about us, and experience ourselves, is caused directly or indirectly by you or by me, or by other human beings. Consider the wholesale suffering caused by war and oppression, driven by human greed and thoughtlessness. Or what you might call retail suffering, from hurtful words to a loved one up the scale to violence, rape and murder, caused by people like you and me not living up to God’s loving message. This suffering is due to our human propensity to sin, what theologians call ‘original sin’. We know we are all sinners, we all need forgiveness, and Jesus assures us that our loving-father God will forgive us if we truly repent.

But there’s an awful lot of suffering that we really can’t trace back in this way to human sin. I’m thinking of the suffering caused recently by the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. I’m thinking of the suffering caused by illness and disease, for instance by Covid-19. And I’m thinking about the suffering caused by the fact of death – in the long run we know death will separate us from all that we know and love. All of this suffering seems to be due to the working out of the natural laws of physics, chemistry, biology, in the universe created by almighty God.

As Christians we believe our God to be both almighty and loving.

But surely if God were really both, he would not allow such a burden of suffering to exist. He would not have made us humans subject to original sin, we would never cause others to suffer. He would have created a universe in which natural disasters and disease were absent, and where we would be immortal. Therefore, some say, if God exists he can’t be both: if God is almighty he can’t always be loving, and if God is always loving he can’t be almighty. This is known as the Problem of Suffering, or the Problem of Evil, and it has been debated by philosophers and theologians since time immemorial. How can we resolve this paradox?

St Paul cuts through this logical hair-splitting by focussing on God’s love. As he puts it, ‘God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us’. Jesus, with perfect obedience to his loving father God, suffered a cruel death on the cross, in order to show us all how to deal with the suffering and death, which every one of us will know. ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit’, Paul says. It is this love which gives us the character to endure suffering, and never lose hope. Our Christian hope is that by God’s grace our faith will justify us – that is our faith will put us in the right relationship with God – and so bring us ‘peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’.

How amazing it is that almighty God through his Son Jesus Christ should express such loving solidarity toward sinful people like you and me! How comforting we find that solidarity when we ourselves suffer!


Sunday 12 March 2023

The Samaritan woman at the well

Address given in St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan Church on Sunday 12th March 2023, the 3rd of Lent

Today’s Gospel reading (John 4:5-42) about the Samaritan woman at the well is a beautifully vivid story, isn’t it?

To begin to understand it we need to know something about the Samaritans and their relationship to Jews like Jesus and his disciples in the NT period.

Samaritans and Jews saw each other as outsiders and lived apart. These two peoples shared so much, the same land, the same God, and the same Torah – the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, but they saw each other as having different religions. To Jews the Samaritans were ritually unclean – they contaminated anything they touched. Samaritans, on the other hand, believed they had preserved the true Israelite religion, which the Jews who returned from exile in Babylon had perverted. The Jews worshipped God on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, but the Samaritans worshipped God on Mount Gerizim. As they both still do, for a small Samaritan community has persisted for centuries of persecution in the land of Palestine.

But notice, Jesus consistently tried to break down the barriers between Jews and Samaritans. For example, the Good Samaritan is not a stranger but is the very best example of a good neighbour (Luke 10: 29-37). Among the Ten Lepers who are healed, only the Samaritan returns to give thanks, and this “foreigner” is praised for his faith (Luke 17: 11-19).

In the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, the disciples do something surprising.

They go into the city of Sychar to buy food. But this is no ordinary city – this is a Samaritan city. Any food they might buy from Samaritans is going to be unclean according to Jewish ritual standards. I wonder whether they brought any food back?

While the Disciples are in Sychar, Jesus sits down by Jacob’s Well, and begins talking with a Samaritan woman who comes to the well for water. ‘Give me a drink’, he says. She is intrigued, ‘How is it’, she replies, ‘that you a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’. She is surprised that a Jew like Jesus would talk to a Samaritan woman, let alone accept a drink from her.

Their conversation is a model for how we should respond to outsiders in our midst, whether they are foreigners or people of a different religion or culture. It is a real dialogue, involving both speaking and listening – speaking with the expectation of being heard, and listening honestly to what the other is saying, rather than listening to what our prejudices tell us they ought to say. And it is tinged with good humour.

They speak about water. Jesus says, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ And the woman replies with wit, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’

And they speak about their different faiths. The woman says, ‘I have no husband’, and Jesus laughingly replies, ‘You are right … for you have had five husbands’ – no doubt a reference to the five books of the Torah. The woman says, ‘Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain’ – Mount Gerizim – ‘but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem’. To which Jesus replies, ‘The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’

For Jesus it does not matter where or how you worship God, so long as you do so in spirit and in truth. And it should not matter for us either.

When the Disciples arrive back, they are shocked to find Jesus talking to the Samaritan woman.

They are filled with questions, but they cannot bring themselves to ask them. Their silence reflects their inability to reach out to the stranger.

But their failure and their prejudices are shown in another way: the woman gives Jesus water as she and Christ talk, but they fail to join in the conversation about faith and about life.

They are still unable to articulate their faith, but the woman recognises Christ as a Prophet. They made no contact with the people in Sychar, but she rushes back to tell the people there about Jesus. No one in the city was brought to Jesus by the disciples, but many Samaritans listened to what the woman had to say and came to believe that Jesus is truly the Saviour of the world.

Jesus was thirsty, he asked the Samaritan woman for water, and she gave it to him.

But in return she received much more from Jesus: he gave her the ‘living water’ which became in her ‘a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’. She believed in Jesus, and because of her many Samaritans came to believe in him. They came to believe that Jesus ‘is truly the Saviour of the world’.

‘I am thirsty’, is the fifth of the seven last words of Christ from the Cross on Good Friday, and in response he is given wine with bitter hyssop (John 19:28-30). Many people have compared the thirst of Christ on the Cross with his request to the Samaritan woman, ‘Give me a drink’, and the promise that follows, ‘Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty’.

In expressing his thirst out loud in that cry from the cross, Christ shows his humanity and his humility. In expressing such a basic need, he shows his solidarity with all those people, living or dying, healthy or sick, great or small, who are in need, and who in humility are forced to ask for a cup of water.

In his thirst on the Cross, I think the dying Christ seeks something much more than water or vinegar. He thirsts for a new humanity to be formed and shaped through his incarnation, life and passion, death resurrection and ascension. His thirst is for our salvation.

So to finish:

Let us give thanks for the openness and trust of the Samaritan woman, and pray that Christ will give us, as he gave her, ‘living water’ which will become in us ‘a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’.

O God, the fountain of life,
to a humanity parched with thirst
you offer the living water that springs from the Rock,
our Saviour Jesus Christ:
stir up within your people the gift of your Spirit,
that we may profess our faith with freshness
and announce with joy the wonder of your love.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen