Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, January 25, 2022
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Crossing Boundaries

John 4:3-42

We live in a world full of boundaries, most of which we have created. Borders are boundaries. Languages are boundaries. Cultures are boundaries. All kinds of ideas and choices and actions help to divide people and create boundaries.

I grew up in the era of the divide between East & West, communism and capitalism. That divide is mostly gone, but we still live in a world divided between a wealthy North and a poor South. We are often divided between male and female. Our nation has a long history of a boundary between black and white. Often the divide is along very particular nationalistic or cultural lines. There has been a long divide between Israelis and Palestinians. I remember the ethnic wars between Hutus and Tutsis and Serbs, Croats, and Muslims. Now we see our culture more and more divided into heterosexual and homosexual.

Behind every boundary is an implication: The person on the other side of the boundary is less than me, maybe even less than fully human, less than bearing the image of God. And with every boundary, there is a fear of “contamination,” our identity will be lost if we mingle with those on the other side. And there is a fear of loss of self if we share the “privilege” of our side of the boundary with those on the other side.

But in Jesus, we find a man who broke through boundaries and who shared a message with us that his followers should also be boundary-breakers.

This particular story of Jesus breaking through boundaries begins with a journey. Things were getting too hot for Jesus in Judea. Resistance to him and his message was building quickly. It was not yet his time to die, so he returned to Galilee. And to get to Galilee, he “had to go through” Samaria.

The Samaritan people were the remnants of the Old Testament Kingdom of Israel. After King Solomon’s death, the nation split into Israel in the North and Judah in the South. The Kingdom of Israel only lasted a couple of centuries before they were overwhelmed by the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians took many of the Israelites away as exiles and replaced them with their own people to cement their control over the area. Some of the Israelites fled south into Judah, but some remained in their own territory. Over the centuries, they began to intermarry with these other nations. Because of that, the Jews in Jesus’ day considered them to be “half-breeds” and apostates who turned away from God, even though they considered themselves to be worshippers of God.

When the Jews rebuilt the Jerusalem Temple, there was a great deal of tension with the Samaritan peoples. So the Jews excluded them from this new Temple. The Samaritans went home and “re-wrote” some history to make Mt. Gerizim the new holy mountain and they built a temple there. Then in 129 BC, after the Jews regained control of their homeland from the Greeks, a Jewish leader named John Hyrcanus led a group of soldiers to Mt. Gerizim and destroyed the Samaritan Temple.

To say there was bad blood between the two nations was an understatement. Most Jews avoided going through Samaria at all costs, but Jesus had to do it. These people were also part of his ministry.

Jesus and his disciples come to Sychar, near Jacob’s Well. This was actually within sight of Mt. Gerizim. Jesus sits down by the well while his disciples go into the village to buy food, which probably wasn’t very comfortable for them.

A Samaritan woman comes around noon to get water. Right away, we know something is amiss. Women would go to the well in the morning and the evening, and they would go in a group for safety. The fact she’s here at noon, alone, tells us that even among her own people, she is an outcast.

Jesus asks her to give him a drink. He is breaking all kinds of taboos. First, she’s a Samaritan. Second, she’s a woman. Most Jewish men would not talk to a woman in public, not even their own wives. And third, she’s a sinful woman, as we see later in the story. No self-respecting Jew of Jesus’ day would talk to a woman, let alone a Samaritan woman, and he would certainly not drink anything she touched. But Jesus is a boundary-breaker.

She is taken aback by his request: “How can you ask me for water?” Jesus insists, “If you knew who I was, you would ask me and I would give you living water.”

Now living water has a double meaning. First, it could mean moving water, which of course, tastes better than the stale, stagnant water from the bottom of a well. But second, it can also mean “water of life.” Water was often used in spiritual discussions. The prophet Isaiah said in chapter 55, “Everyone who is thirsty, come and drink without price.” And in chapter 49, he foretold of a time when the Messiah would come and people “would no longer hunger and thirst.”

But the Samaritan woman takes Jesus’ words very literally: “How can you give me water? You have no rope or bucket.” Jacob’s Well is over 100 feet deep. “Are you greater than our father Jacob?” Again, she is drawing attention to the racial divide between them. The Samaritans considered themselves to be children of Jacob, whose grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh, were the largest tribes of Israel.

Jesus says, “If you drink this water, you’ll be back for more. But I can give you water that will satisfy your thirst forever.”

It’s hard to know exactly how to take her response to Jesus here. I think she’s being sarcastic, as in, “Oh yeah! Well, give me some of this magic water so I won’t have to keep coming back here!”

“Go get your husband.” And she says, “I have no husband.” This adds to the ambiguity of Jesus’ conversation with her. It could be misconstrued. Jacob met his wife at a well, so someone might think that Jesus is looking for something similar at Jacob’s well. And she adds to the ambiguity by saying, “I’m available.”

But Jesus knows the reality of her situation. She’s been with five husbands, and is now in a relationship with a man to whom she’s not married. She is thirsty. We’re all thirsty. We’re all looking for something that satisfies. She’s looking for it in relationships. Some people look for it in money or power or possessions or good times. Others go looking in a bottle or a pill or a needle.

I think we often assume that people who are mixed up in sinful behaviors have no interest in God. But it may be that they, like the woman at the well, are desperately searching for something to satisfy the emptiness in their souls, and they just don’t know where to look.

She says to Jesus, “How can I find peace with God if I don’t even know where to find him? Is he up there on Mt. Gerizim, or is he in Jerusalem?” Now this might not make sense to us, but it makes perfect sense in her world. She is accustomed to thinking about God in terms of sacred places.

Jesus says, “The time is coming when it won’t matter where you worship.” The prophet Zephaniah foretold of a time when all nations would worship God, each in their own land (2:11).

He continues, “You Samaritans know little.” He’s not insulting her. But the Samaritans only held on to the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, so they were missing a lot of information about God and his plans.

“God is Spirit, so true worship is a matter of spirit and truth.” Worship is about the attitude of our spirit, our heart, toward God. We worship God by knowing him and having a right relationship with him in our spirits.

She says, “When Messiah comes, he’ll explain it all to us.”

And Jesus answers, “I am he.”

At this point, the disciples return and are surprised he’s talking to her. And she leaves her water jug behind and goes to tell others in her village about this man. That’s not an incidental detail that she left her jug behind; she has found living water.

The disciples urge Jesus to eat, but he says, “I have my own food.” Just as water is used metaphorically for knowing God in this passage, so food is used metaphorically for doing the will of God. Just as our bodies need nourishment, so do our spirits. A walk with God is no inconsequential thing. It is nothing less than life. The great bishop of the early Church, Augustine, said, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”

And there is a great harvest waiting for us. The fields are ripe with harvest. Many people are looking for the satisfaction only God can give. They need someone to tell them about it. And there is no greater joy than to know and do the will of God.

Many Samaritans believed because of the testimony of this woman. She is remembered to us not as a sinner or an outcast, but as a great evangelist. And her countrymen testified after her: “We believe not just because you have told us about him, but because we have experienced him for ourselves.” Effective testimony is sharing what we have experienced in Jesus Christ and inviting others to experience him for themselves.

All this happened because Jesus stepped across a boundary. And he calls his people to be boundary-crossers. So what boundaries does God want you to step across?

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