Barbara S. Blaisdell
Tacoma First Christian Church – June 7, 2015
Jesus Crossing Boundaries
5So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The 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.) 10Jesus 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.” 11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but 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.” 15The 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.” 16Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”
I got a brand new book this week. I love getting a new book. This one is by Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty member, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine and it’s titled, Short Stories by Jesus: the Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. Her thesis is that we have tamed the message of Jesus, domesticated it; and that we’ve been able to do so because we’ve forgotten where Jesus came from. We’ve forgotten his history, his context, and his story.
Everybody has a story, don’t they? And we don’t begin to know someone until we begin to know his or her story. We peer into someone’s life. We think we see all of it when all we see is a small part of it; so too with Jesus. We have only glimpses into his life. And so much of his culture and the history of his people have been lost to us because, historically, as a church we did not value it. It was Jewish and the church rejected his Jewishness. And because the stories he told rely so very much on understanding his Jewishness and the first century Jewish culture and religion, we miss the point or misunderstand the point. We miss the point partly because they are not like Aesop’s fables; they don’t end with a little proverb that tells us exactly what the moral of the story is. Jesus’ stories are much smarter and more nuanced than that. Because Jesus knows that life can’t always be summed up with a little moral line. Sometimes we can’t choose between good and bad. In fact, those are the easy choices. Right? When we have a day when we get to choose between right and wrong and good and evil, that’s wow, an easy day! But most days, we have to choose between this good thing and that good thing (and we can’t have both). Or we have to choose between fixing that bad thing or this other bad thing and we can’t do both. On our worst days, we have to choose between doing this bad thing or that worse thing because there isn’t option of not doing bad…the world has put us in just that kind of position. Rarely do we get to choose between the good and the bad in this world. And rarely are the people in our lives all good or all bad. It is into just that kind of world that Jesus walks on the day he encounters a woman at a well.
Before we can begin to understand this encounter, we need to understand its context. And to understand that context, I need to inflict you with a little geography and a little history. First, a little geography. In your pew Bibles, at the very back are three maps. The middle map of the three is the map of Palestine at the time of Jesus’ ministry. Will you look at it with me? According to the gospel of John, Jesus had been teaching in that huge area to the south known as Judea. Do you see it? And he was headed to Galilee, that much smaller area to the north. Do you see that? And he had to cross through Samaria, which you’ll see is between the two. Do you notice that Samaria has no boundary, no official territory of its own? That’s because it had no official sovereignty. Think of the Bath people or the Kurds; no self-rule. But the unofficial borders loomed huge in the eyes of the people, because the Jews and the Samaritans had been enemies for generations.
Do you remember the story of the Babylonian exile, when Jerusalem was conquered, the temple was destroyed and the people of Jerusalem, their homes, their fields, their riches were stolen and they were marched to Babylon to slavery, all but those who couldn’t survive the long march, the old, the sick, the weak, the little children who were allowed to die along the way. But while the Babylonians took the people of Jerusalem, they didn’t take all the Jews of Palestine. The people of Jerusalem tended to be the wealthiest, the ones with the best property and land to steal. Those left behind were called Samaritans. The story is complex and much of it is lost to the ages. And what’s recorded in the history books was recorded by the conquers not by the conquered. But here are the Cliff’s notes: the Babylonians who were holding the Jews of Jerusalem were later conquered by the Persians. The Persians had no need of Jewish slaves in Babylon since they now had plenty of Babylonian slaves. So they sent the Jerusalem Jews home, telling them they could rebuild the temple whenever they could manage to afford it—which would end up being generations away. Not long after that, the Greeks over-ran the Persians and all their territories, including Babylon and Palestine. And the story is told that Alexander the Great of Greece, gave the Samaritans of the hill country north of Jerusalem the funds for a temple but did not do likewise to the Jews in Jerusalem. Did you follow all that? The Babylonians conquered Jerusalem. The Persians conquered Babylon and freed Jerusalem’s Jews. The Greeks conquered everyone and divided the Samaritan Jews from the Jerusalem Jews by offering the Samaritan Jews funds for a temple in their hill country, generations before Jesus met a woman at a well in that hill country.
And to a first century Jew like Jesus and his disciples, a Samaritan was one who had not shared in the slavery in Babylon. Not only that, a Samaritan had accepted a gift from an enemy conqueror, and not just any gift but a gift for what was supposed to be a holy and sacred temple, a temple NOT in the high and holy city of Jerusalem but in an outpost in the middle of nowhere.
For those of you who grew up in the shadow of WWII, I want you to imagine the horror of the possibility that Germany and Japan had won; and that as a gesture of “peace” those governments offered to build a huge, fancy, gilded cathedral to peace in downtown Seattle. Could you ever imagine being able to worship there?
I think that’s why so many New Yorkers and Americans objected to the proposed Islamic Community Center built near the Twin Towers Ground Zero Memorial. Their fear was that somehow this was a mosque funded by the very forces of evil that had perpetrated the horrible events of 9/11. Now I would argue that this community center is open to all faiths, that it has proven to be a forward thinking place, the very kind of Islam we should be applauding. But whether you agree or disagree, you need to know that the enemy feeling that was going on between Japan, Germany and America post WWII and is going on right now between the West and ISIS is very like what was happening between Jews and Samaritans. They were long time enemies, hateful toward each other.
And yet, Jesus crossed over into enemy territory. But that’s not the only boundary he crossed.
You have no doubt heard that Jesus crossed a forbidden cultural boundary by speaking to women in public. And that is true for many cultures of his time. To this day, many Orthodox men are taught to pray every morning, “Thank you God for not making me a woman.” But there remains a deep suspicion of woman as “other” in every culture by many men in positions of power. I know, I know…we’ve come a long way. And women also can be suspicious of men. But do you know where our deepest truths come out? They come out in our curse words, in our nasty slang words and in our insults. This is important if you have sons and grandsons for whom you care—for they are being raised in this culture and exposed to these things. And it’s very important if you have daughters and granddaughters, for one out of every four young women today has been sexually assaulted by the time she reaches the age of twenty-one. Think about that, think about the young women under twenty-one you know. Think about the fact that one in four of them will be sexually assaulted before she is old enough to vote. I would argue that this is a direct result of what our culture is teaching our sons to call our daughters. Words matter. What we name things matter. That’s why God gave humans the power to name all the things of the earth. So when you get home today, Google the urban dictionary for all the slang words for female sexual parts and see just how many are there are that are derogatory. Or ask your grandchildren what the Urban Dictionary is and then ask them to help you Google it for all the slang words for female sexual parts so that you can see just how many are derogatory. Then ask yourself how many of those are also used to fling when one really wants to insult a man. Think about it. What are the worst insults for a man? You son of a ….You mother…. Are they not also insults that refer to women? Why is that? And I am not alluding to the worst of them here!
And so here comes Jesus, (you were wondering when I’d get back to Jesus) here comes Jesus, crossing yet another boundary, sitting down to share a drink with a (gasp) woman! And a suffering woman at that, one with (gasp) “many husbands.” I’d love to know her story. But the gospel writer doesn’t tell it to us. There are hints that Jesus asked her to tell her story to him, but we only hear the briefest part of it; that she has been widowed several times or that she has had several husbands divorce her (for only men could seek a divorce in those days). What this means is that she has lost her home over and over and over. To this suffering woman, Jesus promises the “living water” of the gospel, the good news of God’s love in Christ.
I don’t know how you have felt about the news of Caitlyn Jenner, whom many of you have known as Bruce Jenner. I confess I have mixed feelings about all the attention given to a famous, rather privileged person who’s been able to afford good medical care in what is admittedly a very difficult transition. I myself am far more concerned with the 40,000 American teens that go homeless each year who have been kicked out of their homes by their parents because they are gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered, 3000 of those made homeless in Pierce County just last year. I am far more concerned for the thousands of them at risk of suicide because they have been rejected by their own friends and families and because they are bullied and because they are at risk for street violence. These homeless children and young people have been sent beyond the pale, across the boundary lines, away from their own families, unloved by their parents and too, too often by their church families and that my beloved is unnatural!! That is a violation of family values and the gospel of Jesus Christ! That is an abomination unto the Lord.
But here is the good news. Wherever we humans draw a boundary line, Jesus crosses it to the other side.