Turning on the light

Not long ago I learned how someone I admire first realised that there was more to going to church than just.. well going to church. It was when she was a child, and she was going every Sunday with her family to a little church in rural Ohio. The minister there was a young man with no family of his own and so he was often a guest at their family table. He was funny and smiled, and talked to her and listened to her while she took him round the house to look at all the things she treasured and all the things she was interested in and was making. He seemed to see her as a person, and not only a child, and she loved him for it.

One Sunday at church he asked her to sit close to the pulpit so she could listen to his sermon about the beauty of God’s creation and how we can be awed by it. And then, all of a sudden, she heard him telling the whole congregation about a little girl who kept tadpoles in a birdbath so that she could watch over them as they turned into frogs, and how her care for those creatures was part of God’s care for the whole world. It was as though someone had turned on all the lights  – to hear that her life was part of God’s life and that something as ordinary as tadpoles could bring her and God together. That minister’s words and his insight and care ‘changed everything for me’ she says. She couldn’t see her life in the same way again and she walked home that day into a God-enchanted world, looking for other places where she might find heaven on earth. But then, one day, her minister had to leave. The civil rights movement had come to Ohio and some folks didn’t like it that the minister said that the doors of the church were open to all. So some people hanged him in effigy above the church doors, a grotesque stuffed image of this good minister, and he packed and left. But the little girl whose life he had so changed never forgot him and resolved that she would find ways to change everything for those who needed it..

I really hope that, whoever you are, you have found someone to switch on all the lights for you, someone to ‘change everything’ for you, someone who could listen to you intently enough to convince you that you are God’s beloved child and that in your life, the light of God shines. That kind of experience is often found in the simplest things, and in the most ordinary ways, and yet it means more to anyone than just about anything I can think of. I can remember a Roman Catholic priest who once took my broken heartedness at the end of teenage love affair more seriously than anyone else did. And I can remember the first time someone thought something I’d written might be worth publishing. And the time when someone wanted to know not what people I could quote or what books I’d read, but what I really thought myself – someone who thought my opinion might be worth something. It is truly life-changing when someone talks to you as though they really mean it, taking you seriously, treating you well. Like that time when an Archbishop wrote a thoughtful reply to a letter from a six-year old girl when she asked ‘who are you, God and who invented you?’.

We are all of us looking for the light to shine on us, looking for love, looking for blessing in our lives, blessing to transform our days. And sometimes, at moments in all our lives, we find the very things for which we hardly knew we were looking, and the world is suddenly lit up – in a way that makes us ready to live for others and even die for them if we are called to. And of course, those who do this for us can be all sorts of people, the ordained sort and the baptised or unbaptised sort, remarkable people and unremarkable too. The light of God can shine in great cities and little villages, in churches and homes, in candles and spotlights and in the twinkling of eyes.. It is known in the warmth of a new welcome and in the steadiness of love shared over time. It comes to us in the blaze of summer’s sun and in the fragile lights of winter. It comes in the dramatic sounds of joyful birthing, and also low and dimmed in the bed where we die. At any moment of our lives we can find, like an unexpected gift, that the light is shining and that someone is helping us to be alive again.

‘Have you seen the light?’, is the classic altar call.. and I hope you might say that, somehow, somewhere, this was true for you and that you have seen light… or that you world has been lit up.

John’s Gospel tells us this amazing story of a woman who discovered one day that everything had changed for her and that the world was a quite different place.  It wasn’t a birdbath with tadpoles this time, but a well, Jacob’s well – and it was at the very time of day when the light was brightest and the sun most fierce; midday. It was actually because it was the middle of the day that she was there. The other women would have gone to the well earlier when it was cooler. But this woman had to go when she was least likely to meet those who disapproved of her. She’d been divorced more times than Mrs Simpson, and more times it seems than the Samaritan laws permitted – which probably meant that she had been passed from one man to another, just as happens now apparently amongst the warriors of ISIS. Somehow this was written all over her in a way that Jesus could see. I don’t suppose she was in the best shape. She was a woman shunned by the respectable. And perhaps she even felt ashamed of herself, though no woman then could have controlled what happened to her. But she was a woman alone, shunned, forced to bear even the violence of the midday sun. And she was a woman that Jesus’ disciples would expect him to shun too. Jesus shouldn’t have talked to her really.

But Jesus seems to care not at all for any of that and talked to her anyway, talked to her about religion too, at a time when that was certainly only men’s talk. But perhaps what most astonished her and impressed her was that he talked to her, and talked with her in a way that she knew she had been seen as she really was, heard and honoured, respected and loved. When the disciples arrived she even left her water jar and went back to the town to tell even those who despised her that she’d met someone who knew everything about her. Could he be the Messiah? And many of them believed in Jesus because of her testimony. For her too it was as though the light went on. From being afraid of the community, she was suddenly empowered to speak within it. From being a victim she had become a prophet! From being exiled she knew that she had been found.. From being despised she had been blessed. The Gospel of John does not give her a name, but there is a tradition that she was baptised with the name Photina (light). And in John’s Gospel her story is told right after Nicodemus –  the Pharisee who came ‘by night’ before the Samaritan woman who came ‘at noon’. This story is one in which Jesus is the one who turns on the light. He is the light of the world, but perhaps it means more to us if we see how he can light up one life, how he could change everything for a particular person, for one woman, sweating with shame by a well. Because that might show us how he could change everything for you, for us, and for all sorts of people.

We’ve got so used to the stories now – about Jesus who touched a woman who was bleeding when no other supposedly holy men would have done, about Jesus who healed a woman bent double, about Jesus who told the woman who anointed him that she was like a prophet anointing a king, about Jesus who told women the good news of the resurrection and gave them the commission to tell everyone else. But these stories were once as astounding as that little girl who found that the sermon told her story about the tadpoles in the path and that God loved her and valued her. And there are still places in the world where such honouring needs to be experienced. We should be proud that 100 years ago this year the first woman to be ordained in the UK was from our tradition. We should rejoice that in our church the ministry, the theology, the lives of women have been celebrated and lit with love. In our church women can worship every day of the month, which is still not true everywhere. And in our church we know that God is beyond gender, and yet utterly and profoundly personal. I can remember the moment when I heard that the United Reformed Church had women who were ministers, and I knew that I was home. Everything had changed. And we should be proud that in the URC there are congregations doing all they can to bring change to a world aching for it.. to bring blessing where it’s most desperately needed and light into the dark corners of our world.

But of course, when everything is changed for you, you know that it has to be changed for everyone and that your own life has to be given to that. I’ve always known that there was no point in my being ordained, or made a doctor or any of that, if I couldn’t use it to bring light to other people too. And when I see the news at the moment, and see women and children, and men, struggling to survive in a land where the wells are dry and the war is fierce, I know that everything has to change there too. I know that if Jesus is my Messiah, he has to be theirs too, and that if I’m his disciple I have to go wherever people need light and hope.

When we are baptised as Christians, at the font, at the fountain, at the well of life, we are told to go and be light in the world. Shine with the light of Christ! Like the Samaritan woman at the well we are given a new name too and everything is changed for us. So today, imagine that it’s as though we have come to the well at the height of the day. It won’t be long until noon. We come, no doubt, carrying burdens, ashamed perhaps, afraid, bruised.. We carry the empty buckets of our lives, looking for water…And here at the well we meet with God and we find out lives filled.. And then we are sent out to the places we came from. So, what does Jesus say to us as we come to the well today? What do you hear him saying; for blessing or challenge? Will everything be changed… or maybe something in your life shift a little..? Perhaps this is the day and this is the hour, when God comes.. and light is turned on. I hope it might be… Amen.