St Peter's Church, Manchester
Compassion — Acceptance — Welcome
Preached at Didsbury United Reformed Church, on 3rd April 2011
St Peter’s has a small chapel that juts out over Oxford Road, and worshipping there you feel upheld by the noise from the street below — buses, cars, this term even protests passing by. This Lent our chaplaincy assistant has written a new liturgy based around the theme of rest in which we repent for our wordiness and busyness. “Come now from you busy days; settle here with God,” read the opening words. “Come now from your heavy thoughts; be still here with God.” Imagine those words spoken aloud with the background noise of a busy street and you get the idea.
We see Jesus resting in this story from John, a story as much about Jesus at the well as about the “woman at the well.” Jesus is on a journey; in the heat of the day he stops, because, John points out, he is tired. A woman arrives and looks, we must imagine, with suspicion on this stranger. Jesus asks her for a drink; he is thirsty from travelling and can’t draw the water without a bucket. He is weary. He has sat down to rest. I was at a Catholic retreat house recently, and I rounded a corner on the grounds, as you do, and came face to face with a grotto featuring Mary holding Jesus collapsed in her arms, taken down from the cross, his struggle over. These statues don’t usually do much for me, but this time I saw something else — the tiredness in his slumped shoulders, his arms weary unto death. A human tiredness, a final tiredness. “Come now from you busy days; settle here with God.” “Come now from your heavy thoughts; be still here with God.”
It would be tempting to see this need for water and rest as the “human” part of Jesus, and the miracles, say, the divine part. Jesus’ casting out of demons is far more dramatic, far more “God-like,” it seems. But God is active in all of Jesus. In his excellent short introduction to Christian faith, Tokens of Trust, Rowan Williams writes: “In [Jesus] there is divine purpose, power, and action; but there is also humility, responsiveness, receptivity. Somehow, the divine presence in Jesus, if it’s really a presence in all he does and says, is working itself out in this humility and responsiveness, not just in power as we understand it.”1 God is active in all of Jesus. His thirst, his tiredness, and his need are as much of God as is his power over demons. God knows thirst in Jesus; God knows hunger in Jesus; God is tempted in Jesus. In fact, the strange sentence that Jesus “had to pass through Samaria” in vs. 4 perhaps shows that the point of the story is, partly, to reveal these very things, as a quick glance at a map will show you he didn’t need to go there for a short cut.
What is that place of rest like? At a service recently student said he thought it would have been lovely; perhaps with some shelter some from the sun, perhaps with some coolness from the deep water, a place of rest, of comfort. The church is that place where Jesus can rest, where Jesus, a stranger, is welcomed, where a stranger sits, and asks for water. The church in a sense is a place where the tired can gather, because God knows that tiredness, God knows that thirst. We come not only to rest in Christ, but to rest with Christ. He is among us; he comes with the stranger.
When my wife Clare first arrived in Manchester she was curate at St Luke’s, Longsight, and we lived on the housing estate there. The church is called St Luke the Physician, and it is well known for letting out its rooms for use during the week as a mental health drop in and arts centre. During Clare’s time they refurbished the vestry so that it could be used as a massage studio — put all the fancy robes behind some curtains and refloored the space. Fresh from seminary I was a bit judgmental of the place, because the ministry focused so much on what happened during the week and struggled for numbers on Sunday morning. Older and wiser now I see the church as a place of real healing and hope, a place of comfort and rest, where Jesus might rest and welcome others to rest with him.
God is known not only in strength but in tiredness; in thirst, in vulnerability, in hunger, in need. Perhaps where the church is tired, and knows it, there is real chance for God to be at work. Perhaps precisely where we have need of others is the life of God working in us; precisely where we realise, we can’t draw this water alone, is where Jesus prays with us, and in us: help me.
Jesus eats and drinks with us at this meal we share with another. Jesus is the host at this meal — this is his table — but he doesn’t simply preside from on high; he enjoys our company, he joins us at the meal. We drink and eat and pray with him, and he with us. He shares our thirst and our hunger and tiredness, and we share with him the quenching of our thirst, the satisfying of our hunger, the energy of the Spirit. So come and rest with him, who knows our tiredness and our thirst, and knows there is life beyond, offered here and now.
1. Williams, R., Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2007; p. 66