I would first like to welcome every one of you for coming for tonight’s Prayer Service for Christian Unity, the first night of our five days of Prayer for Christian Unity. In particular, I would like to acknowledge the presence of: Rev. Fr Abey Chacko of the St Thomas Orthodox Syrian Cathedral, Archdeacon Wong Tak Meng, the Vicar of St Hilda’s Church, Rev Lim Kim Hock of the Lutheran Church of our Redeemer, Rev.Gabriel Liew of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church, and Pastor Andy Esguarra of the International Baptist Church of Singapore.
Today’s Gospel of the “Woman at the well” that we just heard proclaimed highlights certain truths are very important for us to take note of tonight, and indeed in all ecumenical efforts to promote and build greater Christian Unity. Henry Nouwen’s insightful reflection on this Gospel, first points out that this woman met Jesus at noon, when it is very hot and no body come to the well to fetch water. She came at that time because she did not dare join the town’s women, who came early in the morning not only for water, but also for the latest news.
She was an outcast who was not welcome among her own. When Jesus said to her, “The water that I will give will become (in them) a spring of water gushing up to eternal life”, Jesus was confronting her spiritual sterility and offering her healing. At the end of the story, we see how this rejected, fearful woman returns to her town and testifies fearlessly; “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done; I wonder if he is the Christ?” This testimony brought many other Samaritans to Jesus who lived with Him for two days, and left convinced that Jesus is “truly the Savour of the world.”
When Pope Francis was preparing his visit to the Pentecostal Church of Reconciliation in Caserta, Italy, on 28 July this year, the Italian Evangelical Alliance and other communities issued a statement that is sharply critical of the Catholic Church and sceptical of the evangelical communities that were participating in the event. They asserted that “Apparent similarities with evangelical spirituality and faith in some sectors of Catholicism are not themselves a reason for hope in a real change.”
Instead of looking at a half empty glass, Pope Francis focuses on the half full glassand uses the key image of Christian life as, the “setting out and walking with the Lord;” the movement toward Christian unity as being something that happens one step at a time. Pope Francis explains that ecumenism “is not waiting for others to catch up with you. It is about everyone continuing to walk with and toward the Lord, supporting and learning from the brothers and sisters, God places on the same path. The closer everyone gets to holiness, the closer they will be to one another.”
In ecumenism, there will always be those who are either sceptical or negative in their views of what we can and hope to achieve in our efforts of Christian Unity. Some of these voices can sound convincing, but Henry Nouwen says that they emerge from false worries. These are voices that are “raised out of concern for prestige, influence, power and control.” These are voices that highlight the “buts” of any efforts of Ecumenism; they remind us that our efforts are not realistic and as such we will not get anywhere in building unity amongst Christians.
Henry Nowen reminds us that “when we raise ‘realistic’ questions, we echo a cynical spirit which says, “Words about peace, forgiveness, reconciliation, and the new life are wonderful, but the real issues cannot be ignored. They require that we do not allow others to play games with us, that we retaliate when we are offended, that we are always ready for war, and never let anyone take away the good life we have so carefully built up for ourselves.” But, as soon as the “real issues” begin to dominate our lives, we are back again in the house of fear; even though we keep borrowing words of love, and continue to experience vague desires to live in the house of love.”
In short, my brothers and sisters in Christ, during this Christian Unity week, must all the more be mindful that while the argument that we have to be realistic sounds logical and convincing, we should remember that God’s Spirit who sees our efforts to build greater unity amongst the believers of Christ will always give us the strength and wisdom to live and love in His Ways.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his homily, in 2006 on Christian Unity said, “There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without interior conversion. For it is from a newness of attitudes of mind, from self-denial and unstinted love, that desires of unity” that ecumenism will develop in a mature way.
Pope Benedict explains further that we are used to speaking about the conversion of others; however, conversion must begin in ourselves. We must not look at the speck in our brother’s eye when we miss the plank in our own (cf. Mt 7:3). Ecumenism encourages us to exercise self-criticism. Thus, ecumenical dialogue should serve as “an examination of conscience” (Ut Unam Sint, n. 34). It is not simply the other who must convert; we all must be converted to Christ. To the degree that we are united to Him, we are also united among ourselves. When this happens, ecumenical Dialogue, becomes not simply an exchange of thoughts, but an “exchange of gifts” (Ut Unam Sint, n.28). (cf. Card.Walter Kasper’s homily Basilica of St Paul Outside-the-Walls, 25th Jan.2004)
In his first encyclical, “Deus Caritas est”, God is love, he stresses that the Love of God is the solid rock on which the Church is founded. If our patient pursuit of communion and unity amongst Christ disciples are based on fixing our gaze on this truth, that God is Love, the summit of divine revelation, then it seems possible to overcome divisions and not be discouraged, even though they continue to be gravely serious. He further affirms that “the entire ecumenical journey” must be based on this Truth that God is Love because true love does not eliminate legitimate differences,but harmonises them in a superior unity that is not ordered from the outside, but gives form to the whole.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, let us remember that when God’s Love is at the centre of our genuine and mature efforts to build greater unity amongst Christians, we will begin to see that differences amongst us are not meant to be threats, but are meant to be opportunities to affirm the unity of God’s Love amidst the diversity we recognise and respect in each other.
The pointers that we received from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in a joint statement with the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches in Rome reminds us that our differences should be seen ascomplementing one another. As such, the image emerging from the words "give me to drink" is an image that speaks of complementarity: to drink water from someone else’s well is the first step towards experiencing another’s way of being. This leads to an exchange of gifts that enriches. Where the gifts of the other are refused much damage is done to society and to the Church.
Jesus was a foreigner who arrives at the well, tired and thirsty needs help and asks for water. The woman is in her own land; the well belongs to her people and her tradition. She owns the bucket and she is the one who has access to the water. But she is also thirsty. They meet and that encounter offers an unexpected opportunity for both of them. Jesus does not cease to be Jewish because he drank from the water offered by the Samaritan woman. The Samaritan remains who she is while embracing Jesus’ way. When we recognize that we do have reciprocal needs, complementarity takes place in our lives in a more enriching way.
"Give me to drink" presupposes that both Jesus and the Samaritan ask for what they need from each other. "Give me to drink" compels us to recognize that persons, communities, cultures, religions and ethnicities need each other. "Give me to drink" implies an ethical action that recognises the need for one another in living out the Church’s mission. It also compels us to change our attitude, to commit ourselves to seek unity in the midst of our diversity, through our openness to a variety of forms of prayer and Christian spirituality.
As I conclude, let us be reminded that in today’s Gospel, when the woman at the well encountered Jesus, she was freed of her fears, healed of her spiritual sterility and became a fruitful witness of the life-giving Christ.” We too, like her should renew our commitment to build greater Christian Unity. Jesus who is the Living Water, will surely refresh us in our endeavours, free us of our fears, heal us of any spiritual sterility of reaching out to different Christians denominations, and make you and I and all Christians, into fruitful witnesses of the life-giving Christ; the Saviour of all peoples who longs to see us witness to this truth, through our unity, love and respect for one another.
(cf: Jesus, A Gospel, by Henri Nouwen, pub.: Orbis books; Maryknoll, New York; 2001; pp.63-65) .
Msgr Philip Heng,S.J.
Photos taken at Week of Prayer for Christian Unity - 2015
Church of St Ignatius, Singapore
Fellowship at St Ignatius Hall after the Prayer Service
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