Sermon -- John 4.5-42
Difficult Roads Still Call Us
A few years ago I was about to move to another appointment. The church I was leaving was just across town from where I lived in Fort Worth and the new church was in Arlington, an adjacent city. I was talking to one of the parishioners about where my new church was going to be and I commented that it was fairly close to where I lived depending on which route you took. I lived in Fort Worth and Arlington is just east. The quickest way to the new church was to get onto I-35, then go east on I-20, then take Loop 820 north towards Arlington. The church was not far from one of the exits off of Loop 820. However, I told the parishioner that East Berry Street cut straight across and came out at Loop 820, right at the exit that leads to the new church. It was the shortest distance since it cut directly through the southern part of east Fort Worth. The demographics of Fort Worth are primarily divided by I-35 -- the east side of Fort Worth was largely African-American and Hispanic. The west side of I-35 is where the predominantly Anglo communities are (there are a few exceptions, but this is largely the demographics as it relates to I-35).
This parishioner then told me that that was not the route I wanted to take: ""Really, you don''t want to go that way, especially not at night."" For the most part, I took the usual route via the freeways. But on occasion, for whatever reason, I took the straight path across through east Fort Worth. Granted I knew that this particular part of Fort Worth was not in the heart of the ""worst"" parts of the city, but those words haunted me at times. Nonetheless, I took the shortest distance to my new church. I didn''t really decide whether it was night or day, sometimes I just took that route. Not every time, but on several occasions I found myself playing the role of the Good Samaritan. One morning, en route to an early morning men''s breakfast and still dark, I helped a man push his stalled car off the road. It was dark and there was no one else around. I asked him if he needed a ride and he said he didn''t and just thanked me. Another day as I rounded the top of a hill on a busy, four-lane street, a stalled car sat. Again, I stopped and pushed the car to the nearest gas station. The woman in the car thanked me as I proceeded on my way. Still another time, I helped a man push his stalled car off the road. He was in a hurry to get to work and it happened that it was on my way to the church, so I took him. When he got out, he wanted to pay me, but I told him to just return the favor. All of these experiences I had were when I took the route that went through the ""bad part of town.""
These experiences naturally turn my thoughts to the great poem by Robert Frost, ""The Road Not Taken.""
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both,
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;. . .
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
In some ways, my experiences about which way I went to work were a choosing of ""roads."" On the one hand was the freeway -- quicker, safer, more-traveled. On the other hand was the shortest distance through ethnic neighborhoods ridden with poverty, crime, and dilapidated homes and businesses. My former parishioners caveats not to go through those sections of the city were well-intended, but I chose differently.
My thoughts also lead to this text in John 4, the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. This story begins with the words, ""But he had to go through Samaria."" The root of the word for ""had to"" can also mean ""necessary"" or ""should."" To me this says that when Jesus came upon ""two roads,"" he always took the ""one less traveled by."" You see, the road he took led right through the heart of ""the bad part of Palestine."" Such the extent that sojourners would not go due north when traveling from Judea to Galilee, which was the shortest route. Instead they would go east, cross over the Jordan River, go north through Peraea into the Decapolis, then cross back over the river into Galilee. A lot of detour just to bypass Samaria. The fear was not totally without cause. The terrain lent itself to marauders and thieves who hid in the rocky crevices. But Jesus had to go through Samaria.
The encounter that occurred gives us a clue as to why Jesus traveled this road. The story is a familiar one. He meets a woman of Samaria at the well at the sixth hour. Some say it was noon, others in the evening. He begins the conversation by saying, ""Give me a drink."" And this simple yet direct admonition for some water begins a conversation with an unlikely person. She responds in the way we would expect, ""How is that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?"" Immediately we see supposed barriers based on her answer -- gender, religion and race. Of course, for some the question of her marital status is called into question. I concur with those who believe that she very possibly could''ve been a victim of abusive relationships, and not a wanton woman of sin. Whatever her status Jesus accepted her and she was transformed; she and her entire village. It''s interesting that the first one that Jesus reveals that he is messiah is to this woman.
We need not look far today to see that there are many roads that we still need to travel. Our churches are still segregated. Our communities are still isolated by the declining systems of economy and politics. And our world still operates with obvious barriers that exclude some at the benefit of others. This past week we saw how Nolan Richardson, a very successful college basketball coach at the University of Arkansas, was dismissed due to comments that challenged the way he perceived he and his black players had been treated merely due to color. Ethnic strife is present in nearly every part of the world. Ethnic cleansing and holocausts continue to plague countries at war due to differences. We still struggle with barriers based on gender in our churches. Our denomination ordains women but how many are serving our larger churches? How many people of color serve our larger churches? We claim to uphold ""open itineracy"" but how well do we enforce it? And what about people who don''t fit our idea or norm of sexual orientation? The denominational-supported campus (Baptist) where I serve will not allow homosexual students to form a student organization because their ""lifestyle"" is prohibited in the student code of conduct. Our churches and denominations continue to struggle even more with this and other issues. Even before we go down difficult roads, we see difficult questions on the horizon.
This story reveals two things about how to deal with these barriers and all the ways we exclude. First, Jesus confronts it head on. He doesn''t avoid it. Just as there were two roads that diverged on his path, he took the difficult road. The roads that others dare not trod often become the avenues for God''s grace to unfold in ways we''d never imagine. The woman of Samaria encounter not a Jewish man who condemned her, but the Christ who befriended her, accepted her, and redeemed her. And in turn, she went back to her village and they too ""met the savior of the world."" When we confront prejudice head on, God is with.
Second, when we confront prejudice in whatever ways it appears, God transforms those in our midst. I remember a story about an African-American man who was an artist. A predominantly Anglo church hired him to paint a picture of Mary and the baby Jesus on their stain glass window. Without telling them, the artist had an idea. He had experienced much prejudice and mistreatment by whites before and during the civil rights movement and his idea would be poetic justice. He decided to paint a black Mary and baby Jesus. By doing this he thought that this would be a way to get revenge for the way he had been treated. He didn''t tell them and no one saw his work until the Sunday of the unveiling. A peculiar thing happened on that day. When they took down the covering of the painting, the sun shined right through the painting and instead of Mary and Jesus being predominantly black, their color was a bright amber. The stained glass painting was breathtakingly beautiful. As the sun rays transformed his painting, the artist was moved to tears as he realized that his efforts were futile. Instead of getting even with the congregation, they too were transformed by its beauty. God transform people when they are in his presence, and even in the midst of prejudice, hatred, and isolation, God''s grace breaks through.
Just as there two roads the disciples could travel to Galilee, Jesus took them on the one less traveled by. Frost''s poem concludes with these words:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Likewise, when we travel down the difficult roads to confront hatred, prejudice, and indifference God has a way of changing us and those with whom we come in contact. Whether it''s taking a street through a so-called bad part of town, or whether it''s taking a risk in ministry by reaching out to the oppressed and marginalized, or whether it''s doing not what''s the easiest, but what''s best; in all these situations God''s grace moves in our midst, and we are changed. The text says that Jesus stayed in Samaria for two more days. That also means two more nights. Because Jesus took the difficult road, the one less traveled by, a woman and her village found redemption and salvation. I can ''t help but wonder that Jesus stayed with his new friend and her significant other. And maybe, just maybe, the disciples were changed too, and as they turned towards town, I picture one the disciples reaching over to the woman, and carrying her bucket of water.
God calls us in ministry to confront hatred and prejudice. God calls us to travel down the difficult roads, and we too will see that it will make all the difference.