wellVideo of this sermon is here.

Third Sunday in Lent – March 15, 2020

John 4:5-29

To begin, I would like to share with you a joke, one that gently pokes fun at another denomination. However, since this joke makes fun of someone else, I feel obliged to first tell you a joke that makes fun of people like me, so here goes:

There was once a barber who was cutting the hair of a rabbi, and when he finished, the rabbi asked him “How much do I owe you?”

“You are a man of the cloth,” said the barber, “I would not think of charging you.”

The next day, when the barber came to work, there were twelve baskets of fine bread awaiting him at his barber shop.

That day, he was cutting the hair of a Catholic priest, and when he finished, the priest asked him “How much do I owe you?”

“You are a man of the cloth,” said the barber, “I would not think of charging you.”

The next day, when the barber came to work, there were twelve bottles of wine awaiting him at his barber shop.

That day, he was cutting the hair of a United Methodist pastor, and when he finished, the pastor asked him “How much do I owe you?”

“You are a man of the cloth,” said the barber, “I would not think of charging you.”

The next day, when the barber came to work, there were twelve United Methodist pastors awaiting him at his barber shop.

Now for the joke I really want to tell, and I tell it with this disclaimer: it was told to me by a member of the church to which it gives a ribbing:

A man died and he went to heaven, and Saint Peter was showing him around. As Jesus promised, heaven is like a large house with many rooms. While on this tour, the man discovered that in each room were people from different denominations. “In this room are the Methodists,” Saint Peter said, “In this room are the Presbyterians, and in that room are the Episcopalians,” and so on.

However, when they arrived at the room at the end of the corridor, Saint Peter instructed the man to lower his voice.

“Why do we need to be so quiet?” the man asked.

Saint Peter replied, “In this room are the Baptists. We let them keep thinking they are the only ones here.”

It’s a pretty good joke. And yet, if we allow ourselves to believe that this joke is only true of the Baptists, then the joke is on us, and this morning’s text helps us to understand why.

In this morning’s text, Jesus takes a shortcut. As Kenneth E. Bailey points out in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, “Pious Jews usually traveled around Samaria to avoid defilement, but for Jesus defilement came from within, not from without, and thus he took the shortest route, which was along the top of the ridge that passed by Sychar and Jacob’s well.” [1]

Today’s text stands in contrast to last week’s reading. Whereas Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness, today’s story takes place in the hot, noonday sun. Again, Bailey points out how women in Middle Eastern villages normally avoid the heat of the noonday sun by gathering water in the early morning and at the end of the day. The buckets of water are heavy, so the women would travel in groups in order to help one another.[2]

And yet, in this morning’s text, a Samaritan woman is gathering water at the well alone and in the middle of the day, and for this reason, we can reasonably assume that she was an outcast in her community.

Upon seeing this woman, the expectation would have been that Jesus would withdraw from her by a distance of at least twenty feet, which would have signaled to her that she was permitted to approach the well.[3]

This is not what Jesus does. He stays where he is, sitting on the edge of the well, and awaits the woman’s arrival, and when she arrives, he asks her for a drink. By so doing, Jesus breaks a serious social taboo by speaking to a woman in an area devoid of witnesses. Bailey writes of how “Throughout forty years of life in the Middle East [he] never crossed this social boundary line.”[4]

In this time and place, Jesus should not have even made eye contact with her. One of the oldest statements of the Mishnah, the oral tradition of the Jewish law states: “and talk not much with womankind. They said this of a man’s own wife: how much more of his fellow’s wife! Hence, the Sages said: He that talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the Law and at the last will inherit Gehenna [Hell].”[5]

Throughout his ministry, Jesus crossed boundaries in regard to women. However, in this reading from John 4, he crosses yet another.

“Hostility between Jews and Samaritans had existed for five-hundred years…The Jews had once destroyed the Samaritan temple, which resulted in the Samaritans penetrating the temple area of Jerusalem a few years before the birth of Jesus and scattering bones of the dead across the area on the eve of Passover in order to defile the complex and make it impossible for the Jews to keep the feast. Jesus set aside all the bitterness of past history as he requested a drink from this Samaritan woman.”

The bucket from which Jesus asked to drink, because it was a Samaritan bucket, was defiled. Jews and Samaritans also would not share each other’s dinnerware.[6]

In this reading from John, the disciples return from buying food and they see what Jesus is doing, and John tells us that they are astonished, so much so that no one will even speak to him about what they have seen him do.

It is really no surprise to us who have heard story after story of Jesus doing this kind of thing. Jesus defiles himself by touching the dead. He makes a despised tax collector (Matthew) one of his disciples. He heals a Gentile Roman centurion’s servant, after praising the centurion’s faith. He gathers with women of ill repute, even saving one’s life by protecting her from stoning. He used the hated Samaritans as heroes in his parables. He compares salvation to the return home of a wantonly sinful younger brother. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!” said the Pharisees.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus crosses boundary after boundary after boundary, always hanging out with the wrong people, always mooring his fortunes to the fortunes of the marginalized, the excluded, the hated, and the oppressed. Again and again, Jesus is in the wrong neighborhoods, speaking to the wrong people who have done the wrong things, people who could do him no favors and who could only negatively impact his fortunes. Again and again he does this, and again and again does he entreat his followers to do the same.

That is, until the good religious people, people like us, had enough, and they crucified him for it.

When I was in high school at Godwin, I was an early participant in a pilot program the Henrico County Public Schools was testing called Peer Advisors. The idea was that since teens are most likely to share their burdens with other teens, it would be advantageous to have identifiable teens who were trained in listening and helping their peers get the help they needed. This work was, in many ways, what started my trajectory towards pastoral ministry.

One day, the teacher who was the sponsor of the program pulled me aside and told me that there was a student named Scott who was extremely shy and who ate lunch alone every day. “You will find him sitting in a corner, alone, when you arrive at lunch. I want you to invite him to sit with you and your friends.”

So, I did. At first, I must admit, I thought that my friends would make fun of Scott. He was about 6’3.” He was different, yet invisible to his peers. I invited him to join us, and he did. The next day I had to invite him again, and this went on for a few more days until he joined us on his own.

My friends discovered that Scott enjoyed Star Trek. They also enjoyed Star Trek, and this commonality became something they could discuss as this budding friendship grew.

One day, as I arrived in the cafeteria, the noise was so great that I thought there was a riot. Students were roaring with laughter, all in a circle, some standing on their chairs, pointing, ridiculing, humiliating whatever pour soul who was in their midst.

It was Scott, who was not invisible anymore.

Because, perhaps for the first time in his life, Scott had made friends, and perhaps for the first time in his life, Scott had found someone with whom he had something in common, and perhaps for the first time in his life, Scott felt comfortable being himself, he had arrived at school wearing from head to toe a banana-yellow, authentic-looking Star Trek uniform.

And he was paying dearly for that mistake. Everyone was bent over with laughter.

Except for my friends, who sat at our table, silently, silent as was I, when I joined them.

Forty years later, I truly wish that story had a different ending. Forty years later, that story remains one of the great regrets of my youth. In my mind today, I imagine myself shouting down the crowd, defending my new friend, or if not that, at least standing alongside him, so that he did not have to endure that abuse alone.

We know, do we not, that when one associates with the marginalized, the excluded, and the oppressed, it does not take long for the powerful, those people doing the marginalizing, the excluding, and the oppressing to notice, and before long, you will find yourself suffering a fate akin to those you wish to defend, as you are judged by the company you keep. Those doing the marginalizing, the excluding, and the oppressing will soon treat you as a proxy for their ire, their disdain, and even their hatred.

This side of the kingdom of God, it is never going to be easy to sit there on the edge of the well in the hot, noonday sun with someone who five centuries of culture and religion has indoctrinated you to hate and exclude. Standing up for people can be hard, heartbreaking, seemingly lonely work.

And while it can seem lonely, when you are doing it, the gospel attests, you are never alone. You are never alone because when you stand with the outsiders, you are standing where the Son of God stands, where the Son of God always stands. Conversely, if we wish to be on Jesus’ side, well, we know where and with whom he always chooses to be found.

At the outset of his ministry, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

In light of this text, what do you think he is talking about?

Which brings me at last to where I began: with heaven, the mansion with many rooms. No one in heaven is the only one there, and in the end, I believe all of us, and not just the Baptists, are going to be joyfully surprised at just how populated that mansion with many rooms turns out to be.

Throughout his ministry, people were surprised by who Jesus chose to love. In Lent 2020, what would it look like for the church to be a haven of surprises, for whom, and for how we choose to love, and how much could we enlarge the population of heaven by doing so?


Gloria In Excelsis Deo.


[1] Bailey, Kenneth E.. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.