Sermon 2017 March 19th

St Columba’s Church of Scotland

19th March 217- Third Sunday of Lent

Listen Here:


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our Lord and Saviour. Amen


Have you ever found yourself in the “Wilderness of Sin” mentioned in our OT reading today?

Actually it is unlikely, as the “wilderness of Sin” refers to a geographical area on the Sinai Peninsula. It has nothing to do with sinfulness. The word Sin would translate as moon, thus give us the “desert of Moon”, maybe in honour of the moon goddess worshipped in that area long ago by many tribes.

But in spite of this explanation this is for me a powerful image and true for many places and situations: think of images from post WW2 Germany or Syria presently – a desert of sin. A squat or flat abandoned by its occupants in a state of dereliction – a desert of sin; or invisible scenes of destruction in many hearts and minds after emotional or physical abuse and warfare – deserts of sin.


Today we hear of Jesus meeting a woman at a well. So what you may say. People meet strangers all the time and in a hot country a well is a common and favourite meeting place.

And if Jesus had not spoken, we would not have known this story. But Jesus saw this woman coming at about noon, in the heat of the day with her heavy water jar. All other women had collected their water in the morning. The fact that this woman comes on her own, in the heat of the day speaks volumes – she lives in a desert of sin. But Jesus speaks to her.

And neither this insight nor the facts that she is a woman and  a Samaritan stops Jesus. It is as if he simply jumps these social, cultural and theological obstacles and sees a person in need of life giving water.


Last Monday I had the privilege of attending the Commonwealth Service in Westminster Abbey. Positioned beside the Houses of Parliament and formerly the Palace of Westminster, this beautiful historic church is a presence of faith, which has always been next door to the powers of government, indeed preceded it.

Westminster Abbey, a royal peculiar and not part of the Anglican parish system, sees its task and mission to raise the voice of faith in the midst of government thinking and decision making. Their chosen strapline is thus “Faith in the Heart of the Nation”.


Preceding the service Dr Hall had again invited representatives of Christian denominations and leaders of other faiths for lunch and a conversation about this year’s theme for the service “A Peace building Commonwealth”.

There were 16 men and only four women present. Religion it seems is still mainly in the hands of men.

One of the faith representatives was the Chief Rabbi of the Orthodox Jewish Community, who had his food served separately as he is eating only cosher food. The other two Jewish Rabbis present, two women, ate what we all ate. There was a choice of vegetarian food to serve the Hindus and a fish dish, no pork in sight to make it easy for the Muslims. Tricky hospitality!

During the meal Dr Hall asked us to talk about how we as people of faith could promote peace in society and many made good contributions – among them the Chief Rabbi.

After the service I met with one of the lady Rabbis in the bathroom and I asked her how old her daughter is. “Five,” she said, “and she goes to an Orthodox Jewish School  – and I am not allowed to go in there and speak as a woman Rabbi! So much for tolerance and integration ….” And she fumed about her orthodox colleague!

But before any of us think smugly that we Christians accept women elders and ministers in our church, we need to remember that this is a relatively recent development and that there are still few but some Church of Scotland congregations in the Highlands refusing to allow women elders and ministers.


Probably for similar reasons as the orthodox Jewish Community. Arguments such as tradition (it has aye been), and conclusions drawn from scripture like God created Adam before Eve and Eve out of Adam’s rib and thus is an adjunct of man and such like.

This disregards other scripture telling us that God created mankind in his image, as man and woman he created them.

And it disregards of course the fact that Jesus spoke to women, taught and debated with them and seems to have had according to Luke quite a few among his disciples.

As time went on this radical behaviour of Jesus was increasingly blended out by the early church. Culturally it was just too hard to practise for most societies. And it took until the 20th century for women to be ordained as ministers and priests.

Women were commissioned as deacons (or “deaconesses”) in the Church of Scotland from 1888 and allowed to preach from 1949. Serious debate on the ordination of women as ministers began when Mary Levison petitioned the General Assembly for ordination in 1963. She was eventually ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in 1978, and in 1991 became the first woman to be appointed as Queen’s Chaplain.


God is Spirit!  And how often do we wish we could handle God, point here or there and tell all and sundry to look, see and get it!

In matters of faith and religion there is always the temptation to turn to scripture and use it to lay down the law, ignoring the fact that God is Spirit and has time and again graced this world by coming among us, into messy history and mixed up places to make a change and lead us to life.

During Lent we are trying to remember this, try and open ourselves to God’s Spirit and come close again to God through our brother and Lord Jesus Christ.

From the earliest days Jesus spoke of his Father in stories and by comparing the incomparable God with things we understand: today Jesus compares himself and God’s work through him with life giving water – think about it, meditate on it, be refreshed in your souls by it!

From even earlier days, the history of Israel, we hear that Moses has to deal with a people in fear of their lives. They are worried and frightened at the decision they have made to leave what they knew. Life in Egypt was slavery yes, but at least a place with food and water in return for their work! Had they done the wrong thing? Had Moses misled them? They are asking: Where is this God? “Is the Lord among us or not?”

The greatest and deepest desert of sin is the one of fear, hopelessness, deep doubt and despair. But God sends help to Israel through Moses and to the woman at the well, her town and us all through Jesus. Receive the water, receive God’s Spirit like refreshing water to let the deserts of your life bloom again.


With Brexit negotiations starting imminently some among us may fear that we are about to start if not a walk through a desert but one into an unknown land. Those who planned the Commonwealth Service were very much aware of this historic context and thus commented on and underlined the increased importance of the Commonwealth.

Good relationships with other countries around the world, like the Commonwealth, a voluntary association of 52 independent and equal sovereign states, most but not all with a shared colonial history, will be vital in days to come.

The Commonwealth supports cohesion and cooperation among the 2.5bn citizens living in its states. It is a patchwork of nations and brings together some of the world’s largest and smallest, richest and poorest countries in conversation, exchange of ideas and mutual support.


In a world still riven by war and conflict it is crucial that people come together and talk about how to be peace building communities! The many people gathered at the service, 600 school pupils among them, from this country and from all areas of the Commonwealth, with a Christian faith background and many other faith traditions, is a sign and source for hope and strength available in a world which feels often insecure and dangerous.

One of the main speakers a young man from Cameroon, Achaleke Christian Leke said: “Peace is not the absence of war, but a jewel we need to nurture in our heart.”

In our lunchtime conversation Dr Hall emphasised that in order to be able to stand up for positive and life affirming values, to nurture the jewel of peace in our hearts, we need to be secure and grounded deeply in our faith as a source of strength and inspiration – not to fight the other, but on the contrary to support those who are different from us.


It matters not only that we are for peace, it also matters what this peace means and how we go about achieving peace.

In times gone by Christians too saw fit to convert others by the tip of their swords – a rapine faith at work. And God have mercy on any such attitudes held or even practised now.

For yes, we recognise and confess in Jesus the Saviour of the World, but not for anyone’s harm but to serve and care and follow in His footsteps, to woo and question and persuade like the woman: “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”

For like her we can and need to know ourselves deeply known, warts and all: “He told me everything I have ever done!”

And so Jesus saves us like the woman from the bonds we or others would place on us, to set us free to serve and love our neighbour as we love ourselves.


Janet Morley wrote this prayer (with one addition by me in brackets):

Come to the Waters,

All you who are thirsty:

Children who need water

Free from diseases,

Women who need respite

From labour and searching,

[Men who care for their families,]

Plants that need moisture

Rooted near the bedrock,

Find here a living spring.

O God, may we thirst

For your waters of justice,

And learn to deny no one

The water of life.