Sunday, February 24, 2008

Tearing Down Walls and Building Bridges

Third Sunday in Lent – Year A
Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95:6-11; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-26(27-38)39-42
Sunday, February 24, 2008 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

During this Lenten season, a number of our programs here at St. Alban’s have been focusing on the general theme of reconciliation. The parish-wide Lenten program, entitled “A Journey from Hostility to Hospitality” and has been dealing with creating an environment of reconciliation based on hospitality, hospitality to our own members and hospitality toward those who are visitors and newcomers. In future presentations, we will expand the circle, looking at reconciliation and risk-taking, and what reconciliation may mean for the Episcopal Church and the broader Anglican Communion. And in Pilgrims’ Way, our parish small group ministry, we have been engaged in a program entitled “Being Reconciled to God’s Creation,” in which we are exploring reconciliation with self, family, community, and the world, and will finish off by looking at what it means to be called to be reconcilers.

While doing some research to find material on reconciliation, I ran across the following story, which seems particularly apropos, not only for our Lenten theme, but for today’s Gospel lesson, as well.

Once upon a time two brothers shared adjoining farms. For over 40 years they worked side by side, sharing equipment and helping each other out whenever needed. Then one day a rift developed. It began with a small misunderstanding and it grew into a major difference, and finally it exploded into an exchange of bitter words followed by months of angry silence.

One day the eldest brother, Pete, was out in his fields when a [pick-up truck] pulled up. Out jumped a man who approached Pete carrying a carpenter's toolbox. “I’m looking for a few days work” he said. “Perhaps you would have a few small jobs I could do for you?”

“Well, yes I do,” said Pete. “See that creek down there, it’s the border between my brother’s farm and mine. My brother keeps it nice and deep to stop me from setting one foot on his beloved farm. Well I’ll oblige him. I want you to take that timber over there by the barn and build me a new fence, a real tall one, so I don’t have to look over at my stinkin’ brother and his farm no more.”

The carpenter was glad to have the work. “No worries mate. I understand. Just point me to your post-hole digger and I’ll get the job done.”

So the carpenter set about working. Meanwhile farmer Pete drove into town to the local cattle auction. When he returned at sunset he was shocked to see what the carpenter had done.

There was no fence. Instead the carpenter had built a bridge and walking across it was Pete’s younger brother. He held out his hand and spoke to his brother, “Mate after all I’ve done to you these past few weeks I can't believe you’d still reach out to me. You’re right. It’s time to bury the hatchet.”

The two brothers met at the middle of the bridge and embraced. They turned to see the carpenter hoist his toolbox on his shoulder. “No, wait! Stay a few days. I’ve a lot of other projects for you,” said farmer Pete. “I’d love to stay on,” the carpenter said, “but I have more bridges to build” (“Building Bridges”).

This story is a wonderful example of what can happen when barriers are replaced with bridges. Barriers, be they real or of our own making, keep the other person out. But more than that, barriers, particularly those of our own making, keep our prejudices, our perceptions, and our emotions locked in. And when locked in, with no where to go but to surround us, engulf us, they take on a life of their own, become larger than life, become reality. Over time, a small, insignificant misunderstanding, such as occurred between Pete and his brother, festers and results in out and out hostility.

That’s essentially the situation we step into in today’s Gospel lesson. In today’s lesson from the Gospel According to John, we find Jesus on a journey from Judah to Galilee. The most direct route between these two places was to go through Samaria, which is where today’s story takes place. We know that Jews and Samaritans did not get along. But why? Well, it’s not too dissimilar from the story of Pete and his brother. Jews and Samaritans are actually family. Both groups descend from Jacob. The descendents of Jacob’s son, Joseph, settled in the area that became Samaria. The descendents of the other 11 of Jacob’s sons settled in Judah, home of the Jews. Through a complicated series of historical events, disagreements arose between the two groups regarding social and religious practices. The love and kinship of cousins slowly turned to bitterness, to dislike, to hatred, to animosity. By Jesus’ time, family had become bitter enemies.

So, it is against this historical backdrop that we find Jesus in the middle of Samaritan territory, in the middle of the day, sitting beside a well, thirsting for a drink of water, but having no way to obtain any of the cool liquid that lay beneath the surface. And along comes a Samaritan woman with a jar, obviously intending to draw water from the well. So what does Jesus do? He talks to her. He actually dares to talk to her! How could he do such a thing? First off, she’s obviously a Samaritan, sworn enemy of the Jews. And second, she’s obviously a woman. Jewish men just do not talk to unknown women in public. Jewish rabbis wouldn’t even talk to their own wives in public, let alone a stranger. And third, she’s obviously some sort of social outcast, someone who is less than respectable. Normally, respectable women would come to the well in a group during the cooler, morning hours to draw water for the day. This was their time to chat with their friends, exchange news, and gossip. But this woman was out in the middle of the day. She obviously was not welcomed to join the other women in their daily water-drawing activities. She was probably one of the people the other women would gossip about. As we later find out, through the exchange between Jesus and the woman, there is indeed a reason she is an outcast. She has been married five times and is now living with a man out of wedlock.

So in spite of all the signs as to why he shouldn’t even so much as look at this person, Jesus does the unthinkable. He engages the Samaritan woman in conversation. Given what we have just established, this woman would have undoubtedly been surprised that a Jewish man, particularly one whom she quickly discerns to be a holy man and likely a prophet, would condescend to speak to her. For us the readers, this conversation is particularly important. First, the fact that it took place at all, given all the reasons it shouldn’t have – her being a Samaritan, a woman, and a social outcast – is a clue that something important is happening. But second, because this happens to be the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in all four of the Gospels. This tells us that what is happening at that well in the middle of the desert is significant, a pivotal event, in Jesus’ ministry.

What follows is a somewhat puzzling exchange between Jesus and the woman. It’s a conversational dance around several themes. At times, it entails theological debate regarding Jewish and Samaritan religious practices. At times, it entails imagery of water – the earthly water needed to sustain life, and this mysterious “living water.” Initially, it’s as if the woman doesn’t seem to understand what Jesus is saying about himself and about the “living water” he claims to posses. About the time she seems to get it, she then gets hung up on the earthly, the fact that Jesus has some source of water that will mean she never has to come out here in the heat of the day again, that she will always have the water she needs. And then, Jesus deals the final blow. He tells her that he is the Messiah. Here again, we have a very significant moment in John’s telling of the Gospel story. This is the first time, at least in John, that Jesus reveals in no uncertain terms who he is. And it’s not to his disciples. It’s not to a group of Jewish men. No, it’s revealed to an outsider – to an outcast Samaritan woman.

In this trip from Judah through Samaria to Galilee, in this conversation, and in this revelation of his identity as Messiah, Jesus is crossing a boundary – both geographical and ideological. He has crossed the geographic boundary into enemy territory, into the territory inhabited by a despised people who are deemed by mainstream Jews to be pagan half-breeds. He has crossed the ideological boundary that his message, that God’s message is not just for a chosen people, the Jews, but for all people.

In his conversation with the Samaritan woman, Jesus has gained his first non-Jewish convert, at least, in the Gospel as portrayed by John. But she is not just any convert. She believes what he tells her with such wholeheartedness that she becomes an evangelist – a messenger proclaiming the Good News that Jesus came to preach. And here again, we have another amazing first. In John’s telling of the Gospel, this outcast Samaritan woman becomes the first recorded evangelist. This woman is not judged as a sinner because she is a Samaritan. She is not judged as unworthy because she is a woman. She is not even judged as a sinner because she has been married five times and is currently living with a man to whom she is not married. Rather, she is portrayed as a model of growing faith – of one who hears Jesus’ message, who takes it to heart, and who, despite her gender and social position, has the courage to go back to her city, back to the people who shun her and gossip about her, and proclaims that the Messiah has come and not only that, he is in their very midst. This outcast turned evangelist believed so much that she hurried back to her city and told everyone she found, “come and see.”

And something miraculous happened. The people of Sychar listened to her. Because of her testimony, they believed in Jesus and were willing to go out and meet him for themselves. They believed and were willing to set aside their own preconceived notions about Jews and talk with him, listen to him, and invite him to stay with them.

In the conversation with the Samaritan woman and the events that that conversation set in motion, Jesus challenges the status quo – he challenges what it means to be a chosen people and what it means to be a despised people. He challenges the status quo about what it means to be a child of God. He challenges the status quo, but he does not attack it directly. Rather, by his unconventional actions, by daring the have a conversation with a Samaritan woman, he suggests what is possible in the kingdom of God.

In his actions, Jesus begins the process of reconciliation that would have global repercussions. The message he proclaims is not just for the Jews, but for all people, even the Samaritans. In so doing, he begins the process of reconciliation between sworn enemies. And because of the message he proclaimed, not so much in his words, but in his actions, he furthered the process of reconciliation between humanity and God – that God is not just the God of a chosen people, but of all people. That all people are God’s chosen people.

But Jesus’ actions also set in motion more personal forms of reconciliation. Because of the woman’s role as evangelist, reconciliation begins to happen between her and her community – with her fellow Samaritans. They actually listen to what she has to say about Jesus, to the point that they do not dismiss her, but are willing to experience Jesus for themselves. And perhaps, because of the kindness shown her by this strange Jewish man, and because of her new-found role as evangelist, perhaps she begins to be reconciled with herself – perhaps she begins to see that the feelings of being an outcast or the less-than-respectable person she had internalized were not accurate. Perhaps she begins to see that regardless of what she might have done in the past, she, too, is a beloved child of God.

Through the events set in motion by Jesus daring to talk to a less-than-respectable Samaritan woman, reconciliation had begun for one woman; for the people of the city of Sychar; for a whole, previously despised people; and ultimately, for the whole of humanity.

On this side of Christ’s death and resurrection, we are better able to see the whole story of God’s desire to be reconciled to us and for us to be reconciled to each other. How much more can we be reconciled with ourselves, with our families, with our communities, if we don’t just hear the stories, but if we actually hear and act upon the words of the Samaritan woman to “come and see” who Jesus is and what he has to offer? And how much more reconciliation can occur if we are willing to take a risk, to dare to tear down barriers and build bridges? As the Samaritan woman shows us through her faith, there’s only one way to find out. Come and see.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Building Bridges” story by Scott Higgins, rewritten from a story of unknown source. (February 20, 2008).

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