Some imagery appears again and again through the bible. One of those images is water. Jesus told the woman at John 4 that drawing from the well she would be always thirsty, but Jesus promised her that he would give her living water from which she would never thirst again.
Ezekiel saw a vision of water flowing from the Temple and out to the world outside. John in his vision of Revelation saw the river of the water of life flowing clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God.
And in our reading from Genesis, we read that the ancient wells had been blocked up. Genesis tells us that Isaac reopened the ancient wells that had been dug in Abraham’s time. I love this image. Reopening the ancient wells.
Tonight we launch a new partnership between Ballina Churches Together and Church Army, and we commission Emma to lead this new project. A project that will work with the local Christian communities here in Ballina. We are so grateful to the Christian people here who pray faithfully, worship faithfully, and who have worked together to create this new united and exciting vision for your town. And Emma we are so glad you and Robson and your children have come to join us. You’re such a gifted person and God has clearly called you to be part of this new vision and new work.
Thank you to my friend Bishop Patrick, to Bishop John for his partnership in the vision and for his hospitality in this beautiful cathedral, and to the other leaders of the Methodist and Presbyterian Churches represented here tonight.
CA is thrilled to be part of this. We are part of the Anglican Communion, and For 130 years our vision has been to work alongside the local church to help resource them in mission and evangelism. Team of over 600 people working across these islands, with the homeless, those in need, marginalised young people, people battling addictions. We are also passionate about helping people meet Jesus and to grow the church. So we want to encourage and support this exciting new project.
Christianity is in the soil of this community, such a a rich history of prayer, faith, witness in this area.
St Muredach, for whom this cathedral is named, was a disciple of Patrick, and he was commissioned by Patrick to be an evangelist to this community.
The wells of living water have flowed in this area for generations, but we all recognise that some of the wells from which people once drew have closed up. That is why we want to do something new and plant this new project. And how appropriate we launch this in a cathedral named after Murdedach, of the first well diggers in this place. This new project is our response to God’s call, to reopen the ancient wells.
We are not doing this to save the church from closure, be that the Church of Ireland, or the Catholic Church, or the Methodists Presbyterians, or to put more bums on seats in church on sunday. The vision is much bigger, more more life giving.
We are doing this because we yearn to quench the thirst of the community here, to bring living water, to help people know themselves found by God, to know his love, his grace, his peace, his mercy, his joy for themselves. To know the peace, the hope, the energy of a God that sustains and holds us. That men, women, children and young people would be caught up in the wonder of following Jesus.
Because out there in the streets of this gorgeous town people are asking all sorts of questions. Do I matter? Why am I here? Is there life after death? Will life get easier? Is there hope when I cannot find a job? People are anxious and frightened.
The man who has made mistakes is asking if there is any forgiveness. The woman dying of cancer wants to know if there is life after death. The child who has lost their dad stands beside the grave and wonders if there is any hope.
People are asking a lot of very important, serious, spiritual questions. I tell you what I am firmly convinced of – Jesus is the answer. The problem is that the church often shouts Jesus is the answer to people who don’t ask us their questions.
As I read the Bible, it strikes me that religious, outwardly holy people neither liked Jesus, nor understood him. Actually they were often offended by him. Yet those on the margins, those judged by others, those who were at the bottom of the pile, were drawn to him. Thoughout Jesus’s life, the outcast is the one who connects with Jesus and the respectable religious people do not. Jesus’ teaching consistently offended the religious people of his day yet consistently attracted the marginalised and the irreligious.
It seems to be that in the main the church today has the exact opposite effect. We attract the religious nice and upright people and exclude all those who don’t fit.
As I prayed for this new beginning for Ballina, I reflected that the story of Zacchaues has so much to say to us. That Jesus shows us how to walk alongside the exluded, the vulnerable, the unloved.
So three pieces of wisdom from this story for Ballina Churches Together.
1.Love those on the edges
The tax collectors of Jesus day were hated.
Zacchaeus had experienced a tremendous amount of rejection in his life. Some of it was his own fault, he was a wee cheat. But I bet he had been abused simply because he was short. Every one of us has probably experienced some rejection in life for things that are completely out of our control.
Sometimes we experience rejection because of our physical characteristics. People have a go at us because we are skinny, fat, short, tall, bald, we have to wear glasses, we’ve got a birth mark, we have a long nose, big ears, and on we could go. Kids and spots….I used to get picked on for NOT having spots!!!
And Jesus walks up to him and says “Zacchaeus” – he knew his name. He knew him. God knows the name of every person walking up and down the streets of Ballina. He knows their hopes and fears, he knows the reality of their lives, so when we reach out, we reach out to people God knows and God loves.
I love Pope Francis’s heart for those on the edges, and in this year of mercy God can use us powerfully to draw alongside those on the edges. I love this Pope! . A bishop friend of mine told me to read his encyclical Evangelii Gaudum, I took it on holiday with me. Everyone else in the beach was reading John Grisham novels and I had Pope Francis! It was dynamite!!! I love this quote
“I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and clinging to its own security”
The poor, those in debt, those battling addictions, those who think they aren’t good enough to come to church, we pray we can help them know God loves them and he thinks they’re fantastic.
Jesus took a lot of flak for visiting Zacchaeus. There is that wonderful word the people began to “mutter”. The finger pointing, the gossip, I cannot believe Jesus is associating with that man!! Isn’t “mutter” a great word!!
Evangelism will often lead to muttering in churches. People will think that unless people come to 10am Sunday morning service then they are not really coming to church. Emma and her team will be working to reopen the ancient wells in this community and she will need your permission to grow the church in a new way.
Albert Einstein once said a definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. We cannot do church as we always have and expect different results. So can I make a plea, please please don’t try to draw Emma into the existing church structures, give her the freedom to grow church in new ways in new places with those who would never walk into a place like this.
Doing things in a new way does not imply the old ways are bad. Not at all. The richness of our churches, the history of our traditions are so important. But to reach new people we need to do church in a new way. The new need to draw on the support, the love and prayers of the existing, and the existing needs the energy and the life of the new. Both need each other. It is what Church Army President Rowan Williams says is the mixed economy church of the future. Both are good, and that’s why I love what you are doing. You are doing the new together, taking risks together, praying together, and God loves that. I so so admire you guys and what you are doing.
The risk otherwise is that people grumble when we reach out to those on the edges. Did you see the parallel with Genesis? Jesus visits Zacchaeus and the polite people of the town mutter, they gossip, they are not happy. And in Genesis when Isaac reopens the ancient wells we read that the people quarreled.
Here is a rule of thumb in evangelism. When you take risks, do something new, people grumble! But take heart God is in it!!
3.Loving unconditionally changes the world
Look what happens after one visit from Jesus to Zacchaeus’s home. Huge blessing was unleashed on that little community. Why? Because Zacchaeus changed! He gave away so much of his money to those he had cheated. Think how many people benefited from Jesus having tea at Zacchaeus’ home. I bet the muttering stopped when people saw just how much money Zacchaeus was giving away!
When people meet Jesus lives are changed, a revolution of God’s grace changes hearts, and then change their actions. Changed lives change lives.
Changed lives change lives – that’s not just Emma’s job, it’s the job of all of us. To live generous lives that point to Jesus
Church Army former president Desmond Tutu says when we live our lives generously, each of us doing our little bit of good, and all those little bits of good come together and overwhelm the world with love.
Emma there are so many people who need Christ out there, but can I make one suggestion for a priority. Young people. Young people growing up scared about their futures, anxious about whether they can get a job or not. Across these islands young people face fear head on, in the UK young people are 50% more likely to suffer depression or face suicide than they were just 20 years ago. And yet young people are the least likely to ever step into a church. They think we are bad news. They think we are on the wrong side of history, they think we are homophobic and yet young people are hungering for something more to life.
Jesus changes lives. Jesus transforms lives. Jesus makes things new. Jesus forgives, Jesus heals, Jesus comforts, Jesus makes something beautiful out of our lives.
I pray for you, for Ballina Churches Together, for Emma and this new project. I pray you are able to sow the Gospel creatively in new ways, in new places. For when you sow the Gospel, when you lead people to Christ, then change happens in the community.
Please get behind Emma, and this new project. Please pray for her and her family. Please encourage her.
This is an evening full of hope and expectation, and together we can join God in his mission, to reach more and more people in this community with the transforming good news of the gospel, and reopen the ancient wells, to bring blessing and hope and renewal to this community. Amen