Tuesday 14 March 2023

Sermon preached at Trinity Church Wall Street, New York



Trinity Wall Street, New York

12th March 2023

Readings: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5: 1-11; John 4: 5-42

May I speak in the name of God, who is Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, it is such a privilege to return to Trinity so soon after I was with you at the institution of Father Phil just over a year ago. I am always grateful for the opportunity of being among such firm friends of Africa as yourselves. On behalf of Lungi and myself, thank you, Father Phil, Page and the Church-Wardens for inviting me to be part of this service and for your great hospitality . 

It has been exciting to hear of and see the work that you are doing in this part of God's vineyard: of the ministry to high school students here in lower Manhattan; of your work to grow new leaders; of your initiatives to bring improved understanding among Anglicans internationally; and of your record-setting grant-giving to empower the people of God in this city, this country and around the world. The philanthropy which your patrimony enables is truly the gift which keeps on giving, and those of us in nations which are economically less well endowed will always remain grateful for it.

The references in today's readings to gifting God's people with water are particularly appropriate in our circumstances here today. In my mother tongue, Sepedi we have a phrase “Sekgo sa Metse”.  Literally translated, Sekgo refers to a vessel and metse is water. But the phrase has a much deeper meaning, just as living water, the Holy Spirit, does in John's Gospel.  Sekgo sa Metse not only provides a drink for the thirsty; it also transforms various ingredients into sustaining nourishment; and having done so, it provides thlabego, the yeast, which catalyses the next meal to come. So when you empower other churches in the Anglican Communion to do more on their own, when you help them see how, for example, they can develop their properties into income-generating entities, you not only provide them with something to drink; you provide the yeast which helps them to grow into the future. 

In the story of the Samaritan woman, the image of Jesus sitting at Jacob's well is one challenges me profoundly. Even a cursory reading of the Bible underlines that wells are symbols of thriving communities, of potential for abundance, for life, and in times of famine there is an instruction from God to re-dig the wells, to rediscover what gives life, and to make our broken communities thrive again both in those territories that surround us and those Samarias that are within us. Wells are also places that mark the threshold of new futures, of shared futures. Jacob meets his wife Rachel at a well. When Moses fled from Pharaoh to Midian, he sat by a well where he met his wife Zipporah. They are places rich in new beginnings,  providing hope in the midst of the Samarias that surround us, hope for the Church, hope for the world,  hope for the communities within which we live and hope in our own individual lives.

The Church

First the Church. The very fact that Jesus was in Samaria is powerfully instructive. Jesus's presence there challenged destructive beliefs that had for centuries held neighboring communities hostage to tragic histories. At Jacob's well, Jesus affirms that His life and ministry, the church’s great mission and our discipleship, all begin with a commitment to start a dialogue at the places that speak of human thriving.  He calls a woman to be the best version of herself, and in doing so he challenges taboos, unjust cultural and religious practices and embedded racism and patriarchy. He starts a new conversation, creates a new narrative and opens history to a new direction. 

John would later capture it well: he or she whom the Son sets free is free indeed. In the witness and ministry of this parish in New York and your national church, and in the witness and ministry of my church in the nations of Southern Africa, we dream together of a worldwide Communion which breaks boundaries, enters into deeper relationships with one another, church to church and country to country, nurturing the world. We too like Jesus have to find the wells of our times.

The World

In my conversation with Fr Phil in Jacksonville, Florida at the Episcopal Church Network on Friday, I said that, country to country, we need to address the wider implications of the war in Ukraine for Africa and the world. At home I have come in for a lot of criticism for my outright condemnations of Russia's war of aggression. I visited Ukraine in December to see the consequences of that war, and what I witnessed there was deeply upsetting. Given the support which our struggle for liberation in South Africa received from the United Nations, and the reliance we placed on the UN Declaration on Human Rights to support our demands for justice and democracy, it is galling that my government proclaims neutrality when Russia has flagrantly breached the UN Charter by invading a sovereign country. 

At the same time, those of us living in the Global South have reason to fear the escalating words of war coming from world leaders. The warlike rhetoric coming out of Europe raises the dreadful prospect of Europe and the West dragging us into yet another world war, with all the untold death and suffering it would bring. Many Africans died in both world wars of the last century, and our continent was then dragged into opposing sides of the Cold War. As a consequence there is great suspicion of NATO and of the motives of Western armaments industries. When I returned from my visit to  Ukraine, I was asked: is Africa suffering from grain shortages because American elections are around the corner? 

The issues around the invasion of Ukraine are difficult and contested, but on one thing we must be clear: as the Church, our calling as those who aspire to inherit the Kingdom promised by the Prince of Peace is, no matter the circumstances, to be active peace-makers, and constantly to refrain from being carried along by events into supporting death and destruction.

Our Communities 

To return to the Samaritan woman: although she is never called a sinner in the story, she seems to have been labelled as such because she had five husbands and the man she is with is not her husband. However, scholars today suggest this might have been a remnant of a custom in which the widow of a deceased brother would have to marry the next surviving brother. The scholars now ask whether, when Jesus offers her new life, new possibilities, it is not so much about a sinful woman needing salvation, but a survivor, one who has had to find a way of carrying on in a society that excluded her, a woman who had to look insecurity and prejudice in the face. Such a story is also the story of millions of women in our times who live under the yoke of gender-based violence, human trafficking, exploitation in places of work, disrespect and toxicity in their relationships. Just as Jesus welcomes the Samaritan woman and restores her dignity, so women in our own time are finding ways of surviving the ostracisation, exclusion and discrimination and living thriving lives. 

It is such transformation, such liberation when it is seen in our communities, that is so contagious. As those who suffer come to Jesus at Jacob's well, receive the same release, the same hope intensified and the same inner peace, they are liberated from their places of limitation and confinement, their emotional ghettoes and cultural dead-ends. 

Our own lives

Jesus does the same in our individual lives, healing us inside our deepest recesses, reaching the areas that are out of sync, helping us overcome the obstacles that block us from realising our potential. It is a wonderful statement of the grace of God that the power which can redirect the course of history can also touch those inner areas and redeem us to be what God designed us to be.


It has always been one of the most powerful truths of our faith, that Jesus reveals Himself, shows compassion, reveals His identity to the marginalised, to those at the edges, to those who feel they do not count or have lost their way. It is thus to them that we must give very special attention, if we are going to encounter the Jesus who walks through deeply contested territories, who opened dialogues with the most neglected people and is generous in offering dynamic opportunities.

This same Jesus waits now not at the well but at the altar to do for each of us what he did for the Samaritan woman, to change our lives around, excite his Spirit within us so that we can announce good news, not so much by our words but by our transformed lives. Again He says “it is I” to which our overflowing hearts can only answer “Amen”.

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