Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Hard Choices: a sermon (1 Samuel 16:1–13, John 9:1–41)

Once I attended a conference where the main speaker was a noted Australian clergyman and social justice advocate. In one of his talks, he told us about an offer he received one day. It was from an advertising agency. A used car dealership - he didn’t say which one - let’s just call the dealership “Honest Harry’s” - a used car dealership wanted a more credible spokesperson in their TV ads than the sport and showbiz people that they usually used. To be blunt, “Honest Harry’s” wanted this noted cleric to flog their used cars on TV.
Now at first, he wasn’t sure if this may not have been some sort of practical joke that a friend was trying to pull off, but the man from the advertising agency assumed him that he was in earnest. The agency even had a script for him, which went something like this:
I’m .... and I want to tell you: don’t gamble on a used car.
Buy your next used car from Honest Harry’s.
Honest Harry’s used cars: that’s gospel, brother!
The agency offered him thirty thousand dollars to make the commercial. When he turned the offer down, all the advertising bloke could say was, “Well if you want to negotiate for more, I’ll see what I can do.”

Needless to say, he still hasn’t made the commercial. His choice was pretty obvious (although the advertising guy is probably still puzzled as to why he turned down an easy thirty thousand).
We all face choices. And many of our choices are much less obvious than the one that faced the clergyman in this incident. We agonise over many of the decisions we are expected to make. Sometimes in church, we hear lessons from the Bible that seem to make these complicated decisions appear very easy, almost automatic, with God invisibly whispering the right choice into the ear of the person making the decision. If anything, this makes our choices even harder. We hardly ever - for many of us, never - hear the whisper of God in our ear, the whisper that makes the hard decision easy or the amibiguous decision straightforward.
I think that part of the problem is that these stories about decisions we find in the Bible were written down some time after they happened. Before the stories were written down, the people involved in the story were telling the story to others - who then told the story to others - repeatedly. In the process, the internal struggles that existed at the time the story happened were forgotten.
So, when Samuel visited Jesse’s family to choose a successor to King Saul, Samuel really may have struggled over which of Jesse’s sons to pick. “Well, Eliab looks reliable . . . but, then, so does Aminadab . . . Shammah looks intelligent . . . but David really seems to be the pick of the lot . . . I think.”
And Samuel chose David. And, over the years, the appropriateness of that choice became so obvious to Samuel that his memory of the events may have developed so that his choice became - at least a bit - more obvious in the re-telling than it was at the time.
But Samuel had a difficult choice, a choice that required him to use his intelligence and his judgement. And we shouldn’t assume that the choice was easy.
And we see something similar in our New Testament lesson. It was the Sabbath, a day when all Jews were expected to rest from working. Jesus’ attention was called to a blind man. Technically, healing was work. If Jesus healed the man, he would be breaking the Sabbath. We don’t have any information about Jesus’ train of thought, but he probably weighed up a few things.
  • On the one hand, there was his deep compassion for human suffering.
  • On the other, there was his deep respect for the Torah, the Jewish law.
  • He may also weighed up whether he and his disciples were ready yet to confront the anger of the ultra-conservative element in the community, once word got out that Jesus healed (in other words, worked) on the Sabbath. (And let me say that this is not just a Jewish thing. Every faith - without exception - has an unfortunate element that is more concerned with people obeying the rulebook than they are with human compassion.)
Jesus weighed it all up and chose to heal the blind man. He chose compassion. And the appropriateness of that choice became so apparent to the disciples that Jesus’ choice became much more obvious in the re-telling than it was at the time. In later years, as the disciples told the stories of Jesus and as some stories were written down, elements of struggle in Jesus’ life were downplayed, although we still see some signs of struggle at some places in the gospels.
But we shouldn’t underestimate the difficulty of the choice facing Jesus at the time. We shouldn't assume that the choice was easy.
We also face difficult decisions in our own lives. On a day-to-day basis, in our life and work, we encounter complicated, ambiguous decisions. We face decisions which often lead us to questions the relevance of our faith in a world of such tough decisions.
In the scriptures, we also hear of people:
  • facing difficult choices,
  • struggling with the choices,
  • making a decision, and
  • taking action with faith and integrity once the decision is made.
If the way the story is told makes the decision look easy, look again.
Discipleship is about facing difficult choices: about
  • using our God-given abilities to decide between the choices, and
  • taking action with faith and with integrity.
Discipleship is about seeing God’s presence even in the times of hard choices.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Two modest proposals based on the "Freeview" advertisements ("The best things in life are free ....")

One of my favourite TV advertisements for a long time is the one for "Freeview", the umbrella group for all the competing free-to-air television networks in Australia.  (For those outside Australia, we have five free-to-air television networks, each with three or four individual free-to-air channels, including an all-news channel, an all-children's channel, and an indigenous-oriented channel.) 

The ad features a band playing a  high-energy, swing-jazz rendition of the 1920s song "The best things in life are free", while TV personalities from the various networks "ham it up", some pretending to be part of the band, others pretending to be listening to the band in a jazz venue.  Some tiny snippets of programmes from the sixteen or so free-to-air channels are also shown.  (For those outside Australia, or for Australians who don't watch much TV, here's a link to the advertisement.)

Obviously, the commercial message of this advertisement is this: 

"Why would you want to put out all the money to get pay-tv when there is so much variety already available on free-to-air TV?"  (And, yes, here in Australia, pay-tv is still a bit more expensive for the average person, comparatively, than it is in many other countries.)

Personally, what I like about this ad is that performers who normally are each others' competitors are shown together, enjoying themselves in each others' company. 

I'd like to see this idea put into practice in two other ways, and would put these forward as "modest proposals", in one case to our Australian politicians, and in another case to the national leaders of our faith communities.

One "modest proposal" is for our Australian politicians to appear in such an advertisement.  Politicians across the political spectrum, and at the federal, state, and local levels, could be shown in the act of being human beings (no publicity stunts involving politicians wearing high-visibility vests, funny hats, or "budgie smugglers", please!) and in relating to each other in a normal, human way, rather than engaging in the usual political theatrics.  As in the "Freeview" ad, some appropriate bit of upbeat music is played.

The message conveyed could be:  

"Yes, Australians have a proud tradition of being very cynical toward politicians.  Yes, our politicians frequently get it wrong.  Yes, they are flawed human beings.  Nevertheless, they are HUMAN, with normal human aspirations.  And, besides, if you're given the choice between (on the one hand) being governed by a group of politicians whom you have a hand in choosing every few years and (on the other hand) being ruled by a cabal of generals, who in their right mind would choose the generals?

The other "modest proposal" involves showing worshippers of a variety of faith approaches engaged in worship.  The worshippers are from a variety of faith orientations.  Along with a wide variety of expressions of Christianity, we'd see examples of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, etc., at worship.   Upbeat music (preferably not of an overtly religious nature) is played.

The ad could also include scenes of scenes of people from faith communities serving people in need, and standing alongside the oppressed and marginalised.  I'm of two minds about giving too much emphasis to "heroic" figures of faith (historic or contemporary, Australian or international).  Too much emphasis on the Gandhis, Martin Luther Kings, and Mary MacKillops (or their contemporary equivalents) may give the impression that the life of faith is only for "special" people of faith, and that it is isn't really relevant to the average person watching the ad.

The message conveyed here could be:   

"Yes Australians have a proud tradition of being very cynical about "organised religion".  Yes, our faith communities frequently get it wrong, in terms of:  
  • our prejudices toward each other,
  • being far too socially conservative too much of the time,
  • being far less inclusive than God wants us to be,
  • allowing a relatively small group of abusive people, in some circumstances, to prey on innocent people without being held to account,
  • and other factors.
Nevertheless, communities where people gather to celebrate a shared spirituality are still contexts where people experience grace and wholeness.  They are still communities of people who are motivated by their faith to serve others."

Perhaps this interesting advertisement for free-to-air TV can be used as a way of assisting Australians to overcome some of our cynicism and our prejudices in regard to politicians and in regard to "organised religion".

Friday, 21 March 2014

The responsibilities of "converts"

First of all, when convert is used as a noun, i.e. when an individual is described as a convert, it may mean one of a number of things.
  • The person could be a person who was part of one major faith tradition, but who became part of a different major faith.  Thus, a convert is a Christian who becomes a Jew, or a Buddhist who becomes a Muslim, etc.
  • Or the person could be a person from a non-religious world view who embraces a religious faith.
These are the classic understandings of what we mean when we call a person a convert.  In these cases, I normally use the word without quotation marks.

In other cases, I use the word convert with quotation marks.  These are when:
  • a member of one Christian denomination becomes part of another Christian denomination (a Presbyterian becomes an Anglican, or a member of the Salvation Army becomes a Roman Catholic, or a Baptist becomes Eastern Orthodox, or a member of the Uniting Church becomes a Quaker, etc.); or
  • a person who identifies as part of a faith tradition, but fairly inactively, develops a greater involvement and commitment to her/his faith, but without changing their religious identity.  (Evangelical Christians frequently use "convert" in this way.)
In these cases, I normally use "convert" with quotes.

So, for example, St. Augustine and Malcolm X were converts, while Tony Blair was a "convert".

Whether we are thinking of converts or "converts" (and, in the rest of this article, I'll write "converts" to refer both to converts and to "converts"), they have some responsibilities both to the faith tradition or denomination they are leaving and to the one they are embracing.

Here are some suggestions.

1.  Make sure you give the tradition you're leaving a "fair go" before you leave.

There is a long-standing Jewish tradition that a potential Gentile convert to Judaism is refused three times before they are allowed to begin the process of conversion.  Only those who persist in asking to convert will convert.

I can see the logic of this, particularly in terms of Judaism.  A person who voluntarily becomes a Jew will find themselves suddenly confronted with the fact that a large number of people violently hate him/her, for no other reason than because of their identity as a Jew.   No community will easily ask any other person to voluntarily accept this level of scorn.

But even moving outside the particular dynamic of antisemitism, there is good sense to this practice.  Many people who seek to change their religious identification have not really given their earlier faith tradition a "fair go".  Leaders of many Christian traditions who frequently find members of other denominations attracted to their life together (Roman Catholicism, Episcopalian/Anglicanism, Orthodoxy, Quakers) normally make a point of telling prospective "converts" from other denominations that they should give their previous denomination another chance to see if they can find sustenance there rather than in a change of identity.  There is wisdom in that approach.  Give your old tradition a "fair go".

2.  Don't treat your old tradition as if it were some unhealthy cult from which you've "escaped".

If you do become a "convert", do not assume that every person in your previous tradition is somehow trapped in something highly unhealthy.  There will be many people who will find spiritual sustenance in your old tradition.  Don't treat the tradition in which you had been nurtured as a cult.

Like many "converts", you may find yourself saying something at times like "I'm an Episcopalian, and I'm also a recovering Baptist."  When you say this, make sure that you mean it as a joke, and that the person to whom you make the comment realises it's a joke.

3.  Don't treat your new tradition as if it is a miraculous cult which infallibly provides everyone with all the answers to life's questions.

Similarly, many "converts" get very defensive about their new tradition.  They find criticism of their new tradition hard to take, even when it comes from people who have had a far longer experience of their tradition.  Realise that there may be people in your new tradition who will regard it as highly confining, even as you find it highly liberating.

4.  Embrace the whole of your new tradition, not merely one aspect or faction within it.

Your new tradition is larger than that aspect of it which initially attracted you to it.  There are other parts of your new tradition which you may find far less attractive.  Guess what?  When you "converted", you adopted a "package deal".  Those aspects of your new tradition you find less attractive are part of your new identity as well.  (It may help here if you don't automatically gravitate to the most eccentrically conservative expression of your new tradition, as many "converts" sadly do.  Embrace the mainstream of your new tradition, as well as the fringe.)

5.  Don't treat "cradle" or "birthright" members of your new tradition as if they are spiritual buffoons.

In many faith traditions, "converts" have a reputation for being somewhat arrogant in their attitudes toward those who were members of the community all their lives, toward those who are "cradle Orthodox", for example, or "cradle Catholics".  (I personally like the Quaker terminology that speaks of "birthright Quakers" and "Quakers by convincement".)  You may find that "birthright" members of your new tradition are a bit more matter-of-fact than you'd like in their approach to what is a new and liberating faith to you.  It may not be an lack of commitment on their part.  It may just be spiritual maturity.

6.  Regard yourself as having a vocation to be a link between your old and new traditions, providing each with a fair and accurate picture of each other.

Don't romanticise your new community or rubbish your old community.  Be honest and accurate when speaking of both.  Be charitable when speaking of your old community.
  • Friends and family members in your old tradition will evaluate your new tradition by you.  Be the best newly Orthodox "convert" you can be. 
  • Friends and fellow-worshippers in your new tradition will evaluate your old tradition by you.  Be the best former Evangelical you can be.
Finally and, I hope, without need for explanation:

7.  When you meet a person who is a "convert" from your new tradition to your old tradition, please don't freak out.  Get to know this person and discuss your different pilgrimages of faith.  You may each teach other much, both about your old/new traditions and about your new/old traditions.

Monday, 10 March 2014

"What's in a name?"

"What's in a name?"

This question was first posed over 500 years ago, but it's as relevant today as when Bill Shakespeare  first had Juliet ask the question to Romeo.

Maybe I'm channelling Grumpy Cat again, but I'm really getting over the idea of parents giving their children stupid names.  Kids have enough reasons (whether real or trivial) to get seriously annoyed with their parents by the time they reach adolescence, without adding a silly name to the list of grievances.

In France, registrars of births have the power to tell parents, "No, you're not giving your child that name.  It's a silly name.  It will be burdensome on your child as he/she grows up."  They have that power, and they're not afraid to use it.  On this particular issue, Vive La France!

In this part of the world, the name has to be aggressively stupid before a registrar will step in.  A New Zealand registrar made headlines a few years ago by knocking back some parents who wanted to name their daughter "Tallullah-does-the-hula-from-Hawaii".

Anyway, here are some suggestions for parents as to what to do (and what not to do) to avoid giving your child a stupid name.
  • If you give your child a religious name (a name from the Bible, a saint's name, etc.), make sure you know who the person is that you're naming your kid after.  Read up on the person's story.  If your family isn't all that religious, you may want to reconsider giving your child a biblical name like Esther or Isaac, or a saint's name like Hildegaard or Aloysius.
  • The same goes for literary or artistic names.
  • If you want to name your child after some geographical location, only do so if it's a place you know well (or at least have visited) and like.  Only call your kid Brooklyn, Chattanooga, Glasgow, or Tipperary if you know the place.   
  • If you want a name that's a bit distinctive, but not silly, consider giving your child a personal name that's also a surname.  The advantage is that a surname-as-first-name frequently works for either gender.  Another advantage with having a surname as a first name is that, if you get tired of your name, you can just turn it around.  Instead of being Norman Martin, you can experiment with being Martin Norman for a while.  (This works particularly well if you're one of those lucky individuals who needs either a "pen name" or a "stage name".)
  • Please make sure there is some ethnic coherence between your child's personal name and surname.  If you have an Irish surname, for example, don't give your child an Italian personal name (unless there are Italians in your family, as well).  If a person bears the name of Ludwig MacDonald, this should mean that he has both Scots and German ancestry.  (Otherwise, it's just pretentious.)
  • Don't give your child a name of one of your favourite TV characters.  The programme will probably have concluded by the time she/he begins school and your child will still be stuck with "Storm" as a name.
  • Similarly, don't name a child after a celebrity, unless you're particularly sure that said celebrity won't wind up in a scandal of some sort.
  • Definitely avoid giving your kid a first name that was used by any dictator in the past, say, 100 years.  (Trust me, even if it was the name of your great-great-great-grandfather, you really, really don't want to name your son Adolf.)
  • If you give your child the formal version of a name, she/he still has access to all the informal variants if the name.  If you give the child a casual version of the name to begin with, that's all that he/she has.  If you call your son "James", in addition to James, he has Jamie, Jim, Jimmy, Jimbo, Jazza, and Jock, at the very least.  In adult life, James can be Jimmy to his parents and siblings, Jim to his wife, Jimbo to friends from his schooldays, and James R. as far as his chequebook and the electoral roll are concerned.  If you name him "Jimmy", that's all he's got.  (I can think of a number of names - both male and female - that work this way.)
  • Similarly, good names are very translatable.  James in the previous paragraph can be Jacques in France, Hamish in Scotland, Seamus in Ireland, and Giacomo in Italy.  If he has a brother named Louis, he has the really cool possibilities of Ludwig and Luigi.
  • Remember that babies grow up.  A name that can be very cute for a baby may be a real nuisance for an adult to deal with.  As I implied earlier, a name that can be very cute for a baby can be one more reason for an adolescent to resent her/his parents.
  • Never ... never ... never give a child a misspelled name.  William is not spelled "Will-yum".  Maria is not spelled "Maree-uh",  If you really want your child to resent you, give her/him a name where they're always saying "And that's spelled ...." after giving someone their name.
In any event, I have a modest proposal to deal with the epidemic of stupid names.  At any time once attaining adulthood, any person who believes that he/she was given a silly name in childhood may apply to have the name changed to a better name without cost to the person changing the name.  All legal and administrative costs of this process shall be billed to the parents who first gave the child the silly name.

Perhaps if parents realise that giving their child a silly name may cost them money at a later time, we may see an end to the epidemic of stupid names.

Monday, 3 March 2014

“You just can’t tie Jesus down.”: a sermon for the First Sunday of Lent (Matthew 4: 1 – 11)

I have it on good authority that this is a true story.  It happened one December in a small town in the United States.  Every year, a service club put up a big nativity scene in a park.  One day, the president of the service club received a telephone call from the police:  “Is your nativity scene missing anything? ...  Is it missing something particularly important … something particularly important for a nativity scene ... something that makes a nativity scene a nativity scene?”

As it turned out, the owner of a nearby café rang the police to tell them that the figure of the infant Jesus was found in the café, propped up as if sitting at one of the tables.  Evidently, practical jokers had removed the figure from the nativity scene and left it there at a table in the café, the baby Jesus sitting in the café, having a hamburger and a cup of coffee.

As the president of the club arrived at the café to pick up the figure of baby Jesus, a reporter from the local paper also arrived at the scene.  (Someone – possibly the practical jokers themselves - had tipped off the paper.)

The rather embarrassed club president found himself explaining to the journalist the difficulties in maintaining the nativity scene.  “All the other pieces,” he said, “can all be securely fastened to the ground: shepherds, sheep, wise men, camels, Mary, Joseph, the lot.  They can all be secured, all except the Jesus figure....”  He explained, and then added (with an unexpectedly profound theological statement), “You just can’t tie Jesus down.”

“You just can’t tie Jesus down!”

But then, it’s not as if some people haven’t tried.  Over the centuries, and in the present day, many have tried to “tie Jesus down”, to make him fit into their image of what - and who - he should be.

The gospels confront us with Jesus who ate and socialised with his community’s “moral failures”, and who was scathing in his criticism of religious conservatism in his own cultural setting.  But some have tried to “tie Jesus down” to make him the improbable standard-bearer of a new legalism, a new moralism, and a new conservatism.

The gospels confront us with Jesus who honestly became angry at the abuses committed in the Temple by the money-changers.  But some have tried to “tie Jesus down” into a vague, sentimentalised person who didn’t even have a temper to lose.

And, you know, it is understandable that many have tried to “tie Jesus down”.  When he isn’t securely tied down, Jesus has this knack of encouraging people to do ... well ... uncomfortable things.  In the gospels, how many successful fishing businesses had he disrupted?  How many semi-privatised tax-collection enterprises had he ruined?  And ever since then, Jesus has still been disrupting people’s plans.
  • Francis of Assisi could have looked forward to inheriting his father’s successful business.  But Jesus had another idea.
  • Ignatius Loyola had a career as a professional military officer ahead of him.  But Jesus had another idea.
  • John Wesley, Albert Schweitzer, and Martin Luther King were all promising young academics.  But Jesus had another idea.
  • Mary MacKillop and Mother Theresa could each have expected comfortable lives teaching the children of the rich (or at least the middle classes) in highly respectable schools.  But Jesus had another idea.
All had comfortable, successful, eminently respectable lives mapped out ahead of them.  And then Jesus gave them another idea.  It is understandable that many have tried to “tie Jesus down, in his own day, in our day, and in the centuries in between.

“You just can’t tie Jesus down!” 

Our gospel lesson is an illustration of how Jesus always resisted being “tied down” by anyone’s preconceived expectation.  Jesus went to the wilderness - to the deepest desert.  There he fasted for forty days and forty nights.  There he was tempted.  Matthew tells us he was tempted by “the devil”.  Some see the figure of “the devil” here as a real being.  Others, including myself, see “the devil” as a symbol of that within ourselves that compels each of us to say “No” to God.  Whichever you believe, the temptations were equally real. 

Throughout his temptations, Jesus resisted being “tied down”.

The first temptation was obvious.  Jesus was tempted by his hunger.  The temptation may have sounded like this:

Jesus, you’re hungry.  How long have you been fasting?  Forty days ... and forty nights ... That’s a long time to go without food.  Focus on your hunger.  If you’re the Son of God, create some bread ... nothing fancy, just a bit of bread.

The hunger was real.  The temptation was real.  But Jesus refused to be “tied down”.

The second temptation was a bit more “religious”.  Jesus was tempted to reject the hard path to the cross and opt for a few obvious “signs and wonders”.  The temptation may have sounded like this:

Jesus, all this suffering servant business sounds a bit drastic, doesn’t it?  Take a short cut.  Go for a flashy sign.  Go up to the top of the temple and then ... jump.  If you’re the Son of God, angels will surely break your fall.  Celestial trumpets will sound and everyone will know exactly who you are, with no ambiguity.  Besides, aren’t you afraid of the pain, even just a little bit.  Avoid the pain.

The fear was real.  The temptation was real.  But Jesus refused to be “tied down”.

The final temptation was an invitation to despair.  Jesus was tempted to see his opposition as overwhelming and to “throw in the towel”.  The temptation may have sounded like this:

Jesus, think of the power you’re up against.  Don’t you have any doubts about your chances of success?  Why not hedge your bets?  Why not change sides?  Go with the strength.  If you can’t beat’em, join’em.

The doubts were real.  The temptation was real.  But Jesus refused to be “tied down”.

Throughout his temptations, Jesus resisted being “tied down”.

And, in our own day, just as we think we’ve finally “tied Jesus down”, there he is again:
  • in surprising places,
  • in the midst of surprising company,
  • sometimes in our midst,
  • sometimes far ahead of us,
popping up like Candid Camera ... “just where we least expect him”.

During this season of Lent, I invite you, as part of our Lenten pilgrimage, to resist that very understandable temptation to “tie Jesus down”.  Instead, may we seek to follow the untied Jesus in whatever new and startling directions he may lead us.

“You just can’t tie Jesus down!”

Sunday, 2 March 2014

"Streams in the Desert" (address for the service for the 2014 World Day of Prayer: Sorell, Tasmania)

As you’ve probably gathered by now, this year’s service for the World Day of Prayer was prepared by Christian women in Egypt.

Throughout human history, Egypt has been an important nation.

In the ancient world, Egypt was one of the cradles of human civilisation.  Some of Egypt’s great monuments, such as the pyramids and the Sphinx, are still visited by large number of tourists and travellers today.  Archaeologists and other scholars are still fascinated by the culture and history of this ancient land.

In the Scriptures, Egypt was a significant place at various points in the biblical narrative.
  • Joseph was sold as a slave to Egyptians, and the members of his family went to Egypt to escape famine.
  • It was from Egypt that Moses led the Hebrew people out of slavery and into freedom.
  • In the New Testament, it was to Egypt that Joseph, and Mary, and the child Jesus fled to escape the murderous plans of King Herod.  In our language today, Joseph, and Mary, and the child Jesus were refugees ... asylum seekers ... perhaps even “donkey people”.  And, from the perspective of our faith, I believe we can say “Thanks be to God” that the Egyptians did not have a “stop the donkeys” policy in those days.
In the early centuries of Christian faith, Egypt (and particularly the city of Alexandria) was an important centre of Christian faith and life.  For us today, many of the great ideas of Christian faith ... ideas which unite Christians across denominational lines ... whether Catholic or Protestant ... whether Anglican or Orthodox ... many of these ideas arose among great Egyptian Christian scholars, such as Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria.

With the rise of Islam, Egypt soon became a country where most of the people are Muslim.  But there was always a strong and vibrant Christian community in Egypt, particularly through the Coptic Orthodox Church, the church to which most Egyptian Christians belong.  Here in Australia, there are Coptic Orthodox congregations in many cities and the Coptic Orthodox Church is a member of the National Council of Churches in Australia.

Egypt has the largest population of any nation in the Arab world.  It is a diverse and vibrant society, but has frequently experienced political turmoil.  In recent decades, many Egyptians have left that troubled land to settle elsewhere.  Australia has been enriched by the contributions of many Egyptian-Australians (both Christians and Muslims) to the life of this nation.

And throughout it all, one great reality for the Egyptian people has been the River Nile, a source of water for people and for animals, and a source of fertility for the land.  And I suspect that the water-related theme of this service is closely linked to the vital importance of water for people living in an arid land such as Egypt.

And so we come to our gospel lesson.

Jesus was speaking with a Samaritan woman at a village well.  And the very fact that the conversation was taking place became a crisis for the disciples.

For, you see, in Jesus’ time and culture, if a man and a woman who weren’t related to each other were talking together, alone and unchaperoned, everyone assumed that at least one of them was up to no good.  And if they were of different ethnic groups, as in this case, everyone assumed they were both up to no good. 

A big part of following Jesus today is to challenge all of those artificial barriers that separate people from other people, barriers of race, gender, religion, culture, denomination, language, sexuality, politics, income. 

This lesson from scripture tells us that a big part of following Jesus today is to declare that, whoever you are ... whoever I am ... whoever we are ... we are all bound up in “this bundle of life” together, in the midst of our differences.

Whenever Christian people make an honest attempt at doing this, we are being true to Jesus.

Whenever Christian people try to fudge this, cherishing the things that divide us from others, we are being false to Jesus.

It’s as simple as that ... and as complicated as that.