Exodus 17. 1-7
A reading from A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life – William Law (1686-1761)
William Law was born in Kings Cliff in 1686 educated at Emmanuel College, Cambridge and after ordination as Deacon, he became a Fellow of the College in 1711. When George I came to the throne in 1714, William declined to take the Oath of Allegiance – being a member of the non-Juror party who believed that the anointed but deposed, James II and his heirs should occupy the throne. He lost his Fellowship but was made a priest in 1728 and published several influential books. He returned to his home town of King’s Cliffe, Northamptonshire in 1740 where he led a life of devotion, simplicity and caring for the poor.
In the non-biblical reading from his book ‘A Serious Call to a devout and Holy Life’, William refers to ‘the Common Good’. This is a phrase we more readily associate with Catholic Social Teaching rather than with Protestant England in the 18th century.
But I think it is represented in both the Catholic and Protestant traditions because the Common Good is central to what it means to commit ourselves to one another – the theme of this sermon and next Wednesday’s Lent Group.
At the Last Supper, Jesus gives the disciples - and us – the two great commandments. (This is the Mandamus that gives us the word Maundy, the word we use for the Thursday before Good Friday, when we re-enact the events of that fateful evening).
The second of these two great Commandments is that we should love one another as Christ has loved us and our neighbour as ourselves. When Jesus says this to rich young man, it leads in to the parable of the Good Samaritan; which leads me to the story of the Woman at the Well in the Gospel reading we have just heard.
I don’t especially want to go into an exposition of this reading but to simply point out some of the features that are salient to William Law’s extract and the Common Good:
First of all, Jesus is in a one to one conversation with a woman and there is no-one else around; this is an unusual circumstance for those times.
Secondly, she is not only a woman but a Samaritan woman – one who is part of a community excluded by the Jews.
Thirdly, she has been married several times and the person she is currently living with is not her husband.
Fourthly, you will have noticed that the encounter between Jesus and the woman takes place in the middle of the day – the hottest part of the day. This is because the woman, due to her status, could not come to the Well later in the day when it is cooler; as the women of her own community would shun her too.
In our language, she would be seen to be ‘beyond the Pale’. And yet Jesus chooses to converse with her about water that brings eternal life – offering her that opportunity, in spite of who and what she is.
As church goers both here at St. Matthew’s and within the church in general, it is perhaps quite easy to love those we know- those we are familiar with. But both William Law and Jesus are saying that we have to love everybody – whoever and whatever they are – because if we don’t, then the love of God is not within us.
The Christian journey is a journey we make together - as a community – it is not something we do on our own. Worshipping here day by day as well as on Sundays is not something we do on our own; we do it as a community – whether we are all present or not.
If people are not here, then we worship on their behalf and still include them in. Christian life and worship is never something we do individually. If it were so, what would be the point of the Mandamus given to us by Jesus?
Like any journey it requires food and water but because it is, primarily, a spiritual journey; our food is love and our water is the living water of which Jesus speaks in his conversation with the woman at the Well.
As we know, Lent is traditionally a time for: self-examination, repentance and alms-giving. As such, it is both an inward and an outward journey. An inward journey of self-examination, leading outwards to our standing before God in repentance and then leading further outward to our fellow human beings and especially those in need.
Both the Woman at the Well and William Law were, each in their own way, outcasts from society and yet each received God’s blessing in their ministry: the woman’s ministry in announcing to her community that she had found the Messiah and William Law by returning to his community and living a life of devotion and care for the poor.
God is calling each and every one of us to his service. Part of our Lenten reflection should be discerning what it is that God is calling us to be and to do. Being and doing are the two halves that make our own ministry whole.
But that calling only makes sense if it is in the context of what we can be and do for one another and for our fellow human beings, that together we work for the Common Good.
All of this then raises questions for us about our commitment to each other:
What does it mean for us to be part of the Community here at St Matthew’s?
Who is our neighbour?
How do we live out our commitment in our wider community and in Society?
How do we distil all of this into a proper understanding of the Common Good?
These questions will be discussed at our Lent Group on Wednesday but I would like to suggest that they are questions for each and every one of us for each day of our lives.
For our Christian journey only has meaning if it is experienced through the medium of our commitment to each other – both as a worshipping community and as pilgrims on our journey with and towards God.
And the Christian journey can only be sustained if we nourish ourselves with the food of God’s love and the living water of His goodness and grace towards us. For if we neglect to feed and nourish ourselves then how can we expect to feed and nourish each other be His chosen lights in the world? Amen