Jesus, barrier-breaker

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

John 4.5-42

(Before—and after—this sermon, we watched the video mentioned in the previous post.)

1 Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, ‘Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John’—although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized—he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria.

Why did Jesus have to go through Samaria? And what’s the big deal anyway?

Even at this early stage of his ministry, the opposition to Jesus was beginning. The Pharisees were sensing that they had a new opponent; but it was not yet time for Jesus to encounter them. He wanted to get out of Judea in the south, up to the safety of Galilee in the north.
Normally a Jew would go the long way around Samaria, by crossing the Jordan River and then cutting north. Jesus needed to get away quickly. And he knew the Pharisees wouldn’t follow him through Samaria.

And why would a Jew avoid Samaria? The Jewish people saw Samaritans as a mixed race, partly descended from the northern tribes of Israel which were conquered centuries before. They saw the Samaritans as heretics, and had nothing to do with them. A Jew needed a good reason to go through Samaria.

5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The 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.) Jesus 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.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but 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.’ The 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.’

Jesus was “tired out”. He’d had to move fast. He was also thirsty—he wasn’t acting a part when this woman came. He really wanted a drink from her.
She’s amazed that he asks her. A Jew wouldn’t normally acknowledge a Samaritan. A Jewish man, in the company of a Samaritan woman, would normally not speak to her at all. In fact, no man would normally speak with an unchaperoned woman at all, Samaritan or not.

16 Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet.
And this woman had more problems. She was ostracised by her own people, not just by Jewish people. Women would normally come to the village well in the early morning or late afternoon, when it was cool. It was a chance to catch up on things. She used to come to the well around noon, at the hottest time of the day, probably because the others gossiped about her and her men. She had learned to accept her place. But she is thirsty for more than H2O. When Jesus tells her of water that will quench her thirst for good, she pricks up her ears.

19 The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’

The Samaritans believed that Mount Gerizim, in Samaria, was the true place for worship; the Jews believed it was Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Jesus cuts through that; God is spirit, and may be worshipped anywhere.
Notice what’s happening: Jesus is not requiring her to change. He is recognising that she is a person of spirit and truth, and inviting her to take her place as a daughter of God.

27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ They left the city and were on their way to him.

The woman—we don’t even know her name—races off to the village, to tell her people. She is beginning to believe that Jesus is the Promised One, the Messiah, the Deliverer. She still has some doubt—“He can’t be the Messiah—can he?”—but there must be something about this woman now. I think that normally the people of the village wouldn’t take too much notice of her, but they listened this time. Perhaps she was radiant with joy and hope. I think she was.

Jumping to verse 39:

39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’

This is massive. Really huge. A village of people who for generations had been at loggerheads with the Jews come to believe in Jesus, a Jew. And it is because Jesus refuses to accept the barriers that people put up between one another. He refuses them any legitimacy. He simply steps over them, he just walks through them.

Remember our question this Lenten season: “What did the woman have to give up for Jesus to break into her life?” Let’s see… She was already a person of spirit and truth. There was no falseness in her. She didn’t have to give up any hypocrisy. I reckon that what you saw was what you got. She received the good news gladly; she didn’t have to give up any resistance. She doubted Jesus at first; but I don’t think she had to give that up. We get too spooked by doubt. Times of doubt are normal. Anyway, it was really more that she couldn’t believe her luck, going out to the well and meeting the Messiah. I picture her pinching herself to check she was awake.

To tell the truth, I think what she had to give up was her conformity to and her respect for the barriers that had been put up against her. She was ‘a woman of no importance’, in the words of the video we saw earlier. She believed that; she had internalised it. She was nothing. Yet Jesus had treated her as somebody. As someone whose opinions mattered. As someone who mattered. As a daughter of God, who could worship God now in spirit and in truth.
Jesus lived without barriers, and he called her to live without barriers. She started to drop her submission to the barriers when she spoke with him. She continued as she ran back to the village and told her neighbours about Jesus, even though her normal habit would be to keep out of the way of the ‘respectable’ people. And what about them? How could they now treat her the way they had? They had to give up erecting barriers too.
What about her man? Did she have to give him up too? Who knows? The story doesn’t tell us. Jesus doesn’t treat her as a sinner; he just points out the truth to her. I think we have to leave what she did in her relationship to her.

Now, the hard questions: What about us? What barriers do we live behind? Barriers serve to show who is part of the ‘in-crowd’, and who is not. It might be a religious in-crowd, the people who’ve got their doctrine straight or do worship right or something like that; or the in-crowd might be the cool people, who keep the nerds and the boring people out. What barriers do we hide behind? How can the Jesus who breaks barriers down come into our lives more? How indeed, when every barrier we erect against someone else is a barrier against Jesus?
Please consider that. Every barrier we erect is a barrier against Jesus. Our barriers keep him out. We must not hide behind them, and certainly never justify them.

And what about those of us who are like the woman? Those who are on the wrong side of the barriers? Who aren’t cool enough, or talented enough, or sporty enough, or smart enough, or whatever? Jesus teaches us not to accept being on the wrong side of the barriers. Jesus teaches us that we are someone. Not only that, but we are God’s children, Jesus’ sisters and brothers, and we deserve more. You may be excluded by some people; but never, never believe that you deserve it, and they are right.

Dropping the barriers takes courage. We keep them up for a reason. It feels safer. It feels comfortable. Jesus says, “Risk it. Risk it for my sake. Come out from behind the barrier. Speak to that person you’d normally freeze out. I’ll be there with you.”
Dropping the barriers is essential if we’re to share the good news of Jesus with others. It’s essential if we’re to build deeper Christian community in this congregation. Dropping the barriers is what every follower of Jesus is called to do. Get fed up with the barriers you live with, whichever side you’re on, and tear them down. And start tonight! Amen.

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