Sermon preached on the Third Sunday of Lent (Sunday 19 March) by the Very Reverend Dr David Ison, Dean.
The Dean reminds us that the season of Lent recalls our attention to reality and to being ruthlessly honest about ourselves . . . and to the possibility of being surprised and being changed by God.
We’ve just had read to us a long story about Jesus and a woman meeting at a well. If it’s a story new to you, you may have got a bit lost; if it’s a story familiar to you, you may have got a bit bored. Either way, unless the story grabbed your attention, it means you’ve not really been here. Your attention has been elsewhere. And now some old bald guy stands up in the pulpit and has to engage your attention again. It’s not looking promising.
And I wonder how many of you would right now prefer to be checking your Twitter account or surfing on Facebook. When things get a bit boring, do you feel your fingers twitching, can you resist the urge to pull out your phone and just have a quick look at what is going on somewhere else? Or are you dreaming about what you’re going to do next? Or can you pay attention to the now, and take in the amazing reality that you sit here in one of the most beautiful of churches in the company of people who come from all over the world?
In Christian faith, the season of Lent recalls our attention to reality, to the present moment, to be ruthlessly honest about who we are and what we are, our hopes and fears, our possibilities and our sins, to come before God who alone is the truly real and always present reality.
I had some disturbing conversations last week with people who know about communications, the internet, psychotherapy and truth; conversations in particular about some negative consequences of social media.
The people I was listening to are concerned about how more and more people are overstimulated and narcissistic, focused on themselves in the virtual world, not able to relate healthily to others in the give-and-take of real social interaction, with its exposure to physical emotions and immediate accountability to others for what you think and say. We run the risk of becoming disembodied minds with virtual not physical connections, able to make the world in our own image and to write off and turn off those who challenge us.
And into that narcissistic world come the algorithms of Google, Facebook and others which are able to follow what we read, what we click on, what our likes are, and feed us more of the same, so that we don’t see or engage with alternative views, and instead find the internet presenting us with the world as we expect it to be: like being in an echo chamber where all you ever encounter is your own voice and no one else’s. We’re attracted to what we like, and we quickly lose attention, scrolling through posts and skipping from one thing to another in our increasingly unreal world.
Narcissism, lack of reality, echo chambers. None of this is new, but the intensity of it is on an unprecedented scale. And its effect is to intensify division and undermine our ability to pay attention to the negotiation and compromise which is a necessary part of any human society and any human relationships.
So how do we address it? Let’s go back to the gospel reading of Jesus and the woman at the well. This is the collision of two worlds, largely mutually exclusive and in conflict, the world of Jews and the world of the Samaritans who the Jews regarded as unclean. And it’s also the story of how a woman and her people have the opportunity to change if only they pay attention.
We know how the story will turn out, so we miss its tension, its eternal significance. In the interchanges between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, her life hangs in the balance, and she doesn’t know it; Jesus pushes her to face the reality which she doesn’t want to hear – will she or won’t she? And she nearly doesn’t.
Faced by an upfront and unpredictable Jew asking something of her while she’s just trying to get her water and go home to the next thing, her attention is not on Jesus but on herself. The Samaritan woman responds to Jesus by trying to hold on to her self-centred universe and to what she already thinks she knows: Jewish men don’t deal with a Samaritan woman, our ancestor gave us this well, I want lots of water, you make me uncomfortable but I’m still right, I don’t care what you say but our Messiah will sort it out.
And then comes the moment: suddenly she pays attention, reality hits, and she really sees the person who stands before her as he is, and not as she’s packaged him up to be: not as a distraction from her narcissistic universe, but as a living reality who confronts her with the truth of who she is and what she might become.
Throughout his conversation with the Samaritan woman, and then in his encounter with the disciples, as the woman runs back home with the news that the world has changed, Jesus uses parable, paradox and the uncomfortable truth to face those around him with the reality of who they are before God, the one reality who calls them, calls you, calls us into question...
The final section of the gospel reading is often overlooked by preachers, because there’s so much that precedes it. But look, here come the Samaritan villagers over the hill to Jesus, drawn by the change they see in the woman who runs to them and tells them to come and pay attention. The villagers take Jesus home, and in their encounter with him in person they turn a rumour into a reality, and change their worldview for another: they don’t become Jews, but Samaritans who follow Jesus, disciples because they have paid attention.
If there had been an internet back then, there would have been Facebook posts and selfies with Jesus and hysterical tweets, and the trolls who had met no one concerned would have been denouncing these national traitors and spreading rumours about Jesus and his followers to bolster their own point of view, while the local Samaritans were searching the internet for advice on dealing with hysterical women, instead of going to meet the person for themselves.
But there was no internet then. And there was the opportunity to have a critical encounter and to be changed by God as a result. The Samaritan woman and her fellow villagers were paying attention to the present moment, meeting reality in the strange and compelling otherness of Jesus Christ, and so were open to be changed, to meet the one who is truly the Saviour of the world.
And that’s our opportunity today. We can, here and now, pay attention to God and to those around us, and resist those twitching fingers and the lure of mega-pixel screens, the self-defined echo chamber which distracts our attention from life-changing encounter. We need to hear the voice of Jesus in the persons very different from us but who we share the world with, and not take refuge in distraction and the allure of the familiar.
So keep encounter real not virtual; pay attention once a day to someone who challenges you; and through this period of Lent up to Easter, if you don’t already pray, spend ten minutes a day being quiet and still with phone laid aside and computer screen off, asking God in Jesus Christ to come to you and make your life new.
And be ready to be surprised and to be changed, like the woman at the well, like those Samaritans who said, ‘It’s not because of what you said that we believe, but we’ve heard for ourselves and now we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’