Someone reading a sermon at home should read the relevant scripture first, and then the sermon that follows. John, chapter 4 for last Sunday, and John chapter 9 for this Sunday. (I suspect that “Asty” won’t make much sense if one does not read the scripture first).
And, if possible, it is always best if two are three people read the scripture and sermon aloud, and together,. Words – especially the Word of God – require lungs and breath if they are to truly sing.
From March 15
When a child is angry with her parents, it is usually because the parent wants more for the child than the child wants for herself. An infant will happily eat every meal with her fingers, but at some point mom will insist on a fork and spoon. The child is angry, but her mother is right. Years later – perhaps when the girl has a child of her own – they will laugh about the terrible trauma of learning to use cutlery.
When a student is angry with a teacher, it is usually because the teacher wants more for the student than the student wants for himself. The student is perfectly happy with a B minus in English. But one day the teacher takes him aside and tells him that he’s a bright kid, with a good mind, and its time he learned how to write. He should work for an A on the final paper. The student walks home full of resentment, but he settles down, works hard, and gets an A on his final paper. Years later, as he heads off to University, he remembers that teacher fondly.
When we human beings are angry with God, it is usually because God wants more for us than we want for ourselves. We rejoice that God is powerful, and wise and loving, and we presume that all of God’s power and wisdom and love should go towards making us happy.
But God wants more for us than happiness. God wants us to grow, and to grow up. God gives us freedom, and expects us to use our freedom wisely. God allows us to make choices, and to suffer the consequences of our choices.
Most of the time, if we are honest, freedom is not what we want. We would prefer to stay as children, and just let God make us happy. But God wants more for us than we want for ourselves. God has created us that we might grow into the likeness of his Son Jesus. And such growing is sometimes painful.
In the Book of Exodus, we hear the stories of God leading his people through the wilderness, on their way to the Promised Land. The journey from the Red Sea, across Sinai, to Canaan, looks to be a few hundred miles. It might take a month or so, at a leisurely pace. God, however, does not lead them there directly. Instead, God leads His people in the desert for 40 years, teaching them to become a people worthy of the Promised Land.
The people are often frustrated and angry. They don’t want to learn what God wants to teach them. We read, “The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, travelling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”
Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?” But the people were thirsty for water, and they grumbled against Moses, saying “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to make us die of thirst?”
The people want to get to the Promised Land. But God wants more for them. God wants them to become a people as full of promise as the land they will one day enter. God desires a people who are free, faithful, and full of courage. And if it takes forty years to shape them into such, then so be it.
There is no suggestion in the story that God is withholding water from the people. There is no suggestion that God is punishing His people, or testing them. He is simply leading them through a very dry place. God has not abandoned His people. But the people quickly abandon God. They forget their past, from which God has rescued them. They forget the future he promises. When they are thirsty, they don’t ask God for what they need. Instead they quarrel with each other, and grumble against Moses, saying, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”
As a child must learn to use cutlery, and clean their room, and write English prose, so the People of Israel must learn to trust God, to persevere and to pray, and to encourage each other. It is not cringing slaves that God wants, but brave and loving children. This they must learn. The theologian Daniel Erlinger describes the 40 years in the wilderness as “The Wilderness School.”
God does, of course, provide water for his people. He tells Moses, “Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” Here, in the midst of anger and tears, is what Educators call, “the teachable moment.” Moses strikes the rock, and the water flows, and the people drink. And so that the lesson might not be lost, the place is called Massah, meaning “testing” and Meribah, meaning “quarrel.”
In the gospel of John we find another story of thirst and grace. “Jesus came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon, the sixth hour.”
In these verses, Jesus comes before us as one of us: a human child of God, tired and thirsty, journeying through a dry place. And like us, he must ask for help. When a woman comes to draw water, Jesus asks her, “Will you give me a drink?”
The woman protests. “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” At this time, in Palestine, it was wrong for a man to speak to a woman alone. She is, moreover, a Samaritan woman, and a Jew would normally refuse to use the same cups and buckets that Samaritans use.
Later in the chapter we learn more about the woman. She has had five husbands, and the man she is now with is not her husband. She is likely here, at the well, alone, in the heat of the day, because the other women will not be seen with her. The woman is scarred by her past and wary of making new relationships.
Then along comes this foreigner, a Jew and a preacher, and she wants nothing to do with him. She will protect herself. Jesus, however, wants more for her than she wants for herself. And though his persistence clearly irritates her, he is determined to help her. He is firm with her, only so that he might be generous. “If you knew the gift of God,” he says, “and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
This is a lovely moment. Obviously the woman has what Jesus needs: a bucket and a drink of water from a well. And just as surely, Jesus has what the woman needs: friendship and hope for the future. “Sir,” she says, “You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?
Jesus answers, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again. But whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Finally the woman relents, asking for what she so desperately needs, and opening herself up to grace. “Sir,” she says, “give me this water.”
And finally, this morning, what about you, and what about me? We are not wandering, thirsty in the wilderness. We are not shunned by our neighbours, and unwilling to trust the visitor. But you have your struggles, as I have mine, and we need the discipline and the grace of God just as much as our friends in the Bible.
The people of Israel spend 40 years in their “wilderness school,” learning how to be strong, and disciplined, and free. The woman at the well dwells in a different kind of wilderness: she broods over her past, endures her present loneliness, and sees no clear future for herself. But she too learns to trust, to receive friendship, and to move forward in hope.
Truly all of life is a school, where every struggle offers an opportunity to learn strength, where every burden bravely carried offers a possible blessing.
Marriage is a school of love, and one given to us by God. Marriage certainly requires more of us, individually, than we would normally ask of ourselves. And yet, through the daily disciplines of patience, kindness, and forgiveness, we become better people. The BAS worship book describes marriage as “a gift of God, and a means of His grace,” and this I think is true, and is lovely. God gives us marriage, and then gives Himself to us in our marriages. Your husband, your wife: they are both a gift of God, and a means of God’s grace to you.
Parenthood is a school of love, forcing us to discover in ourselves unknown resources of love and patience. Caring for elderly parents is a school of love.
Maintaining old friendships, at whatever cost of time and distance and changing interests, is a school of love.
Every priest and every parishioner will find their church to be a school of love, requiring us to pray more diligently, to listen more intently, to speak with greater sensitivity. The Passing of the Peace is a school of love (even in such strange times as our own, when a fist-bump is considered a great intimacy.)
All of life, in short, is a school of love, a school in which God teaches us more than we wish to learn, gives us more than we wish to receive, and asks of us more that we think we have.
Life is a school of love. It must be, for If it is not that, I don’t know what it is. So let it be that. Amen.
For March 22
Atsy – a story
“Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind.” John 9: 32
In the Rio Grande, the “Big River” of Mexico, lives a species of fish called “Astyanax Mexicanus.” They are thin, silver fish, about 5 inches long. They are born like other fish. They swim and feed and play like other fish. But a few of the species are remarkable because they are born blind. They live in caves, deep under the river, where no light reaches. They are born in darkness, and spend their whole lives swimming and feeding and playing in the darkness. They do have eye-shaped hollows on their faces, inside which are half-formed eyeballs that cannot see. But I suppose that, even if they had eyes, they would not know it, because no light would ever reach them.
Scientists have recently captured some of these fish, and placed artificial lenses into their unseeing eyes. They reported that, “after a few months, these fish developed large restored eyes.” These fish do not yet “see” because they have not yet developed nerve connections between the retina and the brain. But even this, biologists say, might be possible. They’re working at it. They hope to give sight to a fish born blind.
Let us imagine the life of such a fish. We’ll call him “Asty.” He is a blind fish, living in a dark cave. But he doesn’t know he is blind. The whole idea of “light” is meaningless to him. Still, he is happy enough, for a fish.
One day Asty is captured by a biologist. She scoops him up in a net, puts him in a small aquarium, and flies him to the university. Asty is fed and cared for. And one day, the scientist does funny things to his little fish face, and after two months, strange things begin to happen. Asty develops a new sense, for which he has no words. He has always been able to smell, and feel, and taste, and hear. But now he finds he can do something completely new: he can see.
Asty remembers, as a child, being told stories about a strange ability called “seeing.” It was a kind of supernatural power, like being able to hear with your nose, or taste with your fins. The stories say that long ago, all fish had this amazing fifth sense. But somehow it disappeared.
Most adult fish say these are just stories for children: “God created his fish with 4 good senses,” they would say, “hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, and why should a fish need any more than that?”
But the little fish wonder. “Is it possible,” they whisper, “that something has disappeared from our lives?” For they sense in themselves the capacity for a larger, more beautiful life.
Asty, now swimming around in his aquarium at the laboratory, understands that the old stories are true. The fifth sense called “seeing” is happening to him. There is light, and colour and distance that enters in through his new eyes. There are all kinds of new sensations for which he has no words. But he is learning quickly.
It’s exciting to learn to see, but also very tiring. And so, when Asty wants to sleep, he closes his new eyes, and rest in the comfortable darkness he has always known. But when he is feeling brave, he opens his new eyes. And again, it happens. There is light and colour and shadow and space, and movement. It’s wonderful. Asty has always been able to feel warmth, but now he can see the great light in the sky where the warmth comes from. It is like seeing God, Asty thinks, the One who created all fish.
Asty is happy with his news eyes, but sometimes he feels lonely. One day the scientist notices that Asty looks sad, and decides to take him home. They take a plane back to Mexico, and she holds Asty in a fishbowl next to the window, so that he can see the clouds. Asty is now a flying fish!
And soon, still holding the fishbowl, the scientist pours Asty back into the waters of the Rio Grande. She cries a little as she says good-bye, but Asty is happy. Like the old fish say, “There’s no water like home-water.”
Asty swims around, both seeing and feeling the warmth of the sun. And soon, for the first time in his life, he sees other fish who look just like him. They also have eyes, and can see. This is very exciting. Finally Asty can talk to someone about this great thing called “seeing.”
He tells them his story: about how he was born in darkness, and lived in darkness. And one day he was caught and carried away, and given new eyes. “I once was blind,” Asty sings, “but now I see.”
But the other fish don’t believe him. “Yes,” they say, “we have heard about the cave fish, the ones that God has punished, the ones that cannot see. Aren’t you glad you’re not one of them!”
“But I am one of them,” Asty says. “I am a cave fish.”
“Nonsense,” the other fish say. “Cave fish are blind. And you are not blind. Therefore you are not a cave fish.”
“That sounds true,” Asty admits. “And yet it is not true. Nor is it true that the cave fish are punished by God. God loves all His fish. It’s just that we don’t have eyes. I don’t know why that is. But as for me, I once was blind, but now I see. And isn’t it wonderful, to be able to see?
But the other fish do not believe him. “Never since the seas were filled,” they say, “has someone opened the eyes of a fish born blind.”
“It’s true,” Asty says , “that you can see with your eyes, as I now can. But I think maybe you are blind in other ways. There is a greater world outside us, and above us, where all things are possible. And there is a light even greater than the sun. It is God Himself, Who loves all his fish, and wants all of us to see Him and to know Him. We should always thank Him for giving us light, and for giving us eyes to see the light.”
But the other fish are not listening. They flip their fins at Asty, which is a very rude thing for one fish to do to another fish. And they swim away.
Asty is sad for a while, but then he thinks, “It’ll be great to get home and see my friends.” So Asty swims down, deep into the dark caverns of the river. His new eyes cannot help him here, but he can smell the way home.
“Hello, my friends,” he shouts. “It’s me, Asty. And I can see.”
“You can what?” they ask.
I can see,” Asty says. “I can see light now. You remember the stories they told us when we were small, the stories about light and colour and the brightness that is for the eyes what heat is for the skin. You know, “Light.”
But his old friends reply, “There is no such thing as ‘light.’ There are no such thing as ‘eyes.’ Those are stories for children. We are too old for such stories now. And what did you say your name was?”
“I am Asty,” our hero says. “You know me. I was born here. We grew up together here, in the darkness.”
But the other fish reply, “What is this ‘darkness’ you speak of? It is a nonsense word, like ‘light.’ We have outgrown these childish ideas.”
“Listen,” Asty says, “I’ve been away for a long time. But now I’m back, and I have good news for you and for all fish. There is a great and wonderful world outside, up above us. And there is “light” there, and colour, and beauty. And though I will always love the darkness, I think now I cannot live in darkness only.”
But Asty’s old friends are not listening. “Go away,” they tell him, “and when you have put away these childish ideas, you can come back.”
“OK.” Asty says. “I will go away for a while, because I long to see the light again. Yet I don’t want to leave you forever. For you are my kin.”
And so it was that every Sunday morning Asty would wake up early, and swim upwards to see the light. He would feel his eyes open wide once more. He would revolve his body near the surface of the water, to feel the sun warm him all over. And he would sing a little song that he made up:
“O Gracious Light that warms my fins,
I praise you as the day begins.
May all the fishes of the sea,
sing praise to you eternally.”
Every Sunday morning, by himself, Asty would swim, and sing and praise. He was alone, but he never felt lonely. He felt himself living in the light, and he felt the light living in him. And when Asty had stored in his eyes as much light as they could hold, he would swim back down, into the darkness again. And so he spent his life.
Asty became a kind of prophet among the fishes, both to those who were blind, and those who thought they could see all things. To those in darkness, he never ceased to talk about light – how lovely and comforting and strengthening it was. It was the young fish who understood him best.
To those who lived in the light, he always reminded them how lucky they were. He said that they should praise God always for giving them light, and for giving them eyes to see the light. He said, “If ever you should forget to praise God for His light, well, that would be a terrible blindness indeed.”
Asty lived a long life, for a fish. Like all prophets, he was sometimes sad, but he knew a strength within himself, that came from beyond himself. He grew to be peaceful beyond the reach of happiness, or unhappiness. He knew about light, and he knew about darkness. And when he was a very old fish, and the final darkness settled over his eyes, Asty felt his whole body filled with light, and warmth, and power, and joy, and God took him to Himself, forever and ever.
The end. Amen.