Preacher Revd Neil Summers
This coming Tuesday, 25 March, is Lady Day. Some of you will remember this as one of the traditional ‘Quarter Days’ of the English calendar, observed from at least the Middle Ages, when servants were hired, rents were due, and accounts had to be settled. It all helped to ensure that debts and unresolved lawsuits were not allowed to linger on unchecked.
Of rather more significance for the church, though, is the fact that Lady Day marks the Annunciation of our Lord by the angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary, something we will recall when we recite the Angelus at the end of the service. I thought I should remind you this morning that you have just 276 shopping days till Christmas!
The Annunciation, as you will know, has historically been a popular subject of visual art, not least in the Renaissance period. In one painting for the cathedral in Siena, Italy, Mary is depicted as slightly turning away from the angel, which perhaps reflects her momentary reticence and hesitation, and certainly emphasises her vulnerability – those few seconds of silence before Mary delivers her response of ‘Yes, let it be unto me according to your word’. But that ‘yes’ only comes after the angel had said to her that she should not be afraid. What if she had said ‘no’? In the credo column of yesterday’s ‘Times’, the (female) Archdeacon of Canterbury quoted Denise Levertov’s poem Annunciation:
‘God waited./She [Mary] was free/To accept or to refuse, choice/Integral to humanness’.
The poem continues:
‘Aren’t there annunciations/of one sort or another in most lives/Some unwillingly undertake great destinies,/enact them in sullen pride,/uncomprehending.
More often those moments/when roads of light and storm/open from darkness in a man or woman,/are turned away from/in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair/and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue./God does not smite them./But the gates close, the pathway vanishes…’
Opportunities and challenges too often glimpsed and turned away from with relief as ordinary life continues. Mary reminds us of the extraordinary possibilities in having the courage to say ‘yes’, even when ‘no’ seems safer and easier. This is a long way from the images of Mary that rely on her passivity, or notions of her as some sort of ideal of womanhood, the impossible act for women to follow – both virgin and mother. Christians have for centuries argued about Mary’s status in the narrative of human salvation. For some, she has been regarded as the anchoring of the feminine in the divine. For others, the very idea of a ‘mother of God’ is a sheer impossibility, and something very different from being the mother of Jesus, which certainly identifies her with the human aspect of God so fundamental to Christian belief.
Lady Day asks us to think about the mystery of God, and the mystery of femininity in relation to how we see God. It urges us to look again at Mary, as strong and daring, rather than compliant or divisive. Mary’s ‘yes’ to God is what unites her to the divine. It doesn’t come easily to her, and, as we shall shortly be commemorating, she would come to the point where she had to watch her son die on a cross. But it was still her ‘yes’ that made the whole story of Jesus possible at all.
The implication seems pretty clear: Lady Day suggests we seize our own opportunities for saying ‘yes’. Anne Frank, from her attic prison, urges us to begin right now: ‘No one need wait a moment. We can start now, start slowly changing the world! Everyone, great and small, can make their contribution towards introducing justice straightaway. You can always, always give something, even if it is only kindness.’
Talking of saying ‘yes’ and of introducing justice, how about Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well? This meeting was so socially, culturally, politically and religiously incorrect, you couldn’t make it up! With a fair bit of banter flying through the air between the two of them, I reckon it must rank as one of the most engaging and entertaining stories in the Gospels. The meeting has an important context. Jesus was on a road that most Jews avoided, yet John tells us he ‘had to’ go through Samaria. There isn’t time to go into the details of this now, suffice to say, as John reminds us today ‘…the Jews have no dealing with Samaritans’. This is yet another encounter which Jesus has with an outsider, someone beyond the bounds of conventional respectability. Not only that, but even within her own community, this woman seems something of an outsider: an outsider’s outsider, if you like. She comes to the well to draw water at noon, but in that society at that time it would have been more usual to draw water in the cool of the early morning, rather than in the heat of midday. There is the clear suggestion that she is shunned by others in the village and wishes to avoid their judgemental stares and whispered gossip – scorned, most likely, because of her string of marriages: five husbands and, as Jesus points out, she isn’t even married to the latest man under her roof. So not only is there an encounter with a Samaritan, bad enough in itself, but a Samaritan woman with an unsatisfactory past and a less than satisfactory present. And even besides all of that, in that culture and community, men and women were not seen in public together, let alone a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman.
When Jesus asks her for a drink, he is crossing boundaries and traditional taboos and he is inviting her to do the same. He shows her a respect that she did not have in her own life, and a dignity she did not possess in her own community. She can do something for him – give him some water – and he can do something for her by ascribing her an identity, a purpose and a value. This encounter necessitates risk on both sides, but once there is a willingness to risk a ‘yes’ to Jesus’ generous and unconditional invitation, like the Samaritan woman, there is a promise that there can be a sense of liberation from all that weighs down and restrains people: an encouragement to anyone who feels ostracised because of their background or status, or who may feel haunted by past mistakes and regrets. All that is arid and barren in our lives opens up into the potential for a life of authentic engagement in relationship with God and with each other.
No one is excluded from this potential. There was to be no distinction between Jew and Gentile, Jew and Samaritan, slave or free, male or female. Here Jesus is seeking out someone who is excited by the prospect of repair of a broken spirit, the rehabilitation of a fractured life. Hope for us all, don’t you think?
We all face situations that seem interminable, and threaten to be the death of us. Whether it is the depression that will not lift, the person we dread facing, the addiction we cannot break, the dysfunctional relationship that traps us, or the grief that overwhelms us, at times we end up in the wilderness, dried out, weary, disorientated, not knowing which way to turn. After this extraordinary conversation, no wonder this woman’s response was to run to the city and tell of a man who, knowing her history, nevertheless offered her a new kind of life. Another example where saying ‘yes’ to God’s initiative leads to unimagined places and possibilities.
It takes two women to show us this today. I know some people hold strong, sincere views regarding women’s ordination, and hold them with integrity. But you won’t be surprised to hear me say it has taken the church far too long to recognise and to honour the gifts of women in its ministry. Slowly, and after a great deal of pain, the C of E is finally getting there. Tired of the struggle, some women have left the church; others have died without seeing their hopes or their vocations come to fruition; some have been ordained, only to face insult and rejection. We need a church where women don’t feel they have to turn their face away from the voice of God, like Mary in that painting, but can say, face full on, as Mary herself came to say, ‘Let it be to me according to your word.’ And, by the way, that goes for men as well.