Crossing Borders

5 and on his way he came to the town of Sychar. It was near the field that Jacob had long ago given to his son Joseph. 6-8 The well that Jacob had dug was still there, and Jesus sat down beside it because he was tired from traveling. It was noon, and after Jesus’ disciples had gone into town to buy some food, a Samaritan woman came to draw water from the well.
Jesus asked her, “Would you please give me a drink of water?”
9 “You are a Jew,” she replied, “and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink of water when Jews and Samaritans won’t have anything to do with each other?”
10 Jesus answered, “You don’t know what God wants to give you, and you don’t know who is asking you for a drink. If you did, you would ask me for the water that gives life.”
11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you don’t even have a bucket, and the well is deep. Where are you going to get this life-giving water? 12 Our ancestor Jacob dug this well for us, and his family and animals got water from it. Are you greater than Jacob?”
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again. 14 But no one who drinks the water I give will ever be thirsty again. The water I give is like a flowing fountain that gives eternal life.”
15 The woman replied, “Sir, please give me a drink of that water! Then I won’t get thirsty and have to come to this well again.”
16 Jesus told her, “Go and bring your husband.”
17-18 The woman answered, “I don’t have a husband.”
“That’s right,” Jesus replied, “you’re telling the truth. You don’t have a husband. You have already been married five times, and the man you are now living with isn’t your husband.”
19 The woman said, “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet. 20 My ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews say Jerusalem is the only place to worship.”
21 Jesus said to her:
Believe me, the time is coming when you won’t worship the Father either on this mountain or in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans don’t really know the one you worship. But we Jews do know the God we worship, and by using us, God will save the world. 23 But a time is coming, and it is already here! Even now the true worshipers are being led by the Spirit to worship the Father according to the truth. These are the ones the Father is seeking to worship him. 24 God is Spirit, and those who worship God must be led by the Spirit to worship him according to the truth.
25 The woman said, “I know that the Messiah will come. He is the one we call Christ. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
26 “I am that one,” Jesus told her, “and I am speaking to you now.”
27 The disciples returned about this time and were surprised to find Jesus talking with a woman. But none of them asked him what he wanted or why he was talking with her.
28 The woman left her water jar and ran back into town. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! Could he be the Messiah?” 30 Everyone in town went out to see Jesus.
31 While this was happening, Jesus’ disciples were saying to him, “Teacher, please eat something.”
32 But Jesus told them, “I have food that you don’t know anything about.”
33 His disciples started asking each other, “Has someone brought him something to eat?”
34 Jesus said:
My food is to do what God wants! He is the one who sent me, and I must finish the work that he gave me to do. 35 You may say that there are still four months until harvest time. But I tell you to look, and you will see that the fields are ripe and ready to harvest.
36 Even now the harvest workers are receiving their reward by gathering a harvest that brings eternal life. Then everyone who planted the seed and everyone who harvests the crop will celebrate together. 37 So the saying proves true, “Some plant the seed, and others harvest the crop.” 38 I am sending you to harvest crops in fields where others have done all the hard work.
39 A lot of Samaritans in that town put their faith in Jesus because the woman had said, “This man told me everything I have ever done.” 40 They came and asked him to stay in their town, and he stayed on for two days.
41 Many more Samaritans put their faith in Jesus because of what they heard him say. 42 They told the woman, “We no longer have faith in Jesus just because of what you told us. We have heard him ourselves, and we are certain that he is the Savior of the world!”
Jesus did not text the woman.
He did not Tweet about her.
He didn’t post her picture on Instagram.

Of course not.

He talked with her.  Not to her.  Not about her. Not at her.  With her.

This may seem insignificant.  What else would you do in 30 C.E.?

Here’s what makes the conversation unique and surprising and important.

Jesus was a Jew and the woman was a Samaritan.
Jews and Samaritans had nothing to do with each other.

Jesus was a man and she was a woman.
Jewish men never spoke to any woman who was not a relative.

Jesus was single; she’d been widowed five times.
They had nothing in common, nothing to talk about.

That conversation should have never taken place.
But it did.

Jesus and the woman both crossed borders.

Jesus ignored social conventions, the very ones the Pharisees and most Jews valued and used to judge others.
The woman doesn’t back down, either.  She is the only one at the well; it is noon, after all, and too hot to be outdoors. But she needs water, so she comes to the well.

Much has been made of the facts we know about the woman, especially the fact that she comes at noon, instead of in the cool of the morning, and the fact that she’s been married five times.  Put together, one might construe that the other women in town have shunned her because she has had more than her share of husbands.

But consider that 95% of the people lived in poverty, and overcrowding, poor sanitation, poor nutrition, and diseases were the norm, it is not inconceivable that a woman could be widowed several times. Additionally both the Jews and Samaritans followed the Levirate law regarding a woman producing children to carry on her husband’s name.
Deut 25:5-6    Levirate Marriage 5 When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, 6 and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.

Jesus does not question her further about her husbands or the man who lives in her household now.  Without a man of some status in her life, she had no way to support herself. Jesus does not condemn her or in anyway imply that she is less than honorable.  He is simply stating a fact.  I’d have love to have seen his expression…was it, “sorry for your losses” or “you’re a survivor?”  At any rate, he moves on.

This woman amazes me.  Let’s give her a name. According to Eastern Orthodox tradition, her name is “Photini.”  Photini is a strong woman.  She has a quick and curious mind. A lesser woman would have run the other way when a stranger asked for help. She is not intimidated by Jesus, even though she immediately understands that this stranger is a Jew, an enemy. She make sure Jesus knows exactly whose well this is—it is the well dug by Jacob.  Jacob was one of the great ancestors that the Samaritans and Jews had in common.  They also had in common the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. ( Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.)  The division between the Jews and Samaritans took place over several centuries, and had much to do with being conquered, with immigration, and with intermarriage.  Just as families adapt each others customs, so the Samaritans adapted to the customs of their conquerors and their new neighbors.  The Jews whose experience was different, looked down on their ancestral “cousins” for their religious and social adaptations.

Photini recognizes right away that Jesus is Jewish.  9 “You are a Jew,” she replied, “and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink of water when Jews and Samaritans won’t have anything to do with each other?”

Jesus gives her an answer that is rather nonsensical:
10 Jesus answered, “You don’t know what God wants to give you, and you don’t know who is asking you for a drink. If you did, you would ask me for the water that gives life.”

I don’t think I would have stayed around. First of all, if someone gives me a strange answer, I”m thinking “stranger danger.”  But Photini holds her own:

11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you don’t even have a bucket, and the well is deep. Where are you going to get this life-giving water? 12 Our ancestor Jacob dug this well for us, and his family and animals got water from it. Are you greater than Jacob?”

She is taking Jesus literally…she knows that water is life giving—everybody knows that.  So what is so special about this water Jesus would provide and where is he getting it? Furthermore, she knows her history well and Jesus doesn’t strike her as anyone who has any credibility.

Remember when Dan Quayle was debating Lloyd Benson in 1988.Quayle likened his political experience to that of John F. Kennedy. Lloyd Bentsen’s response: “I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Photini seems to be saying to Jesus, “You are no Jacob, sir.”

Photini uses her knowledge to argue with Jesus, to challenge him.  Have you ever noticed how often Jesus is challenged by women—and never puts them down. He argues back, but I can’t think of a time that he wasn’t respectful. Considering the conventions of his time and the conventions of those who wrote his biography decades later, it’s remarkable that there are so many stories about such strong women in the New Testament.

This conversation takes an odd twist: Jesus says, “Go get your husband.”  Without missing a beat, without apologizing or hesitating, Photini says, “I have no husband.”  Jesus knew that, of course, and why he even brought it up is odd, since he doesn’t seem to judge her.  Perhaps he is testing her, or perhaps this is his way of revealing his credentials.  At any rate, she immediately understands that he is special after all.  In her experience, anyone who knows more about you than your neighbors must be a prophet.  An ordinary person could not have guessed her unusual history.  Only someone with supernatural power could have known about her marital situation.

Her immediate reaction is to tell everyone she knows.

As an aside, I’d like to suggest that here is more evidence that she is not a pariah in the community.  If she were really a prostitute, as is the common reading of this text, or if she were shunned by the community, there would be no point in her running back to gather her neighbors.  No one would have listened to her.  In fact, she brings back quite a crowd of people, so that indicates that her reputation is good rather than bad among the community.  They accepted her invitation to come to meet Jesus and listen to him.

And what followed was strategically important in Jesus’ ministry: he was invited to stay for two days to visit with these people who traditionally considered his type an enemy and undesirable.

Jesus was on his way from Jerusalem to Galilee.  To get there he and his disciples had to either walk through Samaria or take the long way around. Jesus chose to walk into a place that would not welcome the group of travelers. Jesus deliberately expanded his ministry beyond the Jewish nation, beyond Jewish culture, beyond Jewish exclusivity.

What can we take away from today’s text?

I’ll choose three things:

1.    Don’t judge someone by what others say about them.  For centuries, scholars and Bible readers have assumed that the woman at the well was a prostitute or a loser of some kind.  Those assumptions were based on the reader’s ideas, not the woman’s real situation, which is mostly unknown to us.

2.    Beware of how you follow the rules. Jesus acted honestly.  He knew all the rules, he understood them, and he practiced them when necessary.  But he knew why rules existed and he knew which ones were hindrances to genuine relationships and which rules were protective of those who made the rules.  Rules are necessary to an efficient, peaceful society.  But rules can also benefit one group at the expense of others.
Jesus, the longed-for Messiah, transcended the rules because He was the Messiah for all humans everywhere. He was not just the Jewish Messiah, nor was he the Messiah of Samaritan tradition.
I’m not advocating lawbreaking. I expect you to follow the speed limit, pay your taxes, dispose of your garbage in an environmentally friendly way.
But there are rules that haven’t been written on paper.  Let me give you an example.  A young family had a seriously ill mother who couldn’t prepare family meals.  A member of her church organized a schedule for meals to be delivered. The organizer was surprised when hardly anyone signed up to help the family, which included four children. After snooping around, the organizer found out that the parents had, in one way or another, ticked off some other members in the congregation. They had not neglected their children or committed adultery.  As far as the church member knew, they were in good standing with God and considered themselves God’s children.  But because they didn’t attend regularly or made somebody mad, their fellow Christians chose to ignore them.
So, beware whose rules you follow.
When someone needs help, think about whom Jesus would help. Would Jesus help a drug addict? If the woman at the well really had been a prostitute, would Jesus have avoided her? Would Jesus help a politician?

3.    Make new friends.  Get to know someone you think wouldn’t like you.  I think of all the community breakfasts and fish frys and beef dinners we have in our communities.  Sit with somebody you don’t know.  Ask them where they live.  Where they grew up.  What other breakfasts they go to.  Funeral lunches are even easier. Sit with strangers and ask them how they knew the deceased.  Weddings receptions, same story.
You know what you’re doing, don’t you?  You’re witnessing.  You are loving your neighbor as you love yourself.  Eventually, the conversation may get around to where you go to church, and  you have the perfect opportunity to extend an invitation. Just like Jesus, you’re crossing borders.  No walls, no barbed wire, no armed guards.  Just you loving new  neighbors and loving God.  Amen.
Below is a link to an article about this text. I found the information helpful in understanding the Jewish/Samaritan conflict and the social dynamics of the time.

I want to talk to Nicodemus

John 3:1-17
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.
He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
If we all read Greek, the way John wrote it, this passage might be more accessible.  But we’re not all theologians.  Or are we? According to one of my sources, we are all theologians. Professor Karoline Lewis defines a theologian as anyone who goes through life expecting to find God at work.
Where do we start looking?  Why not the Bible?  You do not have to be a theologian to understand what this collection of books is saying.  Yes, it helps to read Hebrew and Greek to better understand some passages.  I depend on articles that explain the Greek and Hebrew to me.  But besides Greek and Hebrew, the Bible is full of people, who, even though they lived in a different time and place, are very much like you and me.

Today, we read about Nicodemus.

Nicodemus was successful.  He was one of the priests who set policy, who promoted and protected the sanctity of Judaism, who had enough power to live safely and comfortably.  Yet, being safe and comfortable is not enough if your mind is troubled.

Power and security did not protect Nicodemus from the shocking, amazing words of Jesus.  Nicodemus, a good man in every way possible, knows, in his heart, that Jesus is important, not because Jesus is popular, but because Jesus is speaking a bigger truth than anyone else in existence.

I’d like to talk to Nicodemus.  He was a man between a rock and a hard place.  He worked for a government that often expected him to go against what he believed as a man of faith.

He, along with the Pharisees and priests, worked for the Romans to keep peace for the Jews.  His boss was Pilate, a mean and selfish man who had no thought for anything but his own status and comfort.  His king, Herod, was cut from the same cloth. He answered to Caiphas, the high priest, who answered to Herod, who answered to Pilate.  Nicodemus was lucky to be part of the Jewish judicatory that was on the good side of the Roman government.  Yet he was troubled by the words of Jesus, upset, spiritually, and emotionally turned upside down by what he was hearing from Jesus.

I’d like to talk to Nicodemus.  I’d like to ask him, “Nicodemus, what exactly did Jesus say or do that made you seek him out? What did you hear?  Nicodemus, were you in the temple when Jesus was preaching?”

I’d like to talk to Nicodemus.  “Nicodemus, why were your colleagues afraid of Jesus? How could He possibly threaten a well-established Temple hierarchy and hundreds of years of tradition?

I’d like to talk to Nicodemus. He told Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” If the Jewish authorities thought Jesus came from God, why didn’t they support him?  Why didn’t they welcome him? Why didn’t they invite him to make his headquarters at the Temple?

I’d ask Nicodemus why the High Priest would reject the very Messiah he’d been praying for his whole life.

I think Nicodemus might explain to me that while personal faith and beliefs and family and tradition and heritage are all important, there are earthly powers that will not tolerate any aberration, any different idea, any belief that threatens the power and authority of that earthly power, whether it be a government or a corporation or an organization.  Once a group of people organize to maintain order, they have to work hard to make sure no one disrupts that order.  If the circumstances of a few are worsened by mandates of the organization, the few must change, not the government.

For an organization to run smoothly and efficiently, whether it be government or business or the Lions Club, most of the decision making has to be in the hands of a few people.  That’s why we elect officers in our organizations, why we elect legislators to write our laws.  If we all reported to to Des Moines or Washington, thousands of people trying to make themselves heard would results in a cacophonous chaos.

As Nicodemus knew, that smaller group could lose sight of the bigger picture and become insulated from the people they served.  Their concern devolved to keeping their own status, businesses and families secure. They became unaware of the possibility that what is helpful to one might be harmful to another. The priests were given   responsibility for the entire Jewish population, but they had neither the means nor the need to consider the individual lives of those people who followed Jesus, whose life experience was very different from theirs.  They didn’t ignore the poor, exactly.  There were laws that addressed the widow, the orphan, the foreigner.  But the laws didn’t address economic injustice or political oppression.

I’d like to ask Nicodemus, “What is your opinion of the Roman government? Do you feel safe?  Do you think the Jewish nation is safe?”

One reason for the Jewish authorities to cooperate with the Roman government was to be able to practice the 513 rules handed down in the Torah, those by-laws of the ten commandments. Otherwise, there would be no temple, no worship, no Sabbath.

Ironically, forty years later, the Temple was destroyed because enough Jewish freedom fighters arose to fight Rome—-and lost.  And yet, the faith continued.  The Jewish nation continued, though persecuted to this day. If you think Jews are accepted today, then you’ve never heard a joke about a Jew, you’ve never “jew’d anyone down,” you’ve never blamed the farm crises on Jewish bankers.

Two millennia later, the church that claims that Messiah, has its own complicity with the government.  In our time, we are seeing Christianity, like Judaism before it, claim to support the government, claim to be a political force, aiming to force its own agenda on all citizens.  Just as the Temple authorities chose to protect themselves by collaborating, so are some of our Christian brothers and sisters are choosing power and protection for themselves over “love God and love your neighbor.”

You don’t have to go to seminary to be a theologian. A theologian is anyone who goes through life expecting to find God at work.

Do you expect to find God at work somewhere?  I think, more than ever, we need to be looking for evidence of God.  And, even more importantly, we ourselves need to be that evidence through our own witnessing.

Professor Lewis says:
Every single person sitting in your pews is a theologian. They need to know this. Now more than ever. They need to be affirmed in their ability to give witness to the God in which they believe. They need to be empowered in making sense of their world through the lens of God. They need to know that they can indeed testify to the God they know, even in the face of those who profess a God they might not recognize. Not for the sake of argument. Not for the sake of winning some biblical war. Can’t we be over that already? But for the sake of invested exchange and understanding. For the sake of dialogue and learning. For the sake of real conversations about faith.

I can’t talk to Nicodemus.  I can talk to you.  Nicodemus had the privilege of talking to Jesus.  We have the privilege of talking about Jesus, about what we do as followers of Jesus.  We claim that we want to be a presence in our community. We claim to follow Jesus.  Jesus was anti-establishment—-remember that phrase from the sixties?  The Jesus I follow is still anti-establishment, counter-cultural.

Nicodemus came to Jesus in the dark of night, when no one could see him.  He wanted to follow Jesus without anybody else knowing. How do you feel about being a Christian?  Do you want anyone to know?  Do you want everyone to know?  It’s easy enough to claim Jesus when we’re standing around the dessert table at the fish fry or when we attend a funeral and recite the Lord’s prayer with the rest of the crowd.

I’m not going to give you any examples of times when you might make your claim as a Christian a little more obvious.  But I want you to think about times when you were glad Jesus wasn’t in the room or at the next table or behind you in the bleachers.

Are you only going to follow Jesus in the privacy of your home or when everybody else is?  Or are you going to acknowledge Jesus in the ordinary routine, the workplace, the family gathering?  You might be surprised: your witness may enable someone else to see God in the moment.

Nicodemus, what do you want us to know?  Nicodemus, how did you vote when the other priests wanted to turn Jesus over to Pilate? Did you call in sick that day or did you argue to invite Jesus into the sanctity of Temple life?  Nicodemus, did anyone every see you in broad daylight walking with Jesus?