Sermon on the 5th Sunday before Lent

We’ve had the Vicar of Dibley,
Father Ted, and Rev,
but not if all of them were combined together
would you capture the true reality of life
in the average parish in England.

However, last year the BBC definitely had a convincing stab
at deepening the TV vicar stereotype
with a less comic, more tragic,
and yet absolutely riveting series
entitled Broken.
This is the programme that forms the focus
of our Lent study course this year.
And it portrays the character of Father Michael,
played by Sean Bean,
as a good, but deeply conflicted priest.
He has carried with him from childhood some hurts,
and a load of catholic guilt
from some shameful behaviour
in his early adulthood.
He is, in short, human.

Unfortunately for him,
he has painful and distracting flashbacks to his childhood,
while he is standing behind the altar,
presiding at the eucharist.
His is nonetheless a good priest,
who does his best to bring God in to all his conversations,
and to serve his people faithfully,
despite being a fundamentally flawed person,
with inner conflicts and tensions he cannot resolve.

In our gospel reading this morning
we see another very human character
In the so-called woman at the well.

The whole story is so touching
because of the tenderness with which Jesus treats her.
He already knows the shame that she carries
that burdens her heart and weighs her down.
She is spared the need to courageously confess her sins to him,
and finds, in the same moment
that he knows, and forgives all.
It is a beautiful moment of healing
of the curing of her soul.
One can imagine that it was with more than fascination
over a cheap magic trick
that she rushed off to tell her neighbours about Jesus.
She might, I think, not so much have rushed off,
as floated off
her heart was so much lighter and freer than it had been in years.

Something of the same arc of healing and curing the soul occurs
in the story of Father Michael in Broken too,
but I won’t say more in case I spoil it for you.

We, like the woman at the well, and like Father Michael,
live with similar tensions in our lives.
Unresolved questions;
Guilt in our hearts for past wrongs,
despite God’s forgiveness;
we have conflicts of desire,
and are ping-ponged back and forth
between the things we want to do but don’t,
and the things we do do but wish we didn’t;
we live with illnesses, addictions, and anxieties
that we wish could be taken away.

And because of this we often live like captives to hope,
secretly caught up the tragic side of life,
with an all-encompassing desire that things
could be, should be, or ought to be different.
We hope and we hope and we hope
that our questions, regrets, conflicts, and suffering
be taken away.

As the Church of God we also live with tensions.
Theologians are fond of talking about the age of the church
between the ascension of our Lord into heaven,
and his eventual second coming,
as the now but not yet of the Kingdom of God.

Yes, Jesus reigns now, but not yet has his kingdom fully come
– so we keep praying for it in the Lord’s prayer.
Yes, sin has been defeated now,
but it has not yet been completely destroyed.
Yes, God has now been given us his Word,
but not yet has it totally transformed our lives,
or the world around us.
Yes, we have now been given grace,
but its work is not yet fully wrought.
We all wait for the final end of the work
that God has begun in and for us.

And so we hope.

But how to occupy this in-between place well?
How not to become prisoners of hope?
How not to despair about the imperfections,
the inadequacies, the regrets, the sin?
How can we enter into the grace of the present moment,
and live well with the tensions in our lives,
in the world around us,
and in the life of the church
while at the same time working towards the fulfilment of God’s Kingdom?

Christian tradition has singled out three qualities, habits or virtues
that are of greatest importance in the life of faith.
St Paul famously and poetically discusses them
In 1 Corinthians 13.
They are faith, hope and love.
And they are all essential for a healthy christian life,
because they each have something different to offer,
each contributing something to the stability of faith,
keeping us on track.

These three virtues held together
pull us towards God;
but one held out of balance with the other,
will pull us off track.

Let’s take hope on one hand.
If we are living with deep regrets,
and a desire that things should change,
whether that be a personal matter,
or a global one like climate change,
and have nothing to balance that with,
it will pull us off course.

Now let’s take faith.
Without hope faith takes us off course too,
because the virtue of faith is that it has great confidence in the truth.
But when faith is not balanced by hope,
it loses sight of the fact that ultimately it is not us who grasp truth,
but truth which grasps us.
Like the woman at the well,
we are not in full possession of the mysteries of faith,
but find ourselves beloved by God who is always other.
And when the confidence of faith is unchecked,
and the uncertainties, the incompleteness appropriate to hope are forgotten,
we are pulled off course,
down the dangerous alleyways of fundamentalism and certainty.

And what of love?
Love is the virtue that endures the tension between the other two.
Love is the virtue that holds together
on the one hand the desire and longing of hope,
with, on the other, the confidence and fulfilment of faith.
Love says both are important realities,
both must have a voice.
When all three virtues are held together by love,
they provide a sure and steady guide towards God.

Where are you today?
Are you being pulled off course
like the woman at the well,
like Father Michael,
by an overwhelming sense of the tragic?
Are you a prisoner of hope,
drowning in your regrets,
or derailed and disabled by shame?

Perhaps like the woman at the well
you need to know the healing of the love of God.
Perhaps today you need to know that God
from whom no secrets are hidden,
knows you, loves you and is for you.
Perhaps you need to be reminded that God’s love,
bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, and endures all things.
That it never ends.

As we begin to allow the truth of God’s love to heal us
to cure our souls,
we may find, like the woman at the well,
that we receive another gift too.
The gift of faith.
Not an unbridled, arrogant faith,
but a confident, lively ability
to confess the beauty and goodness of the love we have received.
Not pretending to be without questions, doubts or fears,
but, with a light and joyful heart,
being willing simply to tell our neighbours
about all that God has done for us.

Yes, now we see in a mirror dimly,
but the love we have received is surety that one day
we will see face to face.
Yes, for now we know only in part,
but we hope that one day we will know fully,
even as we, like the woman at the well,
and like Father Michael,
have been fully known.

So, we are not alone with the problems,
the tensions, the inner conflicts that we carry.
We are a community of broken and yet redeemed people,
learning to love one another as Christ has loved us.
We are not called to be prisoners of hope,
unhappy victims of these in-between times,
and the in-between, not yet complete nature
of God’s transformation of us and the world we live in.
It is not our destiny to despair
of the inner conflicts and struggles we face.

The virtues of faith and hope
when held together by love,
will cultivate in us a greater capacity to live in the middle of the muddle,
with the questions, the regrets, the unresolved issues,
to find purpose in surrendering our lives,
to the way of love,
sharing the weight of God’s burden of care for the world.
Bound closely, intimately, to him,
in a sustained and sustaining life of prayer,
looking forward, nonetheless, in hope
to the completion, the full arrival,
the glorious denouement
of the Kingdom of God.