Third Sunday in Lent A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.
When Pastor Bob arrived at a church in suburban Columbus to begin his call, the church had been in decline for a good number of years, but was still doing okay. A number of well-to-do business folks belonged to the congregation and kept the church afloat. But one of Pastor Bob’s primary goals, according to the church, was to bring in new members.
Pastor Bob worked hard, visiting out in the community, getting to know people, building relationships with them, and when he next celebrated the sacrament of baptism, many new children, adults and families were welcomed into the Christian faith.
Over the next few months, however, Pastor Bob noticed that these new Christians and members of the church all stopped coming on Sunday morning and stopped participating in church activities. It seemed he was back to square one. There was the very real possibility that maybe the novelty had worn off, and the families were no longer interested. Or maybe life had become too busy, and as is too often the case, devotion to the faith community was set aside. But he called up each family, just to be sure it wasn’t something he himself had said or done that was keeping them from being active members of the faith community.
What he heard shocked and disgusted him.
The families had nothing but praise and love for Pastor Bob. But each of them, every single one of them, had received calls from an elderly lady in the congregation that made it absolutely clear that they were not welcome in her church. None of them ever came back. And a few years after Pastor Bob left, the church closed its doors.
Then, there is Hope Lutheran Church. Hope was founded in 1918 in the Columbus neighborhood of Driving Park by the descendants of German immigrants. It was a stable, working class neighborhood, and the church enjoyed the benefits of being in that environment.
When the neighborhood began to change, and more African-Americans were moving in, the neighborhood faced a crisis. The phenomenon knows as “white flight” swept through the neighborhood, and many of the white people, who could not stand the thought of living side by side with blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities, simply moved. White flight had a negative impact on the church as well, uprooting many of its members and causing a steep decline in numbers and income.
Eventually, in the 1960s, there were calls for the church to also leave Driving Park and “follow the people”, reestablishing itself in another neighborhood where its people had gone. The debate was lively, to say the least. But when the vote was taken, the church made a decision—they would stay in Driving Park and continue to serve the community. They would be an integrated, multicultural church.
Today, Hope Lutheran is a poor church in a poor neighborhood, but it is the neighborhood church. And every November, on All Saints Day, the church reads aloud the names of the saints in their midst who have died since the church voted to stay in the community.
Last week, we heard the story of Nicodemus and his conversation with Jesus. Nicodemus is a well known man, an important official, a Pharisee. He comes to Jesus in the midst of a crowd, at night, a righteous man who doesn’t really get it.
Today, we hear a much different story. Jesus is all alone at a well in Samaria, of all places. For a Judean to be caught in Samaria is like someone from the north suburbs of Chicago being caught in Englewood on the south side. Not where you want to be. Judeans considered Samaritans to be mongrels and would never associate with them.
Yet, here’s Jesus, sitting at a well in Samaria, all alone—he’s sent his disciples away to get food. It’s the middle of the day. And a Samaritan woman comes to the well. She has no name. She, too, is alone. She’s not very important in her community—we don’t even know her name. And apparently, she has a problem with marriage.
People have been quick to jump on the woman as some sort of adulterer, a promiscuous woman who reminds them of Mrs. White from the movie Clue, who insists that “husbands should be like Kleenex: soft, strong, and disposable”. But, nowhere does it say that. We are told that she has had five husbands in the past and is with a man who is not her husband right now. But we don’t know anything about the past husbands or what happened to them. Jesus clearly knows her situation, but he doesn’t condemn her or tell her to sin no more.
She was a woman who, for whatever reason, couldn’t catch a break in life. Woman, Samaritan, unmarried—outcast. Not at all like Nicodemus. She is very much “outside the lines”.
The lines define who we are. The lines of a picture give it shape and meaning, and so too do the lines we’ve set up in our lives. I am a young, white, Swedish-Italian-German-
English-Polish-Dutch-American male living in Three Lakes, WI, and serving as pastor of Faith Lutheran Church. I play the tuba. I have a terrible memory. I’m in love. I’m emotional, but can also be cold stuck up here in my head. All of these lines help identify me as a person, and without them, I wouldn’t be me.
I am very comfortable when I meet and interact with people whose lines shape them in similar ways to mine. It’s easy to identify with them and to get along with them. But, obviously, not everyone has the same lines and shapes that I do. There are people in the lines, and there are those outside the lines.
How we respond to those “outside the lines” says a lot about who we are, just as much as those inside the lines. What lines we focus on also says a lot. There are all sorts of lines all around us. Some of them are physical—the shoreline of a lake, the county line, a road that marks the boundary between “our” part of town and “their” part.
Some of the lines aren’t so easy to see—lines between family members who’ve had a falling out, cultural differences, socio-economic and income differences, emotional wounds.
Pastor Bob’s church, the church with the elderly lady chasing people away, was quite comfortable to sit well within its lines. It had no intention of looking beyond its lines. The lines became walls, and from those walls they built their church. You heard what happened to them.
Then, there’s Hope Lutheran. They looked outside their lines, their walls. The picture that they had painted changed, and they made the choice to step outside the lines and change the picture. The church is not “successful” by the standards of money and numbers, but I daresay it is living into its calling, sharing the good news with the poor and oppressed and standing with them.
If Jesus had never stepped out of his lines, past his walls, across his boundaries and borders, what would his message have been? The Samaritan woman was a precursor to the apostles—she shared the good news. Jesus went out to HER. By crossing the lines, by drawing a new picture with new boundaries that included everyone, he tore down walls and brought the good news of grace, mercy, and salvation to everyone, not just the “in crowd”.
Have our lines become walls? Look out the windows set in our walls. It’s a beautiful view. But there’s just one problem with sitting here looking out the window: it means we’re in here, and not out there. As one commentator put it:
“People of faith ought to leave their churches every now and then — not to abandon their communities or religious institutions, but to venture out in expectation that God will appear in a different setting. This passage in John 4 gives no support to views that say a person must come inside a church’s walls and traditions to meet God. It speaks against any community that shields itself from the mysteries of a God who operates freely in all sorts of places, not exclusively on this particular mountain or in that specific temple.”
Perhaps it is time to color outside the lines.