Third Sunday in Lent (Year A, 27 March 2011)

I’m on an ill-deserved weekend away at Coolum with Karen. (Having a fabulous time, wish you were here etc etc.) Here is some evidential proof of just how fab it is here:

 

 

I am grateful to the Rev Dr David Pitman for preaching this weekend, and continuing our series on the Beatitudes:

Blessed are the pure in heart

 

Readings
Exodus 17.1-7
John 4.1-41

 

Jesus said, Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God

(Matthew 5:8)

The phrase, a “pure heart”, occurs only 5 times in the Bible. We can read about having a “clean heart” on three other occasions. The various contexts in which these passages can be found suggest that the words “pure” and “clean” can be used interchangeably…..except for the time Jesus uses it in the Beatitudes.

This is very interesting because, as we might expect, the use of these words is linked in Scripture to those personal qualities and behaviour we associate with living lives pleasing to God…honesty, integrity, love for others, sincere faith, avoiding controversy and quarrels, obedience.

Jesus, however, makes no attempt in this particular beatitude to define the significance of “pure”, nor what it means in reality to “see God”. We have to look elsewhere for clues as to the message he wanted to convey.

To that end, we turn to the story in today’s reading from John’s Gospel…the encounter Jesus had with a Samaritan woman.

One of my teachers at University 45 years ago was a Professor of Philosophy. I attended his first lecture for the year as a raw and somewhat naïve 18-year-old, and hardly understood a thing that was said. I went away from that lecture with a poor opinion of philosophy and an even lower opinion of the lecturer.

The following Saturday I was playing cricket for Teacher’s College against Adelaide University, and guess who was playing for the Uni team?

In that totally different context I discovered that the Professor was a friendly and engaging person, and I went to the next philosophy lecture in a completely different frame of mind. The lecturer was now my friend. Meeting him as a person had made all the difference, though it still took me most of the year to come to terms with the language and content of the course.

This story from reminds me of that experience. In her meeting with Jesus at the well, the Samaritan woman hardly understood anything that Jesus said. The theology was a mystery to her. But her face-to-face encounter with Jesus changed her life. It was his response to her as a person that made the difference in the first instance. She may, in time, as I did with my introduction to philosophy, have come to understand the deeper meaning and significance of what she heard, but it was the way Jesus treated her and the manner in which he spoke to her that really mattered.

From our perspective, that is an important insight. When we read the gospel records it is abundantly clear that people mattered far more to Jesus than correct theology; relationship always had priority over orthodox doctrine. We need to remember that in the life of the church!

Now, as it happens, this passage offers us a profound reflection on the nature of true worship and the work of God’s Spirit. We find at least three major affirmations here:

  • It is the Spirit who bears witness to the world that Jesus is Saviour.
  • It is the Spirit who brings us alive to God.
  • It is the Spirit who enables us to worship God.

Because Jesus and the Samaritan woman were sitting by Jacob’s Well and drinking the water she had drawn from it, Jesus, being a good teacher, took the opportunity to use the image of water to try and help her understand what he was saying. He said to her:

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.                          (4:13-14)

 

Two very special things happened because Jesus related to this woman on a personal level.

Firstly, some long-term historical, religious and social barriers were broken down.

Jews and Samaritans had been enemies for centuries. Jews despised Samaritan worship which they saw as idolatrous and corrupted by pagan influences. Samaritans were the in-between people, recognised by neither Jew nor Gentile. So when, on one occasion, the Jewish religious authorities accused Jesus of being a Samaritan, they were offering him the ultimate insult. (John 8:48)

Furthermore, to the Jews, Samaritan women were considered to be perpetually unclean, and therefore untouchable. To share the same drinking vessel with a Samaritan woman, as Jesus did, would have been unthinkable. No wonder the woman was taken completely by surprise!

So, in a matter of minutes, Jesus demolished a number of strongly entrenched historical, religious, social and personal barriers. Barriers, or blocks, in our relationships can exist for all kinds of reasons.

  • We may be prejudiced because of a person’s background, or because of how they look or speak.
  • We may be harbouring an unforgiving attitude within us.
  • We may be critical of someone’s political affiliations, or unwilling to hear their point of view.
  • We may always want to be in control.
  • We may simply be lazy or indifferent when it comes to putting effort into building relationships with others.

Whatever the causes of struggle or conflict in our relationships, the sensitivity, the compassion, and the open-hearted acceptance that Jesus displayed in his encounter with the Samaritan woman, set the standard for us today. Like him, we need to be proactive in our relationships, not waiting for others to make the move. Like him, we need to consciously and deliberately seek to break down any barriers that may exist between ourselves and others.

The Samaritan woman, “came alive”, in a new and exciting way because Jesus reached out to her and offered friendship and understanding. She came alive to God and she came alive to her neighbours.

Secondly, Jesus addressed with the woman the issues that were most real in her life at that time.

This becomes very apparent as we read the remainder of the story in John 4. Obviously, there was much that took place in the conversation that is not recorded in the Gospel. But it is clear that Jesus spoke with the woman about her life-situation, and in doing so touched her inner-self where she felt most vulnerable and needy.

It didn’t matter that some of the theological matters that Jesus mentioned were beyond her understanding. She “came alive” because her conversation with Jesus dealt with the realities of her daily life. In Jesus she experienced the love of a forgiving, compassionate and accepting God.

I often say to the couples whose marriages I conduct that love is not primarily about how we feel, it is about how we live and relate.

I mentioned earlier my first encounter with philosophy as an academic discipline, so I want to tell you about another guy who was doing his Ph.D in philosophy. His wife realised how seriously his studies were affecting him, when she asked him one day, “Why is it that you love me so much?” He responded, “When you say ‘so much’, are you referring to intensity, depth, frequency, quality or duration?”

After her meeting with Jesus, the Samaritan woman ran to tell her neighbours about this man who had helped her “come alive” to God. She ran to share her experience, not because she understood everything that Jesus had said, but because he had taken the time to talk to her, because he had treated her as a real human being, because he had touched her heart in a compelling way, because he had given her hope for the future.

So it was that the words Jesus had spoken to the woman came true for her, even though she did not fully understand them.

“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.”

Some years ago I was involved in counselling a woman who had a very distorted image and understanding of God. As we talked, it became apparent that her idea of God derived from her relationship with her mother. All her life, even after her marriage, the mother was constantly critical and judgemental about everything she did. Nothing was ever good enough for mother. Nothing satisfied her.

So the daughter grew up believing that God was like that, too. She was unacceptable to God because she could never meet the high standards God expected. Consequently, she felt that she didn’t like God much at all.

To have tried to engage with her in a theological discussion about the true nature of God would have been a waste of time.

Instead, I turned with her to the story of the Transfiguration in Luke 9, and invited her to hear God speaking about herself: “This is my daughter, whom I have chosen, and with whom I am well-pleased.”

When the reality of these words took hold of her, she was literally transformed in seconds. Her eyes lit up. A radiant smile appeared on her face. She became visibly excited. She had understood for the first time that as a child of God she was deeply loved. That she was a person of great value.

Like the woman at the well long ago, she encountered God in a personal way at the most vulnerable point of her inner-self, and her life was changed.

As the Samaritan townsfolk streamed out to meet him, Jesus said to his disciples: “Look around you and see how the fields are ripe for harvest.”

This story suggests to us that if we are to share in the joy of reaping that harvest, the best way to do it is to help people understand that the love of God is not a theological concept but a reality that they can experience in their own hearts and lives.

So, how does this story help us to understand what Jesus meant when he said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God”?

Firstly, we have to accept that the blessing of which the beatitudes speak is a present reality not just a future promise…and that blessing is experienced as the presence of God’s love and grace in our lives, whether at any given time our circumstances are joyful and fulfilling or difficult and demanding. This means that the “seeing” of which Jesus speaks is in the here and now. It is a promise for each one of us.

Secondly, to be “pure in heart” is not about being sinless. It can’t be…given that we all know that we are sinful and constantly fall short of perfection. The only purity of heart we have comes from the joy of knowing that in Christ our sins are forgiven and we are put right with God…for then we live with grateful hearts and an eagerness to love and serve God and are ready to see with the eyes of faith the God who is always with us.

The Samaritan woman was certainly not sinless. She was a long way from being perfect. Yet, through her encounter with Jesus she was able to recognise that in a special way, never before experienced, she had been in the presence of God…and it changed her life!

Thirdly, we know that no human being has ever seen God in the way we see the world around us with our eyes. How then could Jesus make the promise that the pure in heart will “see” God?

This may have been an easier concept for the people of his day because Jesus had also declared: “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father”. In the first century that would have meant that everyone who recognised and affirmed Jesus as Son of God would, by faith, have also seen God.

Where does that leave us? Well, on the basis of Scripture and Christian tradition, we believe that in the fully human Jesus, everything we need to know and understand about God is revealed. We have not seen the crucified and risen Jesus with our own eyes, but we see God in the Jesus revealed in Scripture. We see God through Jesus.

But wait! There’s more! We not only see Jesus revealed in Scripture, we can meet Jesus in one another and know his presence in all the situations of life. For through the Spirit he is present in every person and is always with us, no matter what!

So, both the purity of heart and the seeing of God are the outcome of a conviction that we see God in Jesus and that in relationship with Jesus we are joined to God.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are you, my sisters and brothers, for if you seek to live by faith in Jesus, Son of God and Saviour, then you, too, will see God.

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