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Things Happen Around Wells

July 3rd, 2017

“Things Happen Around Wells” (John 4) is a sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Shively Smith at Foundry United Methodist Church on Sunday, July 2, 2017. A PDF version of the manuscript is available on Foundry's website hereThe sermon explores the encounter between the Samaritan Woman and Jesus around the well as a moment that resets social convention and shifts the texture of theological proclamation and transformation

 

  1. Opening Statements:

            First, let me share my thanks with the leaders of this church. To the senior pastor, Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, and executive pastor, Rev. Dawn Hand, I am grateful for their warm invitation and for the hospitality extended. I am always thankful for the fellowship of clergy sisters and brothers as well as lay leaders in the church-at-large and for the collaborations that can emerge. It is a blessing and honor to worship here at Foundry this morning and to kickoff your summer Preacher series—not that there is any pressure with that or anything. I am also thankful for my partner and his presence and support not just this morning but in all my endeavors and work for what is right and just in this world. And to all my sisters and brothers in the church and streaming, I greet you in the love of our Lord Jesus Christ.

            There are many themes in the Gospel of John, Chapter 4, which I could talk about this morning, from the soteriology of living water to the christological significance of the Gift of God. But at this intersection in our nation’s history, as we celebrate Independence Day this week, I simply want to focus our attention this morning on verses 6,7, & 9 when it says:

“Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by that well. It was about noon. A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink…’ [And] The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’”

My topic today explores the moment of encounter and opportunity between Jesus and the Samaritan woman staged at Jacob’s well and I submit to you from the outset that “Things Happen Around Wells.”

 

Pray with me.

Lord God, shaper of all things, like the woman at the well, we often fail to recognize you. Open our eyes to see you today. Open our ears to hear what you are saying to us that we may draw closer to each other and to you. Lord, as you did with the woman at the well, meet us at the places of the mundane and spend time with us in fellowship until our hearts burn and the walls of separation and fear deteriorate. Speak a divine message through your human vessel today. Amen

 

  1. I Opening Statement: “I Love Wells”

      Things Happen Around Wells! I enjoy learning about Wells. Lately, I have spent more and more time reading and thinking about how Wells functioned in the world.  I find myself pondering the encounters and opportunities that manifested around Wells and I marvel at the external pressures and attacks that Wells had to withstand in order to provide the access and resources local communities needed. Although Wells maybe considered “old school,” unfortunately, the work of Wells—that is, Ida B. Wells—is still relevant and instructive for the challenges facing us in this age. You see, Ida B. Wells, was a former slave turned free person, turned educator, turned journalist, turned entrepreneur who launched an international anti-lynching campaign in the 1890s. She was born in Mississippi in 1862, only a few months before the Emancipation Proclamation (dated January 1, 1863). The significant role Ida B. Wells played in American history as a liberation activist should not be underestimated, especially as we turn our attention and time to the festivities of Independence Day this week (dated July 4, 1776). 

I tell you “Things Happen Around Wells.” Before there were journalists like Gwen Ifill, Charles Blow, and April Ryan; Ida B. Wells had already served as editor, publisher, writer and co-owner of her own newspaper in Memphis called Free Speech and Headlight in 1889.

Before we had the sociological work and history writing of Zora Neal Hurston, W. E. B. DuBois, and even the novelistic retellings of Black history by Toni Morrison, Wells had published her sociological and investigative pamphlets on lynching in America called: Southern Horrors: The Lynch Law in All Its Phases in 1892 and a second publication called A Red Record in 1894.

My sisters and brothers, I maintain “Things Happen Around Wells.” Before that faithful Thursday evening on December 1st, 1955 when Rose Parks boarded a city bus of Montgomery and refused to give up her seat for a white man; Ida B. Wells had already refused to give up her seat in 1883 on the Chesapeake, Ohio and Southwestern Railroad while riding in the ladies car on an unsegregated train.

Things happened around Wells because she practiced the kind of prophetic and courageous truth telling that stripped away the lies of a national myth and sensibility that blamed Black Americans for the violence and ruin perpetrated against them by their white American neighbors in the South. Hear the words of Wells when she states in 1892:

“In no other country but the vaunted “land of the free and home of the brave” is a man [person] despised because of his[her] color. As the Irish, Swede, Dutch, Italian and other foreigners find this the “sweet land of liberty,” the Afro-American finds it the land of oppression, outrage and persecution. In the freest and most unprejudiced sections, in every walk of life, no matter how well dressed, courteous or intellectual, [s]he never knows when [s]he may not meet with and be humiliated by this distinctively American prejudice. [S]He is becoming restless and discontented. [S]He wishes to enjoy the full freedom of [woman]/manhood and aspiration. Where shall [s]he go?”[1]

 

III. Well Opportunities in John 4

         This morning, we shall go to the Gospel of John, Chapter 4, to consider yet another moment that tackles issues of society and truth. At the well of John 4, we see the initial hesitancy and subsequent opportunities that emerge when two strangers, from two different “sides of the tracks,” meet in a common area and choose neighborly engagement rather than verbal assaults. Here, we eavesdrop in on the conversation between Jesus and an unnamed Samaritan woman, in which mutual contempt is transformed into mutual exchange.

         The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman begins in a way that appears ordinary. Jesus, a tired traveler, asks a woman prepared to draw water from a well to, “Give me a drink.” But this is no ordinary request.  The conversation that takes place between the Samaritan woman and Jesus violates no less than 3 norms of cultural etiquette.

 

  1. IV. Cultural Violations in John 4

         (1) Judean versus Samaritan: The first cultural violation is transgressing the boundaries of ethnicity. This is no conventional meeting between two people from the same neighborhood, with the same ideologies. They do not share the same lifestyles and walk of life, nor are their faith beliefs the same. This is a meeting between rivals. As a Judean and Samaritan, we have two contentious ethnic Jewish groups active in this story. Samaritan Jews traced their history back to the Divided Kingdom in which Judea was in the South and Israel in the north. Their ancestors were part of the northern kingdom, which was conquered by Assyria  (721 BCE, 2 Kings 17) and then integrated with the foreigners in marriage and emigration. Samaritans only observed the first 5 books of Torah as their Scripture; and they designated Mount Gerizim as the proper location to worship God. Because of this history of intermarriage, dispersion, and different faith beliefs, Samaritans were considered by their purist Judean sisters and brothers to be impure. In other words, the meeting between Jesus and the Samaritan woman was a meeting between two ethnicities with a long history of mutual disdain and rival traditions.

 

(2) Gendered Social Standing: The second cultural violation that takes place in John 4 is the exchange between male and female. In the patriarchal society of Jesus’ day, the safety and survival of women often depended on their proximity to male fathers, husbands, and sons. What is clear, is that the story of John 4 does not take place in our modern context of women CEO’s, doctors, judges, scientists, attorneys, educators, religious leaders, and politicians. This is a world in which the Suffrage Movement has not yet occurred and The Combahee River Collective Statement not yet made. It is a world in which the Let Girls Learn Campaign has not launched and there is no International Day of Women and Girls in Science (February 11). This woman at the well lives in a world in which females are primarily possessions that are disposable if rendered useless, shameful, and sinful. And yet, Jesus transgresses the boundaries of gender etiquette and power to initiate a conversation that could impugn both of their reputations.

 

(3) Marriage or Sexual Impropriety: The third violation on display in the exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is related to the issue of unprotected womanhood. It is the issue of marital status, especially in the subsequent verses when Jesus says, “Go, call your husband and come back.” As readers, we discover this woman has no current husband, but she has had five husbands in the past and as Jesus puts it, “The man she has now is not her husband.”

         Historically, biblical scholars interpreted these verses as an indication that the Samaritan woman at the well was immoral, living a life of sexual promiscuity and deviance.[2]

         But there is another way to read this moment. Instead of seeing Jesus’ tone as judgment, we can read it as a statement of fact. Rather than catching the woman involved in something improper; Jesus names her predicament. She is the casualty of a system that empowers some while disenfranchising others. As one scholar states, it sounds more like this woman is caught in a situation of levirate marriage (cf., Deuteronomy 25:5-10) in which she was married to a man who died before she was able to have a child and the last male of the family has now refused to marry her and provide the child that would afford her security and standing in the community.[3] 

         In this reading, the Samaritan woman is caught in the systemic webs of a society created to benefit and protect everyone but her. The system protects the property of her deceased husband. The system protects the wants and wishes of her brother-in-laws. The system protects the women in her family fortunate enough not to have yet experienced the loss of the patriarch or the child. This woman is not the perpetrator violating the moral principles of her community, she is the victim who is violated by the so-called “moral conscience” of her neighbors.  

         Here, with the Samaritan woman at the well, we have a self-aware and socially conscious woman confronting the oddity of Jesus’s behavior. It is actually Jesus who seems to be skating the line of decorum, and not the woman. She is a woman from a historically marginal ethnic group that has been labeled inferior. She is a woman betrayed, rather than protected, by the laws of her community. Given this background her shock is appropriate: “Why is Jesus speaking to her in the first place?”

         I tell you why Jesus speaks, Foundry. Jesus speaks because things happen around wells when we choose to transgress the social boundaries preventing us from seeing and affirming the humanity of our sisters and brothers we know, and especially those we do not know.

 

  1. Things Happen Around Wells in the Old Testament

            But, not only should we take seriously the fact that an empathetic conversation takes place between the Samaritan woman and Jesus; as I have said from the beginning of this sermon, we also cannot overlook the significance of its setting. Jacob’s well is the stage upon which the drama of Jesus and the woman unfolds. There is no explicit reference to a well dug by Jacob in the area of Sychar (or Shechem) in the Old Testament, but there are many references about other wells and things happening around them, which the story in John 4 seems to echo. You see, according to the Old Testament, at least 3 things happened around wells:

         (1) Number One, Marriage arrangements could happen around wells and communities united. For instance, in Exodus 2, it is at a well that Moses defends the seven daughters of the Midian priest and he is rewarded sanctuary in Midi from the wrath of Egypt and marries one of those seven daughters he protected at the well.

         (2) The second thing that happened around wells in the Old Testament was contention and competition. Rival ethnic groups attempted to claim ownership and denied others access who needed just a taste for survival’s sake. In Numbers 20, the Edomites refused to allow Moses and the newly liberated Israelites to cross their land and drink water from their wells; and even when the Israelites refused to fight for that right, the Edomites attacked them with armed forces anyway just because the Israelites had the audacity to ask for some neighborly assistance. 

         (3) In addition to marriage proposals and neighborhood conflicts, cooperation is also something that can happen around wells. Sometimes wells were the common space where people from different communities would meet to share resources for the common purpose of preserving the well being of everyone. In Genesis 29, Jacob sees a well where three different flocks of sheep and shepherds were gathered and preparing to water their flocks together. These three flocks represent three different and possibly even competing business interests. Yet, they chose to collaborate and share the resource that could meet the needs of everyone involved without any one community being left behind or left without.

 

  1. Conclusion: Our Well Opportunities

         In the Jesus and Samaritan woman exchange, all three tensions show up and are transformed. Instead of mutual contempt, Jesus and the woman established common ground. Jacob’s well became the stage upon which two of the most unlikely conversation partners found camaraderie—two different ethnicities, two different genders, two different life experiences of the social structures of their day—and they nonetheless persisted in their civil exchange.

         Things happen around wells, when like Jesus we strategically place ourselves in the way of the strangers we do not know personally, despite the pejorative scripts, rumors, and stereotypes we may have been subjected to in our personal families and communities. Imagine the kinds of things that can happen at our wells today if we practiced the kind of courageous and strategic positioning Jesus embodied when he placed himself in the line of fire to have a close encounter with the very people his family labeled, inferior. As Christians, why are we more committed to our comfort than to placing ourselves in close proximity and conversation with the people our society dubs impure when it appropriates labels such as homeless, felon, criminal, immigrant, unhealthy, poor, or even Muslim.

         Imagine the kinds of protest actions on behalf of others we could stage if we did as the Samaritan woman did. Why are we not as brave as the Samaritan woman who leans into her encounter with the Judean stranger, Jesus, to ask a clarifying question, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”” (John 4:9) And why is it that we do no do as she did and listen to the responses that follows?

         According to statistics, the cross-ethnic exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is a moment that happens too infrequently in this country. In 2014, the Public Religion Research Institute reported Black Americans have ten times as many black friends as white friends while white Americans have an astonishing 91 times as many white friends as black friends. What does this tell us? This tells us that we have self-segregated ourselves from each other. Things cannot happen around our wells because we do not create opportunities for common meetings in the first place. When will we meet at the intersectional wells of race, culture, and class and initiate the conversations that listen charitably and affirm mightily the humanity of all?[4]

         When will we meet at the wells of education to collaborate on the persisting achievement gaps between racial ethnic minorities and their white peers? When will we meet at those wells to create systems that are responsive to the needs of vulnerable student populations such as youth in foster care, homeless children, and youth exposed to trauma and violence?

         When will we meet at the wells of employment history in this country? According to the Pew Research Center, the Black American unemployment rate is consistently twice that of whites.

         When will we meet at the wells of economic inequality? According to one statistic the top “20% of US households own more than 84% of the wealth, and the bottom 40% combine for a meager 0.3% of wealth.[5]

         As we approach the 4th of July, we must remember That Things Can Happen Around Wells. We can follow the example of John 4 and like Christ, cultivate authentic spaces for healing and dialogue that disrupt forces keeping the children of God divided from each other and fighting among ourselves. Many things happened around Ida B. Wells and despite this she said:  “…leadership is true or false in proportion as it has been true to God, humanity, and self.”[6]

         Around our wells, we too can meet Christ and be true to God, humanity, and self when communities that were once separate and unaccountable to each other unite and form a new kinship and obligation to the preservation of everyone.

         Around wells, we too can meet Christ and be true to God, humanity and self when those with power, resources, position, and talents choose to protect the dignity, life, and care of the most vulnerable among us.

         Around wells, we can meet Christ, the Giver of Life, and be true to God, humanity, and self when we cooperate and collaborate to ensure that all God’s children can flourish.

         Around the wells we encounter this 4th of July—be they firework shows, parades, barbecue, bonfires, and unimagined adventures—let us be mindful that we can be true to God, humanity, and self only to the extent that we embody with absolute conviction and the full resources of our faith “The Pledge of Allegiance to Each Other” as posted by The People’s Supper. In closing, hear these words:

 

We the people are committed to our neighbors next door and miles away. We pledge to one another to live into a visionary American story of unity in diversity, and hope over fear.

To myself:

I pledge to love myself so that I might better love my neighbor.

To my neighbors:

I pledge to meet you at the table of community in which we can all thrive.

To those around the table:

I pledge to listen deeply to understand where your story intersects with and diverges from mine.

To each other:

We commit the time and energy needed to create a greater future. I will walk beside you, knowing that we may not get there quickly but we will get there together.

(WRITTEN BY MICKY SCOTTBEY JONES) [7]

 

Hear the Good News of Jesus Christ and the Samaritan Woman in John 4, Foundry! Things Can Happen Around Our Wells when we initiate conversations, listen charitably, and protect fiercely the most ignored and exposed populations among us!

Things Can Happen Around Our Wells!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

DeSilver, David. “Black Unemployment Rate is Consistently Twice that of Whites.” The Pew

Research Center. Accessed August 21, 2013. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/08/21/through-good-times-and-bad-black-unemployment-is-consistently-double-that-of-whites/

 

Fitz, Nicholas. “Economic Inequality: It’s Far Worse Than You Think.” Scientific American.

March 31, 2015. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/economic-inequality-it-s-far-worse-than-you-think/

 

Ingraham, Christopher. "Three Quarters of Whites Don’t Have any Non-White Friends." The

Washington Post. August 25, 2014. Accessed July 03, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/08/25/three-quarters-of-whites-dont-have-any-non-white-friends/?utm_term=.28da1f2d478d.

 

Jones, Robert P. "Self-Segregation: Why It's So Hard for Whites to Understand Ferguson." The

Atlantic. August 21, 2014. Accessed July 03, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/08/self-segregation-why-its-hard-for-whites-to-understand-ferguson/378928/.

 

National Center for Education Statistics, “Achievement Gaps.” Accessed 22 September  22,

  1. https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/studies/gaps/

 

National Education Association, “Understanding the Gaps: Who are we Leaving Behind—and

How Far?” Backgrounder Newsletter. Accessed June 15, 2017.  https://www.nea.org/assets/docs/18021-Closing_Achve_Gap_backgrndr_7-FINAL.pdf

 

O’Day, Gail and Susan Hylen, John. Westminster Bible Companion. Louisville: Westminster

         John Knox, 2006.

 

Sims, Angela D. Ethical Complications of Lynching: Ida B. Wells’s Interrogation of American

Terror. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

 

Sims, Angela D. Lynched: The Power of Memory in a Culture of Terror. Waco: Baylor

University Press, 2017.

 

Wells, Ida B. The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader. New York: Penguins

         Books, 20014.

 

Wells, Ida B., and Alfreda M. Duster. Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells.

Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992.

 

 

[1] Wells, Ida B. The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader (New York: Penguins Books,

            20014), 46.

[2] Joel C. Elowsky; Thomas C. Oden (2014-03-19). John 1-10: 4a (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture) (Kindle Locations 7127-7128). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.; cf. Augustine’s Tractates on the Gospel of John 15.20).

 

[3] Gail O’Day and Susan Hylen, John. Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, XX), 53.

 

[4] Ingraham, Christopher. "Three quarters of whites don’t have any non-white friends." The Washington Post. August 25, 2014. Accessed July 03, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/08/25/three-quarters-of-whites-dont-have-any-non-white-friends/?utm_term=.28da1f2d478d.

 

[5] Fitz, Nicholas. “Economic Inequality: It’s Far Worse Than You Think.” Scientific American.

March 31, 2015. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/economic-inequality-it-s-far-worse-than-you-think/

 

[6]  Wells, Ida B. The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader (New York: Penguins Books,

            20014), 36.

 

[7] See The People’s Supper website at: https://thepeoplessupper.org/pledge.

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