No Longer Outcast – a sermon

You can listen to my sermon on the Saint Paul’s Website, or read on.

I’m always amazed at how easily the past can sneak up on me and send me spinning into an existential crisis.  It happened again this week over a pair of shoes.  I grew up the son of blue collar parents in the one of the richest school districts in Pennsylvania.  Now that I’m grown, it is a source of pride for me, but I didn’t have the same perspective back in 1986.  When I was a first grader at Bucher Elementary School there was only one shoe that you had to have to fit in on the playground: a pair of high-top Chuck Taylor All-Stars.  My parents, frugal as they were, wouldn’t spend the money to buy a pair of real Chuck’s, so I wore the K-Mart equivalent, and was teased by spoiled brat rich kids whose parents bought them Chuck’s in every color under the sun. (As you can tell, there are no hard feelings about this.)

Fast forward almost 30 years, and The 7 Experiment has us re-thinking the way we buy things.  Cassie brought up the idea of buying the girls TOMS Shoes this time around.  Now, TOMS are not cheap, but they are comfortable, environmentally friendly, and for every pair you buy, TOMS donates a pair to a child in need.  To top it off, they may not be as cool as a pair of high-top Chuck Taylor’s but they are pretty cool.  Instantly, a simple shoe buying conversation set off a battle within me between my inner cheapskate, my inner humanitarian, and six year-old Steve who wants my girls to have brand name stuff.  The first two I can handle, but the reappearance of six year-old Steve surprised me.  It probably shouldn’t have.  Being created in the image of God means that we were created to be in community and so the feeling of being an outcast is one of those things that stings most about being a human.  Whether it is about the shoes you wear or the color of your hair, the zip code you live in or the fact that your marriage fell apart, whatever the reason, every person, at one point or another in their lives has felt like an outcast, and it hurts.  Sometimes, the old feelings sneak up on you when you least expect it, and for a tormented few, the pain is so deep that “outcast” becomes their identity.

In this morning’s Gospel lesson, we hear the story of Jesus meeting a woman whose name we don’t know, but her identity is “outcast.”  Fresh off his encounter with the insider’s insider, Nicodemus the Pharisee, who sought out Jesus in the royal city of Jerusalem, Jesus had caught wind that the Pharisees were after him and so he decided to return to the Galilean countryside.  The expedient path would take them through Samaria, but Jews rarely took this route.  Instead, they would opt to go several days out of their way by heading east to Jericho, skirting along the Jordan valley and then entering Galilee from the southeast.  They did this for two reasons.  First, it was not uncommon for Samaritan thugs to attack Jewish pilgrims along the road, and second, “the first-century Jews regarded [Samaritans] as the worst kind of outcasts.”[1]  They were ethnically outcast as unclean half-bloods who had been left behind during the Babylonian Exile and inter-married with non-Jews.  The Samaritans were also religiously outcast because they dared to suggest that God did not reside in the Temple in Jerusalem, but rather in their Temple on Mount Gerizim.  Generally speaking, it was best for proper Jews to avoid the region of Samaria all together.

For some reason though, on this trip north, John tells us that Jesus “had to go through Samaria.”[2]  At about noon one day, Jesus and his disciples entered the town of Sychar, and Jesus took some time to rest at Jacob’s Well while his disciples went off in search of food and drink.  Meanwhile, there came a woman, a Samaritan woman, to draw water from the well.  While it is true that the Samaritans weren’t particularly nice to the Jews, it is perhaps more true that the Jews were not nice to the Samaritans, so as this woman came to the well, all alone, in the heat of the day so as to avoid the chatter of all the other women in town, her heart must have sank all the way to the tips of her toes as she noticed this man, this Jewish man resting by the well.  Here she was, minding her own business, when all of a sudden, she once again found herself playing the role of outcast of the outcast.  Even among her own people, this woman was an outcast because of a past that may or may not have been her own fault.  She had been married five times and was now living with a man who wasn’t her husband.  In a world where women were nothing more than the property of their husbands, odds are this doesn’t mean she was an adulterer or a serial monogamist, but rather a victim of her own cultural situation.  John doesn’t give us much detail about this woman’s life, other than what Jesus says about her, “you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband,” but in a culture where the point of womanhood was to produce children, preferably boys, and where a man could divorce his wife simply by taking her into the street and saying “I divorce you” three times, it seems reasonable to assume that this woman is barren and has been cast off by at least a few of those five husbands, while perhaps a few others, and probably her most recent husband, could have died.[3]  Certainly, there is talk around town, whether it is out of pity, gossip, disdain or a bit of all three, and so this woman comes to the well in the heat of the day to draw water in the silence of her outcastness.

With her head down, hoping to avoid eye contact with the Jewish man at the well, the woman begins to lower her bucket when Jesus clears his throat and says, “May I have a drink?”  And with that, a relationship is born and a life is changed.  It begins with a simple question, based in the universal need for water, but quickly goes much deeper.  The woman seems just as taken aback by the fact that Jesus would ask her for a drink at all as she is that he didn’t demand it from her.  As the conversation unfolds, the woman’s eyes are slowly opened.  She’s no theological slouch; she knows the history of her tradition and the centuries old arguments between the Samaritans and the Jews.  And, as is the case for most of us who find ourselves in the role of outcast, she is waiting for a better life to come along.  After Jesus had revealed that he knew her pain and suffering, she confesses her hope to him, “I know that [the] Messiah is coming” (who is called [the] Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”  The Greek idea behind what gets translated as “all things” is in a root word that means “expressing the totality of any object.”  Or, as we might say in modern language, “giving the final word.”  When the Messiah came, for this woman and for all of us who have been outcasts, it wasn’t to help us understand String Theory or to explain the process of evolution, but to be for us God’s final Word of salvation, the totality of God’s dream for his creation.  Jesus reveals to the Woman that he is that final word in a simple two word phrase, ego eimi, “I am.”  “I am” is the name that God called himself when Moses asked him for a name at the burning bush.  “I am” is the name so holy that even now, faithful Jews won’t speak it in Hebrew.  “I am” is the identity of the one who came to bring about healing, restoration, and redemption in the world.  “I am” is the first and final word.

Jesus gave the doubly outcast Woman at the Well the final word of hope by engaging her as a human being who is worthy of love and attention.  In this brief encounter, he changed her identity from outcast of the outcast to beloved child who belongs in the Kingdom of God.  He does this over and over again in his ministry. The blind beggar becomes whole when Jesus heals his sight and welcomes him into the Kingdom. The lepers are made clean by the touch of Jesus and are invited into the Kingdom of God. To this day, Jesus continues to heal, restore, make whole, and welcome the outcast and oppressed. It makes no difference if we don’t wear the right shoes or don’t have the right job or don’t have our mental illness under control or still struggle with our addictions or can’t have children or can’t find “the one,” in Christ, our identity is not that of outcast, but rather we are beloved children, invited into God’s Kingdom with open arms, and offered the cool drink of living water and eternal life.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Tom Wright, John For Everyone Part I, pg. 38-39

[2] John 4:4