Breaking Barriers

John 4:7-26 Sunday, March 13, 2022

I cringe when I think about the ways the first intercontinental traveling Christians—by default Christian “missionaries” — inflicted their beliefs on native peoples  of any continent they intended to conquer, populate and turn into an income stream.  I also cringe when I recognize that those attitudes and practices are really not so far removed from our day.  Christians of all stripes assumed that their connection to God was the only connection to God, and insisted, no, forced, native peoples to adopt Christian practices, at least on the outside. In many cases those who believed there are other ways to connect with the divine Spirit were punished for participating in any faith practices seen as non-Christian.  A wall between the invaders and the existing people groups went up immediately, and we know that animosity, pain, and separation from one another has not completely ended.   Presbyterians are not exempt, by the way.  It is only within my lifetime that the PCUSA has shifted to refer to our global missionaries as mission co-workers, seeing our work in any part of the globe as a partnership. 

These practices are not unique to Christianity.  More than seven centuries before Jesus arrives on the scene, the lands he knew as Samaria were part of the northern kingdom of Israel, created when the people of God conquered multiple native people groups to inhabit what they understood to be the land promised them by God to Moses, bringing their faith practices with them.  There were tribes of Israel who inhabited the northern areas—like Zebulun and Manasseh, Ephraim and Issachar.  There was one tribe who inhabited the southern area—Judah.  The 12 tribes who had once traveled together through the wilderness for 40 years, sharing the experience of being freed by God from slavery to the Egyptians divided into two kingdoms, each overseen by different kings for centuries, kingdoms which at times fought against each other.  The wars were not exactly wars between brothers and sisters, but definitely wars between cousins.

Then in 721 B.C.E., the mighty Assyrian forces swept down from the north and conquered the northern kingdom, including Samaria.  As we watch what is currently happening to Ukraine, this is starting to sound sadly familiar.  Most of these Samaritan Jews were taken into exile, and their story really gets lost in our scriptures as the focus of the biblical narrative carries on only through the southern kingdom of Judah, that is, the Judean Jews.  However, some Samaritan Jews were left in Samaria, likely aghast as they watched their land be re-populated with five different groups of people, people who built their own homes and communities, people who intermarried with any Samaritan Jews who were left and, perhaps most importantly, people who infiltrated religious life with their beliefs.

Over time these invaders created faith practices that were historically connected to those of their southern neighbors, but clearly different in other ways.  For example, the Samaritan Jews only followed the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, as their sacred writings.  You see, there would have been no interest in including the ongoing saga of the Judean Jews in their sacred writings.  They built a temple on Mt. Gerazim, a mountain near the town of Shechem, which had already been a worship center for centuries.  There was a long held practice of worshiping the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob on Mt. Gerazim.  Mt. Gerazim is situated about half-way between Jerusalem and the Galilee, where Jesus first called his disciples and spent much of his ministry.  In Jesus’ day, the large area between Judea and Galilee was known as Samaria, having lost the names of the tribes some 700 years before. 

Over multiple generations, the wall gradually solidified between those of Jewish heritage living in Samaria and those of Jewish heritage living in Judea.  It became so solid that the people of Israel took longer routes in order to avoid passing through Samaria if at all possible.  It was so solid that people growing up on either side of the wall knew very well the relationship, or lack of relationship, between Samaritans and Jews. We all know that various New Testament writers do not hesitate to make it clear that Jews do not eat with or even associate with Samaritans. 

Our Lenten focus this year is repair work.  Each week we are looking at a different aspect of being involved in reparations between ourselves and others, or between ourselves and God.  In order to do any repair work between you and someone else, someone has to begin, to break through the barriers that have kept you from repairing the relationship.  When there is an argument between brothers or sisters, or between cousins, or with anyone, we counsel one another that one of you has to be “big enough” to initiate the reconciliation.  Breaking barriers is a key theme in the story we heard this morning—and actually it is just the first half of this story.  I commend you to pick up your Bible this week and read the rest of the story.  The primary broken relationship in this detailed conversation between Jesus and an unnamed woman of Samaria is the Judean-Samaritan relationship.  Jesus is “big enough” to cut through the barriers, and in the process, taking several steps toward repair.

Step number one:  Jesus and his disciples intentionally travel through Samaria.

Step number two:  Jesus insists on taking a rest from a hot, dusty trip at a well outside of Sychar, a centuries-old well that was known as Jacob’s well, located near land that had long ago been deeded to Jacob’s favored son, Joseph (of multicolored coat fame).

Step number three:  in the absence of anyone else at the well, Jesus the Jew reaches out to a Samaritan woman who has come to draw water. She is shocked. This is not supposed to happen. (When the disciples return with food, they are shocked too!)

Step number four:  Jesus and the woman have a deep theological conversation, actually the longest recorded conversation Jesus has in the gospels.  Unlike many of his recorded encounters with people during his ministry, this one does not end up with Jesus using it as a lecture or sermon, but it is a give and take conversation between a woman (imagine that!) and Jesus.   When you read the rest of the story, you find out that not only is she a deep thinker, but she is a very effective evangelist.

Jesus clearly identifies this woman as a child of God, valued and included in the family, despite what their communities have said for years.  Contrary to tradition, she and her neighbors are clearly invited into new life with Jesus.  Dr. Frances Taylor Gench, in her book, Back to the Well, explores the ideas of some commentators who wonder whether the conversation about the husbands is symbolic and not literal.  Could it be that Jesus is referring to the five people groups who invaded Samaria centuries before, and the Roman empire as the current power over Samaria?  The ancient invaders became “husbands” as the faith practices mingled.  The current empirical power is not a “husband”, for there is no mingling of Jewish faith and the Roman patterns of what would be called idol worship by both Samaritans and Judeans.

The woman’s question about worship location might seem unrelated at first.  Some people have thought she was trying to dodge a potential reprimand from Jesus about her sexual history and current habits.  But when you see the husbands as a symbolic way to characterize the historical wall between Samaritans and Judeans, you see that the woman (imagine that!) has her finger on the question that most deeply divides them:  where is it appropriate to worship God?  She asks him because she sees he is a prophet; she hears him offer her (imagine that!) a kind of spiritual wellspring of water that will change her life.   Samaritans and Judeans worship the same God but they disagree on the central place of worship.  Samaritans worship on the nearby Mt. Gerazim, and Judeans insist that God be worshiped in Jerusalem.

Step number five in breaking this long-held barrier, in taking steps to repair the broken relationship and moving toward reconciliation:  Jesus indicates that it does not matter where God is worshiped, but that what matters is the how and the why of worshiping God.  Jesus tells her: “God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth.” I get the message from him that it therefore does not matter who is worshiping God, but that God is worshiped from the heart, with commitment, with gratitude, with praise.” 

The woman is not an uneducated, simple woman who sticks only to her household chores.  She clearly has been taught about the hope of a coming Messiah as all Judean Jews expected.  She is the first person in this gospel who Jesus tells that he is the one she is waiting for.  He uses I AM, directly connecting himself with the God who spoke to Moses at the burning bush, the God who is worshiped by Samaritan Jews on Mt. Gerazim and by Judean Jews in Jerusalem, or by followers anywhere who worship in spirit and in truth.

And step number six:  because of the woman’s testimony and her neighbors’ direct interaction with Jesus, the people of the village break tradition and actually invite Jesus to stay with them for two days.  Of course, those days include eating together and conversing together, something that would never have happened before.  Jesus breaks that same tradition by accepting their invitation to stay with them.

The relationship is not immediately perfect.  You can’t erase long held animosity and superior attitudes (on the part of the Judean Jews) with one eye-opening conversation with a woman, or even with a two-day visit.  But barriers have been broken.  Steps have been taken to repair this Samaritan-Judean relationship.  There is hope that Samaritan Jews will be re-married with Judean Jews as together they enter into this new life of following Jesus, who is the bridegroom of the church.

Repairing any relationship has to start with someone.  Often there are barriers to repairing that must be broken first.  Jesus is a barrier breaker.  And so should we be.  Amen.     

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