Unlikely people

Reading: John 4.5-42

Introduction

I guess we all have an image in our minds of a Christian.  For many it's a middle-aged, middle-class person dressed in Sunday best.  For others in society it may be someone who is a bit barmy believing in God isn’t exactly fashionable. 
I wonder how you would react to a ‘Hell’s Angel’ coming to church, or a prostitute? I expect we would be a bit surprised – an unlikely turn of events.  Well this is a story of an unlikely Disciple for Jesus.
The story begins with Jesus on his way to Galilee. He comes to a town called Sychar and decides to stop for a rest. He sits down for a rest beside a well. He’s probably wishing he had a bucket so he could draw some water to drink. The disciples have gone off into this Samaritan village to buy some food and then a woman arrives in the normal course of her day to fetch water. In other words, this is an everyday encounter. 
There are problems though - the woman comes in the heat of the day - could there be some reason why she doesn’t come in the evening with the other women? 
In any case she’s a Samaritan woman and Jesus is a Jewish man. They should, by all rights, ignore each other. 
But what does Jesus do? He starts up a conversation. And there are couple of things about the way he does it. First of all he begins at a very down to earth, pragmatic level. "Give me a drink." There’s nothing intimidating or threatening about the way he begins. In fact it’s a very natural conversation starter isn’t it? 
What’s more, although he knows something about her, as we discover later in the conversation, he doesn’t treat her as someone who might be despised by an upright Jew.
In fact he puts her in a position of power relative to him doesn’t he? He’s asking her for a favour. 
But he’s doing more than that. He’s taking the opportunity that God has given him to make a connection with this woman so he can tell her the good news. He takes an ordinary situation, an ordinary conversation and he turns it around to a conversation about eternal life. And the conversation is with a very ordinary woman, someone you would never pick as a potential convert to his new movement, let alone an evangelist herself. Yet that’s what she becomes. 

Sharing the good news

Let’s see what Jesus does.  Well, Jesus begins the conversation with a request for a drink of water, but he quickly moves on from his material needs to her spiritual needs. The Bible is full of imagery of water bringing life, and of God’s spirit being living water that brings healing and eternal life.
So it’s a natural connection for Jesus to make between this well of still water and the living water that God provides to those who ask it of him. Well, surprise, surprise, the woman hears and responds.
Far from being a lost cause, or stony ground, she wants what Jesus is offering. She may not quite understand it but she knows this is something important that she needs. 
But Jesus knows that God wants us all to be honest with him.  He knows that this woman needs to be honest with him, to recognise what she is truly like – to see her true state before God.
So Jesus tells the woman to go and call her husband. He knows what her answer will be. He’s already discerned her true situation. But he needs her to acknowledge her standing before God so she can ask for forgiveness. 
And how does she respond? Well, she tries to change the subject doesn’t she? She throws in your classic red herring. "That’s OK for you but we Samaritans believe different things from you Jews." She tries to divert the conversation away from the uncomfortable truth of her own history to the much safer ground of the history of the Jews and the Samaritans. 
Ah, but Jesus doesn’t let her divert him - this is a matter of life and death. This woman can go on relying on the dead water of her religious traditions or she can drink of the living water of the gospel. So Jesus pushes a bit harder.
He says "Let’s not argue about how we worship in this world. A time is coming when true worshippers will worship God in spirit and in truth. In fact that’s the only way to worship him. So you’d better get on board now, while you have the chance." 
And then we have the wonderful moment when the penny drops. She realises that this man is something special. In fact she says he reminds her of the one who was promised, the Messiah. "Yes," says Jesus, "You’ve got it. I am he." 

God transforms even outcasts

Isn’t it amazing how God can take someone who’s obviously lived a fairly disreputable life and completely turn them around?
So many people think that Christianity is for good people – those who have got it all sorted out, who are nice and polite and good.  Of course that’s not right – Jesus went to the outcasts, those who have messed it all up, and who need his acceptance and love.
I have met people who have lived fairly heathen lives, perhaps into crime or drug addiction, maybe they’ve been a total disappointment to their family. Yet somehow, even at rock bottom, they discover the good news of Jesus and become a Christian. And then, like this woman they are so filled with the forgiveness and life of Jesus they couldn’t help but tell others about him. 
She races off to the village, so excited that she forgets she’s a social outcast and begins to tell everyone about what’s happened.
"Could this be the Messiah?" she asks. And the whole village follow her out to where Jesus is waiting with his disciples who have returned by now with lunch. 

Conclusion

Finally, notice that Jesus spends the time while he’s waiting, encouraging his disciples to have confidence in his message, in the gospel. He says "Just look around. The fields are white for harvest."
What he’s done isn’t anything outstanding or unusual. He’s just shared the good news with someone who’s thirsty for the news that God is at work in the world, bringing salvation to lost people.
The picture is of a field where the fruit is almost falling of the trees, where the wheat is standing up tall ready to be cut. In other words there’s no magic formula needed to harvest. You just need to share your experience of Jesus with people – just as this disreputable Samaritan woman does. And the result: "Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ’He told me everything I have ever done.’" 
Like Jesus we can have conversations with people and respond to the questions they ask - and sharing what we know of the Bible with them.
Or we can do what the Samaritan woman did. We can tell people what Jesus has done for us and then we can bring them to church or to someone who can tell them more. 
Let me encourage you, either way, to have your eyes open for opportunities in your everyday life to share the good news of Jesus with people, to offer them living water, invite them to come to church with you, so they too can worship God in spirit and in truth. 

Amen.

Born from Above

Reading: John 3.1-17

Introduction - Religion doesn’t work

I have to tell you that religion doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter that you’ve been to church all your life, that you come from a family of believers, that you have the right connections, do good to your neighbour – its not enough – you have to be born from above.
That’s what Jesus tells Nicodemus in our reading from John’s Gospel.  You can almost hear Nicodemus wince when he heard those words.
If you ask anyone what sort of people God really likes, they’ll probably say its those who are really righteous, always behave well, prays lots, know their Bible – well Nicodemus was one of those people.  He was a Pharisee, who always strived to keep the law, he gave away a tenth of his money, and he even prayed seven times each day – that’s more than I ever do!
Nicodemus is an established Rabbi and teacher and he is a member of the Jewish ruling council.  This righteous man, Nicodemus, comes to see Jesus.  Maybe he was coming to talk about the kingdom of God that Jesus was always proclaiming.  Nicodemus wanted to see the kingdom of God arrive too – but sadly he was going about it all wrong. 
Jesus says "I tell you for certain that you must born from above before you can see God’s kingdom".  That word above in Greek is ‘anothen’ – which means above, and can also mean again.
Poor old Nicodemus gets confused and Jesus has to explain it to him.  It’s no wonder, because it goes against all our religious teaching – but it’s very important that we understand this.

Born from above

What is it that makes us a Christian?  Is it doing good things, helping our neighbours, coming to Church, reading our Bible or praying?  Jesus tells us No – Religious activity like this is good, but it’s not the most important thing.  According to Jesus we need to have a living faith, and be born from above. 
So how do we do that?  Jesus talks of being born of water and the Spirit.  It brings to mind our physical births and our baptism in water.
Being born again by the Spirit is something that God does in our lives when we believe in Jesus and invite him live into our lives. 
If we are open to him, and want to live for Jesus, then I believe he will give us his Holy Spirit, and we will be born from above.  This is the work of God, and I think it’s always a miracle – a time when God reaches out and touches us.
But this is not some special thing that is reserved for a special class of people – we all need to be born from above!  We may not be able to put our finger on the moment it occurred, but we know that we are spiritually alive. 
To have the Holy Spirit in your life is to see as Jesus sees, it is to love as Jesus loves, it is to hurt as Jesus hurts, it is to have the strength and courage that he has.
If in your heart you want to live for Jesus, if you are moved by hearing his word and are moved to acts of love and compassion – these are signs of the Holy Spirit already working in your life. 
~~~~~~~
So you may recognise how the Holy Spirit has been working in your life already as a Christian, you may be aware of spiritual gifts and fruit in your life.  Other people see these things in us better than we do, so its important to tell each other what God is doing.
However, you may find that talk of being born from above leaves you feeling empty and in need.  You may be longing to know the Holy Spirit, or you may be just confused just like Nicodemus did when Jesus spoke to him. 
Either way, the answer is the same.  We ALL need to come to God, to be open to his new life from above.  We all need to be filled with the Holy Spirit, again and again.

God’s priority

Jesus said that God so loved the people of the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who has faith in him will have eternal life and never really die. 
This is a wonderful promise from God, and it shows us God’s priorities.  The most important thing for God is to save us from a meaningless life and separation from Him. 
He wants above everything to save us, to give us abundant life, to be reconciled to us.  I think that’s such a wonderful word, to be reconciled to God and to each other, and its God’s top priority.
God wants us to do the right thing, but its much more important to him that we have a life lived open to God, a life of faith and daily dependence on the living God. 
If you have this living faith, then everything else will follow – we will want to live for God and please him by loving God and loving our neighbours as ourselves.
But the cost to God was enormous.  He had to give up everything and be born as a baby on earth in dangerous times.  He had to live an uncertain life, he gave up so much for us during his life on earth, and ultimately he gave his life for us all on the cross.  That took courage, grit, determination, tough love and above all perseverance – and it demands the same from each of us.

Eternal life starts here and now

Is this life of faith worth it?  I think it is.  The promise is that we will never really die, we will have eternal life.  Jesus is the only one who has gone up to heaven and he came down again to show us the way.  We can trust his promise that God has a place for us there -- so we’re just passing through this life on earth.
As one of my favourite hymns puts it:
No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This is the pow’r of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No pow’r of hell, no scheme of man
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
‘Till He returns or calls me home,
here in the pow’r of Christ I’ll stand!
For those with faith in Christ, eternal life starts now and goes on and on.  Eternal life is an ever growing and deepening experience that will never be exhausted – that’s what we can live now, and its what we have to look forward to on earth and in heaven.

Words and Actions

Thinking about the Baptism of Jesus in February made me think about the way Jesus put his words into action.  He came with words of love, forgiveness and humility, as God coming alongside ordinary people, to accept their help and ministry, and to bring them salvation – from oppression, darkness and ignorance.
And here he is, the Son of God at the beginning of his mission, not standing on any airs and graces, getting in with the crowds, being ministered to by others, being washed clean alongside them – doing all that God requires.

On that day His actions spoke louder than words, and it was something he kept on doing throughout his ministry.  People listened to his teaching because they knew he was totally believable, he was living it, putting it into practice right in front of them.

Here in Crewe I’m proud of the way that the churches are working together to offer safety, hot food and a warm bed to homeless people in our town in January and February.  It's all about ‘word and deed’, helping to change the lives of the poorest people in our town through practical works of love.

One of the things I’ve noticed as we do this is the way it encourages people to get up and use their gifts and talents to make a difference.  Can you befriend somebody? Can you make a nice cup of tea? Can you cook? Do the washing-up?

At All Saints' I can see the Soup and a Smile project on Thursday lunch times doing something similar, offering a safe space for people to gather and meet up – to find friendship and fellowship.  Do please drop in for some soup and to share a smile.


More importantly, this kind of activity is all about extending the Kingdom of God in Crewe – putting the Good News of Jesus into action.  Maybe the people of this town will take more notice of our words if they can see our love in action in this way?

Advent - bringing light into the darkness

We all know the nights are drawing in, and it gets dark so quickly.  As well as the physical darkness there is moral and spiritual darkness around us too.  

We only have to see the news or the papers to see the darkness of violence and hatred in so many war-torn countries across the world.  There is the moral and ethical darkness of the rich getting richer and the poor getting into more debt and struggling make ends meet.  There is the darkness of domestic violence and abuse to vulnerable children, and the darkness of hostility to refugees and immigrants who are different to ourselves.

Advent is about bringing the Light of Jesus Christ into these dark places too - as a candle banishes the darkness around it, so the Light of Jesus banishes the darkness and evil around the world.  

As ever, this depends upon us as disciples of Jesus, the Light of the World.  Are we prepared to pray for peace and be peace-makers wherever we can?  Are we filled with righteous anger at the inequalities of the world and moved to make a stand?  Are we watchful for the vulnerable in our society, ready to stand up for them and their rights? Can we show generosity and hospitality to those who are different to ourselves?

Are we prepared to become a light in the darkness - illuminated by the the Love of God?  That is the challenge of Advent as we await the coming of the newborn King.

Values for Life

It's remembrance time again and we focus on the effects of war around the world, and those who have paid the price.  Of course, the war in Afghanistan is coming to an end with the promise of British soldiers returning home next year.  But we all know that a lot can happen in a year, and for the time being the fighting continues.

I attended a presentation from the Mercian Regiment a few weeks ago that pointed out the human cost of the war: that for every person killed in action, there are many more who are damaged, both physically and mentally.  We see much less of these casualties – for those who have lost limbs there are no processions and cheering crowds to welcome them home, it's hard to see how many there are, or what happens to them once they’re home again.

After the difficulties and dangers of battle in Afghanistan these brave young men and women have another battle to fight – the battle to walk, to have independence, to live and work in civilian life again.  Thankfully there are people to help them – beyond the doctors, nurses and physiotherapists, there are organisations like the British Legion, Help for Heroes, and a host of others who help, and support them through life, and help us all remember them.

We remember their commitment and loyalty, their courage and discipline, and values such as respect and integrity, which we see in so many ways.  These values are at the core of our armed services, and they are core values that I see as Chaplain to many of the cadet forces in Crewe.

As Chaplain I see these values in the life and death of Jesus Christ; in his teaching of service and respect, the way he lived his life for others with total integrity; the way he courageously faced evil as he went to his death on the cross.  Jesus died in our place in an act of self-sacrifice, that we may know God as our Father, and he gave us an example for life.


May we live out these Christian values on which our society is founded, and teach them to the next generations.

An Attitude of Thankfulness

Earlier we spoke about creativity and God, that God gives us the spark of imagination and creativity – something we see in the amazing and diverse world around us.  We come this month to the ArtsFest at All Saints' Church and to our Harvest Festival celebrations too.

The ArtsFest is a fantastic thing – we reach out to the community, welcoming people to come in and demonstrate their gifts and skills, to run a stall, or to come and appreciate.  There are works of art from young and old alike; some are very professional, while others are more homely.  Each one shows that divine spark of creativity. 

I was talking to someone recently who told me how a talent for painting was only discovered late in life, as a result of cancer treatment – it was only then that they found time to reflect, and the courage to have a go – and they discovered a hidden talent.  I believe we all have these hidden creative talents – if only we could bring them into the light and let them flourish.

There are so many things going on at the ArtsFest, something for all ages, so do please make an effort to get involved and see what it's all about.

Just beforehand on the 6th October we have our Harvest Festival – a chance to celebrate God’s goodness to us all, for all that we eat and drink.  Many people in our urban setting think food just comes from Tesco – but we want to stand up and celebrate all our farmers, growers, grocers and distributors who make it all possible. 

We also want to say thank you.  Now that’s a really important word that we could do with more of.  It's not just a mumbled word of thanks that we’re talking about either – it's a condition of our heart, a state of mind, an attitude of life. 


The Bible tells us it's good to be thankful – to count our blessings and thank God and other people for them.  For the glass is half-full not half-empty, and even in the midst of pain and suffering are good people, real blessings, and even creative surprises like discovering you’re an artist!

Messianic Women - Mary the mother of Jesus

Messianic Women - Mary

Readings:      Deuteronomy 22.13-21; Matthew 1.18-25

Introduction

In this month’s series we have looked at some interesting women – each of them showed great courage, faith and determination in obedience to God and to their family.  Finally we come to Mary – a young girl in the tribe of Judah and her special child.

The Incarnation - Accepting the cost

Matthew tells us briefly that Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they were married, she found out that she was going to have a baby by the Holy Spirit - but Luke tells us far more about how this came about.
Luke tells us of the Angel that appeared to young Mary with amazing news – and how she was greatly troubled and afraid at the angel’s appearance, and when the angel pronounces the sublime words about the Son of the Most High whose kingdom will never end, Mary had something far more mundane on her mind: But just a girl, still a virgin!
In our modern society, where hundreds of teenage girls are getting pregnant outside of marriage, we can easily miss the dangerous situation Mary was placed in.  In a closely knit Jewish community in the first century, the law regarded an unmarried pregnant woman as an adulteress, to be put to death by stoning.
Joseph must have felt betrayed and humiliated by the news of an expected baby.  He could have had her put to death with just a word, but he magnanimously agrees to quietly divorce Mary. God uses an angel in his dreams to silence his fears of betrayal and help him to see what this child is.
Luke tells of a tremulous Mary hur­rying off to the one person who could possibly understand what she was going through: her relative Elizabeth, who miraculously became preg­nant in old age after another angelic annunciation.
Elizabeth believes Mary and shares her joy, and yet the scene poignantly highlights the contrast between the two women: the whole countryside is talking about Elizabeth's healed womb even as Mary must face the shame of her own miracle.
In a few months, the birth of John the Baptist took place amid great fanfare, complete with midwives, doting relatives, and the tradi­tional village chorus celebrating the birth of a Jewish male. But only six months later, Jesus was born far from home, with no midwife, extended fam­ily, or village chorus present.
When the news came through of the Roman census Mary didn’t have to go along - a male head of household would have sufficed. Did Joseph drag his pregnant wife along to Bethlehem to spare her the disgrace of childbirth in her home village?
Its incredible to think of a young teenage girl, perhaps only 14, experiencing such a life shattering experience.  To be lifted out of her home and her family and faced with shame and isolation. 
And yet she responds to all these changes, all these challenges in faith with a humble spirit.  She shows a faith that come what may, she can trust in God, because He knows what He is doing.  She knows it won’t be easy, because faith is often a hard road to travel - but Mary accepted the cost of obedience to God, and allowed God to make her a blessing to those around her, even the whole world!
Maybe, if we accept the cost, the changes and challenges we face in life with the same faith, and with a humble spirit, then we make it possible for God to make us into a blessing for others too.

Accepting Jesus on His terms

I wonder how many times did Mary review the angel’s words as she felt the Son of God kicking against the walls of her uterus?  How many times did Joseph doubt his own encounter with an angel - was it just a dream? - as he endured the hot shame of living among villagers who could plainly see the changing shape of his fiancĂ©e?  I would have wondered – did God have to do things this way?  Couldn’t he have found an easier way?
It couldn’t have been easy: nine months of awkward explanations, the lingering scent of scandal - it seems that God arranged the most humiliating circumstances possible for his entrance, as if to avoid any charge of favouritism. 
I think Mary weighed all these things up as she faced the angel that strange night – would she accept this child, this Jesus, on his terms?  She heard the angel out, pondered the repercus­sions, and replied, "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said."
Often a work of God comes with two edges, great joy and great pain, and in that matter-of-fact response Mary embraced both. She was the first person to accept Jesus on his own terms, regardless of the personal cost.
If we are ever tempted to avoid the cost of following Jesus, or are unwilling to accept the pain which comes with service - we need to remember Mary. 
For each of us the challenge is can we pray: "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as the Lord says."

Conclusion

And so an unwed mother, homeless, was forced to look for shelter while travelling to meet the heavy taxation demands of a colonial government.  She lived in a land recovering from civil wars and still in turmoil - very much like we might find in Egypt or Syria today.  She gave birth in Asia, and her son became a refugee in Africa, the continent where most refugees can still be found.
Thankfully Mary stayed faithful to Jesus, protecting and guiding him as He grew up and His ministry developed.  She saw him become the hope of His people Israel - sometimes she didn’t understand him, like the disciples it took time to understand her son, the Chosen One, the Messiah!
She remained faithful through the difficult transition from mother to disciple, from the manger to the cross.  During that long walk of faith Mary learned to give her son over to the will of God, just as she had given herself into God’s hands as a young girl.
And maybe as she stood at the foot of the cross, to see her own son die, and his side pierced by the spear, her own soul was pierced, just as Simeon had spoken of so long before.  How true that prophecy had been. 
Its that same walk of faith that we are all engaged in too.  Can we follow her example?
When God breaks into our lives with a costly life changing challenge, can we respond "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as the Lord says." as Mary did?
When we follow Jesus but don't know where he is leading, and we wonder whether we can trust him - can we learn to become a true disciple sitting at His feet to learn in humility and love?

And can we, like Mary, take up our cross and follow Jesus, even though our hearts may be pierced, and our lives given in sacrifice - even though the cost is so high? We too must take up our cross,  because that is where we find salvation and wholeness.  Amen.