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Let God Change You and the World
February 24, 2008

Wesley United Methodist Church

JOHN 4:5-42

He was tired. He was hot and thirsty. They had walked all morning. It was noon. The sun was high. The dust was heavy. I wonder if Jesus became irritable, as we do, when he was tired, hungry and thirsty! The disciples went into town to buy food for lunch, and Jesus sat down to rest by Jacob’s well. The well was located in the province of Samaria, and when a Samaritan woman came to draw water from the well, Jesus asked her for a drink, and the world has not been the same since! What’s the big deal, some ask. A thirsty man asks a woman for a drink of water. So what?

Most of us have lost the full impact of the request and subsequent conversation. We need some geography and history to understand how radical Jesus was. Some call Jesus meek and mild. Evidently they have never read the Gospels, or if they have, they don’t understand the history. Samaria was a province between Galilee in the north and Judea, of which Jerusalem was the capital, in the south. When traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem, there was a long way around, which most Jews took so they wouldn’t have to walk through Samaria, but some took the short cut as did Jesus and his disciples this particular day.

After the reign of King Solomon, who unfortunately was an inept administrator, the nation had a civil war and divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom was called Israel. Samaria was its capital. The residents were called Samaritans. The southern kingdom was called Judah, later Judea, and Jerusalem was its capital. The residents were called Jews. In 720 B.C., Assyria conquered the northern kingdom and carried off the leaders. Foreigners then moved in, and intermarriage between Samaritans and foreigners occurred. Intermarriage horrified law observing Jews. Jews felt the Samaritans were mongrels. Besides this prejudice, the Samaritans believed their mountain was the holy mountain. They built a shrine on Mt. Gerizim and claimed that it, not the Jerusalem temple, was the proper place of worship. The Jews, of course, disagreed. There was enmity between Jews and Samaritans.

By the time of Jesus there had been 400 years of this hatred. No Jew would have anything to do with a Samaritan, and certainly would not eat with a Samaritan or drink from a Samaritan’s cup. When Jesus told the parable of a Samaritan helping an ambushed Jew, how shocked and horrified his listeners must have been.

In the Scripture lesson read this morning, there was a lot happening in this encounter at Jacob’s Well in Samaria, a lot more than just a chance meeting between a man and a woman. Jews didn’t talk to Samaritans, and men didn’t talk to women publicly. It was against the rabbinic law for a man to talk to a woman in the street even if she were his wife. A Jewish man thanked God daily that he had not been born a woman! Women had no civil rights and took almost no part in religious ceremonies.

Not only did Jesus break the rules of racism and sexism by asking her for a drink of water, he was talking to a woman of questionable reputation. We know she was ostracized by the women of her community because she came to the well at noon! The other women would have come to the well at the beginning of the day. This woman had to come by herself, but what a treat in store for her! The longest recorded conversation of Jesus in the Bible is the one he had with the Samaritan woman at the well. In John’s Gospel, the first person to learn that Jesus was the Messiah was not a Jew, not a man, but a Samaritan woman, a Samaritan woman of questionable reputation, a woman who was ostracized by the other women of the community. Radical Jesus broke all the rules, which Jesus loved to do.

Not only was the conversation and interaction with the woman radical, the response of the villagers was phenomenal. Not only did many of them come to believe in Jesus, they announced, John 4.42, “We know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” Not only did they acknowledge that Jesus was the Messiah, they proclaimed that the salvation Jesus the Messiah brings is for the whole world, and not just from the Jews and for the Jews. It was Samaritans, not Jews, who recognized who Jesus was. Unbelievable!

Jesus broke through centuries of prejudice, discrimination, oppression and just plain stupidity. John proclaims the universality of the gospel. God’s embrace does not just include Jews or even Samaritans. God embraces the whole world—all people, colors, classes, national origins. The living water which Jesus offered the woman is offered to everyone.

There are many lessons to be drawn from this magnificent passage, but let’s concentrate on one lesson which our world today so desperately needs to learn: the breaking down of barriers. The preoccupation with protecting boundaries between the chosen and the despised is not limited to the Samaritan/Jewish conflict of the first century. Throughout human history, people and nations have defined themselves over against other groups. The history of race relations in the United States, the notion of racial purity that was at the ideological heart of Hitler’s Germany, the ethnic wars that devastate the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe all have their roots in the same prejudice and fear that divided Jews from Samaritans.

I’ve been talking about change for several Sundays, how difficult it is to change, how sin is pervasive, but God does the changing. Last week, I challenged us to turn our cups upside down, empty ourselves, and let the Holy Spirit fill our cups and change us. Let God change you! The lesson this morning illustrates how God changes people, villages, and eventually the world by breaking down barriers of prejudice, fear and hatred. Jesus broke barriers, treating the woman at the well as fully human, and welcoming the villagers into God’s kingdom.

Last Sunday evening, the Day of Remembrance was a moving experience as we recalled the unfortunate and debilitating internment of Japanese Americans in 1942. We were challenged by Samina Faheem Sundas, Executive Director of the American Muslim Voice, Commissioner of the Santa Clara County Human Relations Commission, and a woman. She pointed out the tragic similarity of the treatment of Japanese Americans in 1942 and the treatment of Muslim Americans in 2008. Since 9/11, like Pearl Harbor, prejudice and hostility towards American Muslims tragically, illogically, are skyrocketing.

Barriers are not new. Barriers are as formidable and unfortunate today as ever. The goal of the Day of Remembrance is to bring communities together in peace and in friendship, to show that we are all people and that we have more in common than what is different, so racial and religious prejudice can be eliminated.

“We are all people”. Jesus treated the woman as fully human, a person, and treated the villagers as equals. No longer Samaritans or Jews or Muslims or Christians or Asians or Africans, but people. It is amazing how barriers fall when we get to know people and realize we are all human beings, we are all children of God, loved by God.

The speaker Sunday evening, Samina Faheem Sundas, uses food as a method of breaking barriers. She believes that when people eat together, they begin to see each other as people, not objects to be feared. She often stands on the streets of Palo Alto with a plate of food, which she offers to share, and then engages in conversation. You see, Muslims eat food, just as we do. Muslims like to belong, just as we do. Muslims are people loved by God, just as we are. Food breaks barriers.

At the Day of Remembrance Sunday evening, I purchased a delightful book and learned another way to break barriers. It is a book for children called Baseball Saved Us, by Ken Mochizuki. He was a child in the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho. When his older brother began sassing their father, father decided the camp needed activities so he and his friends built a baseball field. Ken was not a natural athlete, usually the last to be chosen for teams, but he played as hard as he could. He was intimidated by one of the Caucasian guards in the tower that overlooked the baseball field. He was afraid of the guard’s stare and his stern disposition, but the day that Ken hit a home run, he looked up at the tower, and the stern guard, with a grin on his face, gave Ken the thumbs-up sign! Another barrier had crumbled. The guard no longer saw the Japanese American child as an enemy, a prisoner, traitor, a spy; but he saw a person, a little boy determined to play baseball, and finally succeeding with a coveted home run! Over the years, baseball has become a bridge between Japan and America. Instead of weapons, perhaps we should teach the Iraqis, Afghans and Iranians how to play baseball! Where did we get the idea that change can be forced!

When the woman at the well rushed to the village and began witnessing about the man, questioning if he were the Messiah, the villagers followed her back to the well. They were intrigued by her story, but by the end of their encounter with Jesus, they were no longer bystanders. They were no longer observers. They were no longer second-hand believers. They had become participants. God changed them.

Sisters and brothers, let us move from the sidelines, move from the bleachers and become players, working with God, cooperating with God in changing the world—overcoming barriers of prejudice and fear by treating people as children of God, people like us, loved by God.

Let God change you and the world.

© 2008 Douglas I. Norris