27 March 2011

Jesus breaks down barriers

27 March 2011

Jesus breaks down barriers
John 4 5-42

It occurs to me that reading the Bible is like watching American Football.

[OK, I’m not sure how this analogy is going to work – but stick with me!]

I’ve been watching American Football for quite a while now, and I think that I understand a lot about the game and what’s going on.

• I know the difference between a touch-down and a touch-back;
• I can tell a Nose Tackle from an Offensive Tackle,
• a Full Back from a Tight End.

• I even know that a “Hail Mary” in football is different from a “Hail Mary” in church – although not that different: they both involve praying!

But sometimes during a game, something happens that I really don’t understand. (I am English, after all!)

Fortunately, because of the wonders of the Internet, I’m in touch with quite a few fans of my team – the Green Bay Packers [by the way, did I mention that we won the Superbowl this year?!]

These are fans who know all there is to know about the team, and who have grown up watching and playing the game. If there’s anything I need to know, they can explain it to me!

• You see, sometimes, however much you think you know, the only way to fully understand something is to be part of the culture.

• And that’s where our gospel reading this morning comes in: the story of Jesus and the Woman at the Well.

It’s a remarkable story, but it needed footnotes even at the time it was first written down. The writer explains in v 9 that “Jews do not associate with Samaritans”.

That, as they say, is an understatement!

By Jesus’ time, and for hundreds of years before, there was an intense, historic hatred between Jews and Samaritans. We can’t really understand what Jesus was doing – unless we realise that.

In fact, you have to have grown up in the culture to appreciate the power of what was happening. We like to joke a bit about the rivalry between Yorkshire and Lancashire (at least, I think it’s a joke!) but think how things were just after the Wars of the Roses.

And more than that, Jesus was taking on another social taboo. The woman was … well … a woman!

She, herself, is astounded. She says to Jesus:

“You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (Jn 4:9)

There is so much in this passage from John’s gospel, but perhaps nothing is more remarkable than the very fact that the encounter takes place at all!

The disciples certainly get the point – notice what happens when they come back.

“Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no-one asked, ‘What do you want?’ or ‘Why are you talking with her?’” (Jn 4:27)

They were obviously used to Jesus doing this sort of thing – defying social convention. They may have muttered to each other “There he goes again”, but they certainly didn’t challenge him.

But there’s one more thing about this encounter which makes it even more remarkable: Jesus knows that the woman is an outcast, even among Samaritans.

She has come to the well in the heat of the day. It would have been normal for the women to gather together early in the morning, or in the cool of the evening, when the work wouldn’t have been quite so hard. But she comes to the well at noon, when she can be sure to be alone.

She was accustomed to the whispering wherever she went, having been used and discarded by so many men of the village – and this in a culture in which there was little if any privacy, and gossip spread quickly. And yet, see how Jesus treats her.

As Sarah Dylan Breuer notes:

“Jesus addresses her in the same terms as he addressed his mother [earlier in John’s gospel]. He meets a woman who couldn't be more of an outsider, and he receives her as an insider, an intimate, who has no cause for shame. He brings up her past, and her present, not to shame her, but to take away their power, … showing how little they affect how Jesus and the God he proclaims receive her.”

The living water that Jesus offers the woman, and all those who follow him, is powerful stuff! It makes possible fullness of life – a new quality of life and relationships. Where Jesus is present, barriers are broken down.

Which is all well and good in the culture of 1st century Palestine – but what about us? Jesus is present with us, today. We are his followers – what is our experience?

Well, we are no different to people anywhere at any time. We know who our friends are; we tend to relate most easily to “people like us” – I know I do!

That’s quite natural, of course: there’s a level of comfort and security in that. But we all tend to define ourselves in comparison to others who are “not like us”. And the church behaves very much like the rest of society in that respect.

I think it’s immensely sad that the church, the followers of that same Jesus who met the woman at the well, is actually known far better for keeping barriers up than for breaking them down.

• We are known for our difficulty in accepting certain people.

• We are seen as those who claim exemption from equality laws,
• who put people into different categories,
• rather than doing as Jesus did – accepting everyone as human, created and loved by God.

That’s an exaggeration, of course. I suspect that no-one is quite as they are presented in the media.

But we do need to be careful that, however good our motives might be, we don’t manage to frustrate God’s persistent, transforming love for all people – the sort of love Jesus showed that Samaritan woman, who, by rights, he shouldn’t even have been talking to.

Inclusiveness is at the heart of the new way that Jesus calls us to.

That living water, that practical, accepting love shown by Jesus transformed the woman at the well. From being an outcast, she went back into her village and started telling all and sundry about her amazing man she’d met. “Could this be the Christ?” (v29). And she brought crowds of people back with her to meet him.

That same love can transform all our relationships – transform our churches, our communities, our world.

• Jesus sees each one of us, as he saw that woman – not judging us, but understanding and accepting us;

• and he makes it possible for us to share his love with others

• whatever the barriers might be.

See Sarah Dylan Breuer's Lectionary Blog for this reading: http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2005/02/third_sunday_in.html

and also Walter Brueggemann, Charles B Cousar, Beverly R Gaventa, James D Newsome Texts for Preaching – Year A Westminster/John Knox Press 1995 p208

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