Sunday, February 5, 2012
Breaking Through the Barriers to Life: John 4:5-42
*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon on Sunday, February 5, 2012, the fifth Sunday of Epiphany.
Jesus sits on a rock beside the well at Sychar resting his dusty feet. The hot yellow sun creates heat waves on the horizon. Jesus waits under a date tree for some merciful passerby. His lips are cracked and dry. There’s no clay jar for drawing the water to quench his raging thirst. The sound of jingling ankle bracelets can be heard along with the distant bleating of a goat. A woman, with a water jar balanced ever so precariously on her head, makes her way down the sunbaked road. Her dark almond eyes are painted and her lips pomegranate red. In one nostril is a small silver ring. She comes upon this bone-weary stranger and a conversation begins to flow and life-giving waters begin to gush forth.
This chance meeting of Jesus and a Samaritan woman, as told in the gospel of John, appears to be a normal and natural human encounter. And yet, this ordinary meeting turns into an extraordinary life-giving conversation. Jesus offers the woman something deeper and more soul-quenching than the water from Jacob's well. It is but a symbol of the gift of living water which Jesus offers to her. Living water is the gift God offers in the life of Jesus, who reveals God's gushing gracefulness in life. From her simple encounter with Jesus at Jacob's well this woman's life begins to overflow with living water from a well within. Jesus satisfied her deepest thirst.
If we look closely, we will see there were many invisible barriers that could have dammed up the healing stream that flowed between them. Jesus and the Samaritan woman had to break through a number of barriers in order for God's living water to flow between them. We may not readily see the barriers, but they are in the story. Given all the barriers that existed between them in their particular cultural context, it's a miracle they even met let alone have a life-giving encounter! Everything was working against their conversation ever happening and the flow of God's living water between them.
Jesus asks the woman for a drink. She responds, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria." The first words in their conversation indicate two barriers they broke in their meeting. First, they broke through a gender barrier. The fact that Jesus was a man and she a woman was an obstacle which stood like a wall between them. Her question reveals the patriarchal culture of their day. It can also be seen in the reaction of the disciples upon returning: They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman. Men and women, including married couples, did not speak to each other in public. It was not proper first century Mediterranean custom. What makes it even more astonishing is Jesus not only asks for a drink from a woman, but as a rabbi he openly discusses theology with a woman in public.
It hasn't been that long ago women could not drink from the streams of life as men could. And in many situations today women still face barriers to experiencing the fullness of life God offers in the arenas of family, the job market, economics, politics, and religion. Just walk into any number of churches where this story is read and you will find women not allowed to teach or preach or who are serving in limited roles within the church.
How odd that congregations who would restrict women’s place in the church have read this story of the Samaritan woman over and over again. Here was a woman who had a theological discussion with Jesus, preached and "evangelized" the Samaritan people through her personal testimony, and converted many to belief in Jesus as the Messiah! And yet, if she were present today in many churches, she wouldn’t be allowed to preach or she would probably be looked upon as being in a lesser role than a male leader. What’s up with that? Now, Zion Mennonite has moved beyond all that, right? We have a woman as an associate pastor and one woman elder. I’m glad no one at Zion has those old patriarchal attitudes toward women. That’s why I’m sure everyone here will be open to considering a woman as your new pastor. Ahem. Just clearing my throat of some irony. Jesus and the preaching, theologizing, evangelizing Samaritan woman were transgressing the gender boundaries of their day in order to have a life-giving conversation.
Second, they broke through an ethnic/racial barrier. The Samaritan woman was thrown off guard by Jesus initiating a conversation not only because she was a woman and he was a man, but also because she was a Samaritan and he was a Jew. The gospel writer even notes that "Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans." There was enmity between Samaritans and Jews. The Jews considered the Samaritans "half-breeds" in that their Israelite ancestors co-mingled and intermarried with the Gentiles that earlier had colonized their territory. The tension between Jews and Samaritans was proverbial, which makes Jesus' parable of the "good Samaritan" a subversive, counter cultural story. The language of John's comment about Jews and Samaritans not sharing things in common indicates the prevailing attitude that Jews considered Samaritans unclean, particularly their women. By drinking from the pitcher of a Samaritan woman Jesus risked becoming "contaminated."
Remember the separate drinking fountains for Blacks and Whites in America only a few decades ago? This weekend Iris is on a 4 day bus learning tour of the South visiting places where social barriers to the waters of life were walled off by whites. There were even separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites. Whites, including religious folk who had read the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, feared being "contaminated" by blacks.
The invisible wall that separates people of color from whites is still a thick one. That wall surrounds most white congregations, including Zion. It has been said that the most segregated day of the week is Sunday. The bricks of this racial barrier are built upon the foundation of white supremacy, privilege and power. But, the racial barrier that damns up God's flow of life is cemented with far more subtle tactics of excluding people of color, such as patronizing attitudes, acceptance of the status quo, and stereotyping. Racism continues to damn up God's gift of ever flowing life to all people. We will explore this theme further next Sunday. Jesus and the Samaritan woman broke through an ethnic/racial barrier in order to share the fountain of life that God freely offers to all.
Third, Jesus and the Samaritan woman broke through a moral barrier. It was not by accident the Samaritan woman came to the well about noon time. Most women came to fill their pitchers with water in the cool of the morning or early evening. This woman comes during the heat of the day, probably to avoid the glaring eyes, furrowed brows, and whispered comments of the other women in the village. Most likely she was not considered one of the most morally upright citizens of Sychar. Jesus knows all too well how true this is. He asks her to go call her husband, as if to open the door for her to confess her lifestyle.
She is something of a Liz Taylor. She has had five husbands and is not married to the man with whom she currently shares her bed. Co-habitation existed in the first century. How shocking! Well, it doesn't seem to shock Jesus. It doesn't even ruffle his feathers. You would think Jesus, being a prophet and a holy man, should have pursued the subject of co-habitation and sex outside marriage with this wicked Jezebel. What kind of prophet is he, anyhow? Jesus doesn't even press the moral issue. It appears that he has a more important issue to discuss with the woman.
But what could be more important than dealing with sexual morality? Jesus, you need to get your priorities straightened out! Maybe Jesus should take some lessons from us. We Americans have sex on the brain. It's a major preoccupation of our culture and our churches. The hot moral issues used to be divorce and co-habitation or "living in sin." Now the big moral issue is homosexuality.
Homosexuality has become a central moral issue of the church, to the exclusion of all other moral issues, like injustice, war, violence, inequity, globalization, materialism, consumerism, and intolerance. And some Mennonites think homosexuality is an issue the church can easily solve with a simplistic bumper sticker theology like, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it!” Both sides in this debate grab Jesus by the arm and shout, "Jesus is on our side!" and yank him this way and that practically ripping the body of Christ apart. And instead of focusing upon how we together can share the healing streams of God's grace, we remain intensely divided over this moral issue.
Though Jesus is not disinterested in morality and ethics, maybe Jesus isn't always interested in pressing moral issues, particularly in his encounter with real human beings. Maybe Jesus has a more important subject for us to consider. He has within himself God’s wellspring of life to share freely with everyone, no matter what their moral situation. Jesus and the woman broke through the moral barrier that could have hindered the flow of God's life-giving river.
If moral positions don't divide us, then surely religious ones will. The fourth barrier Jesus and the Samaritan woman broke through was a religious, social, and political barrier. Remember, religion and politics were mixed in Jesus' day, along with social attitudes, as they often are today. The Samaritan woman initiated a conversation with Jesus about the differences between Jewish and Samaritan religion. She acknowledged that Jewish worship was centralized at the temple in Jerusalem, while Samaritan worship was centered at Mt. Gerizim. Differences in religion had hardened political and social divisions between Jews and Samaritans.
Is there nothing new under the sun? We have a hard enough time breaking down the barriers between Mennonites who are like us and in our own congregations, let alone trying to break through barriers to find commonality with our Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Evangelical, Baptist, Nazarene, and Pentecostal brothers and sisters. And we can’t forget about the necessity of dialogue with persons of other religions, like Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims. Sadly enough, some Christians would just as soon push people from other religions into the well rather than share with them a cup of refreshing water!
And the streams of religion always seems to get mixed up in the political ocean. We see it in the politics of the conservative Right and the liberal Left in the U.S. We have seen it in the religious politics of Bosnia and Serbia, Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda, Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, Middle Eastern Muslims and American Christians. These rock-hard barriers damn up God's free flowing streams of healing grace and produce stagnant pools of death. What a shock it was for many Americans to hear of a small group of Mennonite Christians, which included my wife Iris, meeting with, eating with, and talking with Iranian President Ahmadinejad out of their faith in this Jesus. How controversial, to follow the example of Jesus who sat, talked, and shared a cup of cold water with a Samaritan woman at a well.
While most Jews would go around Samaria to avoid it when traveling between northern and southern Palestine, our text says Jesus had to go through Samaria, as if it was a spiritual necessity. Maybe there's a real sense in which Christians have to go to the Muslim countries and open conversations with Muslims. And though he spoke of salvation in Jewish terms, Jesus nevertheless chose to speak to the Samaritan woman what they shared in common. He talked about how their same God, who is Spirit and not some tribal god, transcends the differences in their places of worship. Dare we dialogue with people of other denominations and faiths based on what we hold in common? In order for God's life-giving water to flow between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, they had to break through the gender, ethic/racial, moral, religious, social, and political barriers of their day.
What barriers will we need to break through in order for God's life-giving stream to flow to all people? I might suggest that the barriers to the fullness of life God offers to all are often dammed up by these same barricades. Otherwise, why are women still not treated equally with men? Why are most of our communities and congregations still segregated? Why is ecumenical and interfaith dialogue so difficult? Why does the church fall in line with our national agenda of hating our enemies instead of at least trying to talk with them? Why do we quickly judge and look down our noses at those whose moral lives are not perfect, like ours? Ahem! Clearing my throat of some more irony. Two thousand years have passed since Jesus spoke with the Samaritan woman and the issues are still the same.
Let us remember who we are, O children of the baptismal waters. We have been baptized into a community where the barriers to God's living water are dismantled! The barricades to God's river of life have been toppled. We, who have entered the baptismal waters of new life, have been initiated into a new community where the human barriers to God's living water have been removed. The apostle Paul said of all who have been baptized in Christ, "There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:27-28). Elsewhere Paul said Christ is our peace, having broken down the dividing wall between us (Ephesians 2:14). He was most likely using the image of the temple walls which had literal walls that separated God's presence from priests, priests from people, men from women, Jews from Gentiles, and everyone from the impure.
In their grace-full encounter Jesus and the Samaritan dismantled these kinds of invisible walls between them allowing the life-giving water of God to freely flow. When the walls that divide us as human beings are dismantled, God's gurgling brooks of grace flow between people.