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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Lent 3, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
March 23, 2014

John 4:5-42

‘Blue Water Hole’

John's Gospel gives us another meeting of minds. Last week it was Nicodemus and Jesus. Today, Jesus encounters an unnamed woman at Jacob's Well in Samaria. As with the story from last week, it seems a wise approach to see this as a respectful and spiritual encounter - and this will mean suspending some of what we've heard (and believed) in the past concerning the woman's meek or naive, ostracised and/or morally compromised status. The text is not so condescending. We're given a sophisticated and multi-layered dialogue centred on reconciliation between peoples long estranged. The accent is on hope. God be with you ...

Our printed liturgies feature an artwork by Rosella Namok, an Aboriginal painter and printmaker from Lockhart River in Queensland. She is a member of a group of young artists known as the Lockhart River Art Gang. At just 35, she has held more than 25 solo exhibitions in Australia and overseas. It's not hard to see why. Namok's work is stunning. Her water hole image - her passion and talent - her love and care for the country of her birth - her expressed love and concern for future generations - all this comprises a fitting point of encounter as we reflect today on "a destiny together".

An artist whose work evinces deep respect for tradition, Namok describes herself as a "modern artist". Her subjects are mindscapes of her own making, micro-worlds informed by traditional law and detailed observation of nature. Namok deploys geometric symbolism and abstraction to address her sense of country and her connection to it. The Lockhart River country, not far from Cairns, was at one time an Anglican mission settlement.

Namok works on canvases that are laid out on the ground, using techniques which draw on both Western contemporary art and Indigenous art practice. "I like to use my fingers when I paint," Namok says. The artist learned body painting from her father who was the painter of dancers' bodies for traditional tribal ceremony at Lockhart River. As a child, she often helped him to do this, smearing Clay onto the body and working it with the fingers to create the appropriate designs. In Namok's work is seen both decorative finger-painting as well as "scraping" of the surface, which may be seen to be symbolic scarring of the skin - or sometimes, as rhythmic verticals, serve to move a pictorial narrative forward ...

Namok's totem is the Rosella. The subject is one that she does not paint. Her mother is from Torres Strait Island, whose country is unfamiliar and to which she has little connection. Her mother died earlier in her life. She has four brothers and one sister. The artist's language group is Aankum.

Sometimes Namok chooses to paint subjects unrelated to topics of ceremony, which instead describe personal aspects of her life at Lockhart. She says: "I love to paint things that make me happy, like going camping and fishing ... It's always good when it starts to rain ... it stings your face and stirs up the fish ..."

I offer these glimpses of the artist and her work as notes made in curiosity and in admiration. I find the work absolutely beautiful, and respect the hands, heart, mind and spirit of the artist as someone very like and very unlike me. History and geography, religion and politics have kept us at arm's length. Art and humanity, land/water and Spirit offer (still) a shaking hand, a loving embrace.

Namok's work recalls me to attend to Aboriginal and Islander experience/witness, and to be thankful for a Uniting Church committed to a covenant between First and Second peoples. Not as something in addition to the Gospel, but something intrinsic to the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Today's reading is a model in reconciliation.

Samaria was a northern territory many Judeans regarded a land of infidels. It had suffered invasion and demoralisation at the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians before the time of Roman occupation. This history meant intermarriage and cultural change, separation from southern culture and religion - in short, ten lost tribes of Jacob/Israel. For Judeans (having rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem following their own exile in Babylon), Samaria symbolised subjection, failure, loss, shame, compromise, impurity, apostasy, and so on.

When Jesus approaches the woman and asks her for a drink, he is enacting some kind of desire to overcome profound estrangement - in the name of humanity and Holy Spirit. The levels of meaning have to do with a history of estrangement between Judeans and Samaritans. It is not so much moral as political-theological. That doesn't mean it's not risky and risqué. It's quite flirty, actually. Jesus and the woman reenact a traditional well-side ritual - Jacob and Rachel? - of betrothal.

It is, then, more properly Rachel's well, situated on land of her birth. Jacob, like Jesus, was a stranger there.

The Midrash portrays Rachel as a prophet and redeemer of Israel. There are several midrashim where she intervenes with God to have Israel's sins absolved. She pleads with God and weeps for her children to return. When Jesus sees the unnamed Samaritan woman coming to draw water, is he seeing Rachel, coming with her sheep? Is he seeing Rachel the Redeemer? Do his words about the harvest have to do with the redemption of Rachel's children - the Samaritans and the Judeans? ...

In summary, their banter is playful (it goes on a bit) but seriously political-theological. In Aramaic, the word for husband is very similar to the word for ruler or god. Faithfulness and unfaithfulness in marriage are common tropes with respect to true worship and idolatry. Water is a common metaphor for Spirit, and thirst has readily to do with longing and with hope. Jesus engages in terms of human need and encounters another with deep capacities for understanding, grief and hope.

Perhaps this accounts for the sensitivity to heartbreak and personal connection (we should always be wary of attributing to Jesus the power to read minds or know what is not humanly possible). Jesus reveals his true identity to the woman, and in doing so, her own identity evolves. He is engaging (vulnerable, resourceful, respectful) just as you or I might engage.

And just as you or I - or, indeed, the Church - might attract incredulity and offence.

The woman is certainly not meek or naive, and reports of her status as an outcast seem exaggerated. She is strong, independent, creative, erudite. When she returns to tell others in Sychar about her encounter with Jesus - an inspiring and transformative encounter - she is a formidable witness. The townspeople listen to her; they respond to her testimony. She is an evangelist after John the evangelist's own heart!

Rosella Namok is one of Australia's most sought-after artists. Her works are represented in all major state and national institutional collections in Australia, as well as prestigious collections in Europe and the US. Did I mention she's just 35 years old? Namok, too, is a formidable witness.

I'm not wanting to draw a tight connection here, but rather to keep open a positive faithfulness to the Gospel. It's not that Namok should be made to play the role of the Samaritan evangelist, but that we might remain, with Jesus, open to life-affirming encounters with others in our own time and place. This means not simply openness to strangers whose ways are different, whose language induces anxiety, and so on, but openness to strangers whose witness compels, commands, even condemns. "Consciousness of my injustice is produced when I incline myself not before facts, but before the Other," writes one biblical scholar [Emmanuel Levinas, 1993].

In the Spirit of truth, then, let us offer this Reconciliation Prayer ... Amen.