A visitor to the Australian outback visited a cattle ranch. He was intrigued by the seemingly endless miles of ranching country with no sign of any fences. He asked the rancher how kept track of his cattle. The rancher replied, “Out here we dig wells instead of fences.”
“Out here we dig wells instead of fences.” The implications of the phrase in our work as a church are deep. There is no need to fence in that which is highly motivated to stay within range of water, their most important source of life.
Faith and helping provide places of faith should be about digging deeper wells rather than on building higher fences. However, to fully grasp this I need to take an excursion into mathematics, briefly, I promise.
The word “set” in mathematics refers to a group of objects that belong together because they have a defined similarity which binds them together. For example a set of odd numbers might include 1, 3,5, 157, but not 2, 4, or 100.
Sets can be defined in various ways. For example: in a room full of people the set of males is usually a clearly recognizable set which could further be divided into subsets of single males and married males. Or we could define a set in terms of age, the set of those under 35; or in terms of knowledge, the set made up of all those who know what the prophet Ezekiel was instructed to do with the hair shave from his head and beard in Ezekiel 5. Or behavior, the set of those who have not exceeded the speed limit today.
It is possible that someone in here might be included in all those sets today. On the other hand, any speedy female over 35 who doesn’t know Ezekiel well, might be excluded from them all.
Another set is determined only by how far a person is from the center goal. For example, many of us would consider ourselves constantly working to deepen our relationships with those we love. There is relatively no way for me to determine or define by position how deep you are in the relationship with your parent or your child. You are one of the only people who can determine this depth. Faith and our relationship to God is the same, we are the only ones who can describe the depth to which we know God, to which we feel connected to God. And most likely it will take some conversation within the relationship to know what will help deepen that relationship.
The first form of sets we talked about is the bounded set. We need parameters to define who is in and who is out. The second set we talked about, when I shared about relationships is called a centered set. And as the Australian rancher said, “Out here we dig wells, instead of fences.”
The writer in John seems to understand these set concepts well. Last week, in John 3, we studied Nichodemus, who was a Pharisee. Pharisees kept track of the bounded set, the laws that determined if people were in the bounds of God’s mercy, or if others life practices determined they were left on the outside of God’s mercy. Nichodemus could not as a learned man approach Jesus during the day, nor could he fully comprehend the depths of God’s love described by Jesus.
In contrast, today’s scripture is about a woman whose very social location should have prevented Jesus from even talking to her. Samaritans in the 1st century were unclean and fenced out from Jewish society as people unable of receiving God’s mercy. While sharing a common ancestor with the Jewish people they were believed to be wrong in their worship of God, having their own temple to God instead of using the one located in Jerusalem. Additionally, a man sitting by a well would not have permission to speak with a woman for fear they both would be seen as living outside of appropriate gender relationships.
The unexpected lesson is that Jesus and the Samaritan Woman had to cross boundaries to share the new life of God’s love, but beyond that the Samaritan woman had to have courage to work through the pain of her own life. She stepped through her fear and doubt about a world that had probably discarded her, and dared hope that God might still cross a boundary to help her become the first disciple of the good news.
Here now from the gospel of John, chapter 4 retold, with what might have happened in between the lines.
Jesus came to Sychar, near the land of the Samaritans, and Jacob’s well who had been a forefather of the Jews and the Samaritans. There he sat down at a well, it was about noon and the sun was hot. His disciples went to town to get some food for him, at what would guess is the equivalent of 1st century McDonalds.
A Samaritan woman came to the well with her bucket to gather water for the day. It was an odd time to gather water, as most would come in the early hours of the day when the air was still cool. Jesus asked the woman for a drink of water stepping outside the barriers of gender and ethnicity that were in place for the day.
The woman was taken aback, and in confusion asked, “How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan and a woman, for a drink? Don’t you know what people might think?”
Jesus responds cryptically, “If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water.”
The woman has seen this before, a man too hot in the sun spouting nonsense. Jesus knows the disciples will be back with their own bucket soon, but she doesn’t know this. She thinks to herself, “The truth is this man can’t offer me water, he has no bucket.” So she lets Jesus know this and then in surprise even to herself she goes deeper, “Are you better than our ancestor Jacob, who dug this well?”
13-14 Jesus says, “Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.” (MSG Version)
The woman asks eagerly for this water, her life has been hard and challenging and this could be a break for her.
As if knowing this challenge Jesus, presses into the fear and hurt in this woman’s life with a phrase, “Go and get your husband and come back.”
The woman feels all the shame, fear, anger and pain come up for her again. She feels in this moment the reality that she is a sinner, but also in the phrase a reminder that she has tried so hard to be a saint in her life. In her world woman are judged by the man they are with, and if they are not with a man, they are sometimes considered powerless. Knowing it might end the conversation she honestly shares, “I have no husband.”
In the past I have heard this woman called improper for having this many husbands, or told she lived immorally. However, we know nothing of her context, so to make this assumption is to pass judgment. Bad relationships, death, or rejection are all possible. In this moment she has to face the brutal reality of the position of her life.
Then Jesus shares that he knows she has had 5 husbands and the man she is with now is not even her husband. Let me name the courage of this woman and the hard work she has done to work through the pain of her past, because if this wound was still raw, I think she would have walked away. Instead, she turns this pain of Jesus words to mocking Jesus for acting like a prophet and gives him the edge of her anxiety about going deeper into this conversation; she uses this emotion to turn the tables on him. She reminds him of something that most likely caused Jesus shame, fear, anger, and pain.
19-20 “Oh, so you’re a prophet! Well, tell me this: Our ancestors worshiped God at this mountain, but you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place for worship, right?” (MSG Version)
Jesus would have felt his own skin crawl at this remark, because he knew that deeply God wanted all people to be aware of the love of God. That God didn’t want boundaries and barriers to block this love and in this moment it almost did.
I want to take a minute to note the courage and bravery of both Jesus and this woman. They keep crossing boundaries: First the social and cultural boundaries. Second the emotional boundaries that shut down so many conversations in our world, they let each other push buttons that drive many of us to quit conversations.
Then after receiving the pushback from the woman, Jesus shares:
23-24 “It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”
25 The woman said, “I don’t know about that. I do know that the Messiah is coming. When he arrives, we’ll get the whole story.” (The MSG)
Jesus and her seize this opportunity together. They take the beauty of what Jesus has to share about the good news of God’s kingdom for all people and the brutal boundaries they just crossed, and do what one of my favorite author calls making a “brutiful” moment. Despite all of the hard things they have shared, they both crossed enough boundaries to know that Jesus is bringing God’s good news and she is loved enough to carry this news to her people. She gets up from that place and leaves her bucket behind to bring her friends to meet Jesus. Jesus the man who has invited her to live through her pain, has shared his own pain, and for whom boundaries will be crossed to center people in the deep well of God’s love.
The Christian author, Tony Compolo, was in prayer with a group before he was to speak at a Pentecostal college. A group of 8 had asked to pray with him before the event and he had agreed. They had him kneel and all placed hands on him. It was a little unusual for Tony, but he knew the importance of prayer in this community.
Then as sometimes happens in church prayers, it got a little awkwardly long and Tony was trying to think of how to end the prayer. Especially when one of the gentleman started to share some pretty intimate details of the struggles of one man, Charlie Stolzfus.
The prayer went something like this; “Lord Jesus, you know Charlie Stolzfus. He lives in the white trailer down the road from the church on the left hand side of the road, it is white.”
Tony was thinking, “I don’t know if I need to know where Charlie’s street address is, God knows right where it is.”
The man kept praying, “God, you know Charlie left his spouse and kids this morning, and we hope you Jesus can do something to help him and his family in the white trailer down the road from the church, on the left hand side. Please keep Charlie Stolzfus in our hearts Lord.”
The prayer finally ended. Tony completed the event and was headed to his hotel when he saw a guy who was looking for a ride. Tony offered the guy a ride, and introduced himself. The gentleman shook his hand and said, “Hi my name is Charlie Stolzfus.”
Tony without saying a word starting driving and then flipped a U-turn and drove back toward the college and the church he was at. The guy was getting obviously nervous. Here is this tough looking preacher who picked him up and is driving him in the opposite direction he was headed. Charlie finally asks, “Where are you taking me?”
Tony says, “Home.”
Charlies asks, “Why?”
Tony says, “God told me.”
Tony and Charlie get home and meet Charlie’s wife and have one of those conversation that crosses barriers, and helps us live through our struggles. Charlie and his wife were able to work things out and Charlie became a pastor because God stepped into his life that night in a deep way.
The unexpected lesson today is that when we come as we are to God and Jesus; God can work with who we are, as we are. We don’t have to be the perfect person and have it all figured out, we don’t have to be happy about changes that happen to us. God will keep the conversation going until we are ready to see what is next.
I don’t think it is a mistake that this section is one of the longest in John’s gospel. God knows that preparing for this kind of change takes time. We don’t have to be happy right away, in fact God wants us to push back and forth until we feel ready to make a change. God reminds us to let life be hard and not to numb it.
It is not going to be all better after we meet the change either, it is going to be different. Different can bring beauty, but it can be brutal to get to that beauty.
Go and dig the brutiful well, and remember that crossing boundaries helps us find Jesus and the courage to share God’s love.
 Thanks to Sheila Pritchard for this great analogy around sets. http://homepages.which.net/~radical.faith/misc/pritchard.htm
 Tony Campollo Story and additional information for background. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/paperbacktheology/2014/03/lent-3a-john-45-42-the-samaritan-woman-at-the-well.html