Imaginary Boundaries

Because the Scripture for today is so familiar I wrote a contemporary parable to illustrate the central theme of the sermon, hoping people would hear the text in a new way before preconceived notions could kick in.

Olena and her little brother Anton had been on the run for almost two weeks.  Their father was off somewhere fighting the Russian invaders.  Olena was almost 11 and Anton 6.   There had been constant air raid sirens for months in their suburb just west of Kyiv, but the Russian missiles had always gone elsewhere– until that awful Thursday.  Their apartment took a direct hit that day, killing their mother.  Olena somehow found strength she didn’t know she had to find Anton in the rubble and drag him away from the only home they had ever known.

Olena knew her grandparents had fled to Poland when the war began.  If she and Anton could make it there she hoped they would be safe.  They had traveled almost 500 kilometers and helpful strangers had given them what little food and water they could spare and directed them toward the Polish border.  Anton’s little legs were worn out, and Olena had carried him as much as she could.  People in the last village had told Olena that they were only 5 KM from the border; so instead of stopping for the night she decided to push on thru the pain and exhaustion.  

In the fading twilight she tripped over something in the woods and fell hard with Anton on her back.  As she caught her breath she heard a moan.  She froze and shushed Anton.  Then she heard it again and realized what she had tripped over was not some thing but some one.  She crawled toward the sound and found a badly wounded soldier – a Russian.  Olena’s first reaction was to run away from this hated enemy as fast as she could, but after taking a few steps she stopped and looked back.  Anton was tugging at her to keep going, but she couldn’t.  She just couldn’t leave that poor man there to die alone. 

She went back and knelt down to check if he was still breathing.  He was wheezing and had lost a huge amount of blood.  She looked at his dog tag and saw his name was Dimitri.  When she called him by name his eyes fluttered briefly.  She took the last water she had and bent down to wet his lips.  He choked and sputtered, but his eyes told her he appreciated her effort.  

When she put the water bottle to his lips again she noticed a gold chain around his neck and pulled it out from his shirt.  She found a Russian Orthodox cross on the other end, and she placed it in his hand and held it there with her own hand.  That seemed to calm him, and within 15 minutes his grasp went slack and Olena knew he was gone.  She hated to just leave him there but knew she and Anton had to continue their journey to freedom.  

John 4:5-30, 39-41

When I learned to drive as a teen ager I got the usual parental advice about driving safely, and I even heeded some of it.  In those days before seat belts I’m surprised my friends and I survived our adolescence.  But here was one piece of advice I always took seriously, even into young adulthood—that was a stern warning to never go into the south end of Lima!  You see I grew up in a small town in NW Ohio, and Lima was the closest thing we had to a “big city” for miles around.  It was also the only community with any people of color for 60 miles or more.  You guessed it; the south end of Lima was the black ghetto.  I don’t know that we were ever told why that part of Lima was so dangerous, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out. My parents had drawn an imaginary boundary around that neighborhood so effectively that I never dared cross it. 

I was back in Lima a couple of weeks ago to conduct a funeral for one of my uncles, and as I was riding back from the cemetery with the funeral director I realized we were driving through the south end!  And you know what, that neighborhood didn’t look much different than the middle class one I grew up in. 

As we continue this sermon series on “Intentional Neighboring” we need to be reminded that we can’t be about the Jesus business of loving our neighbors unless we remove the imaginary boundaries that separate us.  Some of those are geographic boundaries, and some are mental and emotional.  In our text for this morning Jesus takes on both kinds. There are dozens of lessons that can be learned from this text from John, but I’d like for us to focus on two things this morning from Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well in Samaria.  First, notice at the very beginning of the story John tells us “Jesus left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria.”   

Is that true? You know how your google map gives you alternate routes and highlights the one that is the quickest? Well if Jesus used that app the direct route certainly would be the fastest.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean Jesus had to go that way.  My GPS will always tell me that the fastest route from here to Cleveland is up I -71, but there are dozens of other routes I could take that would get me there eventually. 

Jesus had choices, too.  And a big one had to do with Samaria.  We know the Jews and Samaritans were bitter enemies.  They had been feuding for over 200 years about whether the proper place to worship God was in Jerusalem or on Mt. Gerizim in Samaria.  No self-respecting Jew would set foot in Samaria if he or she had a choice – and Jesus had options.  Instead of going north through Samaria he could have gone east a little way, crossed the Jordan river and traveled north until he got past Samaria and then crossed back over the river into Galilee.  Scholars say it would have taken about 6 days to go by foot on that longer route as opposed to 3 days through Samaria.

So one can make a case for the Samaritan route, but for many devout Jews spending an extra 3 days walking was a small price to pay for avoiding any chance of contact with their enemies.  But there’s another way to look at the phrase “He had to go through Samaria.”  In the Scriptures the Greek verb used here usually refers to something that has to be done because it is according to God’s plan.  So John may be telling us here that Jesus “had” to go through Samaria because it was a necessary part of his mission, namely to share the good news with all of God’s children and not just the Jews. 

Intentional neighboring as followers of Jesus means crossing imaginary boundaries on a map and those in our minds. And it often means going in person.  Jesus could not have had this encounter at the well via text message or on a zoom call.  As convenient as those modes of communication can be true neighboring often requires a personal touch, a willingness to go out of our way to meet someone in person. We see the sacrifice Jesus is making when he stops at Jacob’s well because he is tired and thirsty.  He had walked about 60 miles from Judea.  Of course his feet hurt, but notice when he’s tired he doesn’t give up; he rests and asks for what he needs to carry on his mission.  We busy beaver Americans can learn an important lesson from that.  Rest is not a luxury, it’s a spiritual discipline called Sabbath keeping, and is so important it’s one of the 10 commandments.   

Now let’s look at something most of us think is in this story but just isn’t there.  In verse 16 “Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 

Do you hear what isn’t there?  When I read the commentary about this story I was embarrassed to realize that there is nothing here but simple facts.  The woman has had five husbands, and she’s living with a man she’s not married to.  Period.  Those are the facts, but for centuries the church, myself included, has read into this story a moral judgment.  This woman has been married five times!  What woman of good character does that? 

But that’s not in this text.  If we could hear the inflection in Jesus’ voice as he utters those words we would not hear judgment and rebuke.  He is simply telling her that he knows all about her and still is asking her for a drink.  Just the facts.  He does so to convince her that he is the Messiah, and when he does, she recognizes his love and is able to open up her whole life to him.  Jesus does not judge or condemn her.  And here’s the good news; Jesus doesn’t judge and condemn us either. So leave whatever guilt or shame you may be carrying today at the door on your way out.

Now, let’s look at the reaction of Jesus’ disciples when they find him talking to this Samaritan woman.  They are totally shocked, and if we aren’t also shocked then we don’t understand the radical nature of this story.  Jesus is breaking not one but two sacred rules at once.  Good Jewish men did not interact with Samaritans, nor did they talk to a strange woman.  Crossing boundaries is often dangerous because it offends the powers who create and maintain those boundaries for their own benefit. 

The other familiar story in the Gospels featuring someone from Samaria is of course the Good Samaritan, but there’s one important difference between these two stories.  One is a parable about a fictional character that Jesus tells to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?”  That’s a great story, but in this account about the woman at the well Jesus takes things up another notch.  He is not telling us how a neighbor acts—he’s showing us.  This time Jesus goes in person and puts his life on the line for the truth- that all of God’s children matter regardless of which zip code or which side of an imaginary boundary  they live on. 

We are so familiar with these stories and Jesus’ teaching that we usually miss how dangerous and radical they are.  We have domesticated Jesus so much that we may miss the point that he is a subversive influence trying to replace the law and order of the temple and the empire with the Kingdom of God.

The church ever since the 4th century has played down the revolutionary nature of the Gospel.  When Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312 C.E. and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire the church became a servant of the status quo instead of a prophetic voice proclaiming liberation of captives and salvation for the oppressed. 

Theological boundaries are by definition somewhat imaginary because we can’t experience God directly.  The problem is we want so badly to understand God and to be right about what we believe that we let our beliefs harden into exclusive ideas about God, and we judge other people who have different but equally definite beliefs.  As Jesus tells this woman God is Spirit, not a material being we can see or confine to some geographic place like Jerusalem or a church building.  God’s Holy Spirit is what lives in each of us to give us life.  That Spirit became flesh in Jesus and the closest we can come to seeing God is to experience Jesus and the grace he extends to all people represented by this outcast Samaritan woman.

Stories like the woman at the well are so familiar we may need to put them in fresh wineskins to appreciate their challenging message.  That was what I hoped to do with the story about Olena and Dimitri earlier – to show an example of being a good neighbor before our preconceived notions about the Scripture for today could kick in.  By coincidence, or Godincidence, there’s a movie in theaters right now that is a perfect example of intentional neighboring.  “A Man Called Otto,” starring Tom Hanks, his son Truman, and Mariana Trevino, could have been made with our sermon series in mind.  Mariana Trevino is marvelous as Marisol, the new neighbor who moves into Otto’s neighborhood and intentionally and persistently refuses to give up on being a good neighbor to a grumpy old man.  That’s all I’m going to say about the plot, but I urge you to see it as part of your homework for being an intentional neighbor.

Speaking of homework, I want to finish today by suggesting some action steps we can all take this week to be more like the neighbors Jesus is calling us to become.

  1. Examine and question any imaginary boundaries we encounter in our daily lives. Christians should be in the business of tearing down boundaries – not building them or preserving them.
  2. Ask hard questions about our own assumptions and beliefs that divide us from others.  Katy Wright had a devotion this week on the church’s Facebook page about this very thing.  Intentional neighboring usually means moving out of our comfort zone which is hard because it is by definition “uncomfortable.”  But Katy posted a diagram of a circle with 3 rings.  At the center of the circle is our comfort zone.  The outer ring she calls our panic zone.  None of us want to go there because we can’t function in panic mode.  But in between those two is a space called “the stretch zone,” and that’s where we can learn and grow.  The stretch zone is where we feel safe enough to open our eyes, ears, and hearts to let new visions of God’s kingdom stretch us. 
  3. Take time to pray this week about this transformational story of the woman at the well. Do we dare hear it and stay in Jesus’ presence long enough to let him change us, or will we retreat to familiar thoughts and ways when the going gets tough?

That’s an urgent existential question.  Our cities and nation and world are dying from hate and conflict and mistrust; and the only solution is more intentional neighboring.  It’s never easy, nor was it for Jesus.  Yes, we live in a scary, broken, troubled world; and so did Jesus. 

 It’s Ok to rest awhile when we’re tired and thirsty, but it’s not acceptable to give up.  Jesus didn’t give up all the way to the cross, and he needs disciples today with the courage and faith to do the same. 

Rev. Steve Harsh

Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH, January 29, 2023

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