Martha & Mary (1) – Distraction

Martha & MaryWhile some of the stories in A Story to Tell are more difficult to fully relate to, although we do have a choice whether or not to learn from all of them, the story of Martha and Mary at home is probably the most ordinary, domestic incident to be found in the Gospels.

We’ve all been there, haven’t we, either as guest or in receiving guests. Some people sit chatting away, while others… well, you know how it is.

Please read Luke 10:38-42

Are you like Martha? Or are you like Mary?

Many people would say they want to be more like Mary – taking time to sit and listen to Jesus, to talk to him, to spend time with him, to get to know him. To give Jesus intentional attention. And yet, most of us probably feel much more comfortable being like Martha – being busy, doing things, being distracted, giving ourselves a sense of purpose, playing a role.

It’s often the case that when someone comes around for a meal one person looks after the cooking while someone else talks to the guest. And this happens here – Martha, in whose house this takes place, carries on getting everything ready while her younger sister, Mary, sits with Jesus, their guest.

Yet, in the heat of the kitchen, Martha is getting more and more uptight. ‘Oh no, the guests are waiting, the veg are ready but the fish isn’t… and there’s Mary, my sister, not helping at all… she’s just sat there talking to him.’ Martha’s angry and stressed. She needs help and the others are ignoring her.

One can imagine her storming out: ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ And bear in mind, we don’t know what else was said either! (This isn’t the only time when Jesus has incurred Martha’s anger, by the way. When their brother Lazarus was dying, she sent for Jesus and made it quite clear how unhappy she was that he hadn’t come sooner – see John 11:21.)

Like Martha, we are often concerned about so much and worried and upset about many things – lots of them quite understandable. But let’s not forget Mary either. Maybe she is also in need of someone to help her: perhaps through her conversation she is wanting and receiving help. There was a reason why Mary needed to talk with Jesus.

This incident is one that challenges us to consider our priorities. Busyness will often crowd out God and it crowds out other people too. It distracts us from being with God and being with others. It distracts from spending time talking, listening and praying. Yet that very busyness, those tasks which need to be done, is also important. Without paying attention to those things, God’s work in our day to day lives would not be carried out. But how do we achieve the balance?

The events in Martha’s home help us to think about meeting God in the ordinary. And yet there is that very human inclination to ‘just do’ something else before we spend time in prayer and Bible reading. How do we have fulfilling and blessed times talking and listening to God when we too are ‘distracted by so many things’?

Whether we are like Mary, sat at the feet of Jesus, or like Martha, carrying out the ordinary tasks of life, God is present in all things and at all times so we can be in his presence in all things and at all times.

God cannot do the extraordinary things in life without the ordinary things in life.

In what ways do you see God in all things?

 

 

When you’re ready, move on to Part 2 of this story.

Mary & Joseph (1) – Presenting

Mary & Joseph meet Simeon & AnnaMary and Joseph went to Jerusalem when Jesus was just 40 days old. It was the custom under Old Testament laws that parents would take their first-born son to the Temple to dedicate him to God: to ‘Present’ him. Hence why that event is sometimes called the ‘Presentation of Christ’. There, they meet, first, Simeon and, later, Anna. (Two other people with a story to tell at some other time.)

Please read Luke 2:22-35

When Simeon speaks to Mary, it’s easy to forget that Joseph was also there. Joseph can get overlooked in the story of Jesus’ life but he heard those same words. The prospect of death intrudes into their time of joy. Something these parents will be reminded about a couple of years later when wise travellers from the East present their gift myrrh: an oil for embalming.

Although it’s not known how old Joseph and Mary were when they married, Jewish tradition at the time stated that boys could marry from the age of 18 and girls from aged 12. So Joseph is almost certainly older than Mary and here he is in the Temple with a baby who is not his own flesh and blood (which must still be carrying a degree of confusion in itself). He is like a stepfather, a foster parent, caring for this child as if he was his own. And here too is Mary: one who will, ultimately, outlive both her husband and her first born.

Mary. A teenage mum married to an older man. An ordinary girl called to be the mother of the Son of God. That God should choose such a person. ‘Why me?’ she might have asked. ‘Why her?’ we might say. Destined to be present at the first of Jesus’ miracles: the wedding in Cana; and at the last: his death and resurrection. By the time she’s in her 40s, she will be watching the death of the babe she now holds in her arms before Simeon. The sword will pierce her soul. What greater loss than that. It is to be a hard life. This is no easy calling. But there again, what calling ever is?

Joseph. Carpenter. Bread winner. Provider. ‘What on earth is going on here?’ he might have asked. ‘Why him?’ we might say. A descendant of David. A righteous man (Matt 1:19 KJV). One can imagine that both the confusion and the God-given resolution of the arrival of this child is probably impacting on his work. As a carpenter, his occupation had a long and honourable history in Israel stretching back to the building of the Tabernacle. He uses tools, probably some not that dissimilar to today’s. He makes furniture, works with builders, farmers and fisherman. A respected man in a respectable job. He knows this son will watch him at work and will follow in his footsteps (See also Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55). It’s a tough job. It’ll be hard working when you’ve got things going on at home.

Mary and Joseph. Maybe it’s a good thing they didn’t know all that was going to happen in the course of their lives – just as it is for us, really. But what stories they will be able to tell.

Spend a few minutes reflecting on how it would have been for Joseph and Mary as they left the Temple that day. Pause to reflect on what can be learnt from their lives. Their trust in God. The way God uses ordinary people. If God can use them, God can use anyone. Including you.

Think back to times when your future has been uncertain: how has God guided and supported you in such times?

 

 

When you’re ready, move on to Part 2 of this story.

 

Mary & Joseph (2) – Finding

Mary & JosephWhen my son was about four years old, he was playing in the street with his friends. At one point I couldn’t see him so assumed he’d gone to one of the other children’s homes – it was that type of street. It was safe. A bit later on, I looked out again – no, still not there. I called around to his friends but they didn’t know where he was. The worry began to kick in – where on earth was he? What’s happened to him? Then, after what seemed an eternity but in reality was probably only a few minutes, there he was coming down the street. Alone and crying. We ran towards each other and I picked him up: “I didn’t know where you were.” His reply was priceless: “But Daddy, I didn’t know where I was either.”

Please read Luke 2.41-52

This is a significant event – a sort of ‘coming of age’: a rite of passage for the young Christ. While there were other 12 year-olds who went to the Temple to be questioned by the teachers, Jesus knew he was different. It may be that he has been told by Mary and Joseph about his miraculous conception, the flight to Egypt and the visit of the travellers but inwardly he knew this was not just the Temple: it was his Heavenly Father’s house.

Having spent family time in Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover, Joseph and Mary are setting off home to Nazareth – a journey of about 120 miles. This was a time when families and travellers intermingled with ease and without fear, being looked after and fed by others. It’s also fair to speculate that their other children, being younger, probably distracted them from realising the absence of the eldest. At the evening stopping point, they started to look for Jesus among the others who were with them.

‘Oh, no! We’ve lost the Messiah!’

So, they set off back to Jerusalem – a day’s walk and three whole days pass before they actually find him. Can you imagine losing someone (or being lost) for three whole days? Bad enough when it’s three whole minutes.

And when they do find him, their reaction is natural: ‘Child…’ (Oh dear, watch out Jesus, you are in big, big trouble.) ‘Child, why have you treated us like this?’ they said. ‘Look…’ (another ‘the parents are really angry’ word), ‘Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ (Don’t you love the sanitised version Luke gives us!)

You get the drift. We’ve all been there (either as seeker or sought for). There’s the relief at finding someone safe mixed, as it so often is, with anger. In the heat of the moment, though, Mary and Joseph appear to forget just who their son is. They don’t understand why he was in the Temple; why he was sat talking with the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.

Joseph and Mary responded like many parents would do. Jesus’ response is that of a 12 year-old going on 15: ‘Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I’d be here?’ Duh.

Tongue in cheek? Maybe. And while we can’t impose 21st century, Western adolescent behaviours on to 1st century Middle Eastern culture, such events, not for the only time, remind us that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. Why shouldn’t he react like other 12 year-olds?

The Holy Family are a human family. This incident shows us that there are times when being holy is perhaps not that different from simply being human.

No doubt, once the emotions had settled down, the anger calmed, and a few sorries had been said, Jesus increased in wisdom and divine and human favour, as Luke’s Gospel puts it. And while it may not have felt like it at the time, Mary, and not forgetting Joseph also, would indeed have treasured these things in their hearts.

In our ordinary day to day lives we, like Joseph and Mary, will spend time with other people; we, like Mary and Joseph, will be distracted by many things; and how easy it is for us, like them, to lose the Messiah in the midst of it.

And yet all the time, what a great assurance it is to know that Jesus always knows where he is – and that place includes being right with us in all our distracted seeking.

Looking back over your last few days (or longer if you wish), and reflecting on the events and distractions of your life, in what ways were you looking for Jesus? Did you know where he was?

Or did you come to this story and think, ‘I didn’t know where I was either.’

Thomas (1) – Doubting

Doubting ThomasBut what if Jesus hadn’t come back to life after all?

Please read John 20: 24-25

What do you have doubts about? The Virgin Birth? The Resurrection? The turning of water in to wine? Prayer being answered? The very existence of God in a world of war, hatred, corruption, injustice, accidents, illness, terrorism, abuse…?

Or doubts about God having sent is only son so that you – yes, you – might have eternal life? That you are loved? That you are loved by God?

Everyone has doubts – be that about matters of faith and belief, work and family, marriage and parenting, friendships and relationships, money and housing, health and illness, life and death… you name it, we have doubts about it.

Thomas was one of Jesus’ closest friends. A dedicated companion. Going everywhere and seeing everything. Thomas was one who sought to understand who Jesus was and what his purpose was. Asking questions when Lazarus was reported dead (John 11:16) and again in the minutes that followed Judas’ departure from the Last Supper (John 14:1-6). Three years spent in such company. And yet despite all that, we might say, he had doubts.

Not unlike others we have considered (such as Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot) , he too has been attributed a negative connotation: ‘Doubting Thomas’. Sometimes used derogatively towards those who don’t believe or agree with what others might be proposing, the phrase even has its own dictionary definitions: ‘an incredulous or habitually doubtful person’ (Merriam-Webster); ‘a person who insists on proof before he or she will believe anything; sceptic’ (Collins). And yet we can learn a lot from Thomas.

Left unaddressed or unresolved, doubts can become all-consuming. They have the power to erode away confidence in our ability to make decisions. To the extent that we never make any at all. We can also find ourselves holding on to doubts even with the greatest evidence to the contrary. Paradoxically, having doubts can be one thing we can be certain about.

Having doubts is part of the human condition and as well as matters to do with faith and belief, they are an important element in the making of wise decisions. Doubts are part of the checks and balances we need in life. We will have doubts about the new job we’ve started, or whether the person we wish to marry is the ‘right one’, or about God’s calling to a vocation, to name just a few. Having doubts can help us to discern both God’s will and our own, and they enable us to ask and to answer questions. If we are 100% certain about something really important then we may just be deceiving ourselves or perhaps choosing to ignore some inconvenient truths. As Thomas was to discover for himself, having doubts can be helpful.

Having doubts plays an important part in becoming the person we want to be and God wants us to be. Uncomfortable as they may be at times, be thankful for your doubts. Acknowledge them. And challenge them. Ask God to show you the part they play in discerning what he is saying.

Write a list of those things – anything you like: faith, life, work, whatever – which cause you to have doubts.

 

 

When you’re ready, move on to Part 2 of this story.

Woman from Samaria (1) – Prejudice

Woman from SamariaWhile the story of Nicodemus tells us that his initial encounter was deliberate, planned and at night, the woman from Samaria meets Jesus by chance (or so she thinks) in the heat of the day. Two encounters with the Lord. One a well-schooled and respected pillar of the community. The other, possibly, poorly educated and, seemingly, socially ostracised. What can they possibly have in common?

Please read John 4:3-7a

This wasn’t Jesus’ only encounter with people from Samaria. He was turned away from a Samaritan village (Luke 9:51-56) and out of ten people with leprosy who he healed, the only one to say thank you was a Samaritan (Luke 17:16).

In John’s lengthy account (the whole passage is John 4:1-42), we initially observe a very ordinary, domestic scene. Fetching water was normally done in cool of the morning or the evening. It was a community event where local women would gather to talk and to be together. Yet, this unnamed woman comes alone to the well in the heat of the midday sun. She meets a man who, much to her surprise, crosses all the normal social and human barriers of the time. In this encounter, Jesus challenges prejudices against foreigners, people of other beliefs, and women.

Firstly, he is in Samaria – a ‘no-go’ area for Galileans to travel through. Undeterred, Jesus crosses a barrier to reach out to a foreigner. Secondly, while the faith of the Samaritans has its origins in Judaism it rejects much of the Hebrew Bible and their worship takes place on nearby Mount Gerizim rather than in the Judean Temple in Jerusalem, some 40 miles away from where this encounter takes place. Here at the well, Jesus crosses the barrier to those with a different set of beliefs. Thirdly, Jesus crossed the gender barrier. Rabbis were forbidden from talking to women in public – let alone teaching them and a woman could find herself being divorced if she was seen speaking to a strange man. Jesus’ love not only crosses barriers but it also reaches far beyond those surface issues upon which such prejudicial attitudes are built.

Just like Nicodemus, whose position of respectability hid an inner confusion and need for direction, behind these outward barriers the woman from Samaria is unaccepted and has a deep need to be loved. She is a moral outcast. She has had five husbands and is now with a man who is not her husband. Whether she was repeatedly widowed or divorced (or a combination), we don’t know but there is something about her which means she keeps herself safe from ridicule by walking alone at a different time of day. She feels ashamed. She has no sense of pride.

The woman at the well is a victim of prejudice. But in her encounter with Jesus, she encounters the love of God which crosses barriers and challenges prejudices.

We all have prejudices. Opinions and views, sometimes favourably inclined but more often than not, not so. Prejudices are usually, if not always, based on very little evidence or actual experience. We judge people – indeed whole groups of people – based on a few ill-informed or unfortunate occurrences.

It can be helpful to recognise our own prejudices. Some may be quite innocuous and frivolous but others can be more deep seated. We may need to consider how we take down the barriers that have been erected between ourselves and other people.

What are your prejudices? Why not make a list of them.

How might you overcome the barriers they have created?

 

 

When you’re ready, move on to Part 2 of this story.

Woman from Samaria (2) – Pride

The woman at the wellThey stand at the well.

And they talk.

Please read John 4:7b-15

Continuing as it does to verse 28, this is the longest recorded conversation between a woman and Jesus in the whole of the Gospels. Initially, it has a feel of jolly repartee to it as if the woman is jesting, flirting even. After all, she has had five husbands! ‘Sir, you have no bucket… the well is deep… so where do you get this living water… are you greater than Jacob?’ (Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink.) But the very fact she engages in conversation reflects her deep need for love, acceptance and respect.

Initially, Jesus responds in a calm, pragmatic way: ‘Everyone who drinks of this water (in the well) will be thirsty again.’ But see how effortlessly he turns from the practical to the spiritual – ‘but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.’ Jesus addresses her thirst. A thirst for acceptance. A thirst for love. She’s a mess. She’s had five husbands. She’s living with someone. She’s been excluded. Life is not good. Life is dry and she is thirsty.

Here, now, in the heat of the midday sun, stands a man, perhaps the first man, who accepts her for who she is and who loves her because she is to be loved. Through meeting Jesus, she finds her pride has been restored.

So what do we learn from her story in the day to day reality of our life and faith?

As with the woman from Samaria, the issues we face and the difficulties we have may not go away. The woman did not go to a wishing well to find a magic wand: and Jesus didn’t give her one in return for her efforts. And neither will he do so for us. But it is by going to the source of this living water, by reaching beneath the surface to the place of deep refreshment that will provide a different perspective.

We might think of ourselves as coming to the well in the heat of the different aspects of our lives. Thirsty for acceptance. Thirsty for love. Bringing the parts of our lives which are dry.

Jesus offers each of us the gift of living water. He offers water to quench our thirst, to refresh the dry areas of our life. The water Jesus speaks of is everlasting. It’s constant and continually flowing. It will never dry up. And, like the woman at the well, we have a choice about whether to drink from it.

Or think of it another way: are you a fountain or a spring?

A fountain is dramatic. Everyone watches the water as it plays out in different shapes and forms. Yet fountains recycle the same water all the time. They don’t need much depth to operate. They can be switched on and off. Some people have fountain-like faith – church on Sundays, everyone sees them, they say the right words and sing the right hymns, they get up and sit down at the right times. They sit on committees. But the tap gets turned off when no one else is looking.

A spring is different. Often quieter. Sometimes unnoticed. Spring water is always fresh, always changing, a constant flow 24 hours every day. Springs rise up from the depths. They feed in to the well of those of who draw upon them. People who are like springs have a stability and security in their faith: drawing on deep refreshment. There is a depth often marked by wisdom and a love for others – and themselves.

This water dwells deep within us. The woman from Samaria and Nicodemus encountered these depths of the love of God by taking the time to be present in his presence, listening to him and talking to him. Alongside setting aside the time, setting aside the place is also important. For the woman it became the well. For Jesus it was the mountains and other places where he could be alone. Putting aside time and having a specific place within one’s home can help: a place set apart for prayer, Bible study, worship or whichever way enables the drawing up of water from the well. A place free from other distraction. A place set aside for you and God to meet.

Which aspects of your faith and your life are like fountains and which are like springs?

In what ways do you feel the water of eternal life gushing up inside of you?