Breaking the Norms – March 7, 2010

Joshua 24:14-18, John 4:7-26

March 7, 2010

During Lent this year we’re thinking about the Historical Jesus. What was he really like? How have we “institutionalized” him over the past two thousand years? And I can think of no greater passage than this one.

Jesus stops at this well, and he meets this woman. And he asks her for a drink. Now, that seems innocent enough. But it’s not! She asks him the 64,000 dollar question. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a Samaritan?” That’s the question that makes this story what it is. When Jesus spoke to her and made this request, it was so surprising to her, it was probably a bit shocking! And if we were to talk about all the social and religious divisions that Jesus crossed at that moment, we’d be here a long time! But let me give you just a few.

First of all, as you know, the Jews and the Samaritans “didn’t get along.” When Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, it was again one of those masterful stories that he made up! And when he told them that it was the Samaritan who helped the Jewish man, just think about how uncomfortable that had to be for his listeners! Jesus knew those kinds of things, and he went right after them in his stories. And he made people squirm! He took aim at their social conventions and set a higher priority on people and compassion and grace!

This story is a living example of that. The woman was right! “The Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans.” That’s an understatement! It was probably intentionally understated! (Maybe even sarcastically!) The Samaritans had inter-married with some non-Jews living in their country years ago, and the “true Jews” believed they had tainted the “purity of the race.” The derogatory way they treated the Samaritans was very much ingrained in their society. They had a series of “uncomplimentary” names for them. “Dogs” was one of them. (Though I would object to that one!)

Then don’t forget the second way the woman described herself! She said, “How is it that you… ask a drink of me a Samaritan and a woman… In that culture, a man would not speak, in any social way, to any other woman not his wife. That was considered highly questionable! And I know that’s no big deal in our modern world. But it was for them. And there are still vestiges of that kind of thing in the world today. There are certain cultures where women are expected to cover themselves – so there’s no temptation. And women are considered to be “second class” citizens. They’re even considered to be property! Those are still the “social norms” in some cultures, and they can be traced all the way back to this time long ago.

Well, Jesus broke down those norms. And that had to have been very disturbing for the people of his time! That was part of his “controversial” image. Yes, Jesus “hung around” with sinners and tax collectors. (And notice how “Tax collectors” were considered so bad they had a name associated with their sinfulness all by themselves!) Jesus associated with the wrong people! And yes, he and his disciples set aside some of the Mosaic laws of purification. But here, Jesus was also setting aside the social conventions between men and women. And isn’t it amazing, just a few years later, when Paul was writing about Christian unity, he too was breaking the social and political lines, saying, “There is neither Jew nor Greek.” and also, “There is neither male nor female.” “All are one in Christ Jesus.”

So, Jesus has broken through some of the social walls here. And I want you to notice that it’s when we have the courage to break through the social barriers ourselves, that we can build bridges, and we can then get down to people’s needs. That is when we step into the world of compassion and grace. It is then we step into Jesus’ world!

The next thing I want us to look at in this passage comes near the end. This is where Jesus reaches out to this woman in a more personal way. He asks her to do something embarrassing. He asks her to go get her husband. She answers him – sort of – saying she “has no husband.” We know that’s only a “half-truth,” and Jesus knows it, too. And he takes this controversy head on by telling her she has had five husbands. Now, maybe that doesn’t seem such a big deal in our world, but it was huge in hers! In fact, the reason she had come to the well at the sixth hour – the middle of the day – was probably that she was avoiding the other women, who would have come at the start of the day, when water was first needed, and when it was cooler.

So, Jesus has gotten beyond the walls. He’s gotten beyond the social norms. He’s now breaking down the social stigmas and the personal barriers. And that’s an uncomfortable thing, isn’t it?! And again, are we “comfortable” with a Jesus who does that? This woman has started to feel it! Now that Jesus has come to some of the tough stuff, she starts to back it off! “Let’s talk some doctrine, Jesus!” She changes the subject, asking this question about the controversy between the Jews and Samaritans.

Don’t we do the same? Don’t we resist Jesus dealing with the personal stuff in our lives? Don’t we take the personal stuff with Jesus and turn it into doctrinal stuff? Because isn’t some of that “personal relationship” a bit uncomfortable for us? It is especially when it calls into question our beliefs or our lifestyle? That’s what we need to be looking at during Lent. And I want you to see how Jesus brings this back. And that’s what he does with us, too. We can try to divert his attention from the more difficult things in our lives, but he will always bring us back!

He starts answering her question, telling her this wonderful truth about “true worshippers.” He says that true worshippers worship God “in spirit and in truth.” I’m not completely sure about what he meant by that, but I suspect it is different than what we sometimes turn worship into. You’ve heard me say before, that some people think worship is something you go to to watch someone else do. But true worship is worshipping God “in spirit.” It is reaching out and making a spiritual connection with God. We should ask ourselves when we leave here each week, “Did I make that connection with God today.” And that’s only the “corporate” – the group part – of worship. That “spirit and truth worship” is something that should happen on a personal level all the time. Jesus tried to tell the woman that. True worship and adoration of God is not limited to a time or place. It is our spiritual connection with God!

Jesus is giving this woman some of his “best stuff,” just like Nicodemus last week. But now I want to go back to this middle part. Because this is the part I want to end with today. This is where Jesus gets talking to the woman about this “living water.” And what he says is very appealing to this woman, at least in a practical way. If she has this living water, she won’t have to come to this well to draw water. But then Jesus shows that he’s talking about himself. And he shows that he is mch more than just God in human form who teaches us the right things to believe!

Jesus is the “living water.” A bicycling buddy of mine has a favorite expression. He likes to say, “drink deeply from the well of life.” I love that. And Jesus is the embodiment of that. He is the “living water.” He is the embodiment of God’s personal relationship with us. And that means a relationship that sustains us, that empowers us, and sometimes breaks through the walls and the barriers and calls us to do the same. Sometimes I wonder how many Christians are willing to answer that call? For it’s a call to radical love! It is a call to seek out the wayward and the unloved. It is a call to “hang with” the sinners, and yes, maybe even the tax collectors!

I suspect there are too many who call themselves “followers of Christ,” who are more like “learners about Christ.” They aren’t to “comfortable” with the kind of person he was, and the kind of people he wants us to be. It’s much “safer” just to turn it all into “doctrine” and “belief.”

We see in this story a Jesus who breaks down the social and religious norms. And that may be hard for us to see, because we have made him into the norm. But let me tell you that this is the Jesus we worship. He is a Jesus that breaks into our lives, and breaks down the walls, and touches our hearts. He is the living water, that fills our souls to overflowing!


Eternal God, we thank you that you have shown us such amazing love in Jesus, our Lord. And we ask for the courage to show your love to others. It isn’t always easy, and we need your strength to do it. Help us to know you better through your son, in whose name we pray, Amen.