Parish Eucharist 19th March 2017
Worship: Enmity, Engagement, Encounter, Evangelism
Extensive research with seven removal firms has proved that 100% of them groan when they realise its a Vicar. Why? Because there are more books than normal. One of the joys of the last two weeks has been arranging the books on the shelves in my magnificent study. When you come to the Vicarage youll see that a whole section of four shelves is given over to worship. Resourcing, studying, teaching and practising worship has been a focus of my ministry so far. Among the many reassurances that we are in the right place is that todays Gospel reading is John 4. It has worship at its centre.
The conversation at Jacobs well opens up some of the most profound aspects of our believing. Here things which divide as well as unite are revealed. Here there is a challenge to encounter the other and engage with the stranger. Here there is a call to be sent out with a new sense of mission. And, as you wonder what on earth your new Vicar is really like, perhaps there will also be some clues about me too.
Worship and Enmity
Firstly, lets be realistic that the way we worship can set us at enmity with others. It is a sad fact that what should be the central activity of the church is an inevitable focus of division. Just think of the controversies over music, over forms of words, and over ceremonial. People have literally gone to the stake over thisand it was just the same in Jesuss day. Because they shared the same roots, Jews and Samaritans hated each other all the more and the woman at the well asks a proper theological question: where is worship most valid? We could ask the same question in a different way: is it best to use thee and thou, or you and yours? Are psalms and hymns the way to God, or songs and choruses?
What are your new Vicars preferences? Youll have to find out, but I like to think that I cover most bases and value most traditions. The Director of Music at York Minster, when I was being considered as Precentor, read my CV with some concern. You play the guitar, he said. Yes, I said. But not at Evensong. Worship is so important that we can hold on tight to what has nourished us most. That can lead us to fighting when it changes or is challenged. Jesus transcends the conflict: it doesnt matter what, where, or how. What matters is who: you, and the Spirit of God.
Worship and Engagement
Secondly: the fact that Jesus is speaking to the woman at all is a miracle. Not only is she a Samaritan, but shes female. Jesus engages with her, treats her conversation seriously, starts where she is, and moves her thinking with grace and sensitivity. It helped that the place was the well of their common ancestor Jacob but Jesus could have got all religious and refused to talk to her. So much worship in church is actually religious all about itself , and not holy all about God. Worship should be a place of engagement, welcome and challenge, not superiority and hostility. The problem is, we think were engaging when were actually off-putting.
I have, in my ministry, been told off by faithful worshippers for giving out simple instructions, referring to hymn numbers and telling people which page we are on. Ive done that when Ive seen people in the congregation who are not familiar with that which the regulars are familiar with. Worship which is truly engaging starts with people where they are, not where they should be if only they knew. I will engage with the stranger, and therefore crave the patience of the friend.
Worship and Encounter
Thirdly: the woman starts a conversation about water and ends up face to face with God. Her physical need is met, her spiritual hunger is first revealed and then satisfied (I know that Messiah is coming. I am he); her emotional poverty is exposed and then enriched. She has encountered God, and she cannot help but talk about it. So much worship is about doing what has always been done, or even inventing new things to do, without any expectation that it might be an encounter, that the activity might be satisfying or that God might actually be there.
Here all of the woman meets all of God. She cannot dissemble, cant put her best side on show, cant fool Jesus. The real God must meet the real person so our services should be about all that we are and all that the world is. Again, as we get to know each other we will find out about the real people we are. Youll find that I have a sense of humour, and that means that sometimes, as with all humour, I can be misconstrued. Youll find out that I value clarity and honesty, that Im unafraid to be challenged or asked, and absolutely allergic to hearing that people are saying things. Youll find, I hope that I keep confidences and hold as precious the things which are said to me.
Worship and Evangelism
Fourthly: how can we not be sent out into the world if we have met with the living God? Theres a lovely movement in this chapter two people to the well, one person back to the village, the whole village coming to Jesus, and Jesus going to the village. The people hear a testimony, and are impressed but are more impressed with Jesus himself. Worship should lead us out to bring people in, to go out where they are, to be a people of movement, not fixity.
Bishop Rob called us on Thursday to be a people who hold out the Good News of Jesus Christ here in Hampstead, to everyone. That means setting up the encounters, offering the welcome, having the conversations, looking for the opportunities. The people of God are called to engage, to welcome, invite, challenge and serve. Youll find us, I hope, to be hospitable, friendly, and approachable. Wed love to have you all round to the Vicarage, but not all at once. We do eat food and drink wine and have been known to do that in other peoples houses. We dont bite, and weve found that, through relationship and encounter, people have come closer to God.
Hampstead Parish Church will become a place of engagement, encounter, and evangelism as we continue to mine the rich heritage of our worship, when we give our all to the God who has encountered us in Jesus Christ, and when, together, empowered by the Spirit, we offer all that we are to God. I have drunk water from Jacobs well. It is very deep. The water is wonderful. May the deep well whose water we drink bind us together, so that, worshipping and living in spirit and truth, we enable others to know that, truly, Jesus is the saviour of the world. Amen.