By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John 4:3-42 (focusing on verses 9 & 31-38)
Avocados are one of my favorite foods. I went through my entire adolescence without seeing or tasting an avocado. (I can tell you they’re not your standard Appalachian produce.) I started eating them in my late 20’s and have grown increasingly fond of them. But the thing about avocados is that they need to be at the perfect ripeness which can be tricky to discern. Now, I’ve honed my skills over the years and here’s what I’ve determined: you want a darker shade (the lighter green never seems to fully ripen); you want just the slightest give when you press the skin (too much give means it’s going to be rotten inside), the smoother the outside the better the inside (I have no idea why that’s the case), beware of indentations (which will be rotten spots when you cut it up). Most of the time, I do pretty well. Sometimes I get fooled. It appears perfect on the outside and when I open it, it’s rotten on the inside. When that happens, it makes me angry at the supermarket. But sometimes I have an entirely different problem. You see, when I get home with my avocado, it generally needs to lay on the counter for a couple days to reach optimum ripeness. But if I let it lay there too long, it will begin to go bad. It’s happened. I get busy and forget to put my avocado in the refrigerator and I miss my narrow window of avocado perfection. The opportunity is lost. That makes me really angry at myself. I think, “You just wasted something great just because you weren’t paying attention.”
This morning’s scripture is just a small portion of the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. It’s a story that ends with an agricultural proverb, a metaphor of sorts, which challenges us to look around and notice people who are ripe and ready to respond to the good news of Jesus.
Now this story of Jesus in Samaria consumes 42 verses so I didn’t share them all. But I do want to summarize what takes place in the verses I didn’t read. Verses 5-7 set the scene. Jesus and the disciples are in Samaria, Jesus is resting by a well, the disciples go off to buy food, and a Samaritan woman comes to draw up water. And that is the point at which Jesus and this woman enter into a dialogue with one another that ultimately results an entire village being brought into relationship with Jesus.
The dialogue begins with Jesus asking the woman for a drink of water. She notes how unconventional his request is when she says: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Then, our gospel narrator sheds some light on this peculiarity by informing us that Jews do not “share in common” with Samaritans. Now hold onto that thought because we’re going to circle back to it in just a moment after I finish my summary of this dialogue.
The woman and Jesus talk more about this water. Jesus’ words reveal that he’s referring to something more than H2O at the bottom of a well and his words pique the woman’s interest. Next, Jesus invites her to go get her husband. When she remarks that she doesn’t have a husband, Jesus reveals that he already knows that and so much more about her. She’s surprised, caught off guard, and assumes Jesus must be a prophet so she asks him a very important question about worship. You see, Jews and Samaritans worshipped in different places and the Jews down south were pretty fussy about the temple in Jerusalem being the only acceptable place to worship God. Worship was and still is, in large part, about encountering God and John’s gospel will reveal that Jesus is the way to encounter God. Their discussion at the well goes even deeper and Jesus reveals to the woman who he is. Incidentally, this is the first time in John’s gospel that Jesus discloses his identity. He does so by using the exact same words God used to name himself at the burning bush with Moses when Moses asked God’s name. God replied: “I am.” Likewise, Jesus says, “I am.”[i]
Now, having summarized this dialogue of 19 verses, let’s circle back to that verse 9 that I mentioned where our narrator informs us that Jews do not “share in common” with Samaritans. Now the Greek word used there[ii] was generally used in reference to dishware and utensils; meaning that Jews and Samaritans wouldn’t have “shared in common” dishware which sounds pretty odd to us. But part of what distinguished the Jewish people – part of what identified them as God’s chosen people – was the way in which they ate. This is what we know today as kosher. Way back in the 14th chapter of the book of Deuteronomy,[iii] God gave the Israelites rules about what foods they could and couldn’t eat. Today, strict Jews – generally, Orthodox Jews – follow those rules to the letter. They even have special dishware for especially holy days, like Sabbath, Yom Kippur, Passover, etc. But why; we Christians might wonder. What is that all about?
Well, it’s about holiness. There was distinctiveness about how Jews were to eat and dress and worship; rules that defined how they were to generally behave because those rules acted as boundaries that set them apart from other ancient people and cultures. The word “holy” means “set apart.”[iv] The Jewish people had been “set apart” for God. They were to be holy just as God was holy. Holiness is defined in relation to God. Let me say that again: holiness is defined in relation to God. People, places, even things become holy because of their relationship with God.
Now, according to most Jews of Jesus’ day, Samaritans[v] were not holy and had no legitimate relationship with God. They were unholy, unclean. So, any respectable Jew would steer clear of them… except for Jesus who, within this story, is the one who initiates the relationship with this Samaritan woman.
Friends, this story demonstrates a radical transgression of boundaries in order to bring those whom others would deem as unclean into relationship with the holy God through Jesus. Let me say that again. This is a story about transgressing conventional boundaries in order to bring those on the “wrong side of the border” into a relationship with God through Jesus. Logically, Jesus should have had nothing to do with this woman. She was a Samaritan, she was a woman and she had a somewhat dubious living arrangement. Three strikes and you’re out, right? Yet, once again, Jesus initiates relationship with her and Jesus doesn’t pick away at her personal life. In fact, it appears that he only references her multiple husbands to demonstrate his divine knowledge of her. And the fact that this is the first person in John’s gospel to whom Jesus reveals his divine identity, is the craziest fact of them all. It is through their relationship that she, too, will become holy – one of God’s chosen ones – not based on her diet or her ethnicity or even her lifestyle; but based solely on her response to Jesus.
This is a story about transgressing boundaries. This is a story about the need to move into unfamiliar, even hostile, territory. But this is also a story about a bountiful harvest; a story of people who are ripe and ready. Friends, Jesus could see what the disciples did not see. So, “look around you,” Jesus says to them. “See how the fields are ripe for harvesting.” This woman was ripe and ready to hear the good news Jesus had to offer her. This woman’s spiritual condition was like that perfect avocado: laying on the counter ripe and ready. When Jesus’ disciples return and survey this situation, they don’t see what Jesus sees. They’re thinking to themselves, “Why is he speaking with her?” No doubt, those disciples saw an unclean Samaritan woman. They could not perceive her as a part of them. They were holy Jewish men enrolled in this itinerant rabbinical school. She was an unclean, Samaritan woman. What they saw likely repelled them. But Jesus saw something different. He wasn’t put off by who she was, where she was or even what she’d done. He wasn’t put off by her gender[vi] or her ethnicity or even her lifestyle.
And so, this story ought to challenge us to consider: what do we see when we look around? [Well, not in here, mind you; but when we walk through those doors.] Can we see people who are ready to hear the good news of Jesus? Have we gotten close enough to even know? There’s a danger for us as Christians; the danger that we become so comfortable with one another that we circle the wagons and batten down the hatches. There’s plenty of that going on in our world right now; people building walls to separate themselves from those who seem dubious or threatening or just plain different. It’s nice to be with other people who share our beliefs and our values and, to a large degree, even our lifestyle. But friends, we need to get over that. If we’ve insulated ourselves by surrounding ourselves with other Christians, then we simply are not Jesus’ disciples because to be a disciple means we’re learning to emulate the behaviors of Jesus and Jesus never hesitated to transgress those boundaries. Jesus loved to reach out to the people others avoided. So, this morning I want to ask you – and me – where do we need to go? What boundary do we need to cross? Who do we need to see differently; not seeing them as someone offensive but as someone who may well be ripe and ready to hear the good news of Jesus?
Last week I read a blog about a recent Barna Research survey.[vii] The survey revealed that 51% of North American Christians polled possess attitudes and actions that are more like some of those holier-than-thou Pharisees we read about in the gospels than like Jesus. In other words, our attitudes and actions reveal that we may get caught up in maintaining our boundaries and preserving our purity and, like the disciples in this morning’s story, miss the opportunity to show the kind of hospitality and mercy Jesus showed. In fact, according to the standards Barna applied, only 14% of Christians revealed attitudes and actions consistent with those of Jesus. The writer of the blog, Carey Niewhouf, identified some things he sometimes hears Christians say to other Christians that reveal this kind of Pharisaic, judgmental attitude. One was this: “You shouldn’t hang around people like that.” Another was similar: “I’m simply more comfortable with people from my church than I am with people who don’t go to church.” Niewhouf writes: “One of the reasons churches aren’t growing is because Christians don’t know any non-Christians.” He points out that, if we want to see our churches grow, “go to some parties and get to know some people who are far from God. You will discover that God likes them. And you might discover you do too. And people – who at one time didn’t follow Jesus – might even start following Jesus.” My response to that survey is more concise. I’d say that, if all of your friends already go to church, it’s time to make some new friends.
There’s no time like the present for us to look around and see people that are ripe and ready to hear – and even more importantly, to experience through us – the good news of the love of Jesus.
[i] See John 4:26 and Exodus 3:14 (the Greek translation). This is the Greek phrase ego eimi, meaning “I am” in both places.
[iii] See Deuteronomy 14:2-21
[v] Around 721 BCE the Assyrians conquered the northern tribes of Israel. People of other nations were brought into the territory of Israel and, in time, the Jews intermarried with these foreign people resulting in the ethnic designation “Samaritan.” Because they had intermarried and mixed Jewish and Gentile blood, they were deemed impure or unholy. They also mixed the worship of God with the worship of foreign idols.
[vi] Even today in many Middle Eastern countries men and women don’t mingle publicly. And rules governing such social behavior were especially stringent in Jesus’ day. A man simply did not enter into public conversation with a woman he didn’t know. It would have been deemed dishonorable. In addition, remember that at this time in Jesus’ ministry he was perceived as a rabbi and the reputation of a rabbi was severely compromised when he spoke with a woman. There was a rabbinical saying: “He that talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the law and at last will inherit Gehenna – or “go to hell,” we might say.
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