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Sunday, March 19, 2017 | 8:00 a.m.

Lenten Sermon Series:
Following Jesus through the Gospel of John

Come and See

Matt Helms
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 95
John 4:5–42

In God’s family, there are no outsiders.

Desmond Tutu


It is fitting, I think, that in the midst of our Lenten journey we come to a story that takes place during an extended journey for Jesus as well. We rarely spend time thinking about the geography of biblical stories when we read them, in large part because we are relatively unfamiliar with the places listed and because the biblical text tends to condense these travels into a few verses, but if we extend our passage today to include the rest of the fourth chapter we can gain an appreciation for how much movement is taking place in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus and his disciples, even from the early stages of the gospel, are on the road, traveling north from Jerusalem and the Judean countryside towards Galilee, the region that Jesus called home. This journey would have been somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty to seventy miles long—no small feat given that it was likely done on foot—and as someone who often complains about my twenty-three-mile commute by train, I’m amazed at how easily the gospel writers can gloss over Jesus’ travels in nothing more than a verse. We don’t think about the physical toll that it took to share the gospel message, but this would have been two-and-a-half marathons worth of walking, often on roads that weren’t in great shape.

But even in these compact descriptions of travel, I’ve always found it comical that John seems to go out of his way to highlight how undesirable a stop in Samaria was. In the verses immediately preceding our lesson today, John has already shared that Jesus is moving towards Galilee “but,” the text notes in a separate clause, “he had to go through Samaria.” This additional detail functions as a sort of explanation or apology to the reader; obviously this wasn’t ideal, but it was the most direct route—even if it did bring them in contact with Samaritans.

As is largely well known thanks to the parable of the Good Samaritan, there was a sharp divide between Samaritans and Jews in Jesus’ time, a division that actually extended back several hundred years. Although the Northern Kingdom of Israel and its capital, Samaria, fell to the Assyrians in 722 BCE, after the Jewish people returned from exile to Judea in 539 BCE there were proponents of building the new temple not in Jerusalem but farther north at a site that the Northern Kingdom believed to be the true place that God had designated for worship. These people, who came to be known as Samaritans, viewed Jewish worship as corrupted from how God had intended; rather than accepting the temple in Jerusalem and readings from the Tanakh (a Hebrew acronym for Torah, Prophets, and Writings), Samaritans believed that the temple belonged at Mount Gerizim, and they subscribed only to their version of the Pentateuch, similar to what we know as the first five books of the Old Testament. Over time, these differences soon led to outright hostility, and that was certainly the atmosphere Jesus would have been walking into when he meets the Samaritan woman in our story today.

John was, of course, mindful of these tensions and differences, particularly if we look at how this scene is structured as almost a complete inverse of the chapter that precedes it. In chapter 3, Jesus meets with Nicodemus, a religiously observant male Jewish leader, in the dark of the night. Here, in chapter 4, Jesus meets with this unnamed Samaritan woman at noon in broad daylight. These two characters are depicted as being diametrically opposed, both in status and from broader history, and yet Jesus speaks to them as if they are equal, sharing his message and patiently engaging with their questions.

In many respects, Jesus does not seem to have much in common with this Samaritan woman either. Both in her first response to Jesus’ request for water and in John’s editorializing, it is made clear that Jesus’ conversation with this woman is breaking a variety of social taboos—from a Jew and Samaritan sharing water together, to an unmarried man and a woman who has been married several times engaging in conversation. And yet this conversation, taking place as both arrive for a much-needed drink of water—one of our most basic shared human needs regardless of our background—soon turns to something deeper: Jesus offers her not water from the well, but living water—a promise of life eternal.

The woman, unsurprisingly, does not understand what Jesus means by living water. As my former professor Sarah Tanzer used to joke, the woman’s response to Jesus in Greek is something resembling sarcasm: “Sure, I’d love to have some of this living water that you’re talking about; it’d save me the time and effort of coming here every day.” But, undeterred, Jesus brings the conversation forward, demonstrating knowledge of this woman’s life that causes her to recognize that there is something different about him, recognizing him as a prophet. This is no small thing, of course, since Samaritans and Jews would not have held reverence for the other’s leaders and prophets, but she challenges him again, noting that her ancestors worshiped here near Mt. Gerizim while the Jewish people insist that the true temple should be in Jerusalem. The unspoken subtext is if he is truly a prophet, which of these is truly correct?

Jesus’ answer, though not surprising to us, was a paradigm shift in the ancient world. “The hour is coming,” Jesus says, “when you will worship God neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem . . . but in Spirit and truth.” Jesus’ message and ministry will transcend these former disputes about the proper location for worship; any place, offered up in spirit and truth, can be holy ground. But what is surprising—or, perhaps more accurately, challenging—about this passage is the implications that it leaves both for listeners in the ancient world and for us as people of faith today. In bringing his message of salvation not only to Nicodemus, a well-educated Jewish man living in Jerusalem, but also equally to this unnamed Samaritan woman whom the wider cultural context would rather forget or ignore, Jesus is tearing down the traditional divisions and borders that existed between people in his time. There is no “us” or “them” in the kingdom of God that Jesus has come to proclaim; no one is viewed as a forgotten outsider who is not welcome at the table or a nobody subject to stigmatization.

In the words of former Fourth Church Associate Pastor Deb Kapp, “This woman, her community, and their welfare matter to Jesus, whether they’re considered nobodies by their wider society or not. That is good news. But it is also challenging news, because it reminds churches and their members that people who are shunned or ignored by them are welcomed friends in the eyes of Jesus. The text reminds faithful readers that sometimes our attempts to draw the boundaries of faith are too narrow. Jesus encounters and welcomes many into the household of faith—even those whom the world sees as least likely and maybe, even, you and me.”

In a time when many of our national conversations have been spent debating walls, bans, and borders, Jesus’ open embrace of someone who would have been viewed as the quintessential outsider in Jewish society—and her subsequent discipleship—is a powerful demonstration of how Jesus wants us as disciples to reframe our preconceived notions of who “belongs” and expand it further than perhaps we are even comfortable with. This sort of radical love and acceptance—striving to transcend the differences of religion, race, gender, or social status that our culture maintains—must be practiced by us in our daily lives if we are to call ourselves disciples of Christ. But if we truly seek follow Christ’s example, then our love must seek to transcend those differences, not just passively but actively as well.

Most of us are comfortable with our church proclaiming that all are welcome in this place, and I believe that each of us sincerely want—both here and in our daily lives—to transcend the things that often divide us. But one of the challenges of this passage, I think, is that transcending the deep-seated divisions that we have grown accustomed to both by our wider culture and by force of habit involve far more than just stating that all are welcome and passively waiting for some sort of new, idyllic community to be formed. As I remarked upon at the beginning of the sermon, it is only appropriate that Jesus is on the road during this encounter with the Samaritan woman. She did not come to Jerusalem asking for Jesus; he came to her, actively sharing with her that she was an important part of God’s kingdom. When John wrote that Jesus “had to go through Samaria,” perhaps he is saying that Jesus going out to meet this woman at the well was exactly how God intended it be.

I have no doubt that for most, if not all, of the disciples, journeying through Samaria was an uncomfortable experience. We hear hints of that throughout the text, from their confusion as to why Jesus was talking to this woman or in the other gospels’ concerns over preaching in Samaria. But sometimes it is in our willingness to be uncomfortable—to go outside of our typical habits and routines—that we are drawn into a wider understanding of God’s kingdom and the shared humanity that unites all of us regardless of whatever divisions our culture might impose or silently reinforce. When I think back to some of the most meaningful moments of discipleship that I’ve experienced, it’s been in those times when I’ve been drawn outside of my usual bubble or routine. It was my first mission trip to rural Appalachia, with our group working alongside homeowners as we repaired roofs during the day and shared a meal together at night. It was attending a Pentecostal worship service with my friend Gerald and us unpacking our respective traditions in conversation afterwards. It was worshiping in Cuba and witnessing the deep faith of the congregation and their pastor, as well as experiencing their gracious hospitality.

Each of these instances were eye-opening for me, helping me gain a deeper appreciation for our common humanity and helping me recognize the image of God in every one of my brothers and sisters, but my confession is that I do not actively seek to share God’s love and hospitality anywhere near enough. I, like many people, am risk averse. I feel much safer extending a passive message of inclusion rather than actively seeking to break down barriers between people; more willing to stay in what I know rather than venture beyond the limits of my comfort in order to learn a deeper truth. I am still embarrassingly ignorant of experiences outside my own, and I am always worried that I’ll do or say the wrong thing and hurt or offend someone by accident with my lack of knowledge.

But in this season of Lent, this time of self-examination when we are challenged to break from our habits, and through Jesus’ clear proclamations that there is no such thing as an outsider in the kingdom of God, I believe that God is calling each of us to actively reach out with a word of welcome for all people based on our belief of a shared identity as children of God; to work for fairness, inclusion, and equal opportunity for all, even while acknowledging that we still continue to maintain barriers, both knowingly and unknowingly. So, friends, may we as a church work towards the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed: a kingdom in which the comfortable are afflicted and the afflicted are comforted, and one in which Jews and Samaritans, men and women, and people of all degrees of social standing are seen as part of one family, and may our own lives mirror that as well. It is an uncomfortable call, but it is our call as Christ’s disciples. Amen.