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Please Mind The Gap

Preached at St. George’s, U Street, NW Washington, D.C. (field ed site) March 27, 2011.
The Third Sunday in Lent, Year A (RCL): Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

Last week was Spring Break, so Chrissie and I took some much needed rest and relaxation away as our deferred wedding anniversary celebration. We flew to London for five nights and six days. It was my first visit to England, and while I speak the language, there were enough different accents, turns of phrases, customs and practices that I needed a few days to get my bearings. We spent a good amount of time walking about, riding the buses, and descending into the London Underground, to get around the city.

Traveling to the city from Heathrow Airport the day we arrived, I was amused by the public address announcement each time we pulled into a new station. “Please mind the gap between the train and the platform.”

Once we got back home, I googled “Mind the Gap.” A warning to train passengers to take caution while crossing the threshold between the train door and the station platform, it was introduced in 1969 on the London Underground, better known there as “the Tube.”

Because some platforms on the Tube are curved and the railway cars that use them are straight, an unsafe gap is created when a straight car stops at a curved platform. Absent any mechanical device that might fill that gap, visual and auditory warnings were developed to help prevent passengers from being caught unawares and thus suffering injury by tripping over, stumbling from, or stepping into the wide gap. The phrase “mind the gap” was chosen for this purpose and you can see it painted along the edges of curved platforms as well as heard on recorded announcements as trains arrive at stations.

This warning is also relevant where platforms are nonstandard height. The deep-level tube trains have a floor height that is eight inches less than the subsurface stock trains. In those places where trains share platforms such as the Piccadilly Line (tube) and District Line (subsurface) stations, the platform is a compromise.

Please mind the Gap.

Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary has brought us to the Fourth Gospel. Throughout John’s account, we will see that God loves the whole world as Jesus moves from last week’s story of the nighttime visit with Nicodemus, one of the religious “in crowd,” to the encounter today with a woman whose name is never given, an outsider coming with her burden of loneliness and guilt. In each story, Jesus touches the spiritual nerve of the individual that he meets. First, Jesus unmasked the spiritual emptiness of Nicodemus who seemed righteously self-sufficient and here he opens up the alienation of the Samaritan woman, who is caught in a maze of tangled relationships. Jesus has no canned, well-rehearsed, cleverly packaged approach for dealing with either person. He speaks instead to their gaps. He spoke to the first of being “born again,” and now he offers the other “living water.”

Our Lord is ever mindful of such gaps; he sees them all, yet they do not become barriers that keep him from accomplishing his work. That this exchange at the well between Jesus and the Samaritan woman took place is a bit amazing in and of itself, showing the boldness of Jesus to disregard certain social conventions, customs, and expectations, all for his redemptive involvement in the lives of human beings. Jesus simply disregards the centuries-old impasse between Jews and Samaritans and the social taboo of rabbis having lengthy conversations with women in public.

The verse preceding where our Gospel began today says, “But he [Jesus] had to go through Samaria” to return to Galilee in the North from Judea in the South. There is an awful lot of meaning packed into that one verse. Normally Jewish travelers would make a detour around Samaria, to avoid contact with Samaritans. Did Jesus need to save three days travel by passing through this ill-regarded province rather than taking the more common route of crossing the river and going up the Jordan Valley? There seemed no need so urgent in Galilee that it required he expedite his journey. So why did he have to go through Samaria? Seemingly unrelated to either geography or time, Jesus was aware of the ignorance and spiritual hunger of the Samaritan people, and understood that the Father had sent Him into the whole world, not just part of it. Jesus saw the gap in humanity this represented, and in spite of the long history of resentment and animosity between Jews and Samaritans, Jesus minded the gap.

The gap which separated the Jews and Samaritans then is as great as the gap separating Israelis from Palestinians today. The Jews and Samaritans are related peoples. Both are Hebrew. The Samaritans are from the old Northern Kingdom of Israel, while the Jews are of the old Southern Kingdom of Judah. The Samaritans were descendants of those who had not been deported or killed when the Northern Kingdom fell in 722 B.C. Survivors married outside their clans with the heathen colonists brought in from Babylon by the Assyrian conquerors. Consequently, Samaritans were considered to be unclean traitors to Jewish blood.

Samaritans were confused, even heretical in their religious beliefs. For a time they became polytheistic, due to the integration of other gods and rituals into their worship. While this gave way to the worship of Jehovah, the Samaritans only accepted the first five books of Moses, the Pentateuch, as their Scriptures and thus cut themselves off from the riches of the larger Hebrew Bible.

Samaritans too had hostile feelings toward Jews. Their offer of assistance to help rebuild the temple in Jerusalem when the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile was refused, and this caused great bitterness. So Samaritans refused to worship in Jerusalem, preferring instead their own temple on Mt Gerizim, which had been built around 400 B.C. When this temple was burned by the Jews in 128 B.C., relations between these two peoples deteriorated even more to the point that Samaritans would occasionally detain Jews traveling through their territory. So you can see why Jews would attempt to avoid any contact with these “unclean dogs.”

Now we find our Lord in Samaria, sitting at the well of Jacob, while the disciples went into the city for food. [Jacob’s Well is an actual place, and remains today as it did then. It is 100 feet deep and about 9 feet in diameter. It is one of the few places cited in the Bible where we can connect the story of Jesus.]

I find it interesting that no one remains behind with Jesus. Perhaps Jesus sent them all away, knowing they were hungry and in need of food while he may have sought mere silence. Had one or several of the disciples remained behind, they might had tried to prevent this encounter from ever happening. They may have deterred this woman from completing her errand. But Jesus is alone as the woman approaches to draw her water.

Every drop of water used in a household had to be carried from the local well. Most women would go to the well in the cool of the evening to draw water. Each day women walked to the well, lowered, filled and raised their jars, and carried water home. The well was a social institution, a gathering place with its own particular ritual. Here women of the village would come together to exchange small talk and learn the latest news while they drew their water. But this woman approaches in the middle of the day, subject to the heat of the hour, alone. Why? We don’t really know. Whether she had separated herself from other women, or they had restricted her access to times when they need not meet, she comes alone and finds Jesus resting at the well.

Please mind the Gap.

This episode with the Samaritan woman is the longest-recorded conversation Christ has with anyone. The exchange between the two begins with Jesus also seeking water from the well. In quietly asking for her help, Jesus cuts through centuries of suspicion and animosity. It is extraordinary in so many ways: A man and a woman conversing in public, let alone one is a Jew and the other a Samaritan. Rarely in that day and time did men and women speak in public alone. It was not proper nor condoned. One is passing through while the other belongs in and to the land. Yet it begins with the simple and honest expression of a basic physical need. We see Jesus, fully human, that he is tired and thirsty as he says to the woman, “Give me a drink.”

The woman can only respond with undisguised amazement, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Jesus has disarmed her. She does not become excessively defensive, but rather invites some kind of explanation. Here the writer of the Gospel seeks to help readers understand what a wide, deep gap Jesus has come to bridge.

Jesus tells the woman that if she knew the gift of God and who it was that was speaking to her, she would have asked him and he would have given her living water. By breaking the silence and going against the social customs, conventions, prejudices and the hostilities between Jews and Samaritans, Jesus becomes the gift of God that this woman and others need. Someone must take a risk, challenge the unspoken rules of social structures and norms, and break down walls that alienate people, to open up the possibilities of experiencing the gift of God. Jesus takes that risk. Jesus minds the gap.

The woman cannot understand this unfolding of divine revelation without further help. She misunderstands what Jesus says. Thus Jesus must explain what he means. The woman thinks Jesus is offering her literal water, but Jesus helps her understand that what this world has to offer cannot satisfy her deepest needs. The water that Jesus can give her will become "a spring of water gushing up to eternal life."

The woman still misunderstands what Jesus meant. She says, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water." But perhaps underneath this misunderstanding, much like Nicodemus’ puzzle over having to be born a second time, there is a veiled and obscured recognition of a genuine desire for something more than what Jacob’s well can provide. Jesus must not only provide those spiritual resources but also bring the woman to the place where she can recognize her need for them and enable her to receive them. Again, Jesus minds the gaps.

Jesus knows this woman, that she had married five times before and was not married now while she kept on with a man. We do not know the circumstances of the earlier relationships: Death? Divorce? Is she barren, unable to produce children or heirs? Is she promiscuous? We do not know, nor need we know. We do not know even about her current relationship other than it does not include marriage. Most of us when we hear this story automatically cast a bad light on the kind of woman she may be. We think she has many chips stacked up against her and the gap here seems awfully wide. But we do not hear Jesus urge her to repent or change her behavior. Jesus acknowledges her, sees her for who she is, and shares with her the word of the Kingdom. However wide that gap in our imaginations, Jesus minds it.

However, as the dialogue continues, this transient Jew does begin to offer the woman more than the patriarchal Jacob, after whom the well is named. Jesus’ knowledge of the woman convinces her that he is a prophet, and changing the topic from being about her specifically, she raises a bone of contention which has long existed between Samaritans and Jews. She begins defending her own tradition of worship on Mt. Gerizim. To her surprise, Jesus does not debate her, but rather he declares that true worship will not be confined to where it is done, or by whom it is offered, but will be defined by God’s own nature, which is Spirit and Truth. Here we learn that God transcends many gaps, whether they be gender, race, tradition, place, or even liturgy.

The Gospeler’s purpose in structuring the story the way he has is simply to show the woman Jesus knows her although they have only just met. The intention is help her begin the first steps of her own faith journey by revealing who Christ is. Jesus got her attention and begins to help her mind the gaps in her own life. Jesus provides her a lengthy discourse about true worship, the very subject she herself had raised, through which he reveals himself as the Messiah, which then turns her to him in faith. Through their exchange, the woman first sees Jesus as man, who is a Jew, and later accepts him to be a prophet, eventually even as the Messiah, and perhaps finally as the Savior of the World. In her mind, a God whose nature it is to embrace all peoples in all places is a Messiah. She hopes the Messiah will always be mindful of the gaps which separate all of us. And in hearing the Word from him, she leaves her jar at the well and becomes a new vessel of living water, sharing the news with the people of her village.

The well of Jacob, from which Jesus once asked for a drink, is fed by underground springs, and its water is fresh and cool. Because the water is moving and not from a cistern, the ancients called it “living water” - a term to which Jesus gave a new and special meaning.

Water was scarce in Jesus’ day, yet water was as much a necessity for life then as it is today. Just as the physical body needs water to continue living so does the spirit. Jesus is the water needed by the spiritual part of humanity. Without him, our souls will eventually die. This gap exists for us all.

Our souls are thirsty and we try to quench that thirst with many things that satisfy for a while, but eventually we grow thirsty again. The only thing that can truly quench our thirst of the spirit is the living water of Jesus Christ.

This account indeed sets our Lord’s seal upon the enterprise of Christian missionary work, which is our collective minding of the gaps. We should all think of the Samaritan woman as the very first missioner, set to bring people to the Word of the Lord. She overcame gaps which separated her from herself and others, and once known and accepted by Jesus, is empowered to mind the gap with the village to bring them to Jesus. Based on her testimony of him, and later their own experience of Jesus themselves, the people of Samaria accepted the Son of Man as the Savior of the World. They welcomed Jesus, and he and the disciples remained there several days.

In our own lives today, we all have our gaps. There are places where the straight cars we are do not match up well with the rounded tracks of our lives. Be mindful of the gaps, but do not let them become barriers. Jesus didn’t, and we shouldn’t either.



( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 28th, 2011 02:52 am (UTC)
Once again I am impressed as to how you take an experience from your own life and use it to explain our Lord Jesus' ministry to all, not just members of his own religious beliefs. I agree with Chrissie that you did a good job. It never ceases to amaze me how the Holy Spirit speaks to us if we just listen.
Apr. 9th, 2011 07:34 am (UTC)
Plain and simple! I like your work!

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )