On the Risks and Rewards of Crossing Boundaries
March 12, 2023
John 4: 5-26
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’
Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’
Today’s sermon is titled On the Risks and Rewards of Crossing Boundaries
This past week I met with a new group of colleagues as part of my preparation for ordination. I drove to Concord late Wednesday afternoon for what I thought would be a mellow meeting at the conference office. I knew there would only be six of us, but I was totally unprepared for the intensity of the hour and a half we shared. As we were going around the circle, introducing ourselves and speaking about our ministries, the woman sitting beside me began to reveal how she, as a lesbian minister, married to another woman, raising their six children, has experienced wave after wave of unwelcome in churches within a half-hours drive of her town. I was totally unprepared for her grief, her anger, and the passion of her longing to belong somewhere, anywhere. I wanted to bring her home with me. I wanted to bring her here because I am so sure that she would be welcomed and in her welcoming she would be healed and relieved from her hurt.
We humans are tragically adept in establishing and maintaining boundaries that keep us separate, one from another. It causes so much isolation, so much pain. These boundaries are held in place by fear and insecurity. We feel better about ourselves when we are surrounded by others who look like us, who vote like us, who share the same socio-economic condition as us. This is an innate tendency that goes back to ancient survival instincts: there is safety in numbers and safety when one can blend in with others of like kind. This is an innate tendency that we have to work intentionally to override in order to truly thrive in our multicultural and pluralistic society. Our survival is increasingly dependent on our ability to take risks, risks in crossing previously established boundaries in order to build stronger, more inclusive, and more diverse communities.
Jesus and his community were dealing with many of the same pressures and challenges over 2000 years ago, and the story we are offered today brings to light the risks in crossing established boundaries, but also the rewards. Our story today is a rather intimate exchange between just two people, Jesus and a woman that we commonly refer to as “the woman at the well.” She is a Samaritan woman, coming to the well for water and, even though Jesus is sitting there, she is bold enough to come forward to fill her jug and Jesus actually speaks to her. To our 21st century ears, this does not sound so unusual but, in fact, there are several significant boundaries that are being crossed here.
First of all, what is Jesus even doing there? Most Jewish people avoided Samaria and walked the longer route up the Jordan River Valley to reach Galilee. Jesus did not just end up there by chance; Jesus must have chosen to walk through the region and in so choosing Jesus crossed the cultural boundary that had been firmly established for hundreds of years.
The Samaritans are Jewish, too. They were left behind when many other Jewish people were exiled to Babylon. The Samaritans intermarried with other tribes and built a temple of their own because they lived far to the north of the temple in Jerusalem. The Samaritans shared common scriptures with other Jewish people, the first five books of the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, and they observed many of the same laws and rituals as Jewish people elsewhere, although they were accused of not being strict observers of the law. The Samaritans’ appearance differs, too; they are very tall, sometimes lighter in complexion with blue eyes, even, full lips, long, slender hands and lighter color hair.
Jesus must be feeling rather confident when he decides to travel through Samaria with his disciples and he must be feeling rather secure when he sends the disciples ahead to buy food and then decides to stay by himself at the well, an obvious stranger in a strange land. There is risk in both of Jesus’s decisions and he adds another to the list when he speaks directly to the Samaritan woman to ask her for a drink. What follows is a rather lengthy story, but Jesus takes a risk and reveals three things that we should not miss.
The first is that Jesus professes to have something precious that, if asked, he is willing to share. Jesus calls this gift “living water” that carries eternal life. What a perfect analogy this is in a region where water is scarce and yet absolutely essential for survival. Jesus is offering a gift and a promise, and no ordinary promise, either. Jesus says, “the water that I will give will become in [you] a spring of water gushing up to eternal life…you will never again be thirsty.” What I hear Jesus saying here is that through his teachings we are offered a blueprint for shaping our lives. Through his teachings, should we choose to follow them, Jesus tells us and shows us what a life looks like that is at once turned inward to God and turned outward in service to others. If we model our lives on his example, he promises we will not only be quenched, we will know a love that is eternal and everlasting. This is a big promise, and a risky one, too.
The second risky thing that Jesus promises is that there is a change coming, a time when the Jewish people will worship neither in Jerusalem nor in the north; a change is coming and Jesus says, “God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” Perhaps Jesus is saying that the spirit of God will no longer be confined to the temples, no longer be confined to any specific places. This is almost unfathomable for most Jewish people of the time, and yet in just 70 years from the time Jesus makes this promise, the temple in Jerusalem will be destroyed by the Romans. Jesus is urging the Jewish people to expand their ways of worship outside of temple walls. Jesus is urging his people to bring a spirit of worship into every part of their lives and the invitation still stands, Friends. I have an example for you.
In our household, my husband and my mother-in-law mostly wash the dishes, but sometimes the sink is either so full, or the one pot I need is on the bottom, and in those times I will take a few minutes to wash the dishes. There have been times that my anger and frustration fueled the scrubbing and rinsing as I felt worse and worse with every clean dish. And there have been other times when I was able to catch myself and wash each dish while being grateful that I was able to stand and wash the dishes, grateful for the warm water flowing abundantly from the tap, and grateful that I had food to feed my family, even if they hadn’t taken the time to wash their dish.
Jesus said to the woman at the well, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” Worship God in spirit. Worship God not only in what we do, but in how we do it. Three years ago this week, the world shut down and we gave up our privilege of gathering to worship. We gave it up for the greater good, to contain a potentially deadly virus from being spread. We learned that we can worship outside the walls of our church. We are learning that worship is a way of being, a way of loving, and we can practice it in every thing we do (even washing dishes.)
Lastly, what Jesus reveals in his final statement crosses over into a place from which he can not return, so it carries the greatest risk; Jesus reveals his divine nature. The Samaritan woman says, “I know the Messiah will come. Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’” This is the first time in the book of John that Jesus reveals that he is the Messiah and because Jesus also knew about the woman’s past, she is convinced enough to go and bring everyone she could convince to come and meet Jesus. The story has a beautiful ending. Jesus and his disciples stay for two days in Samaria, among those that they had been taught to hate.
In closing, I leave this story with deeper appreciation and admiration for people who run the risk of crossing boundaries…people like my new Friend who so desperately wants to find a faith community where she is seen and accepted for who she is…people like our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, who crossed over every human-made divide that kept people separate, one from another. He carried the love of God out from the comfort and safety of his own community in order to touch the lives of others. Jesus did not let 600 years of social norms prevent him from reaching out to one woman who in turn reached out to countless others. May we, too, cross over into new places both within ourselves and into other communities different from our own. May we, too, carry the love of God. May we have the courage to take the risk of reaching out, reaching out even to one other person, so that they, too, may experience a love so deep it can be called eternal. So be it. Amen.
Beloved God, we can not exactly know Your ways, but we can feel Your grace in the sensations that most capture our attention. In both delight and despair, we become focused in ways that bring us closer to whatever You really are. Save us, most Holy One, from the unfeeling; save us from autonomy; save us from ourselves. Help us to be in this world without losing our hope and faith in humanity and inspire us to find our role in being solutions to the problems we find most troubling. For those who are in pain, Lord, I pray for comfort. For those who are in their final hours, I pray for assurance and peace. In the ways we are anxious and stressed, Lord, I pray we remember to breathe and remember to be kind and remember the power of prayer in bringing a sense of calm. Guide us, I pray, in expanding the ways we worship out and into every aspect of our lives. Remind us, Beloved, to let thankfulness for our many blessings be ever-present in our hearts. With gratitude, I pray. Amen.
Benediction Beannacht (Blessing) by John O’Donohue
May the nourishment of the earth be yours, May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours, May the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow wind work these words of love around you, An invisible cloak to mind your life.