heather morrisToday the BBC’s Sunday Service featured the 4 Corners Festival with Christians from a variety of denominations across the city taking part in the service at Fitzroy Presbyterian. The Rev Dr Heather Morris, a former President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, preached on ‘The Art of Listening.’

The service also featured Rev Steve Stockman’s Prayer for ‘The 4 Corners of Belfast’.

You can read the full text of Morris’ sermon below, and listen to the service here.

The Art of Listening: Rev Dr Heather Morris

Have you ever been desperate for someone to listen to you?

Maybe it’s one of those days when you aren’t fine and the longing in your gut is for someone to care enough to ask the how are you really and let you tell them the truth; perhaps it’s a wonderful day and all sorts of ideas are sparking in your mind and you are desperate for someone to listen as tell your story and talk about how good life is.

We know what it’s like to be desperate for someone to listen, Listening is a sign that we matter; when someone listens to our ideas and ramblings and rather than treating them with scorn takes our thoughts seriously, then we know we are valued; when someone listens to ideas which are radically different to theirs and doesn’t dismiss; then a trust which is deeper than words begins to be built.

While there are many great courses in Listening Skills, truth be told we don’t need to learn that listening is an art, truth be told we hardly need to be taught why listening matters, because in our guts we know its significance; because we know what it means when someone listens, and we know how it feels when someone doesn’t.

“Now”, John tells us with stark honesty, “Jesus had to go through Samaria”. No Jewish person in their right minds would want to go through Samaria because of the century’s long hostility between Jews and Samaritans. Because of that tension there were areas of the country which belonged to the other side, which were not familiar and where you wouldn’t go, unless you “had to”. Now, doesn’t that sound familiar? In the context of our century’s long hostility and suspicion, even now in the context of an infant peace, doesn’t that sound familiar?

The Four Corners Festival began when Steve and Fr Martin Magill  “had to go” to areas of the city with which they were unfamiliar. Prompted by the Spirit of God to recognise that this should not be, they began this Festival to encourage all to experience new areas of their city and to cross boundaries in their everyday lives.

Jesus “had to go” to a region which was not familiar to him and which belonged in the tribal terms of his day to “the other side”

I think I might have kept my head down, hoped no-one would notice, especially hoped that no passer-by might notice by the look of me that I didn’t belong. Jesus does the opposite. Not deterred by difference, at ease in an unfamiliar land, he engages the woman, who was coming to draw water, in conversation, asks for her help “Will you give me a drink?” he asks. The questions isn’t “Can” because its patently obvious that she can, the question is will. Will she? Will she courageously meet Jesus in a situation which is rapidly becoming as unfamiliar to her as the area is unfamiliar to Jesus.

“You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman” she says, “how can you ask me for a drink” and John, because he needs us, his readers to understand how weird this is puts in brackets “for Jews do not associate with Samaritans.”

And in the unlikely conversation which develops Jesus engages, speaks with and listens to this woman who had different national background, different history, different religious and political views, Jesus listened and listened so well that he understood not just what she was saying but what lay behind her words.

This is such familiar ground for those who have grown up with these accounts that we can miss the wonder of what is happening here.. Jesus is the Son of God. He is the one who conquered the grave; he is the One before whom all the company of heaven cries “worthy is the Lamb who was slain”

This Jesus listens to the questions and life of a Samaritan woman.

The same theme is there in God’s conversation with Moses on holy ground; the conversation begins with God makes his identity clear (6)“I am the God of your Father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” . Then the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,  God  says something astounding “I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt, I have heard them crying out”…

God listens

This is astounding and if you are listening this morning in bed, or hoovering or walking and thinking “I’m glad they have their faith but Jesus would want nothing to do with me” please hear the evidence of this story. That the love of God streams to every person, every place, beyond our expectations and the barriers we ourselves put up. All are loved, all are valued. God, loving parent; Jesus, the Son of God, listens.

“It is God’s love for us” writes the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “ that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear.”

Now what might it look like if those who, even falteringly, follow Jesus, followed His example?

What if the stories of those who are new to NI were listened to

What if we listened to the experience of those still hurt as a result of violence,

What if we gathered to listen, really listen to God in prayer

What if we listened to the stories of those who throw stones at police vans or at barricades or who paint racist slogans on homes of those simply trying to settle here.

Now which of those made you angry, made you think that’s a step too far?

Jesus sat by a well and listened to a Samaritan woman

Listening is an art: a demanding, challenging, unsettling art

But is it enough; is listening enough?

“Could I talk something through with you?” he asked, and as we chatted he told me of a situation that, like so many situations has no easy answers and when we rose to part there were many things left unresolved. He had needed to talk and I had listened, but he said goodbye with a hint of resignation, ”Well, anyway, thanks for listening” He meant it kindly but it felt like a slap across the face. It felt, it still feels as if listening wasn’t enough that day.

Listening may be an art. It may be deeply significant, but is it always enough?

Jesus is not the only one who listens in this encounter. The woman listens courageously too and finds her imagination and curiosity sparked. Jesus says (13) “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirst again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” and she listens.

And for her listening  isn’t the end point. For having listened she sees things differently she has the courage, insight and integrity to recognise that things can never be the same again. If Jesus is who he says he is, the Messiah, then everything changes, and she goes, immediately puts her reputation on the line and tells her friends.

Like the woman at the well our listening may change us and lead to the invitation to act.

How can we listen to the stories of those who live with the reality of climate change and not act; how can we listen to the voices of young people who want a better future and not be stirred to act… well the answer is all too easily. All too easily we can listen, be moved and do nothing.

And maybe God seems distant to so many because Gods people aren’t listening.

And perhaps God seems distant because Gods people listen, allow ourselves the luxury of being moved and then turn away

But God still calls, calls from our comfort onto uncomfortable holy ground; and when we think no, I like my comfort, God says listen to the cries of those who experience injustice every day; and when we cry I don’t want sacrifice God points to the Cross and whispers listen to me; and when we think but I will love those who are like me, isn’t that enough God says listen.

In this wonderful city of Belfast we know about walls, we know about areas which we feel belong to the other side, we know what it is to live with a history which casts a long shadow; but God still speaks, draws us out from our corners, Gods Spirit unblocking our ears, so that we can hear each other and hear Gods voice as God speaks and says hear the song of another Kingdom, where all are loved, where justice flows like a river and there are great waves of righteousness.