Understanding Samaritans

Water of Life
Water of Life by Stephen Broadbent at Chester Cathedral
Photo by James Preston

Gordon McPhate, Dean of Chester Cathedral, preached this morning on the gospel for the day – the Samaritan woman – depicted in this sculpture. (The sermon is here from Curate’s Corner). Gordon described how a social worker won the trust of a difficult London community in a situation where so many before him had failed. He moved into his flat on the estate, but had no tools. He went asking for help – to borrow saw, hammer, ladders, screwdriver etc, etc. And that was it. He presented himself as needing help.

Likewise Jesus presented himself to the Samaritan woman at the well at Sychar – asking her for a drink. Jews and Samaritans despised each other – and men looked down on women. So this meeting of Jesus is remarkable. Jesus, a Jew, is asking a woman and Samaritan for a drink. Their relationship is captured perfectly by Stephen Broadbent. The woman is on top of Jesus. Jesus stands under the woman – and understands her to the extent that she is able to tell her friends “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did.”

Our social worker friend is in similar posture – as the one asking for help – standing under his neighbours whom his predecessors had quite possibly looked down on. Was the under-standing the secret of his success – plus the fact that his neighbours felt under-stood and needed?

Elizabeth Day has written a moving article in today’s Observer highlighting the predicament of those who are gay in Uganda by telling the stories of John Bosco and Florence Kizza. Their treatment has been abominable, not only in Uganda, but also by the immigration authorities in this country. They have been shown such little under-standing. The authorities have been tyrannical and overbearing – postures without understanding. We think we know so much till we stand under other life stories – and allow them to move us and shake us.

>rigid rules

>Free coiled tape measure healthy living stock photo Creative Commons
It seems that for every crisis we try to create a series of rules to prevent the crisis recurring. Judges, teachers, doctors – all professionals – seem to be ruled by rules. Many are denied the satisfaction of doing the good they would do because the rule book forbids it. 
The problem with rules is that we find ourselves on one side of the rule or the other. Either ruled in or ruled out. It is intensely frustrating to be unjustifiably ruled out. We need to learn a lesson from the tape measure. The tape measure is a rule that fits round things that are real.
Apparently Aristotle was impressed by the improvisation of the craftsmen that he was watching on the island of Lesbos. They were building rounded columns for which rigid rulers were useless. The craftsmen improvised with a ruler that bends – which we call a tape measure.
Aristotle talks a lot about wisdom. For him practical wisdom is the key to happiness. The wise person is like the improvising builders of Lesbos who knows that rules have to be bent and that we all need to deal with others flexibly.

And this is the nature of the equitable, a correction of law where it is defective owing to its universality. … For when the thing is indefinite the rule also is indefinite, like the leaden rule used in making the Lesbian moulding; the rule adapts itself to the shape of the stone and is not rigid, and so too the decree is adapted to the facts. [Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics”]

A line in the sandSchwartz and Sharpe have published a book on practical wisdom.They talk about the importance of character and virtue as an alternative response to the crises which we face. They recognise two great sources of hope. The first of those they refer to as “canny outlaws” who have the moral courage to find a way around the rules. The second of those they refer to as “system changers” who have the moral courage to transform the system. (You can hear Barry Schwartz’s talk on this here).
John’s Gospel (7:53-8:11) has the story of the woman caught in adultery. According to the rules she should have been stoned to death. The (foolish) lawyers brought the woman to Jesus for his condemnation. What does he do? He kneels down and draws a rule in the sand. The woman’s accusers no longer know which side of the line they stand – wisdom had blurred their difference. Throughout the story Jesus is on the woman’s side – the side of the accused. He had blown away their rules for the sake of the woman whose proposed punishment – in now way – fitted her “crime”.

Quentin Crisp


I didn’t know till tonight that Sting’s Englishman in New York was a celebration of Quentin Crisp. Englishman in New York was the title of tonight’s moving ITV sequel to The Naked Civil Servant about Quentin Crisp’s life in New York. Crisp, played again by John Hurt, comes across as a man of great integrity. As a homosexual “who wore make up in London in the 30’s” he was always an outsider – and despised. His commitment to “being himself”, together with his wit, made him a celebrity figure in New York where he was in great demand as a public speaker.

In a question and answer session at his swansong at a gay club in Tampa, Florida, he comes up with a real pearl of wisdom:

Neither look forward where there is doubt, nor backward where there is regret. Look inward and ask yourself not if there is anything out in the world that you want and had better grab quickly before nightfall, but whether there is anything inside you that you have not yet unpacked.

The quote was prefaced with remarks about the privilege of being the scorned outsider – not as something to be avoided but as something to be embraced. As a privileged insider I wonder how wise his advice is:

In an expanding universe, time is on the side of the outcast. Those who once inhabited the suburbs of human contempt find that without changing their address they eventually live in the metropolis.

I am sure that the wisdom of wise outsiders like Quentin Crisp have helped many people on the outside to “be themselves” instead of selling themselves short.

As Sting writes:

It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile,
Be yourself no matter what they say.


>How sad is Gafcon?
But Father Christian has a good blog about the Big Pete and Little Pete Show – dummies for ventriloquist Martyn Minns.
Personally I think it’s a battle being waged by those who want a command and control church against those who want something rather more grown up and self organising, where people can be trusted to make spiritual judgements for themselves – not having to rely on a moral dictatorship.


>So the Bishop of Rochester has declined Archbishop Rowan’s invitation to the Lambeth Conference and has decided to join the alternative conference oddly called Gafcon (sounds to me like a hot air company). To me it seems rather a strange gesture coming a week after widespread demands for the priest who conducted the “wedding” of two gay priests to be disciplined have been heard. Surely, if we are to be called to be obedient to the church’s teaching – one of the leading advocates of which is the Bishop oif Rochester – then the Bishop of Rochester should be seen not to be undermining the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Homosexuality is supposedly at the root of the divisions of the Church of England and the Gafcons are apparently united around that one issue – that it should not be tolerated. I think I see it rather differently. I see it as a power struggle – and how shocking that the followers of the one – “who emptied himself taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbbled himself and became obedient to the point of death” (Philippian 2) – should be involved in power struggles. The issue of homosexuality is their rallying call and the point of vulnerability – the chink in the armour – of those they oppose. The way I see it is as a struggle between the old command and control mentality referred to by Dee Hock, founder of Visa and the chaordic type of organisation emerging as part of our information age. Lambeth represents the self-organising – this time there’s no resolutions, just bishops coming together in the hope that by so doing they will be better bishops. The Gafcons will plot and scheme, pass resolutions, flex their muscle, spit fire, trying to “command and control” which is a temptation Jesus steadfastly refused to submit to – and so make a story for the world’s media. The message will not be “God so loved the world …” but “see how these Christians love (is this where a “sic” should go?) one another” – hardly a compelling message.
And those people who are gay get squeezed out. They are the real victims. They are victims of prejudice – cast out into the realms of darkness – the the alleys where, it just so happens, Jesus walked (or should I say “walks”).
I have to say that two of the people I love most dearly are gay. They are both in loving, stable long-term relationships which have enriched them and both relationships shed love and blessing to others. One of them is a civil partnership which rang with as much holiness as any wedding I have ever attended – even though it could not be contracted on “holy ground”. When I think about it, I could be deeply hurt and offended. The offence is to the head – the hurt is to the heart. What those who are gay make of it I shudder to think – I am very sorry to be in an institution that so offends them – but will work to promote a community where people matter and where rules and regulations are seen as “sheer hell”. Dee Hock again:”Heaven is purpose, principle and people. Purgatory is paper and procedure. Hell is rules and regulations.” Pray that Lambeth prepares for heaven, and that the Gafcons realise there’s no future in hell.
Friend Katherine sent me this article from Newsweek on the devil incarnate – Gene Robinson – a different perspective.