Breaking the Sound Barrier

Second in a “Woman at the Well” series on John 4,
Delivered March 5, 2000 by Rev. Jerome D. Cooper

Sermon Text:
John 4:1-9

Our 10 month old daughter has been learning to walk this last month, although she still generally prefers to crawl, as it seems to take less work. But a couple weeks ago, Ingrid noticed that when Joy was down in the church preschool rooms, she enjoyed walking when she was able to push something around in front of her. So this past week we went to the local “Stuff-Mart” and bought a car for her. The great thing is that it came equipped with a rear bar she can hold on to and push. She loves it. It also came loaded with additional option. It has a dashboard full of buttons that when pushed make all sorts of wonderful noises – wonderful for Joy, at any rate. In addition to the standard honking horn, blaring siren, revving engine and phone dialing sounds (she got a car phone before her daddy), there are four buttons that when pressed dispense good advice. They are shaped like different human figures and say things like:

Hi, this is Daddy. Buckle your seat-belt for safety
Hi, this is Mommy. Look both ways before crossing the street
Hi, this is Grandpa. In case of emergency. dial 9-1-1
and finally, that classic line:
Hi, this is Grandma. Remember, don’t talk to strangers!

Those are all basic things we teach our children. In fact, each of them is still advice that we follow today, don’t we? We buckle in, we look before crossing the street, dial 9-1-1in an emergency, and even as adults there are times that we don’t talk to strangers. One fairly innocuous setting where that last one is true is when we get on an elevator. Now you know you’re not supposed to say anything right? You’re supposed to face the door, press your button and be silent until you reach your destination.

There are also other circumstances in our daily lives when we are hesitant to talk to strangers. It might be when we are approached by a pan-handler or homeless person. Or it may be that you’re in a place with people you don’t know, who are very different from you and you figure, “just keep to yourself.” You see even as adults we know there are times when you don’t talk to strangers.

In this morning’s passage, Jesus finds himself in a situation where tradition and common sense would have said “just keep quiet!” But Jesus doesn’t follow the rules. He ignores the sage advice, breaks the sound barrier and talks to a stranger. And so, if you would, please turn with me to John 4:1-9. This is the beginning of the story commonly know as “The Woman at the Well.” John 4:1-9. You can find this on page 752 of your red pew bibles. Hear then the Word of the Lord as it comes to us through the apostle John:

The Pharisees heard that Jesus was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John, although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. When the Lord learned of this, he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

Please join me as we pray: Lord we ask now that you would by the power of your Holy Spirit, engrave these words upon our hearts. That they would be more than just words, but that you would change us by them. That we might become more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. For it’s in His name that we pray. Amen.

So here we have Jesus, and he is on a journey, traveling from Judea up to Galilee. A few days walk with his disciples. And it’s about noon, which is what the sixth hour means – the sixth hour after sunrise. It’s noon, they’ve been walking for a while, it’s now the heat of the day and Jesus is tired. So he sits down at a well to rest while his disciples head on into town to get some food. Well, as he’s sitting there something happens. A woman from town makes her way out of the village and walks toward the well, which was a small distance away, up a little hill. As she makes her way up the hill she looks ahead and sees that somebody else is at the well, in fact it seems to be a man. As she gets closer she’s able to recognize that he is not even a Samaritan. It’s a stranger, a foreigner, a Jew. And she thinks to herself, “What is a Jew doing at our well? But I don’t need to worry about it, I’ll just pretend he’s not there. And if I ignore him, I’m sure he’ll ignore me, since no Jew wants anything to do with a Samaritan. And the feeling is mutual. If that wasn’t enough, I’m a woman and men don’t talk to women in public. So I’m safe. And surely he will recognize that there is a reason that I go to the well at noon. He will assume that I’m some sort of outcast in my village, someone the other women won’t allow to even be at the well at the same time as them. That will make him want to put as much space between himself and me as possible. In fact, he’ll probably leave the well all together when I get closer.”

So she keeps walking, and when she approaches, he stays where he is, but she still ignores him. “Fine,” she thinks, “He must be very tired.” And as she begins to draw her water, suddenly he speaks. In fact, not only does he speak, but he asks something of her. He asks her for water. And she wonders “Why in the world is he talking to me? And why is he asking me for water?” Notice that her response to Jesus is not an answer, as in “Yes or No.” Her response is a challenge, “Why are you even talking to me?” She can’t get over that fact that he’s even talking. And we should be asking the same question. Why is Jesus talking to this woman? He’s not supposed to. No other Jewish person would have spoken to her. No other man would have spoken to her in public. Anyone else would have understood that she is an unclean, impure woman. Why is Jesus talking to her?

To get at the answer we need to look at an earlier verse where it tells us that Jesus, on his way to Galilee “had to go through Samaria.” Now why did Jesus have to go through Samaria? Is it because there was a special bakery on the way that made the best bagels anywhere? Probably not. In fact, most Jewish people when they traveled from Judea north to Galilee, would not go through Samaria at all. They hated Samaritans so much that they would take two extra days in order to go all the way around Samaria. But Jesus had to go through it. Is it because he was in a hurry? Well probably not because later in this story (verse 40), we find that Jesus hung around for a couple of extra days there in Sychar to talk to the folks and to teach them more about God. So obviously, Jesus wasn’t in a great hurry. It seems that Jesus had a compulsion from the Holy Spirit to take this route, and he had to follow God’s lead. And it seems that the encounter we are reading about this morning, where Jesus meets a no-account woman in a backwater town while sitting by a well, is the very purpose for which God sent him this way. So that we might learn about God’s purposes as we listen in.

But still we might ask, why is this important? You see, Jesus’ main ministry was to the Jewish people. That’s even what he told his disciples. They were told to go to all the towns of Israel – not Samaria, not the Gentiles. But you see Jesus wanted to model for his disciples and for us, and to make it clear even to the Samaritans, that God’s love – God’s seeking love that chases after every one of us – cannot be stopped by any human barrier. There is no human barrier that God’s seeking love will not break down, go around, jump over, dig under, break through. And Jesus breaking the sound barrier here at the well is a clear teaching, an unambiguous demonstration, of that seeking love.

Now when we encounter a story like this, where Jesus is interacting with other people, we need to ask two basic questions as we try to discern what it means for us today. The first question is: What does this teach me about how God wants me to minister to others? In other words, I put myself in the place of Jesus asking, “How can I be Jesus’ instrument or representative to other people? How can I pattern my ministry after that of Jesus?” The second question of equal importance is: What can I learn about how God wants to minister to me? You see, in addition to putting ourselves in Jesus’ place, we also need to put ourselves in the place of the person Jesus is relating to – in this case, the woman. Putting ourselves in the place of the woman, we need to ask, “How does God want to minister to me?”.

Let’s start with the question of how we’re to minister to others. What does this passage teach us? Well, the first thing it teaches us is that God has taken any human division that we might manufacture to categorize and divide people and he has shown that those human divisions in no way determine a person’s value or worth. But that’s exactly opposite from what we as people do with differences and divisions, isn’t it? In fact, look at the major divisions that Jesus overcame in talking to this woman. It was first a racial division, then a gender division and finally a propriety division. Take the ethnic division, and look around you in the world today. Every single armed conflict in the world today is being fought along ethnic lines. Sometimes with a religious overtone. Our world today is a world divided. And why is it that way? It’s because we use differences between people in order to assign value. And so we say, “Those people are different, and they are different in such a way that they are less valuable than people like me.” We might also add, “Therefore we can oppress and kill them with impunity.”

It reminds me of what has happened over the last ten years in the former Yugoslavia, as that country has been torn apart. One of the up and coming international evangelical theologians is a man name Miroslav Volf. He has been a professor at Fuller, although he’s now at Yale, but he teaches one semester every year at the Evangelical Seminary of Croatia. He has done that every year for the last decade, even during the war. At one point they even had to move their seminary out of Croatia into Slovenia because of one of the invasions. In this context, Volf talks about how the hard teachings of Jesus Christ came alive in a new way, because they were no longer theoretical theologies. They were now practical realities which he and the students had to deal with on a daily basis. Could they step across the ethnic divide to love a Serb even though the Serbian people where carrying out an ethnic cleansing campaign against their people? Were they willing to even try? Were they willing to overcome the human barrier that divided them?

You and I have also experience similar divides in our country and lives. When I was born just a few decades ago, the United States was still practicing a form of division that Jesus never spoke of directly in words but absolutely condemned in practice. Remember when Jesus asked that woman for a drink. Now, what did Jesus have to drink with? Nothing. He would have had to take the woman’s cup and drink from it. Something no Jew, no man, no pure “righteous” person would even consider. But forty years ago, in the United States, there were still colored and white drinking fountains. Today they are long gone. Our divisions are not quite that obvious, but still the subtle divisions are here in our society. It’s all about who’s in and who’s out; who we determine to be of a higher value, who is a lower value.

Even in the church we can make those determinations. Now, we seldom come right out and say this person is of less value, but what we do say is that we’re trying to reach out to these people but not to those. We say “Anybody is welcome at Central. Anybody is welcome to come through the doors of our church.” But that’s not what Jesus says. Or, at least, that’s not where he stops. Jesus doesn’t just say folks are welcome. He did not just say, “Listen up, I want to make this clear: all Samaritans are welcome to come talk to me”. How many Samaritans would have jumped at the chance to talk with him? Try none! Jesus had to go to them – to seek them out. That is what God’s love is all about. About seeking out those who are in need of his grace. Which is all of us – every one in this room, every resident of Baltimore, every single person on this planet. Jesus is not a passive god that says, “You’re welcome, if you want to come.” He goes out seeking people. And the question for us at Central is: How much do we seek others? Particularly, how much do we seek others who are different than ourselves? You see, it’s easy to reach out to those who are in our neighborhood, who are like us, who have a similar education and standard of living or whom we interact with on a number of different levels, but often those are the people who are most like us. Are we willing to seek those who are different?

You know that Central is part of Project Justice. A group of churches committed to working toward racial reconciliation in the Baltimore area. And one of the struggles that we continually go through is what that means in actual practice. Does it simply mean that a white church and a black church get together, have a joint worship service and the go home feeling good that we’re not against each other anymore? Or does it mean that each member actively reaches out to people of the other community. You see, at Central we are very welcoming. We greet anybody who comes through our door and we are happy to have them. But what would happen if, for example, we went out and began to actively recruit African Americans – actively seeking them out and sharing the gospel with them and bringing them into our fellowship? And what would happen if they started to come? What would happen if they became a majority in our church – how would we feel about that? You see that’s often where the rubber meets the road. When we have a token minority it’s easy. What’s harder is when you begin to lose some of your power and some of your feelings of comfort. Are we still, even then, willing to break through those barriers for the sake of God’s love?

But it’s not just African-Americans. A recent church consultation identified 800 different ethnic groups in America today. Eight hundred different ethnic groups. Are we reaching out to them? Do we even know they exist? That’s one of the problems. Sometimes we don’t even know who’s out there, to know who to seek. Or how about people who have the same ethnicity but they’re still radically different? What about skin heads? Or people with tattoos, or pierced ears and noses? How comfortable do we feel having more than just a couple of them in our congregation? Are we actively seeking those people? Or do we more heed the age-old advice: don’t talk to strangers?

And where do we find people? Where did Jesus found this woman? At a place as mundane as a well. Where do we most often mix with the greatest diversity of people? Often it’s in the daily movements of life: in the grocery story; at the mall; or when we’re walking around down at the Inner Harbor. Sometimes the people that we probably most need to meet and to reach, will not be found in our carefully planned environments but when we’re simply out in the world. When we are in the midst of the world like Jesus was, keeping our eyes open to the opportunities. That’s where God wants to use us to reach those he loves. Are we willing to break the sound barrier and reach out?

We have now answered the first of our two application questions by putting ourselves in the place of Jesus, but what about the second. What do we learn as we put ourselves in the place of the woman? What can we learn about how Jesus wants to minister to us?

The first thing that we need to hear is that once again there is no human barrier that can stop God’s seeking love. No barrier can stop his grace from coming to us, if we are willing to receive it. As you and I sit here, there are plenty of things that we might think would prevent God from coming to us – not the least of which is simply our sin. Our daily sins as well as our rebellious and selfish hearts form a strong barrier between ourselves and God. Thankfully it is not a barrier that can stop God. Because the whole point of us being here today in this place and worshipping God through Jesus Christ is that Jesus Christ came to pay the penalty for our sin in order that we might be forgiven. He’s gotten rid of that barrier. So yes, you and I are sinners but that is nothing which can prevent God from loving us and pouring his grace into us. And so whoever you are today, whatever your past, whatever your present, no matter what any other person thinks about you, no matter what you think of yourself, none of these is going to stop God from seeking you out, from loving you, from drawing you to himself.

But remember Jesus and the woman. Jesus didn’t just engage the woman to preach at her. In fact he began by asking her something. Asking her for a drink of water. In the same way, God doesn’t say, “Okay, I want to say something to you and no human barrier is going to keep me from preaching at you!” No, what he does say is, “No human barrier is going to prevent you and me from developing a relationship!” You see that’s what God wants with us. He wants a personal relationship. Jesus not only gave to the woman at the well, but he received from her. Sometimes we may say, “I’m not worthy to worship God or to praise him. I’m not worthy to serve God. How could he use my unclean hands for his purposes, as his instruments?” And humanly it would be impossible. But that’s the wonderful, amazing thing about God’s grace – he does use us even in the midst of our weakness and our sin. He accepts our praise, he accepts our worship, he accepts our service. He is able to use us as his ministers even when we are (and even especially because we are) imperfect, but yet still seeking him.

If a person had to be perfect to stand up and preach, I certainly never would. Nor would Ron, nor would this choir or anybody up here. We would all just be sitting down there waiting – waiting for Jesus to return. Because that’s the next time we’re going to have a perfect person standing before us. But God wants to use us now as who we are, where we are. Even as Jesus encountered that woman at the well as she gathered water, you don’t have to come to church to encounter Jesus. It’s a good place but by no means the only place. God will come to us at every place in life, if we’re willing to hear his voice. If we’re willing to receive his grace, he is there seeking us out.

You know, that’s really what communion is all about. As we prepare our heart to receive the bread and the cup, the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, it’s all about the fact that God has established a new relationship with us. It’s all about the fact that he has chosen us as his sons and daughters. It’s not about our being worthy to come to the table he has set for us, because the fact is, we are unworthy. If you feel your life is worthy to come before the Lord today, then you just need to remain quietly in your seat and pray. Because you are not ready to take communion. But if you feel unworthy, then your ready. That’s the reversal of the Kingdom of God. It’s when we realize that we are in desperate need of God’s grace – along with every other person – that’s when we know we’re ready to receive the grace that God has for us – and to receive the communion, the table that he has prepared for us.

And this communion is not just between ourselves and God. Our communion is also with each other. In fact communion was the one celebration above all others that Christ gave us to be continual reminder of our unity with one another. But even though there may be earthly divisions between us, who are in God’s family, in God’s sight all those divisions are meaningless. We are brothers and sisters. That truth encompasses those of us who are in this place sitting here together, plus those who were sitting in your seats at 8:30. It includes every other church around Baltimore right now, no matter what shade their skin, what language they speak, what liturgy they practice. We are bound to them by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. And that’s true of every other Christian in this world. Every person who names the name of Jesus Christ. Even those Christians, this day, in places like Mozambique, who don’t even have a church to go to because it has been flooded out, maybe completely destroyed. They might be currently in refugee camps, or tent cities, or under the open sky, but they are celebrating and worshipping the risen Lord together. And as you and I take communion we are united with them in an amazing way that only God can achieve.

May God prepare us this day to both receive from him the blessing that he has provided for us in Jesus Christ. And beyond just receiving it for ourselves, to live it for others. To take that love with which God has sought us and to share it and live it with all those beyond those doors, beyond these walls. May no human barrier stop us. May God give us that courage and strength.

Please join me as we pray. Lord, we do thank you. We thank you for your amazing grace. For your love that will not let us go. And Lord we pray this day that you would continue to mold us that we might be more and more conformed to the image of your Son that we might live as his instruments; that we might receive your blessing in our lives and share it with others. Lord help us to be your faithful disciples, for we ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Amen.