The question of how the Church should treat people who are divorced and re-married is a thorny one isn’t it? Our Gospel today (John 4:5-42) gives us an interesting insight into this, because the woman at the well, with whom Jesus has this long conversation, has not only been married 5 times but is now with a 6th man, and she is not even married to this one! Now let’s first remember what Jesus has said elsewhere about divorce and re-marriage. When asked if people could divorce, he reminds people quite forcibly (Matt 19:1-10) that God intended men and women to live together for life, ending with that famous phrase that appears in the Marriage Service, “What God has joined together, let no-one put asunder.” Note that the disciples are so shocked by this that they suggest that if this is the case it might be better if no-one ever got married!
Now they are shocked for a different reason, because they find Jesus talking to this woman who is clearly not respectable at all. She is also a Samaritan, by the way, which makes it even worse! For we have already been told how surprised the woman is that Jesus as a Jew should talk to her – a Samaritan! Note how straight Jesus is with her. He doesn’t tell her off, but he makes it quite clear that he knows the kind of woman she is. She is then an extreme case, not like most of those we know who are re-married after divorce, and are now living faithfully with their second partner.
So if we are to be true to Jesus, then we the Church have to somehow do both things – affirm what is right and good – in this case lifelong marriage –but also offer friendship and support to those whose first marriages have failed. You may have your opinion about how the official Church handles this at the moment, but whatever you think the solution is, it is not an easy one to get right.
Pope Francis was speaking to a gathering of priests earlier this month and he told them that they must neither be too strict nor too soft especially when hearing Confession. He said that a priest who is too strict simply “nails the person to the law, understood in a cold and rigid way” whilst one who is too soft is “only apparently merciful, for in reality he does not take seriously their problems by minimizing the sin.” He continues “True mercy… listens attentively, approaches the situation with respect and truth, and accompanies the person on the journey of reconciliation.” I hope, as you think about this, you might pray for all priests as Confessors; because getting this balance right for each person is very difficult indeed. I am off to make my Confession on Tuesday so I will pray for the priest who will hear mine, poor fellow!
But notice next that Jesus takes the woman beyond the factual problems that she has to live with. He offers her water, and she says in reply, stuck with the facts, “You have no bucket, sir.” Jesus then has to explain that he’s actually talking about a different kind of water, the water that we hear of in our 2nd Reading (Romans 5:1-8) – “the love of God that has been poured into our hearts.”
Now, there’s another problem we Christians have to face! Sigh! We have to cope with people who assume that we believe that everything in the Bible is literally true, even though here and in many other places Jesus tries really hard to take his listeners beyond the literal into those things that can only be expressed through metaphors and parables! Not just the water but later the food!
So surely that’s the main point we should take from our readings today. Whatever our situation in life, married or single, divorced, remarried or whatever, we all need the water of life, the water that is God’s love –a love that is both demanding and forgiving. We have to face up to the fact that none of us live up to what God wants us to be like. If we don’t face that, if we think we are basically OK, then we will never understand the idea that Jesus died to save us. If we think there is nothing to be saved from, if we think that we do not need to drink from the well of life, then we might as well give up being Christians straight away. We cannot say “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy” unless we realise that we need mercy.
Think of the mother or father coping with their naughty child. Does it help if they say “Don’t worry darling, everyone loses their temper and smashes things sometimes.” No, of course it doesn’t. When I did things like that as a child – and I did, because I had a dreadfully bad temper – my mother sent me to my room. She showed that what I had done was wrong, and there in my room I remember weeping, feeling awful that I had upset her. But then, before long, she came to me and gave me a big hug and we talked about how I could try to be a better person. Yes, the parent, like God, like the Church, must make clear what is wrong. But the parent, like God, like the Church, must also bring love and forgiveness into the situation and offer every person a way forward into eternal life.
Facing the fact that we are helpless without God, and that even with God to help us we will still often fail, is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. We heard St Paul say it, the Paul who had felt before he met Christ that he was living a perfect life, “We were still helpless when at his appointed moment Christ died for sinful men.” This is something we must receive into our hearts.
As Jesus said to the woman at the well “If you only knew what God is offering..” So many people don’t know, and that’s our challenge.