TEXT: John 4:5-30

The wall is going up. It is even harder this week to have access to the altar. We had to do some extra logistical planning this week because part of the chancel is blocked by a wall. It makes our work harder and our space uglier, and now has even kept us from the Lord's table. But our difficulties are self-made. We have built the wall, brick by brick, and that is fully a part of the message of these weeks.

Jesus had a habit of completely disregarding walls. Like a Halloween ghost, he walked right through them. When the disciples hid in an upper room after the crucifixion, afraid for their lives, the resurrected Jesus literally walked through the walls of the room and came right in. When Jesus saw the social walls made to keep lepers out of community, Jesus marched right through and not only talked with the lepers, but touched them. The rabbis and Pharisees and other religious leaders of the day walled out the tax collectors and the prostitutes and sinners of every type. Jesus joyfully went to their homes for dinner. And in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus broke so many taboos that I have to wonder why they didn't crucify him sooner.

Remember that Jesus was a Jew, and Jews and Samaritans had hated each other for hundreds of years. Condemned for intermarriage and unorthodox religious practices, the Jews hated the Samaritans, and they avoided each other like the plague. Now this took some effort because Samaria sat almost in the middle of Palestine. When a Jew in Galilee in the North wanted to get to Judea in the south, the fastest, easiest way was to go through Samaria. But most often, in order to avoid Samaritans, they crossed over the Jordan river, traveled through the desert wilderness, and then crossed the Jordan again at the other end, adding three extra days to their trip. If they absolutely had to be speedy and needed to go through Samaria, they didn't stop. They would not buy food there, they would not sleep there, and they tried not even to stop and rest there. Close your eyes, hold your breath, and get on through as fast as possible. That was the attitude.

Knowing that, we see that already at the beginning of the story, Jesus is making a statement. He is taking his disciples through Samaria and has stopped to rest. Already Jewish readers are crinkling up their noses and thinking a little less of Jesus. But it doesn't stop there. Next comes the thing that all Jews traveling through Samaria dreaded--meeting up with a Samaritan. Well, here comes one to the well where Jesus is resting, and it is a woman besides. The Jewish reader is thinking, "Run, Jesus, run! We told you not to stop, and now you're going to be defiled by a Samaritan woman--run!"

And what does Jesus do? Does he run? Does he ignore her? No. He asks her for a drink! Imagine. Jewish men were forbidden to talk to a woman in public--even their own wives or daughters. The rabbis said that to talk with a woman in public was to neglect the study of the law and to put yourself in danger of hell. There was even a group called the "bruised and bleeding Pharisees" because they would shut their eyes to avoid even seeing a woman and therefore would walk into walls and trip over things. Remember when the disciples return and find Jesus in this conversation, the first question that pops into their minds is not "What's he doing talking to a Samaritan? But what is he doing talking to a woman?" Everything about it was wrong. Jesus, sitting at a well in Samaria, talking to a woman and accepting a drink from the hands of a Samaritan. Can you imagine how horrifying that was to Jewish listeners?

And yet the story goes on. Jesus does not get it over with as soon as possible. This is the longest conversation that Jesus has with any one person in all of the Gospels. And it is a Samaritan woman...a Samaritan woman who has seen her share of rough times. For whatever reasons, the woman has had five husbands and is now living with somebody that isn't her husband. It has not been a good life, and many scholars have assumed that she is getting water outside the town in the middle of the day because she was harassed or banned from the town well when most of the women came early in the morning.

To the Jews, Jesus is out of bounds physically by being in Samaria, socially by talking with a woman in public, ceremonially by accepting a drink from a Samaritan, morally by taking up with a woman of questionable character, and religiously by spending time with, and therefore honoring, a heretic. And yet Jesus talks with her longer than anyone else in Scripture, offers her eternal life, and declares himself to her plainly and openly as the Messiah--the very first declaration of this kind he makes in the Gospel of John.

This woman becomes the first evangelist in John's Gospel, running back and telling the town that the Messiah waits at the well. The town comes out to see. They ask Jesus to stay, and he does. He stays two days among them, eating, sleeping, talking, living with Samaritans. And when he leaves, he leaves a town of people who believe, not that the savior of the Jews has come, but that the savior of the world has come.

This is a salvation story that brings the walls of bigotry built around Samaria tumbling to the ground. The Jews had assumed that because they were the chosen people, God's salvation was for them. But listen to what Jesus says to the woman. He doesn't deny the special role of the Jews. He even implies that the Jews have better handle on who God is than the Samaritans. He says, "You Samaritans worship what you do not know, we worship what we do know." All religions are not created equal, he implies. The knowledge of the Jews is more complete.

However...and here is the chink in the wall...that greater knowledge is not a privilege, but a responsibility. "Salvation is from the Jews," says Jesus. He does not say "Salvation is FOR the Jews." It is FROM the Jews and FOR the world. The Jews were chosen, not so that they could keep salvation to themselves, but so that they could bring salvation to the ends of the earth.

More than that, the salvation they are to bring is not what they thought. The Jews thought the salvation had to do with their doctrines and beliefs and laws. If you could be convinced to come to Jerusalem to worship, you had a chance. If you decided to follow Jewish law, you could be let in. But that's not what Jesus does, as he offers salvation to the Samaritans. He does not make Jews out of them. He brushes off their differences as superficial, consents to dwell with them as they are, and verses 41-42 tell us that many in the town believe. They are saved, and they are still Samaritans.

Now as long as that story stays in first century Palestine, we're safe. Their particular issues are not ours, and we can pat ourselves on the back for having gotten beyond them. But I promise you that if Jesus were walking the earth today, he would make his point about walls and boundaries in a way that would be just as offensive to us. What Jesus said to the Jews of his day, he says just as strongly to Christians today. We Christians do not own God. Jesus is not "for" us. Jesus is to come "from" us and be spread out into the world. The treasure that we have is not for our keeping...we are to go out and give it away.

The first thing that means is that we have to quit demanding that people come into church before they can meet Jesus. Most people are not going to come in...anymore than most Samaritans were going to go trooping down to Jerusalem for worship. They had their own place of worship, and it wasn't a place the Jews approved of. Jesus showed us that the important thing was not the doctrine but the message. They needed to know God, and when they wouldn't come to Jerusalem, Jesus went to Samaria. He never did convince them to give up worship on Mt. Gerazim and to come south. He simply encouraged them to worship, wherever they worshiped, in spirit and in truth.

We need to go out, not require others to come in. I'm not talking about foreign mission fields here, although some may have that calling. I'm talking about sharing your faith out in your workplaces, in your communities, in your leisure activities. Share with your friends, yes...but share also with your enemies. It's fine to invite people to church, but that's not our real calling. Our real calling is to invite people, as the Samaritan woman did, to meet Jesus. In the long run, it doesn't matter if they decide to become Methodists or Congregationalists or Catholics. And I'm going to really put my head on the chopping block here and say that I don't think it matters if they become part of any religious system at all.

I don't think Christianity was supposed to be a religion. I don't think Judaism was supposed to be a religion either. I don't think God is into religion. What God is into is being in loving relationship with people who will catch the vision of making this violent, fear-ridden earth into a garden of justice, freedom, and mercy. The reason it is important to believe that Jesus is divine, is not because there's a quiz at the end and you have to be able to say, "Yes, I believe that." It's important because that was how God chose to reveal God's own nature to us. When I believe that Jesus is God, I can finally understand who God is and relax into the loving relationship we were meant to have. If I don't accept Jesus as God in the flesh, I miss the enormous benefit of the gift, and I can never be quite sure whether I should feel afraid or secure in the arms of God. That uncertainty in the relationship is a block to full and abundant life.

Sharing the Christian faith is not telling people they have to believe x,y,z. Sharing our faith is introducing people to Jesus as the clearest, best way to explain who God is and what God is like so that others will want the relationship. Jesus did not tell the Disciples to go into all the world and make Christians. He said go into all the world and make more disciples. How they live out that discipleship is ultimately up to them, as they live in conversation with God, Scripture, and the community around them. If they never get to be in relationship with God, all the church going in the world cannot save them; and if they do connect, one-on-one with their Creator, eternal life is theirs no matter what Christian doctrine might say.

I go back to the words from my "What's It All About" sermon. Christianity was meant to be a spread quickly everywhere at once. It wasn't meant to be a controlled burn with somebody determining just where it could burn and how hot and for how long. We are not invited into a systematic belief structure. We are invited into an exciting, wonderful, uninhibited, justice-oriented, mercy-giving relationship with God. It's not what you believe, but who you know that counts.

The structure of organized religion has a place. It was meant to be the support system for spreading the Word...the place that would keep the fire burning, in case anybody's individual flame went out. But in most cases, it has become the walls around the Word, the guardian to be sure that those who go in and out are pure and undefiled, the sentry that checks to make sure everyone's documents are in order, and to make sure no one has a torch so bright that the flame might accidentally spread. It is high time for the walls to come down. It's time for the fire to burn.

We are not here to guard the faith. We are not here to fill pews with people who believe like us. We are here to have our fires rekindled, so that we can walk boldly into Samaria...into the land that the church avoids, to talk with the people that the church shuns, to accept the love and nourishment that they offer and to spread the fire of God's love in return. If they are Samaritans, they don't believe the "right" things. Their doctrines are all "wrong." The message of John 4 is that Jesus doesn't care. He goes there anyway. He saves them anyway. "I tell you," he says to the skeptical disciples, "Open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life."

Open your eyes, Church. Look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.. Down with the walls, there is work to be done.


(c) 2001, Anne Robertson

Return to