During my sabbatical, my daughters and I got to visit Greece for six amazing weeks. I wouldn’t have traded spending a lot of time in one country for spending a little time in a lot of countries. However, one member of the traveling trio was intent on getting into as many countries as possible. I think that was to collect the passport stamps that can come with that.
So, when we had four days when it was just too hot to see anything else in Athens, we went up into the mountains of Greek Macedonia, parked our rental car, and walked up to the border crossing of Macedonia, whose official name is – awkwardly – the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
This wasn’t like going through security at the airport. We were crossing a definite border. For one thing, there is a great deal of animosity between Greece and Macedonia – over refugee entrances and crossings and – more hotly – over who should get to use the name Macedonia.
And, crossing into Macedonia felt like leaving Western Europe – where they are prepared for tourists and non-native speakers – and entering an Eastern European country. We couldn’t speak a word of Macedonian, English was a struggle, and the locals seem baffled, if not annoyed, that we would visit.
At the border crossing, the Macedonian officer looked at our passports and then at us. He was having trouble figuring out why we were there and how we were related to one another. I’ll spare you my atrocious Macedonian accent, but when he finally decided to make a connection he cried “American! Trump!” And then, “Obama!”. Next looked, he peered intently at my mixed race daughters. Then pointed at one then the other. “Serena! Venus”. “Willimas,” we cried, getting into the spirit of the conversation. We got the sense that he was listing all the Black people whose names he knew. But he had one more connection to make. He pointed to daughters’ strong bared arms and declared, “Tennis!”
He was a border guard making an effort to cross a lot of borders to make a connection with three women who were crossing his border for a not very well-defined reason.
Our scripture reading this morning is about crossing borders. Jesus literally crosses a geographical border when he goes from Judea to Samaria on his way to Galilee. He crosses ethnic, political and religious borders by being a Jew who interacts with a Samaritan. If we didn’t know the situation between Jews and Samaritans, John goes out of his way to tell us. John writes that Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans, which meant they had something in common that they argued about and now will have nothing to do with one another. Sort of the like Greeks and the Macedonians.
The text says that Jesus had to go to Samaria. But the boundaries between Jews and Samaritans were such that most Jews found it necessary NOT to cross into Samaria even if they were going back to Judea from Galilee. But Jesus had to go to Samaria. Because Jesus is all about crossing borders to get people out of theirs.
Jesus crosses a definite gender boundary by talking with a woman and asking to share something in common with her. If we didn’t know that situation, John goes out of his way to tell us. He lets us overhear Jesus’ disciples express their astonishment that Jesus was speaking with a woman.
Jesus doesn’t just chat with this woman. Jesus has a serious conversation with her. He engages her in the same depth of theological conversation he used with the learned male Pharisee Nicodemus and with his disciples. He speaks to her of what is unseen but powerful, of what is life-giving beyond the limits of our understanding, of what is abundantly given to anyone who will receive it. He speaks to her of a drink that is gushing up with never-ending life.
When the woman responds to the offer, Jesus crosses another boundary. He gets personal. He tells the woman that he knows she has five husbands and that the man she is living with now isn’t her husband.
Now if you hear that sentence and situation and think either with pity, contempt or censure “wanton woman, black widow, whore” you would be in good company with plenty of non-Jewish readers and preachers through the ages, until today. You would not, however, be listening to what John has written. You would have blurred the boundaries between our day and the time of Jesus.
A Samaritan woman at that time had no legal or religious grounds on which to file for divorce. There is no chance that she has initiated the change in partners which has become a defining component of her life. Under Levirate law this woman could easily – if unfortunately – have been widowed, abandoned or divorced five times. Her current situation is assumed to be what was called a Levirate marriage – a childless woman becomes the consort of her deceased husband’s brother to produce an heir.
At no point, does Jesus invite repentance on the part of the woman and does not speak of sin at all. The bible has plenty of words for whore and prostitute. None of them are used of the Samaritan woman.
It’s important for us to see this because what John wants us to know is that Jesus sees the woman for who she is. He doesn’t see a woman caught in sin. He sees a woman caught in grief. She is constrained by the society she lives in. She is a woman bordered up by the expectations and actions of others. She is a woman bound by the how others have let her down and disappointed her – whether they intended to or not.
John wants us to know that Jesus sees this woman. Jesus knows her situation. But her life circumstance is not her. She is a person of infinite worth to him. She is worthy of that drink that cannot be drawn up from any well.
When Jesus speaks of her past knowingly and compassionately, with humanity and grace, she realizes she is in the presence of a prophet. For this reason, she raises the issues of the boundary between Samaritans and Jews for centuries. This is a matter of theology, faith, practice and humanity that matters to her and her people. When Jesus surprises her with an answer that is both more hopeful and penetrating that she expects, the boundary that is holding her in the same old place is broken down. Jesus has crossed barriers to give her a new way. She leaves her water jar behind to tell her neighbors about this man.
This nameless woman, who has just had a longer conversation with Jesus than anyone else in scripture, becomes one of the first proclaimers of the good news of the healing and wholeness and the never-ending life that Jesus brings.
The Samaritan woman ignores the whispers of the confused disciples. They are still scratching their heads, while this woman is out growing the kingdom of God as she shares the new life she found when she was seen by and sees Jesus.
Don’t be distracted by the misogynist and morality of preachers past. Instead, notice what happens to this woman, when Jesus crosses borders to get her. Notice what happens when he sees her – just as she is, in grief, in grim circumstance. He sees her, and it sends her right out of her borders, filling her with living water, new life and a story to tell. And she becomes a leader of her people.
This is how it always happens.
We don’t need to have our life together in every way. We don’t have all our theology sorted out. We don’t have to be the powerful person in our community. We don’t have to have led a life that is free from pain, chaos, and confusion. We can be bearing up under a lot of years, a lot of loss or and just a lot of plain bad luck. We might be the person who has been counted out or forgotten or excluded or overlooked.
When Jesus crosses over the border to come to us, all the boundaries, all the taboos, all the history that contains us falls away. By telling us who we are, Jesus shows us who he is. The Messiah is the one in whose presence you know who you are – the good and the bad, the done to and done by, the all of it. He crosses all boundaries, breaks all rules for us. He speaks to you knowing everything about your life, and you know him and then there is bubbling up in you a drink of life so lively that you need no bucket. It is gushing with life.
And then we are on a new way that is powerful and healing for us and for our community.