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.

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