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Breaking Down Barriers

May 8, 2022

Breaking Down Barriers

Preacher:
Passage: Gospel of John 4:4-42
Service Type:

Barriers can be a blessing or a curse.

A baby gate that prevents a toddler from tumbling down the stairs or accessing an area that could be dangerous is a necessity. A locked gun safe, the big concrete barriers that separate construction zones on I-26, a fence that keeps your pet safe: these are all
barriers that are good because they serve a constructive purpose.

But there are other barriers that that serve only to divide and diminish. Just this week the governor of Texas has announced his
decision to challenge the national requirement that immigrant children are allowed to attend public schools. Barriers to voting that penalize people of color and poverty are popping up all over this country. For centuries, the barrier of race has been woven into our laws and our judicial systems. The barrier of red-lining has kept people out of desirable property and thwarted the ability to build economic security. We could go on for hours identifying legal barriers to health, education, fair
housing, lending, and welfare present in ours and the world’s systems of power.

The church is not immune to these barriers either, lest we are tempted to get smug and self-righteous.

For some churches, the barriers are clearly stated, especially when it comes to the roles of women or the acceptance of people in the LGBTQ community. And these barriers, clearly stated, are justified as righteous. At other times, the barriers may be more of an invisible fence that may not be stated but are still a part of the climate.

When I was a kid in the early 1970s, I didn’t realize my church had a racial barrier until we had two African-American families visit right around the time the schools were finally desegregating in Greenville, SC and I overheard comments that some of the respected adult leaders were making. I had grown up in missions classes in that church where we were taught that Jesus loves
all the little children. Apparently, that only applied to those who stayed in their own countries or neighborhoods or churches. Sometimes people in churches are seen as “less than;” some are the “haves” and some are the “have-nots.” To paraphrase Animal House, all of us are created equal, but some are more equal than others.

We struggle to figure out how to include people with disabilities. We don’t know what to do with mental health issues. We can be awfully controlling even in the way we offer help to others. Because church is a human institution it is flawed, even though it has a divine mission. Outsiders accuse the church of hypocrisy, and if we are honest, that is a part of who we are
because of the barriers we have constructed, whether implicit or explicit.

We also have our own barriers. We have our own biases and prejudices that are deeply implanted in us. However, we also construct barriers that are self-destructive. The world tells us that we are not good enough and we embrace it. We allow the world or some ideal to define what it means to be successful. Sometimes we feel that we are owed something. Sometimes we expect the church to validate us and yet we push people away. Sometimes we wallow in our past or present.

Those are barriers of rubbish that Dwight reminded us we need to take to the curb.

It is very hard for many of us to accept that we are unconditionally loved by God. We are God’s beloved children. We have to learn to claim that identity but also bless others with the same.

Our scripture today, this story known as The Woman at the Well in John’s gospel is full of barriers. We are going to look at how Jesus addresses these barriers together and see if we can find ways to address these and other barriers as a part of our faith journey.

Jesus’ trip through Samaria is a big step in beginning to address barriers, and this first barrier is racism.

Jesus and his disciples are headed to Galilee. To get to Galilee from Judea, the closest route is through Samaria. Many Jews chose to avoid that route and take a more circuitous way so as not to have to encounter Samaritans, whom they considered half-breed heathens. Jews were very prejudiced against Samaritans and vice versa. Both Jews and Samaritans viewed themselves as the true Israel, and both were descendants of the original twelve tribes of Israel. The Jews were comprised primarily of the two
southern tribes, Benjamin and Judah.

The Samaritans had developed out of the ten northern tribes. These tribes had been diluted by foreigners that were brought in by invading countries. The Samaritan race had formed as the Israelites and the settlers intermarried and as their religious beliefs began to synthesize. The Jews were repulsed by the Samaritans and treated them with disdain. The hostilities
were so great that Rabbinic law forbid the Jews to eat off the same dishes as Samaritans.

When Jesus talks with the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob and asks for a drink, he gets her attention because
Jews do not intermingle with Samaritans, much less drink water from their pots. His actions show he is not your typical Jewish man.

Another barrier Jesus addresses here is the gender barrier. Rabbis carefully instructed men to avoid speaking to women. A quote from one rabbinic teaching says, “He who talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the Law and at the last will inherit Gehenna.” Suffice it to say that was not a good place to end up.

Woman were regarded as inferior to men. At the feeding of the 5000, the biblical writer reminds us that the number 5000 does not include women and children. Women’s survival depended upon their relationships with men. Jesus was tough on
divorce because of the effect it had on women. In that day, a man could simply tell his wife he was divorcing her, leaving her destitute and at the mercy of the kindness of others. Some would have no choice but to become victims of trafficking and abuse.

It is quite remarkable that Jesus chooses a Samaritan woman with whom to share his message as he initiates his gospel ministry with the Samaritans. The disciples certainly are shocked when they saw Jesus conversing with the woman.

A third barrier is that of sinfulness. The woman with whom Jesus converses is likely an outcast, a less than, among her own people because of her life situation. We learn that she has been married five times and is now living with a man who is not her husband. Many scholars conclude that she is alone at the well at high noon, the heat of the day, because she is ostracized by her peer group of women who would typically come to the well early in the day when it was cooler. She is not necessarily the
kind of woman the righteous people would want to hang out with.

Jesus, in his ultimate wisdom, knows the woman’s situation. He does not conclude, “Well, she is unworthy of hearing the gospel” or “if she will change I will share my message with her.” Instead, he begins a dialogue that demonstrates complete openness. He is even willing to drink water from her pot. He accepts her as she is. He lets her draw her own conclusions when she is drawn into his message. He offers no judgment or condemnation. We have no evidence how the message might have affected her current living situation.

Do not hear me say that we can ignore our own sinfulness and the sinfulness of our culture and institutions. All I am saying is that in pursuing a relationship with us, Jesus sets that barrier aside and approaches us with love and forgiveness.

Another barrier Jesus begins to overcome is religion. He actually has a dialogue, a healthy discussion, not a lecture. He is well aware of the commonalities present between the faith of the Jews and the faith of the Samaritans. They both share the Torah as their common foundation of faith, and both are looking for the Messiah, the Promised One. They are talking at the well of Jacob, a revered ancestor for both peoples. Jesus moves the woman from focusing on the differences that define her faith over
against his to the realization that where you worship or what you are called is not essential. The essential part of worship is the attitude, the spirit you have within as you worship God. She shares her hope for the Messiah.

It is at that point that Jesus reveals to her that he is the Messiah, and overwhelmed by her encounter with him, she believes him. Jesus uses the phrase, “I am.” For me that is very reminiscent of God identifying God’s self as I am, Yahweh to Moses.

A last barrier Jesus breaks is societal. The woman goes from being an outcast to being a missionary, a proclaimer of the Gospel. I find it remarkable that people listen to her and believe her story. The power of Christ at work within her begins to erode the barriers that her society had constructed around her. The woman gains validity in her community as she shares what Jesus, the Messiah, has done for her. The townspeople believe her testimony and meet Jesus themselves. Jesus stays among
them, teaching them, for two more days, breaking all the barriers down.

How do we as Gospel people, as missionaries by the very nature of our calling to follow Christ, tell what Jesus has done for us? How do we chisel away at the barriers in our town and the surrounding area, much less in the nation and the world? Barriers exist that are oppressive and cruel, short-sighted, and hateful. Where do we start?

Based on Jesus’ actions in the text, I offer you three words: investigate, influence, and involve.

Investigate—Jesus starts his work with the Samaritan woman by investigating who she is and what she is made of. He sees intrinsic value in her as a person even though the world does not. She is worth his time and energy. He loves her from the start.

We, too, need to be aware of who and what surrounds us. In the small picture, that is Hendersonville. In the bigger picture, it is the plight of those who have no voice of their own, those who have little to no validity in our cultural setting, those who cannot cry out because they fear no one will hear them.

When we moved to Anderson S.C. in 1992, our real estate agent was driving us around and drove by an area and said, “Don’t ever go back into that area. It is a dangerous neighborhood. It is unsafe. I am warning you, don’t ever go down that way.” That area slowly but surely became the site of many ministries the church we were a part of partnered in, ministries that addressed food insecurities, housing needs, preschool education, building relationships, and through all that, sharing the love of
Christ. Fear was the biggest barrier we had to overcome, on all sides.

Where are the risky areas in Hendersonville? Who are people at risk here? Who do we need to see through the eyes of Jesus? Who needs to know that they have intrinsic value because they are loved by God? As we investigate, where do we need to take risks?

Influence—Jesus has a profound influence on the Samaritan woman. He gives her a sense of worth where there had likely been none. He uses his power and authority in a way that empowers the woman. She becomes a spokesperson for her community, proclaiming the Savior of the World is here.

What are barriers that can begin to be chipped away through our influence? Obviously, we can give financially. We often hear the old adage, “Put your money where your mouth is.” As a congregation we have given over $2000 for Ukraine through CBF and I am sure some of you have given additional monies through other agencies as well. This church gives to other missions and missionaries, and it gives generously. I would guess that many of you give to other causes outside the congregation, too.

I also know that some of you share your influence through time and sweat. Worship meal is a place we invest time and attention. We don’t just offer a free meal and groceries. The relationships formed can turn to advocacy for helping people break the chains of addiction, to finding housing when people have been displaced, and to empowering people to have their own voice

Some of you deliver Meals on Wheels. We have one member on the board for Homes for Youth. One of you plays the piano some at a Buddhist worship service. Another teaches piano to children who could not afford the high cost of private lessons. Several of you have been involved in bringing worship experiences and relationships to people in assisted living and nursing facilities. Someone else works with teens who have been rejected by their families when they came out as gay.

I am only scratching the surface of ways you are influencing our community.

We can also vote. We can run for office. We can advocate. Most of us have a lot more influence than we think we have. If we connect it with the call to love God and love our neighbor and seek the power of the Holy Spirit in our influence, there is no telling what God might do through us.

Involve—Jesus got involved and he empowered the woman to get involved as well. She found the greatest fulfillment possible as she found meaning for her own life and then as she shared what she had found with others. I have had the privilege of participating twice now at Worship Meal.

I could brag on our people who serve because they are amazing, but I was even more amazed and humbled by another helper. This man is a hard worker every week at Worship Meal. He started out as a guest. People at worship meal walked alongside him when he was struggling and helped him. He has found faith and empowerment through that process. He is one of the greatest assets because he truly understands where many of the guests are coming from and what deep needs are underneath the
presenting need for a meal. He has been empowered through the love of Christ to be a proclaimer in this ministry.

Influence and Involvement become one and the same as we live out our calling in Christ.

Following Christ is messy. Christian faith means you get your hands dirty while you get your heart stretched. You take risks. You look for opportunities, not necessarily organized opportunities, but those that cross your path. As we learn to see with the eyes of the Spirit, we pay attention to where we see God at work. When we are filled from within with the power of the Holy Spirit, when we get a taste of Living Water, we are able to get involved in breaking down barriers and living for Christ.

Peter Arnett, a former CNN correspondent tells the story of doing an investigation in Israel in a small town in the West Bank when an explosion went off. He says, “Bodies were blown through the air. Everywhere I looked there were signs of death and destruction. The screams of the wounded were coming from every direction. A man came running up to me holding a bloodied little girl in his arms. He pleaded with me, ‘Mister, I can’t get her to the hospital. Israeli troops have sealed off the area. You are press. Use your influence. You can get through. Please Mister! Help me get her to a hospital. If you don’t help me, she is going to die.”

Arnett tells how he got them in his vehicle, through security, and to the hospital in Jerusalem. The whole time he was speeding down the road, the man continued to yell, “Hurry, Mister! Can you go faster? I am losing her!” When they finally got to the hospital, the girl was rushed to the operating room. Peter and the man retreated to the waiting room and sat in silence, too exhausted and shocked to talk. After a little while, the doctor cam out of the operating room and told them she was dead. The
man collapsed in tears and Peter put his arm around him. Peter told him, “I cannot imagine what you are going through. I’ve never lost a child. I just don’t know what to say.” The man looked at him with a startled look and said, “Oh, Mister, that Palestinian girl was not my daughter. I am an Israeli settler. But there comes a time when each of us must realize that every child, regardless of the child’s background, is a daughter or a son. There comes a time when we must realize that we all are family.”

Jesus came proclaiming a kingdom where we all are family. He came to break down the barriers that divide us, the barriers we have constructed that separate us. May we who have tasted the Living Water allow Christ to use us. May we investigate, recognize and use our influence, and risk getting involved.

 

 

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