Clare Amos originally wrote this reflection for the Stop Press column of ‘Roots on the Web’. Clare intends to use this blog in the coming weeks to provide an opportunity for people of the Diocese in Europe to share their experiences in these strange times.
If you ask a group of people, ‘Where does the first “I am” saying in the Gospel of John appear?’, most people won’t know the answer. ‘I am the bread of life’ (John 6.35) is often quoted. The phrase ‘I am’ is significant – not least because it seems to allude to the occasion in Exodus 3.14 when God introduces himself as the ‘I am who I am’. Actually, however, the very first time the emphatic ego eimi (I am) is used by Jesus in John’s Gospel is in this week’s story, the meeting between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. It is also the longest dialogue between Jesus and any one individual in any of the Gospels. And after their conversation has ranged widely over living water and holy places, the woman asks about the coming Messiah, and Jesus responds to her saying, ‘I am, the one taking to you’ (John 4.26; literal translation).
Once upon a time, I used to describe this as an ‘I am saying without a predicate’. (A ‘predicate’ in this context means something like ‘the bread of life’, or ‘the true vine’ or ‘the light of the world’.) But actually there is a predicate, namely ‘the one talking to you’. And it is, I believe, a profound insight to realise that the very first time in this Gospel Jesus ‘claims’ the divine identity of ‘I am’, he does so linking it to such an act of communication. It is obvious if you think about it! After all at the very beginning of this Gospel, the prologue makes that fundamental link between ‘the Word’ and the incarnation of Jesus Christ. So, it is appropriate that in this week’s story, Jesus discloses his divine identity par excellence because he is the one who communicates with human beings. Jesus tells us that the deepest nature of God is to offer communication and communion to and with human beings.
There is really only one story ‘hitting’ the headlines this week – the spread of coronavirus and its implications for human society, both nationally and globally. Environmental and ecological concerns are still around – but just for the moment they seem to have been displaced from the headlines. It is of course interesting to reflect on what may be the connection between human use and misuse of creation and the environment and the so rapid spread of this virus in human beings. (There does seem to be a connection, but it is not straightforward to unpack.) But reflecting on the virus and the response to it, the word ‘isolation’ seems to figure again and again. People are being called to ‘self-isolate’ or are forcibly put into ‘isolation’.
By implication, this makes us think about the nature of ‘communication’ – which seems at one level to be the opposite of ‘isolation’. In many ways we are fortunate these days that such isolation can be mitigated by the use of modern technology, which even the Pope has employed – enabling him to give his traditional Sunday address and blessing over the internet rather than in person!
Returning briefly to the Gospel story – one feature that is often noted is the isolation of the woman. She is drawing her water at noon (the hottest part of the day), probably because of the hostility with which she was treated by her fellow villagers.
Of course ‘communion’, a word deeply rooted in Christian tradition, is also closely related to ‘communication’ – and the current situation leads us to reflect on what is the nature of Christian communion, when there has needed to be advice both about the reception of Holy Communion, and in some contexts the suspension of public worship. There is a moving reflection on this by Bishop David Hamid, the Suffragan bishop of the Church of England Diocese in Europe.
Lent is a time when the ancient virtue of silence is prized, taking its starting point from Jesus’ own isolation and silence in the wilderness. What, then, is the relationship between silence and isolation, communion and communication?
Prayer (linked to today’s Gospel reading)
Well: ‘The well was deep’.
Lord of wells and of unspoken mysteries, draw down into the depths of our hearts, and speak to us your message of consolation.
Water: ‘A spring of water gushing up’.
Thirsty acquaintance, grant us the privilege of ministering to your need, and so to quench our own thirst.
Woman: ‘They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman’.
Jesus, man of Galilee, may we draw on your example, to honour the wisdom of both women and men.
Worship: ‘Worship the Father in spirit and in truth’.
Boundary-crossing prophet, encourage us to transcend what divides and separates those who seek God in truth.
With: ‘I am speaking with you’.
Jesus the Word, God in communication, overcome our isolations, and give us the gift of true communion.