The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
Isaiah 55.1-11; Romans 6.1-11
Along Straight Street in Damascus, not far from the house of Ananias, is an impressively grand dwelling that is open to visitors
There’s nothing special I’m afraid about Straight Street, although what it’s like now – my visit was a while back – I can’t begin to imagine. It’s as its name suggests, straight, and as is the way in so many hot countries the facades of the buildings give little away about what lies behind them. Small windows, flat frontages on to the street do not make for the most attractive buildings – at least from an external view. But go through the gate and into the house and something much more wonderful lies inside.
We left the dust and the noise of Straight Street and entered what can only be described as an elegant and sophisticated oasis. The courtyard, on to which all of the rooms in the house opened, was a water garden. Fountains played in the middle of large pools, refreshing the air and heightening the scent from the flowers. The tiles on the walls and the floor added to the lightness and the coolness of the place. It was one of the most beautiful gardens that I’ve seen.
In a passage just a few chapters on from our First Lesson the prophet Isaiah says ‘you shall be like a watered garden’. (Isaiah 58.11). It’s a lovely image because it puts us in mind of these Middle Eastern, what we now think of as Islamic, gardens. Beautiful, calm, cool, fruitful, fragrant oases – and the prophet promises that your life will be like one, like a watered garden.
We’ve just come back from the annual ceremony of the Blessing of the Thames. On this Feast of the Baptism of Christ it acts as a reminder to us of just how important water is in our life and that was reinforced for us in our First Lesson. And in the Second Lesson from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans that relationship with water was hinted at as he talked of baptism and the effect that it has on our life.
One of my favourite books on the spiritual life is by the American Jesuit Thomas H Green called ‘When the well runs dry’. In his book Green talks about the need to pray and he likens the spiritual life to a well and addresses that issue which many of us face from time to time – what do we do when the well seems to be running dry, when the water in the well has run out, when we’ve used it all, sent the bucket down one too many times without replenishing the water, when our spiritual life, our prayer life seem to be dry and no longer refreshing?
There are two interesting ways in which water is talked about in the readings this afternoon. Isaiah compares the rain and the snow which water the earth to the word of God - ‘so shall my word be that goes out of my mouth’ he says. The word of God is like water to our souls, the word of God makes us as fruitful as water makes the earth ‘bring forth and sprout’.
If we’re to make sure that there’s water in our well then immersing ourselves – I love that phrase, it suggests that the word is water – immersing ourselves in the scriptures is one way of achieving this. Knowing the word, allowing the word to live in us and ourselves to live in the word is like a constant watering of the soil of our souls and of our lives. The word of God is truly life giving.
And St Paul makes the connection between the water of baptism and the grace of God. Grace is a word and a theme that literally flows through this letter and accessing this grace, the unmerited, freely given love and favour of God, is what he writes about. The connection between baptism and grace is a reminder to us that we can access this grace and fill our well through the sacramental life of the church.
But what Green also reminds us is of the faithfulness of God in replenishing the well. The water is in fact there, though we might imagine that it has run dry; what we need is the courage to go to what seems like the dry well and to show our trust in the ever-flowing love and mercy of God.
‘The ultimate proof [of this]’, he writes, ‘is to go to the dry well oneself and see what wonders the Lord works.’