A sermon preached by
Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, March 19, 2017
Text: John 4:5-42
We’re hearing a lot of heated rhetoric these days about borders. The debate is centered primarily around security and safety. There is a lot of concern about who should be on which side of a given border. Who is a threat? Who is an enemy? Who is undesirable? Who has the right to belong and who is a usurper?
There was a time in my life when I would have gotten right in the middle of such a conflict. The old debater in me loved a good argument and the self-righteous side of me would have yielded to a belief that I had a corner on the truth. However, the older I get, the less inclined I am to want to do battle. I’d much rather try to figure out a way to reconciliation and peace.
Then this week someone posted something on my Facebook which stirred the old desire to fight back. I am not certain who this person is. I think he was a high school classmate. Apparently, he’s seen enough on my Facebook page, and, probably, the church’s page to determine that I am on the wrong side of the debate on immigrants and refugees, especially when it comes to Muslims. In the past, he’s posted comments on my page to which I did not respond and which hid from my timeline.
This week’s post from him was a particularly ugly video which purported to show Muslim men abusing and executing a Muslim woman. His comment was, “You really want to welcome these people into our midst???” The comment was accompanied by 3 question marks for emphasis. After I hid the posting from my page, I decided to respond, not realizing that if I responded, it would open up a whole thread of conversation.
My response was, “Of course, I want to welcome ‘these people.’ Number one. These are people – made in the image of God, just like you and me. Number two – how will we ever reach them and effect any change if we shut them out. Shutting them out only escalates the cycle of enmity and violence.” In the thread of conversation, several friends, including our special missionary, Dan Buttry, weighed in, pointing out that, even if the video could be verified – which is questionable, it does not portray all Muslims. Nor does it let some American Christian men off the hook for abuse of women and lynching black people and Native Americans. Our own practices in “Christian America” are hardly pure.
Finally, my exasperated adversary said, “Just keep those heads buried in the sand. It won’t help. And you cannot reach them, ever.” To which I replied, “I can assure, my head is not buried anywhere. I serve one who said ‘with God all things are possible.’ If I believed that any child of God was beyond God’s reach, I would have given up long ago.” I’m not sure what kind of marks I would get as a debater, but I did get an “Amen!” from Gregory, which is good enough for me. This conversation has something to do with safety, secure borders, and who may cross them when and where. It also has to do with very nature of human being.
So, what is a border or boundary? The dictionary says a border is “a line separating two political or geographical areas, especially countries” or “a district near a line separating two political or geographical areas; the edge or boundary of something, or the part near it.” Boundary is defined as “a line that marks the limits of an area; a dividing line; a limit of a subject or sphere of activity.” Synonyms include “frontier, perimeter, partition, and confines.” Why do you think borders or boundaries might be useful or necessary? Why do you think some of us want to defend them so fiercely? Why do you think some of us are drawn to border crossings?
In today’s rather long story from the gospel of John, both the Samaritan Woman and Jesus are among those drawn to crossing borders. In a piece entitled, “The Nasty Woman Who Persisted,” New Testament scholar, Jaime Clark-Soles writes that “This is a story about crossing borders of various kinds. It’s a story about a strong woman (who may not have felt strong) surviving and even thriving in a society that privileged male power…She’s bold. She’s informed. She stands her ground and doesn’t cower before the male gaze or ‘natural authority’ based on gender.” Further, Soles-Clark points out, “Jesus literally crosses a geographical border when he goes from Judea to Samaria on his way to Galilee. He [also] crosses ethnic, political, religious borders by being a Jew interacting with a Samaritan…He crosses a serious gender border by meeting a woman all alone at a well, for wells are the meeting place of future spouses” (Jaime Clark-Soles, “The Nasty Woman Who Persisted: The Samaritan Woman of John 4,” March 17, 2017, onscripture.com).
In the beginning of the chapter, John writes, “Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, ‘Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John’…he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria.” However, we know this is not true. He did not have to go through Samaria. Yes, it was the shortest route from Judea to Galilee, but most any observant Jew would have taken a longer way around, avoiding contact with the detested Samaritans. Here Jesus deliberately crosses borders of state and race. Is he trying to break down ancient barriers with such an act or is he just moving naturally, in the most sensible direction and without feelings of enmity for his Samaritan siblings? Does he have his head in the sand or is he following some mandate from God to love one’s neighbor, breaking down the dividing wall of hostility by offering grace and compassion to Samaritans?
So, there he is sitting by Jacob’s Well, in the noonday sun. He is undoubtedly weary, hot, and thirsty from his journey. And just maybe, he’s anticipating what is about to happen in his encounter with the Samaritan Woman. Something in God’s plan brings him to this place at this time to meet this person. At least, that’s how John sees it. He had to cross these borders because he had a message for this woman who, uncharacteristically, was drawing water at midday.
The last time I preached on this text I followed William Barclay’s lead in claiming the woman came to the well at noon to avoid the judgment of the other women who would ordinarily draw the day’s water in the cool of the morning. The implication is that this woman was something less than desirable company. After all, hadn’t she had five husbands and now she was “living in sin.” There’s something extra delicious about Jesus having this conversation with a “fallen woman.” But what if there are other explanations for her coming at noon? What if all her husbands had been old men, whom she had simply outlived? (Remember the life span for peasants of the period would have been 35 to 40 years.) What if she was now living with one who cared for and protected her?
Soles-Clark, again, writes, “In antiquity (and often today), a woman without a man (whether a mate or sons) was in a vulnerable position, since there was no financial gender equity. The text gives us no reason for why she had numerous husbands. Did they die? Leave? Invariably, interpreters make her out to be a ‘nasty woman,’ with no basis.” She continues, “People import meaning into this text but never does it include sympathy for the plight of this woman in a vulnerable position, asking why the husbands are not there and how dire her circumstances might have been as she tried to survive.” In fact, Soles-Clark suggests the woman may be seen as “…the spiritual matriarch of nasty (disdained), persistent, and fearless women across the centuries” (Soles-Clark, op. cit.) She, too is willing to cross borders of status, race, and gender to talk to this stranger from Galilee. Have you ever known a woman who, in addition to her daily routine, was thirsty for a deep and meaningful conversation about things that mattered, who was ready for a long drink of “living water”?
Soles-Clark says, “Both she and Jesus are willing to be vulnerable and really risk something for the sake of faith.” “You really want to welcome these people into our midst???” Well, yes. How can there be any reconciliation without crossing borders and discovering who and what is on the other side? How can the dividing walls of hostility be broken down without encounter? If I assume you really are the stereotype with which you’ve been burdened, how will we ever find our common human identity in God’s Beloved Community? What do I lose out on when I don’t allow myself to learn from you?
As Martin Luther King, Jr., wisely observed, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. So, when Jesus says ‘Love your enemies,’ he is setting forth a profound and ultimately inescapable admonition. Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies – or else? The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing wars – must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation” (Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love).
Is my head stuck in the sand? You be the judge. Meanwhile. I have a few more border crossings ahead. I’m not giving up. I’m still trying to serve one who said “with God all things are possible.” See that light that glows through the darkness? Taste the life-giving water that bursts from rock? That’s for you and me and all the world. I still believe that no child of God is beyond the reach of God’s grace and love. How about you?