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Sermon: Please Mind the Gap

Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on March 19, 2017

Third Sunday in Lent, Year A (RCL): Exodus 17:1-7; Ps. 95:1-7 [8-11]; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-26, [27-38] 39-42

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,

be always acceptable to you, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

        Six years ago during Spring Break of my Middler year in seminary, Chrissie and I 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 buses, and descending into the London Underground, to get around the city.           

          Traveling from Heathrow Airport into the city, 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.”  

          When we returned home to the States, 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 are straight, an unsafe gap is created when a straight car stops at a curved platform. Without any mechanical device that might fill the space, visual and auditory warnings were developed to help passengers from being caught unaware and thus suffer injury by tripping over, stumbling from, or stepping into that wide gap. The phrase “Mind the Gap” was chosen for this purpose; you see it painted along the edges of curved platforms as well as hear it through recorded announcements as trains arrive at stations.     

          This warning is relevant also where platforms are of 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 begins in Matthew then brings us to the Fourth Gospel. The stories from John show us that God loves the whole world. Last week’s story of the nighttime visit with Nicodemus was with the religious “in crowd.” Today’s encounter is with a Samaritan woman whose name is never given, an outsider coming with her questions from different background and heritage. In each story, Jesus touches the spiritual nerve of the individual that he meets. Jesus unmasked the spiritual emptiness of Nicodemus who seemed righteously self-sufficient, and here he opens up the curiosity and wonder of a questioning Samaritan woman. Jesus has no canned, well-rehearsed, cleverly packaged approach for dealing with either person. He speaks instead ... to their gaps. He spoke first about being “born again.” Now he offers “living water.            

Our Lord is mindful of such gaps. He sees all of them, yet they don’t become barriers keeping him from accomplishing his ministry. That this exchange at the well between Jesus and the Samaritan woman even took place is amazing, showing the boldness of Jesus to disregard social conventions, customs, and expectations, all for his redemptive involvement in the lives of human beings. Jesus simply ignores the centuries-old impasse between Jews and Samaritans and the social taboo of a man, let alone a rabbi, 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. Normally Jewish travelers would make a detour around Samaria, to avoid contact with Samaritans. Jesus must have sensed a spiritual hunger in the Samaritan people, feeling his Father’s call which sent Him into the WHOLE world, not just part of it. Jesus saw the gap in humanity that this represented, and in spite of the long history of resentment and animosity between Jews and Samaritans, Jesus minded the gap.

         

That gap which separated the Jews and Samaritans then was greater than the gap separating Israelis from Palestinians today. The Jews and Samaritans were (and 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 are 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 heathen colonists brought in from Babylon by the Assyrian conquerors. Consequently, Samaritans were considered to be unclean traitors to Jewish blood, because they invited worship of other gods through this intermarriage. Samaritans were confused, even heretical, in their religious beliefs. 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, also, 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. You can see why the parable of the “good Samaritan” was an oxymoron for the Jews.

          Now we find Jesus in Samaria, sitting at the well of Jacob, while his 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. If you go there, you can still drink water from the well.     

          Two things are interesting in this story in Samaria. The first is 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. The second is that the disciples are willing to go into the village to get food--given the usual Jewish reluctance to deal with Samaritans, God’s message must be working on them also! Whatever and however it happens, Jesus is alone as the woman approaches to draw her water.  

          The well was a social institution, a gathering place with its own particular ritual. Here women of the village would come together, usually in the evenings, 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. 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 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, 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 doesn’t become excessively defensive, but rather invites some kind of explanation. Here the Gospel writer 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 that gap.

          The woman cannot understand this unfolding of divine revelation without further help. She takes what Jesus says at face value. Thus Jesus must explain: he 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 Jesus. 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 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. The text does not tell us the circumstances of the earlier relationships: We do not know, nor need we know. We do not know even about her current relationship. Too many of us when we hear this story automatically cast a bad light on the kind of woman she is: we make assumptions, we leap to conclusions. 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.

          Jesus’ knowledge of the woman convinces her that he is a prophet, and changing the topic from being about her specifically, she raises a point of disagreement which has long existed between Samaritans and Jews, by 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 this way is simply to show the woman that Jesus knows her even as they have just met. The intention is to help her begin the first steps of her own faith journey by revealing who Christ is. Jesus got her attention and begins helping her mind gaps in her own life. Jesus provides 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 a 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 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, who come back to the well and meet Jesus for themselves.

          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 our physical body needs water to continue living, so does the spirit. Jesus is that water needed by the spiritual part of humanity. Without him, our souls will eventually die. This gap exists for all of us.

          I don’t know about you, but I feel our nation today creates one huge gap between all cultures, between people who should be of the same American family, but who choose to see the gap as insurmountable. No one in power seems to want to bridge the divide. This is the same kind of gap that Jesus saw between the Samaritans and the Jews. He knew that both sides viewed it as too wide, too deep, too longstanding. Yet, Jesus modeled for us how to bridge such deep divisions: GO INTO ALL THE WORLD. BAPTIZE. TEACH. MAKE DISCIPLES. KNOW I AM WITH YOU.

         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. I invite you to take this story to heart as you see the gaps in your lives. Jesus’ willingness to walk across the border into Samaria, to send his disciples away to buy food from the hated Samaritans, to sit alone and meet with a woman of Samaria and ask her to give him some water FROM HER OWN BUCKET. Jesus put it all on the line. He saw the gap, he stepped carefully, and continued on his way.

          Can we do anything less?