The Weeping Camel
Lent 3: 19th March, 2017
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Exodus 17:3-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; John 4:5-15, 19-26, 39, 40-42
Have you experienced exclusion and marginalisation? It is a debilitating and profoundly painful thing. A parishioner in a previous parish once told me that this was how she felt when she first became a Christian and started going to church. Sarah came from a broken home, she was abused as a child, became involved in the drug scene for a while, and after a dramatic spiritual awakening started attending church. Sarah felt unclean, an outsider in church circles. Her story often makes me think about how we act as a church community, and what messages we give out to the stranger or the new person who walks in through the church doors.
Biblical scholar, Walter Wink, in his book Engaging the Powers (1992), describes first century Palestine as "a domination society". The priestly classes were predominantly hereditary, and they maintained their power positions through the polarising laws of purity. Following the commands of the Torah and rabbinic teachings ensured one's righteousness and purity, failing to do so was sinful and led to impurity. These laws of purity were foundational to the social structure of the day.
Our Lord proclaims an alternative social vision, a politics of compassion. "Blessed are the pure in heart" he preaches (Matt 5) not "blessed are those who keep the laws of purity". Time and time again Jesus shatters the purity boundaries of his society. He touches those who should not be touched, includes those who should be excluded.
The woman at the well, in today's gospel, is alone. She has gone to collect water in the middle of the day. All the others from the village came earlier to avoid the heat. She has gone last, to avoid them, to spare herself the humiliation of the judgmental looks and cruel gossip.
Jesus is also alone at the well, but for different reasons. His companions have gone into the city to buy food, and he is thirsty. The purity laws are quite clear; there is every reason why he should have nothing to do with the woman he meets there. She is a Samaritan, an arch-enemy of the Jews, and as it turns out, a woman who has had a number of husbands. Not the sort of person he should be cavorting with. And yet he intentionally engages with her. He looks past the reasons why they should not talk, and instead has compassion for her, seeing her pain and marginalisation. It is a healing conversation, a life-changing conversation.
John Dominic Crossan describes Jesus' acts of healing in the gospel stories as "socio-somatic healing". In his book The Historical Jesus: the Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (1993) Crossan makes a distinction between curing disease and healing illness. Curing disease, he argues, is about addressing abnormalities in the structure and function of body organs and systems. Jesus may or may not have had this ability, modern medicine certainly does. Healing an illness, however, is a different thing altogether. Crossan defines this as addressing the very real social devaluing and marginalisation that dis-eased people experience.
To take a contemporary example, there is still no miracle cure for HIV-AIDS, but I can assist in the healing of that particular illness by refusing to ostracise those who suffer from it. St Peter's Eastern Hill has been an inclusive, welcoming church for LGBTIQ people for decades, and it is a healing place because of it.
Crossan sums it up well: "It would, of course, be nice to have certain miracles available to change the physical world if we could, but it would be much more desirable to make certain changes in the social world, which we can." We can embrace all people, we can make welcome those who are excluded, we can speak up for the marginalised, we can work towards a domination-free society. That is how Jesus brought about healing, and it is a way open to each of us.
Lent is about fasting and prayer, yes, but let's not forget why we are fasting and praying. Lent is not "all about me"; my spirituality, my prayer life, my needs. Fasting and prayer is about waking up and seeing the world through God's eyes. Our Lenten disciplines should be helping us to see more clearly the woman in pain at the well, the gay teenager being teased at school, the homeless woman whose world has fallen apart.
Often the simplest act of love and compassion can bring the most profound healing.
I'd like to close with a beautiful story of compassion and healing from Southern Mongolia. It is told in the documentary The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003) which some of you may have seen. It is the story of a farming family in the harsh Gobi desert. Springtime sees the family's camels give birth to a series of precious colts. The last to give birth is a young mother, whose painful labour goes on for two days. Finally a brilliant white colt is born, but the pained mother rejects it. The fragile new-born colt searches for the mother's teat, but is pushed away every time. The family try every trick in the book, but in the end they are forced to take the unsustainable step of feeding the colt themselves.
After a few days a fierce sand storm blows up, and the isolated colt almost dies. Finally the wise old great-grandmother speaks. She has an idea, perhaps a distant memory from past generations. We must find someone who can play the violin. Two of the boys are sent to town to find a musician. Three days later they return with an old maestro from the arts academy.
He knows just what to do. The mother and colt are brought together, with much complaining from the mother. The musician then ties the violin to the camel's hump. The wind draws a ghostly intonation from the strings. The moaning mother turns her head, surprised by the new sound, and then she quietens. The musician takes his violin and starts to play a haunting melody. A tear appears in the mother camel's eye. One of the group then starts to sing along with the violin, and tears begin to pour down the mother's cheeks.
Finally the song is done, and miraculously the mother starts to lick her colt. The starving youngster tucks into his mother's teat, and at long last is permitted to feed unhampered. The mother is healed of her post-natal depression, through the love and compassion of the villagers, and at last the colt looks like it will survive the unforgiving seasons of the Gobi desert.
The miracle of healing so often comes through the simplest acts of love and compassion. We have all experienced, I am sure, how beautiful music can touch the soul; how healing a prayerful liturgy can be; what difference a warm smile can make, or a generous conversation over a cup of coffee.
These are living waters, healing acts of inclusion and compassion, as important as any Lenten prayer or discipline of abstinence.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.