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FPC Sermon March 19, 2017       John 4: 5-42

This past week, nearly 600 Presbyterians gathered in Kansas City for the national gathering of NEXT Church. NEXT church, as its mission statement notes, is “a network of leaders – church members, ruling elders, youth leaders, educators, pastors, seminarians and professors – across the Presbyterian Church (USA) who believe the church of the future will be more relational, more diverse, more collaborative, more hopeful, and more agile.

” We provide hopeful space for robust conversations about the theology, culture, and the practice of ministry, support strong, faithful leadership in a time of adaptive change, and encourage collaboration and creativity across congregations and geographies. We are fostering a conversation about how to follow Christ in our particular day and age. We are a movement seeking to strengthen the relational fabric of the PC(USA) so that our congregations are strong and healthy enough to be a sustained, effective, faithful and moral voice that is engaged in the transformation of our communities toward the common good.”

This year’s theme was “Well Being in a Thirsty World,” taken from this very gospel lesson we heard this morning. The conference aimed to “explore how we – as disciples and as the church – participate in Jesus’ pattern of moving across barriers, new understanding, and life-giving transformation.  In short, finding and offering well-being.

Opening worship preacher the Reverend Alonzo Johnson talked about the Samaritan woman in this context: moving across barriers, creating new understanding, and transforming. Rev. Johnson heads up the Self-Development of People office in the PCUSA.  Self-development of People supports projects designed by people in need, not by outsiders.

Let’s face it. This gospel lesson challenges you and me in so many ways. The Rev. Johnson just returned from Sierra Leone and Liberia with a group of Presbyterian leaders.  Maybe you read about it in last week’s Presbyterian news.  These Presbyterians went to follow up on the assistance our church had given after Ebola had killed so many people.

What he found there was hope given by Presbyterian assistance: Self-Development of Peoples, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.  Assistance supported by our upcoming One Great Hour of Sharing Offering.  Seeds that had enabled the survivors to plant gardens.

But he also found walls. Walls in gated communities like those we have here.  Walls around corporations.  Walls around hotels.  Walls around what Johnson called “the people who matter.”  Walls with razor wire.   Walls that shielded the wealthy, the power brokers, the corporate executives from having to deal with the poor all around them.  Walls that symbolized the exclusion of the outsiders in that society.  I know what he’s talking about.  I’ve lived in such places, and I’ve lived behind those walls.

We too have these walls. Not just physical walls.  Walls of discrimination.  Walls of resegregation.  Walls that lead children into the school to prison pipeline.   Walls that cut aid to dependent children, to the hungry, to those in need of health care.  Walls that isolate people because of language.

Rev. Johnson was on the Paris Metro with his wife, who is white. A woman began yelling at him.  He asked his wife, who is fluent in French, what the woman was saying.  She said she’d tell him later.   It turned out the woman had made a disparaging remark about him, based solely on the color of his skin.  What she had said was: “You niggers bring disease to this country.”  He was devastated

Rev. Johnson also talked about what has happened to him right here in the U.S. While in seminary, he was walking home, a policeman pointed a gun in his back and told him to drop to the ground and spread his legs “because you know what to do.”  That’s what the policeman said.  Much later, his multi-racial daughter asked him, “If the police stop me, can I tell them I’m half white?”  This from an 11-year old.

You and I are shielded from this type of thing, but we may have felt mistreated in the past. Whether we’re women or men or teenagers or children, we might have felt mistreated.

We might have actually been mistreated. And we felt helpless and unable to stand up for ourselves.  Because we lacked the power and were afraid to confront authority.

This woman at the well has apparently been walled-off by society.  Why is she coming to this well all alone and at midday to boot?  That’s abnormal.

Moreover, she’s a Samaritan and she’s a woman. Reverend Johnson said: “Try any label we can understand today:  illegal immigrant, transgender person.”

Rev. Johnson pointed out that the woman has been given a bad rap – that she must be a prostitute. But John never says this.  Jesus never says this.  He just points out she’s had a number of husbands – five in all.  We don’t know what happened to those husbands.  They could have died from illness.  They might have been killed in war.  Her husbands might have abandoned her.  We just don’t know.

She’s now living with someone who isn’t her husband. This could be today, right?

But whatever the circumstances, this nameless woman seems to have been walled-off. It could be that she’s been walled off by other women but not by men.

When Jesus engages her in conversation, she’s startled. She’s not a Jew, and she’s a woman.

Nicodemus came to Christ by night, but this woman comes to the well at noon. John doesn’t even give her a name.

How many people do you and I encounter anonymously? People to whom we don’t want to introduce ourselves.  People with whom we’re reluctant to associate.

We don’t know what hurt this woman has experienced in her life, just as when we look around at each other, we don’t necessarily know the grief we’ve experienced.

But Christ chooses her as his messenger. She’s the least likely candid for this mission.  Yet, she doesn’t run away.  She sits there and listens.  She doesn’t wall him off.  She engages Jesus in conversation.  She asks him questions.

Jesus tells her that he’s going to give her water that will never dry up: “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

Then, Jesus’ disciples show up. They are puzzled, but they don’t confront Jesus.

And this nameless woman takes what he tells her and runs with it. She’s the first evangelist.  She’s the first missionary.   A Samaritan woman!  She’s so excited about meeting Jesus that she drops what she’s doing and goes back.

The reason we can guess that not everyone has walled her off is that, when the woman returns to the city and talks to the people, they rush right out of there to meet Jesus. They believe her.  John tells us that “many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.”

After meeting Jesus, the people of that city, Sychar, invited Jesus to stay with them, and he did, for two more days. According to John, the many more who came to Christ thanked the woman.  They told her that it was “no longer” because of what she’d told them but because of hearing for themselves.

In this Lenten season, think about what you and I can do. About the power Christ gives us to spread the good news.   Jesus, our Savior, is a rule breaker.  He gives his power, his living water, to the most unlikely candidate.

Jesus doesn’t have to talk with us, but he does, just as he talked to the Samaritan woman.

In John’s account, Jesus is the one who is thirsty. He comes to the well seeking a drink.  The woman is the one who has the bucket.  Without her, he can’t get the earthly water.  But, without him, she can’t get the eternal living water. She’s not the educated Pharisee like Nicodemus, but she immediately figures it out.

What happens to you and me when we extend to the inappropriate stranger the lifeline that he or she needs? To know that answer, we have to be willing to meet and help the stranger.

The insightful Samaritan woman listened, reflected, and then figured it all out:   this man who knows everything about me loved me.

That’s not just some ancient story. That’s our reality.  The Lord who knows us intimately and still loves us.  The Lord who calls each of us to love each other exactly the same way.   Amen.