February 13, 2011
Now, But Not Yet
A Much Needed Conversation
Several years ago I read an article about an interesting trend in our country. According to the article, more and more people are now moving into particular areas of the country and particular communities for a reason other than employment opportunities, schools systems, and family. Now, people are increasingly choosing their community because of the dominant political or religious affiliation of that area. It’s not just read and blue states any longer, but red and blue communities or neighborhoods, or religious or nonreligious neighborhoods.
It’s a further splintering of our society, and additional evidence that people are aligning with like-minded people to the exclusion of those with different viewpoints.
As we continue our series of messages Now, But Not Yet we turn to John’s gospel for the message A Much Needed Conversation. This is the story of Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. In that story we find that Jesus had a much-needed conversation with this woman, and it touches on the reality of much needed conversations in our society.
It is becoming increasingly difficult in our society to have discussions between people who have different or clashing religious and political viewpoints. I think this is a great tragedy, and I don’t like how some people very skillfully and very intentionally exploit those differences to create greater division. It’s not always easy to talk about religious and political matters with others, because we hold strong opinions and we can get very emotional when we talk about these matters.
But we have to learn to talk about them. It grieves me that we are a people who are so divided. It doesn’t have to be that way. I have a friend I enjoy debating theology and politics with. We don’t agree on very much, but we have found one basic point of agreement. When it comes to politics and theological views we both think the other is an idiot. But at least we can agree on something. And we can talk about our views. We don’t yell at each other and we laugh a lot when we debate.
We have entered an age of division and separation when people find it difficult not only to live with their differences; they can’t even find ways to talk about those differences.
One of the things I really enjoy about our church is the ability to talk whether we agree or not. Many churches represent such a narrow layer of uniformity that no diversity exists, and when it does exist they can’t talk about their differences.
We are a Disciples church, and to be honest, Disciples churches sometimes get criticized by some for being too open, too accommodating, to accepting, too liberal – I think we’re just willing to accept the differences between people and allow people to be who they are.
Well, to set today’s story in context, let’s look at a map from the time of Jesus.
In the time of Jesus the land of Palestine was 120 miles north to south. In that 120 miles were three very separate and distinct divisions. In the north was Galilee and in the south was Judea. In between the two was Samaria. Because of the ill will with the Samaritans many Jewish people traveled around Samaria, rather than going through that territory, making their trip twice as long. Jesus, though, was traveling through Samaria. Notice that John says he had to go through Samaria (verse 4).
This was a long-standing enmity between people. It began around 729 BC, when the Assyrians conquered Samaria. This later happened to the southern kingdom when Babylon was the conqueror and they took people into exile. Those exiles, though, did not lose their ethnic identity. When they were finally allowed to go back and they began to rebuild the temple, their northern neighbors offered to help. They were told their help was neither wanted nor needed. They were no longer Jewish and they could not be part of such a sacred endeavor. That was around 450 BC and by the time of Jesus there was still a tremendous amount of bitterness.
Jesus and his disciples came to the town of Sychar, and while his disciples went into town to buy food, Jesus sat at the well. It was there at the well that a Samaritan woman comes to the well to draw water and Jesus engages her in conversation.
This is a story about very deep divisions between people. It is a story with centuries old animosities. It is a story, though, of how Jesus stepped across those divisions and broke through that animosity, and in doing so, challenges us to be people who will do the same.
The disciples were probably very uncomfortable going off to buy food. According to the mores of the time, they weren’t supposed to do such a thing, but to their credit, they did. That was probably a big step for them, so things were changing in their hearts and minds. It reminds us that we are a very mixed bag as people. We can be open, graceful, kind and at other times we can be petty, mean, and vindictive. How do such competing attitudes come out of us? That, unfortunately, is the human condition.
When the disciples return John says they were surprised to find him (Jesus) talking with a woman – verse 27). The disciples had this woman all figured out – without knowing her. She’s a woman. She’s a Samaritan. She’s a Samaritan woman. Being a Samaritan woman was about as low as you could get on the social ladder of the time. In fact, she wouldn’t even make the bottom rung of the social ladder; she wouldn’t even be allowed on the ladder. This woman probably didn’t have to come out to this well for water. They were over half a mile from the town, and there was surely water in town, so why didn’t she just get water there? My guess is that she was so much of an outcast even in her own community it was easier for her to go outside of the town to avoid the comments and the stares and rejection she would have faced.
This is someone who is buried under an avalanche of labels and assumptions.
Do you like being labeled? I really dislike being labeled – even if those labels are accurate. I don’t like when people label me and then think they know me because of the label they place upon me. I get labeled sometimes just because of being a minister. It’s amazing how that can be a conversation killer.
What do you do? I’m a minister.
Oh, well it was nice to meet you; I’ve got to go.
It’s really interesting when their reaction starts with oh. Sometimes I get You’re a minister? Oh, you’re that guy. You’re at that church. Don’t you all have women elders? Don't you all let women do stuff at that church?
Yes, we do. It’s something called equality; perhaps you’ve heard of it.
Didn’t you used to be at a different kind of church? What happened to you?
I saw the light.
Jesus did not shrink from people who were negatively labeled. When his disciples recoiled at his speaking with this woman he didn’t say oh my gosh, you’re right. What was I thinking? Let’s get away from her! And we’re in Samaria! We’ve got to get out of here! They didn’t say anything, John says (verse 27) because they knew better. They knew this was Jesus. They knew Jesus saw the person and not the label. They knew Jesus saw the person and not the shortcoming. They knew Jesus saw the need of a person as being more important than what people thought of his association with that person.
People are so much more than just a label that gets attached to them. We have to see beyond the labels that get attached to people or that we attach to people – Republican, Democrat, liberal, fundamentalist, or whatever other label might be used.
Jesus was bringing down the barriers that are created by labels and prejudices and differences and suspicion. Barriers don’t come down without very specific, conscious efforts. I can’t sit at home and desire the barriers between myself and others to come down; I have to get up and go to where those people are and interact with them and place myself in a position where I have to confront those barriers and allow the spirit of God to break down those barriers.
And the very sad reality is that sometimes it’s religious rules that create the barriers. That was certainly the case in this story. Sometimes the religious rules people manufacture are just plain wrong. Sometimes the religious rules people manufacture cause prejudices and separation and hurt and suffering. It’s not a really big deal when a rule says you can’t sing a certain style of song in worship; it’s something else entirely when people manufacture a rule under the guise of religiosity and that rule has a very real impact on the lives of people.
The woman in this story was a victim of the rules that were manufactured to judge and to separate and to condemn.
Despite how humanity may try at times to box God into a particular way of dealing with people – and the kinds of people he deals with – God is always beyond those human restrictions. We can no more contain God in our manufactured rules and restrictions than we can go outside the door of this building and control the blowing of the wind.
This moment in the gospels could be seen as the birthplace of the universal nature of the gospel. Here was where Jesus placed the marker that God’s love was not just for some people – it was for all people. His love was even for those religious people don’t like and those who religious people may believe aren’t worthy or deserving of God’s love.
Sadly, this woman decided to get into a theological debate with Jesus. She wants to debate about the temple, which was a very contentious topic between the Samaritans and the Jewish people. There were really important issues she needed to discuss with Jesus, but she wants to get sidetracked into a debate.
This is still the case. How often do people get sidetracked into theological debates and discussions that keep them from the things that do matter? Are you Calvinist or Armenian in your theology? Are you premillenial or postmillienial in your view of Revelation? Are you contemporary or traditional in your view of worship? Are you supportive of or skeptical of the emerging church movement? And on and on we could go, but the point being that theological arguments, as interesting or uninteresting as they may sometimes be, often do little more than keep people from more pressing and important matters. It’s the kind of redirection of concentration that could make one say excuse me, could you go starve to death somewhere else while we argue about important matters?
It was a sad state of division in Jesus’ day, and it’s not much better today. But maybe one day there will be another written, one much different from the one I read several years ago. This article may tell of when humanity finally decides that unity is better than division, that love is better than hate, that talking is better than yelling. That’s our prayer.