“Talking to Strangers” 03/23/2014 by Rev. Stacy Swain (Click on title for audio)

John 4: 5 – 42

Have you ever known someone who looked upon people he/she did not know, not as strangers, but simply as people he/she did not yet have the good fortune of meeting? For these the world is not divided as it is for most of us, into those we know and those don’t know. Instead the world is divided into those we know and those we cannot wait to get to know.

Now before you find yourself wanting to meet such a person or heaven help you, wanting to be such a person, let me warn you. As admirable as it is to have such open hearted receptivity to others, this type of person can be, for the rest of us, rather annoying if not downright difficult.

Go anywhere with this type of person and you can be sure that before the after dinner coffee cups have been cleared, he or she will have made friends with only the waiter and the manger but with the dish washer as well. “Where are you from?” “Where do you live now?” “Do you know my friend xxx who is from there as well?” “You should come for dinner, how about Friday?”

Knowing a person such as this can be maddening really. Everything takes twice as long and involves twice as many conversations as most of us would deem necessary. With this type of person, one finds oneself thinking “For the love of God, can’t we just for once keep this simple and just have it be about us tonight?”

But for this kind of person, keeping within one’s own makes no sense. It is not that this kind of person neglects us. We can know that we are known and loved by them, it is just that they are also very much in love with those whom they do not yet know.

Jesus, I am convinced was one of these kind of people.

For, when the disciples (who had gone to the city to buy some food) return they find Jesus deep in conversation and they don’t seem too pleased about it.

For the backstory to this passage is one of tension between the Jews and the Samaritans. Even though Jews and Samaritans both share in the lineage of being of the ancient tribes of Israel, they had had in more recent times a falling out. And so in Jesus’ day, Jews and Samaritans had as little to do with each other as possible.

So no wonder the disciples are annoyed if not down right alarmed by what they find at the well. Not only has Jesus struck up a conversation with a Samaritan, but with a woman (which was also taboo), and then beyond that with a woman on the edge — having not only five husbands but by living with one who is not her husband now.

If there had been anyone who ought to have remained unknown, it should have been this woman. But there is Jesus crossing all sorts of boundaries.

Now I am not saying that we should run out there and cross every boundary we can find. We know how much damage can come when professional and ethical boundaries are not maintained. I am not saying that having a bit of distance between us is a bad thing. We all need our space. I will readily step back a pace or two if someone steps in too close and while we are a community that hugs a lot, there is space here for those would rather shake hands, be assured! If we are coming at you with an embrace just extend your hand and we will get the sign and be grateful for it!

But the problem is when we use walls to divide and exclude. I am not just talking about walls that divide us one from another. I am also talking about how we can use boundaries as walls upon which we project who we would like others to think we are while all the while hiding hide the truth of who we are from others and sometime even from ourselves. The problem is when boundaries become walls and then fortresses within which we crouch in fear and hiding.

But the good news is that there comes a time, God willing, when the walls must come down. Howard Thurman, pastor to the civil rights movement and poet puts it this way:


My ego is like a fortress

I have built its walls stone by stone

To hold out the invasion of the love of God.

But I have stayed here long enough. There is light.

Over the barriers. O my God.

The darkness of my house forgive

And overtake my soul.

I abandon all that I think I am,

All that I hope to be,

All that I believe I possess. I let go of the past.

I withdraw my grasping hand from the future.

And in the great silence of this moment,

I alertly rest my soul.

I don’t know if you remember a few weeks back when we talked about those forty days in the desert when, after receiving his baptismal blessing and after having been claimed as God’s beloved, the spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness. I think that it was during that time that Jesus tore down the walls that he may have constructed around his heart. I believe that during that time Jesus had to face himself and come to accept no more and no less than who he was as first and foremost God’s beloved. It was in that time that Jesus came to know his essential, foundational, unmovable self-worth so that when Satan shows up at the end of that time, that stumbling block has nothing with which to trip Jesus up.

In a way, those 40 days in the wilderness was a time when compassion was fully born in Jesus heart — compassion for himself as a human being fully alive on this good earth, and compassion for every other living being who is trying desperately to be fully alive.

Fast forward from the wilderness to the well on this hot day. Sure Jesus is thirsty and tired but when the woman steps out of the rippling heat waves to draw water from the well, how could his heart not go out to her? How could he not know that she was even more deeply thirsty, even more deeply tired than he?

Jesus intentionally takes down the walls that separate him as a Jew and she as a Samaritan, that separate as man and she as a woman, that separate his gift of living water from the one who is so thirsty. Jesus intentionally and demonstratively challenges separation evaluating its legitimacy in the light of love.

So if that is what Jesus did, how are we to go about doing the same? How are we to challenge separation evaluating its legitimacy in light of love? How do we begin to let ourselves be known and to begin to know those unknown to us now?

If scripture is to be our guide and I think it is, being known is no more complicated than conversation. But it is a kind of conversation that does not stay on the surface of things but is open to going deeper.

It is beautiful that this conversation between the woman and Jesus takes place at the well. For in each exchange the conversation goes deeper down towards that life giving water. The woman starts out quite guarded really, sparing with this Jew who dares to engage her in conversation. But as their exchange goes on it becomes she slowly steps out from behind her wall and allows herself to be known by Jesus. And Jesus? Well he too allows himself to be known by her. When she says to him, “I know that the Messiah is coming?” Jesus steps fully out before her and says echoing the first revelation of God to Moses in the dessert, “I am.” Deeper and deeper the talk goes until it taps into truth and the life giving water of which Jesus speaks.

I am becoming increasingly convinced that the life of faith is not about saying yes to prescribed beliefs and doctrine. I am worry that the prescribed beliefs and doctrines of the past have become a wall that we can use to either wall out others, or that we hold up as a barrier to our own engagement with faith – thinking well if I cannot say yes to all of that then there is no room for me within this tradition; that I am walled off from engagement. Instead, I am increasingly convinced that the life of faith about deepening the conversation with each other and with God.

In the denomination of the United Church of Christ of which this church is affiliated, there is a much beloved phrase that says “God is still speaking.” And what is understood is that we do not just look back on what God has said and done scripture, we trust that God is still active now and has a lot to say to us now. But I would like to go beyond that too, and say that not only is God still speaking but so are Gods people. And that means you and I.

So I invite you to consider having one conversation about something that matters with another person whether that person is well known to you or is someone you do not yet know. I invite you to engage in a conversation that goes deeper, that takes you beyond the barriers that divide and separate, and that descends into the life giving waters of which Jesus speaks.

What happened to that nameless Samaritan woman that day is a blessing I would hope for us all. As the disciples stand there stuck in their judgment and mutterings, she – this nameless woman is freed. She leaves behind the vessel she used to carry water because it is of no use to her now, for now she is the vessel that carries the living water; — water that not only waters the garden of her soul but that she now carries to others in her village who she knows are thirsty.

Like Mary who on Easter morning will run from that Garden after having come face to face with the risen Christ who knows her and who speaks her name runs , so too does this Samaritan woman run to the others to share the good news of being known, and claimed and loved. She run to share the good news of God.

So let us go to the well. Let us risk a conversation that may begin to dismantle the fortress of our hearts and let rise in us the life giving waters of being fully known and fully loved by each other and by God. And May we too be the vessels carrying the good news out into the world . Amen.