March 15, 2020
So this week we’ve canceled our worship service to keep everyone home… do our part in the social distancing strategy at combating the spread of the coronavirus. How interesting that our story for this Sunday... in contrast to what we are experiencing... would cross so many different boundaries and break so many rules of social distancing for its time and place.
READ John 4:5-42
Jesus crosses the border and goes into Samaria. He is on his way back to Galilee to escape a rising threat from the Pharisees and other religious leaders in Judea. As a gospel, John’s storyline is different than the other three gospels. In Matthew, Mark and Luke Jesus doesn’t go to Jerusalem until towards the end of the story. It’s the dramatic rise of all three of the synoptic gospels as Jesus heads towards Jerusalem and the cross that is awaiting him there. John’s gospel is different. In John’s gospel Jesus goes to Jerusalem in the beginning. And the story about his cleansing the Temple… driving off the moneychangers and such… is at the beginning of John’s gospel… in the second chapter to be precise. Right off the top of John’s gospel, Jesus is labeled as a threat to those in authority. When Jesus is perceived as an even greater threat to them than John the Baptist, Jesus must quickly leave Judea. Jesus is causing too many problems… he is stepping over too many well drawn and established lines.
And that’s where our story begins as he is going back to Galilee where things will be safer for him and his disciples.
So Jesus crosses the border into Samaria… which I’m sure you must know… is like going over into the wrong side of town for the Jews… to put it mildly The Jews and the Samaritans, although they share a common history, are like oil and water… they don’t mix. And from this passage it’s clear that the dislike goes both ways. But isn’t that the way it is when you have oil and water groups of people. It’s rarely one-sided. Or if it was just one side at some point, it doesn’t stay that way for long. Prejudice… fear… hatred of the other… all have this way of creating more prejudice, more fear, and more hatred in both groups. It doesn’t matter what people point to as the reason to be separated… over time the maintenance of the separation becomes more important than finding any sort of commonality or understanding between the two groups. The old arguments become solidified… codified… maybe even sanctified… and will not let any new perspective penetrate.
Jesus the Jew crosses the border into this place where he is not welcome. He stops at this well to rest. The well itself has an interesting history of crossing lines. This is Jacob’s well. And depending on how well you know your Old Testament, Jacob himself… although chosen by God to carry on the promise given to Abraham… Jacob is the younger brother. He is the younger brother in a time when society determined that the older brother would be the heir. Jacob is also a liar and a cheat. He gets his father Isaac’s blessing by stealing it. Jacob is all wrong according to the customs and morality of the day… and yet, he is the one whom God chooses and uses.
Also mentioned in this gospel story today is Joseph… the oldest son of a beloved wife… but not the oldest son of Jacob. Again… if you know Joseph’s story… he too is the wrong one through whom God should act. He doesn’t fit the custom nor the tradition… a fact that his brothers know all too well as they do their best to get rid of Daddy’s favorite. So this well… the very place where this scene takes place… already carries with it a wealth of history of God working through the wrong sorts of people.
And now Jesus has come to this well with his disciples, who go off to get some food in this town where they don’t belong. While resting… about noon, a lone woman comes to the well. Immediately we should know that this too is wrong. She shouldn’t be coming to the well at this time of day. She is the other in this town of others. She is separated from the rest. There is prejudice. There is fear. There is likely some hatred. She is the wrong one to be having this encounter with Jesus. And when he asks her for a drink, she is quick to tell him that not only is she wrong, but that he is wrong for even making this request in a place where he should not be. He shouldn’t be talking to her… a woman… a Samaritan woman… a Samaritan woman of questionable character who comes to the well at noon… in the heat of the day to gather her water. From her point of view, Jesus is wrong. And she lays out her arguments of why the two of them should remain safely separate.
First… there is the question of social decorum… a man and a women engaging in this way. It simply wasn’t right. It wasn’t decent. Funny, how Jesus… like the God who sent him… rarely seems to follow what is right and decent. But… if a man and a woman should not be interacting in this way… Jesus reasons to her… then go and get your husband so that we can be proper and correct. She can’t. The woman is not proper and correct. She has had five husbands. We don’t know the why behind the five. The story doesn’t say. She could be widowed or her husbands may have divorced her or a combination of both. In her time we have to fully understand that she is a woman in a man’s world and she is a survivor in the only way that is open to her… and that way is a by being with a man. Thankfully in the story Jesus does not condemn her for who she is… or what she has had to do to survive… but only sees the fact of her situation. She is with a man now who is not her husband. And before we get the notion to separate her as the women of the town have already clearly done, let’s think a minute about her situation and the social trap she is in. A woman in her time had little options. She could not live on her own. She could not make her own way. Social rules said she had to be attached to a man, be it her father or her husband or perhaps even a son or a brother or any male relative… or in whatever current situation she is in. She has no choice. And yet, she is judged and shunned as though she has choices. She is a target for proper social gossip and proper condemnation. She is that someone who can be put down to allay our own fear that but by the grace of God go I. She is the wrong in society that helps others feel right… although unjustly so.
Here is this wrong man at this wrong well who somehow knows everything wrong about this wrong woman. Yet even with all this wrongness revealed, this Samaritan woman is not ready to let go of her safe separation. She is not ready to embrace something different than what she already knows. And so she falls next into a stale religious argument… the kind that has no chance of ever changing anyone’s mind because it cannot travel anywhere but down the usual dead end path. “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” The roots of this statement go all the way back in the Old Testament to when the kingdom split into the north and the south after King Solomon died. For Jesus and this woman at this well, that was a very long-time ago… and it has absolutely nothing to do with what is going on here. It’s a distraction. But she throws it out there with hope… with the hope that it will deflect what is happening… with the hope that it will put everything back right again… right and comfortable in the way she has come to accept. I can imagine the woman being pulled in different directions between being intrigued by what Jesus is saying… what’s this about living water… and also wanting to return to her comfortable… if separate… way of living. The latter seems to be winning out so far at this point in the story.
But Jesus won’t have any of it. He wouldn’t let her deflect him the first time with her tired Jew and Samaritan argument… and he isn’t going to this time either with this tired variation on the same argument. Instead Jesus becomes more direct with her. The creative theological metaphors are gone. Talking about living water seems to have confused her more than anything. “God is spirit and those who worship him, must worship in spirit and truth.” This prophet before her at the well with these direct and clear words doesn’t say anything to her that she doesn’t already know… or that she hasn’t heard before. She’s heard the same message through the prophet Micah, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” She has heard the same thing through the prophet Amos, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” She knows those words just like you know those words. This is the spirit and truth of true worship… the worship that comes from the redeemed heart and not the place nor the empty performance of the rituals.
But what she doesn’t know at this point is how the words are being fulfilled in this one who sits before her. Maybe she brings up the Messiah in the hope that this topic might finally deflect this man where nothing else has so far. Maybe she is beginning to hear what he is saying to her and is beginning to think that this prophet before her might be something more. I don’t know and your imagination can play it either way. What is remarkable in this story of wrongness and deflection is the clarity with which Jesus answers her this last time. This is the only time in John’s gospel that he makes this clear statement about being the Messiah. “I am he.” Said clearly to this wrong woman in this wrong place… who will soon go off in all her wrongness and give testimony to others who will come and listen to this man themselves… inviting him to stay in this place that should be wrong to him… that he should reject out of hand… to deliver his message of good news to the wrong sort.
I am he. In a story filled with this much wrongness… with this much rule breaking and line crossing… that is the one right that is able to hold all the wrong together. Only by being he… only by being the Christ… is Jesus able to cross every line that we put in front of him. No boundary can keep out grace’s justification. Only by being the Christ is Jesus able to cross the line of race, nation, sex, religion… what have you. Only by being the Christ is Jesus able to cross the lines of the rules of decency and morality of the day… those social conventions that surround us and keep us safely separate from one another.
And while that all may sound nice to say… that the grace that is Christ is our only source of justification… it doesn’t make it any easier for us here gathered around the well. When the disciples return with food, they hold back and wonder in astonishment at Jesus talking to this woman. None may ask aloud their questions… “What do you want?” or “Why are you speaking with her?”… but you know that’s what they’re thinking. Or worse. And I imagine the town leaders to whom the women gives testimony have questions of their own. “Why you?” “Why would this person speak to you and not to someone more respectable among us?” No matter how many times I read this story, I’m still taken aback at what they say to the woman at the very end. “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this I truly the Savior of the world.” I read that and wonder if they are being dismissive of the woman or are they thankful for her witness… even with the type of person they judge her to be? Is this somehow a statement that the Savior of the world has indeed changed how the lines have been drawn… or are they quick to redraw the line that kept this woman separated and wrong?
Savior of the world. That is a bold statement to make. It’s even a bolder statement to believe. But lines are going to have to be crossed and the wrong embraced with grace if it is to ultimately be lived. Amen.