Many years ago, when I was working in a far-off Diocese, there was a member of my then congregation, whose story was fascinating.
She had been born into serious money. By which I don’t simply mean serious money – I mean serious old money! I have since seen the stately home in which she grew up, which had been her family’s ‘seat’ for centuries – (think Downton Abbey and you will not be far wrong!) – and she once let slip, when we were comparing notes about our experiences of schooling, that her early education was at home with a governess.
What was so striking, therefore, was that as a young woman she turned her back on all of that. She had first gone out to work as a missionary in Africa; and when she returned to this country she trained as a social worker, which had been her profession until retirement. She had never married; she lived alone; and when I knew her she really was embracing a life of Franciscan poverty. Any money she had she gave away; she rented a tiny one-roomed flat; she had no car and no television; and she dedicated her time to good works – particularly, at the time that I knew her, supporting refugees and asylum seekers. She never drew attention to any of this, by the way, but her resolve to live out her Christian faith on such staunchly Gospel principles was an example to us all.
This was not wholly without its complications. Like many people who spend their entire lives giving, and giving, and giving to others, she found it almost impossible to receive gifts herself – even a bunch of flowers; and her life appeared worthy rather than joy-filled – but I don’t want to be over critical, because there was something really important and entirely positive that I learned from her.
Indeed, it relates to a particular incident that came into my mind when I was reflecting on today’s Gospel reading, and the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.
The parishioner I have been describing was moving from her tiny apartment into a new flat. And I asked her if she needed any help with the move. She thanked me, but declined because, she said, she already had someone lined up to assist her. Fair enough. But when I discovered who it was whom she had asked to help, you could have picked me up off the floor, such was my astonishment and incredulity.
Billy (as I shall call him) really was a bit of a lost soul; he was street homeless; he had a long-term issue with alcohol abuse; and although he was pretty benign most of the time, at least when he was sober, he was probably the last person on earth whose help I would have sought for anything whatsoever. One of my own favourite encounters with Billy was when I met him in the street one December. ‘I’ve got a Christmas card for you, Vicar,’ he said, fishing around in the depths of his bag – ‘but I haven’t written it yet, so do you mind filling it in for me?’ – I was very touched at the thought. But ask for his help? It would never have occurred to me.
So what so impressed me about her approaching Billy, of all people, to seek his help in her flat move, was that, by doing so – by asking something of him – she gave him dignity. She recognised him as a man who had something to give that she needed.
Billy was a guy who had so little going for him; he was used to being ignored, if not actively avoided and despised; and most people regarded him with a combination of suspicion and mistrust. And by treating him, not as an object of pity, but as a valued human being who had something to give, she dignified him. And realising this, I became painfully aware of how I myself routinely treated Billy and spoke to him without even thinking about it: I tolerated him; I humoured him; and I was relieved when our conversations ended and he moved on – but did I have any respect for him? Probably not – and certainly not nearly enough.
In the Gospels, we see numerous instances of how Jesus engaged with people on the margins: people who were despised, and shunned, and regarded with suspicion and contempt – whether they were prostitutes, or tax collectors, or those who were ritually unclean. And what is often so striking is that frequently he doesn’t do things for them – but, rather, he asks things from them! He asks Zacchaeus the tax collector to come down from his tree and give him dinner; and in today’s Gospel reading, he asks the Samaritan woman at the well to give him water.
Samaritans were despised and spurned by the Jews of Jesus’s day, despite their shared ancestry. They were regarded as impure, coming from mixed blood lines, and they worshipped in ways deemed unacceptable. Observant Jews would prefer not to pass through Samaritan territory at all to avoid the risk of ritual contamination.
And this was a culture in which contact with any woman could be regarded as suspect because they could be in a state of ritual impurity – I myself have known Orthodox rabbis refuse to shake my hand in the past for that very reason – and yet here is Jesus asking, not only a woman, but a Samaritan woman, to give him water to drink. Little wonder that she is so completely taken aback. How on earth could he be asking such a thing of her?
But at the heart of all of this, there is something really important about our relationship with God and with one another. You see, although Jesus did indeed feed those who were hungry (he famously fed five thousand of them), and he did require those who followed him to care for those who were sick, or in prison, or without the resources to feed and clothe themselves (remember the parable of the sheep and the goats) – nevertheless, there was more to his ministry than simply addressing people’s material needs, because Jesus dealt not merely with bread, but with living bread; not merely with water, but with living water.
Jesus saw through to the truth of what lay in the heart of everyone he encountered – hence his knowledge of the Samaritan’s irregular domestic situation in today’s reading. And his desire was always to bring healing and hope. And that is true for all of us today: God wants to draw out from us all that is most precious and of value, so that we may become more fully the people we truly are, and can truly become.
Jesus dignifies those who are on the margins, not by resolving their material problems, but by empowering them; by recognising their unique worth, and in the process enabling them to recognise it to. Just as my former parishioner could see the intrinsic worth of Billy – a man whom I tolerated, but am ashamed to say, had little time for, if I am really honest.
Some years ago I was mentor to a young clergyman who was exceptionally bright, extremely gifted, but crippled with anxiety and self-doubt; he would obsess about his potential failings, and about what others might think of him, to a point that really was quite self-indulgent. During one particularly bleak encounter, I said to him with exasperation – look … for heaven’s sake – just go out and do your job! Do some pastoral work: visit parishioners who are ill; phone up those who know who are struggling. Which he did.
And the next time we spoke, he was in a more positive frame of mind than he had been for months. Not only had he recognised that his own problems were as nothing to those whose stories he had been hearing on his visits. But more than that, he was starting to rediscover the value of his own ministry in service to others.
There is a strange, strange paradox at the heart of the Christian faith: that sometimes it is by giving that we receive; but also, that there are times when, by allowing others to give we can in the process enable them to find their own dignity and self-worth, in recognising that they, too, have something of value to offer.
There are so many things that keep us all in chains; so many things that prevent us from becoming more fully the people God created us to be – the God whose only wish is to draw out from us the best that is within us. And sometimes the path towards liberation is not only freely given, but it is surprisingly close at hand.