Sunday, 8 March 2015

I Know All About You - a sermon for Fairacres

A Homily for Holy Communion on
Monday , 9th of March, 2015, 9 a.m.

for the Sisters of the Love of God
Fairacres Priory, Oxford

John 4:5-42

I Know All About You

+ May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen.

How do you feel when you hear these words “Oh yes, I’ve heard all about you?” I’ve known some people who positively glow at the thought of recognition, but the more usual response is a rather sinking feeling that whatever reputation has gone before us, it probably isn’t good. What is it they’ve heard? The time I dropped the baby in the font? Or forgot the name of the person I was cremating? Or told a Max Miller joke in chapel? Oh dear. It is not a comfortable feeling, to be known, because knowledge is power, and not to know what the other person knows is for them to have power over you.

But imagine a person saying “I know all about you”, and feeling so confident of them that instead of feeling uneasy, you relax, and think “then there’s nothing to explain”, that you have been given permission to be yourself. Not the shiny-shoes-and-Sunday-best front you want others to see, but the scruffy reality, slobbing about, warts and all, in your second best gardening hat. This is what Jesus does to the woman at the well. She’s a foreigner, from a tribe that Jesus isn’t meant to like on principle. Worse than that, she’s a woman, and so not fit company for a respectable rabbi. And, although opinions differ about what precisely her marital state is, we can at the very least conclude it is decidedly untidy. Yes, knowing all that, knowing all there is to know, Jesus will share a drink of water with her, in the heat of the day.

The Psalmist (139:1) says “O Lord, thou has searched me out and known me”, which seems at first a fearful thing – it’s hard not to hear it is “thou hast caught me out”. But the Psalmist’s point, like the meaning of Jesus’s gesture, is that there is nothing to fear. In fact, it’s only when we’ve got our fears out of the way, when we’ve accepted being accepted, that we can relax and enjoy that living water from the well.

Imagine if our churches were like that? Did you hear about the “ashes to go” business on Ash Wednesday, when clergy in various places brought ashes out to the market place and ashed anyone who cared to be called dust? Personally, I’d have thought Ash Wednesday just about the hardest thing to sell to someone outside the church – “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” – and yet it was hugely popular, even according to a university chaplain acquaintance of mine, with the unchurched young, that holy grail catchment group of mission. But on reflexion, it’s not so absurd. Because it’s not just in church circles that our hearts can sink when someone says “I’ve heard all about
you”. The mental health of our nation is more fragile than it’s ever been, and for every person who ends up on antidepressants or the psychiatrist’s couch, there must be a dozen who soldier on with their sense of failure, unhappiness, futility, and guilt. “I know all about you – and it’s OK” is the Good News from the Well.

When I was a curate we had a mystic in the parish – every parish should have one – and one of her visions was of the living water. She was carrying it in a basket in her lap, but it didn’t leak. What was remarkable about it was the smell, the glorious freshness of the water, better than the best-mixed cocktail, the most perfectly brewed pot of tea. It was the water of life.

When strangers come into our churches, do they hear the message “I know all about you – and it’s OK”? If not, we’d better wake up and smell the water, because that’s a whole lot of Good News someone’s missing out on.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
March 2015


  1. I like the idea of a mystic in our Church and for all we know, we might have one, who is embarrassed by being a mystic.

    I know that I have a vivid imagination, not sure whether it's mystical or the tablets I take to keep things in balance, health wise each day. But as none have ingredients likely to provoke visions, I can't blame them.

    In response to the words 'I know all about you' I have to say, that I also know all about me, and I have nowt to be ashamed off (that I can remember). Plenty of stuff in the path that I've repented for and know that I've been forgiven for. And I will know for sure when I meet my maker.

  2. I enjoyed this, and especially the woman at the well who represents all outsider groups --so her story shows the necessity for an inclusive concept of 'God' (however defined), in our tradition.