Gathered at the Well

July 1, 2018
Reverend Sarah Brouwer

A reading from John 4

Nine years ago this summer I was in Chicago for a dismantling racism course led by the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education. Maybe you’ve heard me talk about this one before.

The class used the city of Chicago as a classroom. We walked and ate, talked and listened our way through neighborhoods, meeting church and community leaders that either represented or worked with diverse, and often poor populations. One of our tasks for the two week class was to take public transportation, which was not as easy back before smartphones. On the Saturday of our first week, our assignment was to find our way to the Southside of Chicago to Operation Rainbow Push, which is a social justice organization started by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. I remember leaving my sister in law’s apartment on the north west side of Chicago, walking to the train station, taking two different trains to a bus line, and the second bus I got on would take me the rest of the way. Nearly an hour and a half after I left, as we got further south, the bus kept getting emptier and emptier, until I was the only one left. I told the bus driver at least a couple of times where I was getting off, and he kept looking up at his rearview mirror making quizzical faces. I knew what he was thinking. ‘Where is this girl going?’ After awhile I knew I was pretty sure I was close to the final stops. The bus driver hadn’t said anything to me the whole ride. But, during one of his mirror checks he looked up at me and said, “so, where are you going?” I said, “I’m going to Operation Rainbow Push.” All of a sudden a smile came across his face. He looked amused and delighted, at the same time. “Oh,” he said cheerily, “I can tell you exactly where you need to walk to get there; you’re going to have a great time.”

When I got off the bus I walked to a gigantic old synagogue, which is where Jesse Jackson held his televised Saturday morning forum. From the outside I could hear people singing, and once I went in I could see it was more like a lively, joyful African American church service than the town hall I had imagined. I looked around the large auditorium for my class and I quickly sat down with them. There was a giant screen in the front, and on it you could see that the television camera was panning around to capture the room. All of a sudden, I realized the camera was on me, and projected on this huge, 20 by 20 foot screen, and presumably in homes across Chicago, was my face. I had prepared myself not to blend in, but that took me by surprise. The forum lasted about two hours and was followed by a lunch, after which we were taken into a private room. Jesse Jackson generously came back to greet our professor and small class. We had a brief but moving conversation about justice, and it’s one that I will never forget.

It would be a gross exaggeration to say I crossed a border that day, and I don’t tell that story to congratulate myself on going out of my comfort zone one measly time. But, over the course of those two weeks I got a small glimpse of just how many borders there were in the city I grew up nearby. Boundaries of neighborhoods defined by income, race or sexuality. I got to know people who weren’t like me, had tough conversations, and I came to a much deeper and more profound realization that the world I lived in was small and privileged, partly because of who I had never talked to.

From the beginning, human beings have tried to put boundaries and borders around anything they can. Borders that keep us from the so-called “other,” are social constructs, and I would argue they exist mostly because of fear. For our ancestors, millennia ago, fear was a helpful instinct in the event of grave physical danger. But, as time has gone on, the impulse to protect ourselves has infiltrated into almost every area of society. We have been taught what and who and where to fear. Fear is no longer a natural, life-saving response, but a cultural illness, dividing people and creating hierarchies that are affirmed and perpetuated by those in power.

As Presbyterians, we have certainly tried to create a church system that works against this urge, configuring ourselves as a bottom up decision-making body, where the majority rules and the minority is always heard. But, as Christians, we can’t get around the fact that, despite the ideology of our ecclesiastical structure, we remain a people who participate in larger systems of fear, and, ultimately, sin. At the heart of fear is our brokenness, and it creates all sorts of arbitrary borders and walls we think will insulate us, but really only serve to benefit a small, privileged few.

The Jewish people knew a depth of fear that dated back as long as they could remember, to slavery in Egypt, long before Jesus came on the scene. Here, in John’s Gospel we find ourselves nearly 700 years after the Babylonians defeated the Israelites and destroyed Solomon’s temple, leaving them in exile. As we know from John’s story, so many centuries later, there was still a land and a border in between Galilee and Judea, called Samaria. And, it long-divided these two peoples, who still had a bad taste in their mouths. As is true in every conflict, there was a narrative, a Judean one, passed down from generation to generation, as a way to make sense of it all. It was an engrained tale about Samaritans and what kind of people they were.

In the fertile soil of fear and history, religion can grow and even nurture these sorts of stories and divisions. It was no different for Jesus’ disciples, who, upon finding themselves on the road back to Galilee, would have much preferred to go around the Samaritan border, rather than through it, even if the route was longer. The stories of their past taught them fear, and told them to avoid a people who had wronged them.

At this point, it’s worth noting that not all narratives are wrong. The people of Israel had legitimately suffered, and survived. But, that is what makes Jesus so radical. He doesn’t deny the disciples’ long held hurt, or what they had been taught to believe. He does, however, encourage them to forge a new way forward. By going through Samaria, Jesus speaks volumes. Their way of life is changing. They can’t be the same people they were. They can’t be afraid and keep the good news of the gospel to themselves. It was, and is, for everyone. Jesus helped them start a new story- one that takes fear and judgment, and replaces it with conversation and new life.

You may wonder, though. Does Jesus just assume the Samaritans want the message he has to offer? Is he clouded by his well-meaning effort? They are good questions to ask. More people of faith over the centuries should have asked them. But, if we look closely at Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman we can see his method.

Jesus goes to the well alone, without the disciples, at high noon. No respectable person would be getting water at that time of day, so his presence there already identifies him with the most vulnerable people. It’s also curious that he shows up with no bucket. He comes needing something too, which is typical of Jesus. He seeks the hospitality of strangers as a sign of his openness. It also happens to be a good conversation starter.

Jesus, a Jewish man, asks for a drink from the least likely person- a Samaritan, a woman who is alone, and, we can assume, has some sort of difficult past. She immediately recognizes the problems here, and is as confused as you’d expect, spending most of the exchange asking him questions. They talk about living water, and he just happens to know things about her life- both striking her as odd. She points out the vast chasm between them, particularly when it comes to how and where they each worship. Astonishingly, Jesus reveals himself as the Messiah, and bridges the boundaries between them by telling her that pretty soon it won’t matter where or how they worship, for God is spirit and truth… It just happens to be the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone, in all four gospels.

The woman leaves her bucket at the well and goes back to the city, presumably leaving her past behind as she too forges a new way forward. She very bravely gives testimony of her encounter with this one who could be the Messiah. Remarkably, the people listen to even her, and they believe.

Scholars like to say this is a complex story because it’s so long and there are just so many places to enter in. What’s the living water? And, who is this woman, really? But, I don’t think it’s so hard. Jesus lives extravagantly, radically. He doesn’t abide by common sense or what is socially acceptable or borders and boundaries or even the law when it doesn’t reflect spirit and truth. It’s like he can’t even help himself; it’s like he didn’t even understand the risks. His very life was an exaggeration of love that no one had ever seen in a human being. He had a simple conversation with someone he wasn’t supposed to, he treated her with dignity, and made her feel known and loved. And, what ended up happening? Jesus and the disciples stayed with the Samaritans, eating and drinking and having a beautiful time, until they headed to Galilee.

People in our world want to convince us that, in reality, this scenario is impossible, and we are naive to think otherwise. Borders and boundaries are nearly insurmountable- it takes time and policy making. Their goal is to confuse us, and exhaust us and horrify us, leaving us so stunted by our own sense of helplessness that we fail to act or talk to one another. We write people off and believe the ancient narratives we are told. We succumb to fear whether we believe in it or not. But Jesus wants us to know this isn’t the truth of the world.

Every time I get into this pulpit I try to imagine that I’m having a conversation with each of you. An intimate one. I wonder what you might need to hear, and what God wants me to say. And, even though I’m way up here, I yearn to know each one of you. To cross over the border of the chancel and level the playing field. Give you a sip of life from God’s well, remind you how much you are loved. My gut tells me that’s what you want too- it’s why you’re here. To come face to face with something other than fear or judgment, to feel less like the “other,” to hear a different story about the world. I have to believe that in these conversations we are crossing over the boundaries and borders in our own hearts, getting real about our internal fears and judgments, and nurtured by Jesus’ extravagant grace, sent back into the world with a measure of hope.

And while I am hopeful, like many of you, one of my greatest fears is how we will resolve the atrocities at our border, without generational tragedy and trauma. But, even beyond that, I’m fearful about how we will overcome what seems like a quickly shrinking number of opportunities to really, truly know the “other” and be known by them. Jesus couldn’t have met the Samaritan woman in the synagogue surrounded by like minded people- he met her out in Samaria. There they were, two people who were supposed to be ancient enemies, and they both miraculously let that all go to understand each others’ lives. Jesus knew that phrase “it’s much harder to hate someone up close.”

In one of my favorite poems, author Rupi Kaur writes about where God is and who God is with. She conveys a God who crosses borders and boundaries in astonishing ways. She writes  this:

my god
is not waiting inside a church
or sitting above the temple’s steps
my god
is the refugee’s breath as she’s running
is living in the starving child’s belly
is the heartbeat of the protest
my god
does not rest between pages
written by holy men
my god
was last seen washing the homeless man’s feet
my god
is not as unreachable as
they’d like you to think
my god is beating inside us infinitely

She is right. God is in tandem with the other, willing us to go there, too. But, as Jesus showed us, the hard part is that we have to offer ourselves over in radical conversation and openness. We have to show up without a bucket or baggage or assumptions or bias… Now, don’t get me wrong. What I’m getting at here is not a trite message about our collective need to find common ground or some simplistic way to just agree that divorces us from reality. This is about really knowing the story of someone else’s life. Taking a walk in their territory. Crossing an uncomfortable border. Opening yourself up to a risk- one that could change the course of your own life, and maybe even the life of the world.

Jesus shows up at the well needing something, too. He creates the conditions and climate where genuine conversation can be had. He knows that in the absence of conversation there’s no place for the Spirit to dwell and work, no accountability, no opportunity to show grace.

The truth is, we belong to each other. And families belong together. We exist to know and be known. And, within extravagant exchanges between human beings, God is there, and the good news of the Gospel springs up. It bubbles over into living water, washing away our fears, transforming the often violent and privileged borders between us into thoroughfares for justice and welcome. It is our call to keep the conversation going, and to be gathered at a well where it can happen.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Latest Sermons