Saturday, March 18, 2017

Year A, Lent 3, John 4:5-42, Touching Untouchables

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
To one extent or another, every culture has its ‘caste system’, or a social hierarchy that defines the status of people within that culture, and determines their relative privilege and social standing.
In India, this caste system is well defined, going back over 3,000 years.
In an article in the BBC news site, we read:
“The caste system divides Hindus into four main categories - Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and the Shudras. Many believe that the groups originated from Brahma, the Hindu God of creation.
At the top of the hierarchy were the Brahmins who were mainly teachers and intellectuals and are believed to have come from Brahma's head. Then came the Kshatriyas, or the warriors and rulers, supposedly from his arms. The third slot went to the Vaishyas, or the traders, who were created from his thighs. At the bottom of the heap were the Shudras, who came from Brahma's feet and did all the menial jobs.
The main castes were further divided into about 3,000 castes and 25,000 sub-castes, each based on their specific occupation.
Outside of this Hindu caste system were the achhoots - the Dalits or the untouchables.”
And to be clear, the lowest segment of Hindu society, the untouchables, were not themselves a “caste” at all, but were outside of the caste system, hence, we get the word “outcaste”.
In America, even though we believe that “all men are created equal”, we nevertheless have a caste system of our own.
Some would deny that we have a caste system in this country, and would argue, for example, that “anyone can grow up to be president”.  However, in truth, though it may be true that anyone can grow up to be president, it’s definitely harder for some, than for others, and virtually impossible for many.
The existence of a ‘caste system’ in America can be verified by simply tracing what was meant by “all men are created equal” throughout the years.
First of all, “men” was not a generic term meaning all “people”.  When our founding fathers wrote “all men are created equal” they meant “men”, not women.
There were many things women could not do, including owning property or voting.
And they didn’t mean “ALL” men.  What they meant was all landowners.  People who didn’t own land were not as privileged as those who did.
And obviously, slaves were not considered ‘equal’.  Nor were native Americans, or any number of ethnic minorities.
Education and wealth divide us into ‘castes’ within our culture.
To an extent, so does urban versus rural.
Citizenship is a big divider, as is very evident in today’s political climate, with undocumented people being considered one of the lowest castes within our society.
Gay and lesbian people have clearly been differentiated within our social hierarchy.  Many consider them to be “untouchable”, and “outcastes”.  They’ve had to fight for basic legal rights and protections.  In some circles, violence against them is considered justifiable.  Their very being is considered immoral.
The poor, especially those on welfare, are looked down on.
We could debate who the lowest class of people are in our culture, who are the true “untouchables”. 
I’d suggest that the homeless person, living on the streets, often riddled with mental illness, frequently chemically dependent—these we consider the lowest of the low.  So low, they don’t even have status within our society.

One day, Jesus and his disciples, weary from their travels, came to a well, Jacob’s well, around midday.
That last point, it significant, because it was not typical for people to be at the well during the heat of the midday.  Normally, the women would come to the well to draw their daily water in the cool of the morning or evening.  It was also a social time.  A time to gather together with one’s friends and neighbors.  To joke and laugh together. 
That Jesus found a woman at the well, alone, during the middle of the day is our first clue about her status within her community. 
She was not welcome at the well when the other women were present.
And then Jesus spoke to her.
“Give me a drink.”
I tend to believe that her response, seemingly so simple, was probably offered in her most seductive and alluring voice possible.
“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
Likely, there was only one reason a Jewish man might approach and speak to a Samaritan woman, and as we learn later in the story, this certainly would not have been the first time she had been approached in that way.
Three things set her apart:
·         She was a woman.
·         She was from Samaria, and Samaritans were ‘half breeds’, and looked down on as impure.
·         And then, her marital status.
Perhaps because he was a prophet,
Or perhaps simply because he was aware that there was likely only one reason that women like her would be at the well at this time,
Knew when he asked her to go get her husband, that she had no husband.
Or rather she had many husbands, and none of them her own.
An adulteress.
A prostitute.
Shunned by her community.
But what follows is nothing short of remarkable.
She, perhaps to change the subject, engages Jesus in a theologically profound conversation, one of the most significant and profound conversations recorded in scripture, about the Messiah and where it was proper to worship God.
Jesus begins the conversation with a priceless offer:
“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
And when she speaks to him about the Messiah, he chooses to reveal to her, of all people, that he is in fact the Messiah.
One thing to note, about this story.
Jesus didn’t demand her repentance.
Yes, he pointed out who she was, and acknowledged the sinful broken life she had lived, but there was no demand that she repent.
Only and offer of a profound gift, eternal life.
We don’t know what happened in this woman’s life, after this encounter with Jesus, but we can probably guess that it was a life changing event for her.
And then, the disciples show up and remind us all how remarkable this was that Jesus would be talking to this woman, of all people.
They were astonished. 
But perhaps they’d come to expect this sort of thing from Jesus.
Throughout his ministry he was constantly reaching out to the outcaste, the untouchables, those at the lowest level of Jewish society.
Tax collectors and sinners.
In doing so, he offended the elite, the religious, and good and righteous folk.
But in doing so he also revealed to us the wonderful nature of grace, amazing grace.  God’s unconditional love and forgiveness offered freely to us all for the taking.
For us, this graciousness of Jesus is hard to practice.
We know we should, but it runs counter to so much of what we believe.
We have a purpose statement as a congregation that I have come to greatly appreciate.
“God’s purpose for our congregation is to welcome, love, and serve all in our local and global community.”
That’s easier said than done.
Almost every congregation wants to say in one way or another “all are welcome” but the truth is that some are more welcome than others.
We would be overjoyed to have a bunch of young couples with children visit and join our congregation.
OK, so even some older folks would be great.
But others would be more challenging.
Larry and I went out to lunch my first week here, and there at the Otis Grill was a homeless man, eating a meal, probably given to him by the management.
I remember thinking, “I wonder if he would be welcome at Peace?”
And, as you all know, a real divisive issue in the church throughout our country is related to gay and lesbian people within our congregations.  Are they welcome?
One of the most challenging issues, is one our congregation in Newport faced.  What about someone who has been convicted of a sex crime?  Especially a violent one.  Are they welcome?
Would we welcome and undocumented ‘foreigner’?
The list could go on and on. 
Saying that our purpose is to welcome, love and serve all, is easier than actually doing it.
But this is the thing:  Perhaps the persons we are most uncomfortable welcoming, are exactly the one’s God is calling us to serve.
Because, the very thing that makes it difficult for us to welcome them, is the reason they most desperately need to hear the Gospel we proclaim.
Remember this the next time you see and encounter one of the ‘outcaste’ of our society. 
That God loves them.
And that it is our responsibility and calling to proclaim that to them.
And most of all, remember that the Righteous have no need for a savior, but the sinners and outcaste do.
That’s why Jesus surrounded himself with the untouchables.
And that’s why Jesus, at the risk of offending the righteous, touched them.


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