Building Bridges, Lent 3-A. John 4, 3/23/14 Why doesn’t Jesus have a bucket? It’s a small detail, not the sort of thing to which you would normally give a lot of attention. But you have to wonder

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Building Bridges, Lent 3-A. John 4, 3/23/14

Why doesn’t Jesus have a bucket? It’s a small detail, not the sort of thing to which you would normally give a lot of attention. But you have to wonder. Why does Jesus show up at a well in the middle of the day with no way to get a drink? There are plausible answers: He expected the well to have a communal bucket. He did not realize the well was so deep. He had not planned to stop at the well in the first place. But maybe the real reason is that Jesus is not so much interested in getting a drink as getting a Samaritan.
Today’s lesson is like one of those electronic maps on your computer. You can push the slider in and look at one small element in detail or you can pan out and see the larger lay of the land. I’m going to do the latter this morning and suggest that, taken as a whole, this story of Jesus’ encounter with a woman of Samaria is about Jesus crosses barriers and breaks down the boundaries which divide us from God and from one another.
You will remember that last week we looked at Jesus’ meeting with Nicodemus. It’s no accident that John the Evangelists follows that story with this one, so that they form a comparison and contrast. Nicodemus was the essence of the insider: a Pharisee, a leader of the people—socially influential, morally upright, intellectually sophisticated, and religiously respected. In contrast, from the perspective of those who admired Nicodemus, this woman is the very definition of a nobody. We don’t even know her a name.

First and foremost she’s a Samaritan. We do not need to go into the tortured history of Jews and Samaritans in Jesus’ day, save to say that they regarded each other in much the same way that Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland until recently regarded each other—and for some the same reasons. The bitterness went back generations and was rooted in a toxic mix of ethnic, political, and religious history. She was also a woman, by definition a person of less status in the patriarchal world of the first century. From her conversation with Jesus it appears that she is a simple, religiously unsophisticated peasant, perhaps with a morally sketchy past. We can not be sure about all the details, but one thing is absolutely clear, this woman is not a mover and a shaker. When Jesus’ engages her he is doing something unusual and unexpected, as evidenced by his disciples’ surprise when they find him talking to her.

So if this story is about Jesus’ crossing barriers, what does say to us this morning? The answer probably depends on where you put yourself in the narrative. Sometimes we feel like the woman at the well, an outsider, stuck on the margins.
One of the most miserable weeks of my life was spent at Camp Parker, South Carolina. I do not remember all the details, but somehow I ended up at music camp. Somebody must have thought I would enjoy it, but after the first practice session, one thing was abundantly clear: I did not belong. Everyone else there lived for music and was working to make All-State band; I was at best a mediocre second clarinet—and that was about the extent of my musical aspirations. When the conductor pulled out the woodwinds for sectional practice it was pure humiliation. The only thing worse than my slow fingering was my total inability to get the rhythm right. I stared at the musical score with no more comprehension than a dog reading Arabic. Like a scooter that stumbles onto the freeway at rush hour, I could not keep up. Worse than that, I did not know a single other person in the camp. I was utterly alone in my misery.

Your details will be different from mine, but I dare say we’ve all felt like the outsider at one time or another. You have a sense of not quite measuring up, of feeling vulnerable, of being alone even in the most crowded room. It happens when you flunk a test, when you get passed over for promotion, when the friend you hold so dear never has time for coffee. Sometimes you know it is not your fault; life has dealt you some jokers. But other times you think maybe something is wrong with you. Then the isolation is accentuated by a sense of shame for a marriage that’s going south, regret for poor choices which yield a painful harvest, a general sense of not being good enough.

Whatever the specifics the experience is universal. We long for community but feel isolated. We hunger to be accepted but are afraid that if we are truly known others will reject us. We want to be connected but are afraid of seeming needy.
That is where the woman at the well is, caught between wanting something more and being afraid to ask for it. She is initially guarded, even sarcastic (“Why do you, a Jew ask anything of me?”). But slowly Jesus invites her to open up; slowly he conveys his care. One crucial thing we need to notice about this story is the gentleness with which Jesus treats this woman. On those days when we are feeling vulnerable, when we are feeling alone, when we are feeling at sea, this story invites us to drink deeply of the living water which Jesus offers us in his unconditional acceptance.
The Samaritan woman was keenly aware of all that could have made Jesus look on her with disdain: her sex, her tribe, her religious ignorance, her past. Jesus does not ignore any of that, but gently, oh so gently, he communicates that none of that matters to him; he knows her and loves her warts and all. And that is the word he speaks to each of us, a word we can never hear too often.
Sometimes we find our place in this story when we thankfully hear the word which Jesus offers the woman, the word of acceptance. But there is another place we can be in this lesson, right next to our Lord offering that word of acceptance which crosses the barriers and breaks down all that divides.

Brian Blout begins a meditation on today’s lesson by asking, “What if we gave up division for Lent?” It’s an intriguing premise. What if, as a Lenten discipline, we just decided that whatever the provocation, whatever the reasons we can muster for righteous indignation we will not allow ourselves to look down on another person? What if, no matter how sure we are that the Tea Party folks are callous and selfish or that the Liberals are going to bankrupt us, we resolved to try to understand their passions and fears before lashing out in condemnation? What if we sought to look beneath slogans of pro-life /pro-choice to see the common humanity of those with whom we passionately disagree? What if we decided that our role as Christians in the culture wars which rage across our country is not to man the battlements but to build the bridges?

I’m not suggesting that we cave on our convictions. Jesus most assuredly does not shrink from pushing the Samaritan woman to grow and expand her vision, but he does meet her where she is and never allows his air of challenge to her to stink of contempt for her. What I am suggesting is that we offer the world the one thing which is uniquely ours, the reconciling presence of Jesus Christ.
The world does not need us to be the religious advocates of a particular social or political agenda. It does not need us to carry the banner for one economic program or another. It does not need us to be the self-appointed guardians of public morality or culture. It does not even need us to anoint ourselves as the lonely advocates for a narrow vision of justice. To be sure, our faith should impact every corner of our lives. But most crusades would have their boosters if every church in the country disappeared tomorrow. No, what we have to offer is a voice speaks peace, what we have are nail scarred hands which reach out in welcome to all. The crucial thing to notice in today’s lesson is that precisely because Jesus refuses to buy into old agendas, new possibilities emerge, precisely because he refuses to condemn her, transformation takes place for that anonymous woman and her whole village.

In the Central African Republic a bitter war is raging even as I speak between militias which call themselves Christian and Muslim. Hundreds have been killed in sectarian violence which some have called genocide. In one small town the Catholic church has offered sanctuary to over 650 Muslims fleeing from Christian gangs. Father Xavier Fagba, the local priest, knows full well that some of those he is sheltering have attacked Christian families. Why did you do this, he’s asked. He replies, “The Muslims discovered in our church that the God we worship is the same as their God. And that’s the vision the whole country needs to have.”
Surely if Father Fagba and his community can find a way to reach out to probable killers to find common humanity and faith, we can find a way to talk about Obamacare, taxes, gay marriage, immigration, and abortion without demonizing those with whom we disagree. If we can’t, maybe we ought to return again and again to this story about bridging barriers until we can.

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