Love Breaks Boundaries
Synopsis: Jesus breaks all kinds of boundaries when he engages in conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. While respecting differing beliefs and understandings among us, we as a church, also commit ourselves to not discriminate on the basis of race, culture, gender, social and economic status or sexual orientation. This is not an end in itself. It enables the life and ministry of Jesus to inform and shape our life together and becomes an invitation to our friends and neighbors to come meet Jesus.
When Ruth and I lived in India we met a young woman who told us that she loved and believed in Jesus. She was, however, greatly distressed when some Christians told her that she couldn’t be a true follower of Jesus unless she converted to Christianity. Her Hindu identity was much more than a religion for her. It was her culture, her family, who she was as a person. How could she renounce that?
She wanted to know what we thought. What would you have said to her? Does someone have to convert to Christianity to love and follow Jesus. The problem with insisting on this is that we place a huge barrier in people’s way, a barrier that may have more to do with our cultural and social identity than with following Jesus.
Wouldn’t it be better to rejoice with her in her love for Jesus and talk with her about what that means in her life? We can trust that God’s Spirit will lead her into a fuller understanding of how that will shape her other identities. We know that Jesus is all about breaking down barriers. Could we imagine Jesus starting his conversation with the Samaritan woman by telling her that she needed to convert and become a Jew if she wanted to be saved?
That would be asinine! Instead, according to biblical scholar Gail O’Day, “[Jesus] breaks open boundaries in his conversation with the Samaritan woman: the boundary between male and female, the boundary between ‘chosen people’ and ‘rejected people.’ Jesus’ journey to Samaria and his conversation with the woman demonstrate that the grace of God that he offers is available to all.”
The story about Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman is about how a religiously ostracized, and culturally despised group came to belief in Jesus. While it may be interesting to talk about the woman’s irregular life or about Jesus’ relations with women, it misses the point. This story is about religious tensions. The early church sought to overcome such tensions even while this, in turn, created new tensions.
We can read about it in the New Testament—it was a big fight. Some traditional Jewish followers of Jesus insisted that Gentiles needed to convert to Judaism and be circumcised to be accepted in the church. Some like Peter tried to have it both ways depending on who they were with. And Paul made this the fight of his life as he insisted that Gentiles who believed in Jesus should be accepted as they are. In this respect, Paul is my hero!
And this brings us to the story of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. This story was one way that early Christians explained how it happened that Samaritans, the despised enemies of Jews, had come to faith in Jesus. As a reminder of this fierce acrimony, the writer of John’s Gospel explains that Jews refused to even eat or drink out of the same jars or dishes that Samaritans did. They were considered unclean. Who do we consider unclean?
How do we imagine the Samaritan woman? She has often been depicted as a woman with loose morals. What woman would have had five husbands? We forget that marriage and divorce were not the woman’s choice in the ancient world. Even so, she is a despised person with whom an upstanding Jewish man would not initiate a conversation—a Samaritan, and woman, and someone with a checkered marriage history to boot.
No wonder that Jesus disciples were astonished when they returned and found Jesus engaged in conversation with her. Some have speculated that she came to the well at noon because she’s ostracized by the other women in the village who come in the morning or in the evening. But I doubt that because the people in her village readily listened to her when she returned and told them all about Jesus?
Liz Goodman, pastor of Church on the Hill in Massachusetts, imagines her as a beautiful, powerful woman who can hold her own in a back-and-forth conversation with Jesus. She has the hutzpah to challenge him, “How is it that you, a Jew ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” She’s no shrinking violet. Jesus, in turn, tells her she wouldn’t ask such questions if she knew who she was talking to. She would instead ask him for a drink of “living water.” She thinks he means fresh running water instead of stagnant well water. The writer of John’s Gospel loves such plays on words. Earlier, when Jesus told Nikodemus that he needs to be born again, Nikodemus took him literally and thought he was talking about physical birth.
The Samaritan woman is more astute. She asks Jesus for this living water even though she doesn’t completely grasp his meaning. She’s capable of engaging Jesus in a theological debate from a Samaritan perspective. While Jesus holds up the Jewish point of view, he says that a time is coming when such things won’t matter because true worshippers will worship God in spirit and in truth.
What can we learn from this story that shapes how we relate to people in our area, especially those we might be tempted to ostracize. In all his relationships, Jesus ignores such human barriers and, instead, engages everyone with dignity, respect, and compassion. Our church council has been working on a statement to include in our church covenant about being a community where God’s love transcends all human barriers that oppress people and excluded them from full participation. The part we struggled with most was how to say that we would not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
That is a contentious issue for many churches today. Some churches and conferences recently left Mennonite Church USA because they do not agree with our denomination’s more inclusive polity. And the United Methodist Church is in the midst of dividing over this issue. I have always believed that this should not be an issue that divides churches. It does not rise to the level of being an essential aspect of our faith. It’s more akin to the early church argument about the inclusion of Gentiles and Samaritans. Furthermore, our churches have discriminated against many other groups of people in ways that we’re reluctant to acknowledge. We need to admit that, repent, and commit ourselves to not discriminate in any way.
We need to help each other in this matter because we can be blind to the ways we discriminate. For example, in has only been in my lifetime that we have come to accept women as pastors in our church. Various women friends who are pastors tell me that women still are not equal and that they face discrimination in ways that men do not. The same is true for pastors from racial minorities.
Furthermore, we need to recognize that not discriminating is understood differently by different people. This will involve an ongoing conversation where we can all hopefully grow in grace and understanding. With this in mind, we came up with this statement: “While respecting differing beliefs and understandings among us, we commit ourselves to not discriminate on the basis of race, culture, gender, social and economic status or sexual orientation.”
Glen Denlinger will be presenting our revised church Constitution and Bylaws, including this statement, to us when he returns from his vacation. I don’t want to get ahead of him on this. But, as I was working on my sermon this week, I recognized that Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman can be very instructive as we consider this matter.
Not discriminating is not an end in itself. It’s a means to a greater end. Jesus was not naïve. He knew everything about the Samaritan woman and still completely accepted her. He invitingly engaged her in the possibilities of believing in him as the Messiah. He opened her heart and imagination to what it means to worship God in spirit and in truth. She, in turn, invited her entire village to come meet Jesus. Likewise, our proposed covenant statement about not discriminating is not an end in itself. It’s preceded by this statement in our covenant, which gets to the heart of the matter.
We are a church in the Northern Virginia area coming together through different experiences of the love, forgiveness and peace of God in Christ Jesus. Believing that God draws us into fellowship, we accept and practice the disciplines of love and together seek God’s will. We want our life together to be a contemporary interpretation of the unique life and ministry of Jesus, whom we seek to follow in today’s world.
Let’s reflect on this. It's about being a diverse fellowship of people who together experience the love, forgiveness, and peace of God in Jesus. We support and encourage each other as we grow into a strong fellowship that engages with the unique challenges of our time. We together seek to discern how God’s Spirit is at work transforming our lives, our church, and our world.
In all of this, the unique life and ministry of Jesus informs and shapes our life together as we seek to follow him and engage our community with this good news. As the Samaritan woman did in her village thousands of years ago, we invite our friends and neighbors to come and meet Jesus.
 As quoted by Mark Matson, John: Interpretation Bible Studies (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 33.