Who are our outcasts today? Who are those who are forgotten or cast aside? Who are those, because of their lifestyle or ethnic background or age or socio-economic status or belief systems are on the outside?
Back in the early 1980s I was the social worker for a community hospice. One day I received a call from a doctor asking me to visit a young man in his late twenties who was a patient in the county hospital. He asked if I could be at the hospital around 1:00 in the afternoon. It wasn’t unusual for me to receive calls from doctors, but they were always oncologists. Dr. Gordon was a county clinic doctor.
I showed up at the patient’s room. There was a tray of food: paper plates, paper cup, and plastic utensils on a paper tray…on the floor outside his room. A large “isolation” sign was posted on his closed door and hazard tapes was criss-crossed the doorway.
I picked up the tray of food and entered the room. It was obvious no one had been in to help him. There was dirty linen on the floor and the bedside commode had not been emptied. The door to the adjoining bathroom was locked.
He was surprised when I came into the room. No one but the doctor who called me had been in the room since he was admitted two days before. I had entered the world of GRID – Gay Related Immuno Disease – the term before AIDS. He was an outcast: infected with a deadly virus and now not even afforded the dignity of decent care; isolated because of fear of the disease; set apart, even from his family because he was gay. That was the beginning of a ten-year relationship with one group of outcasts.
There’s a very famous story in the Bible about a woman who is an outcast, very much like this young man. In terms of her lifestyle, her spiritual needs, and her emotional pain, this woman is as contemporary and relevant as anyone today. She is a lost, empty woman searching for love. Her story is rich in its implications for our own lives, and the lives of people we touch and talk to everyday. As Jesus reaches out to this woman, I am struck time after time with the issues of our own modern age – issues which include racial inequality, prejudice, the status of women in society, the decline of moral standards, human loneliness, and the hunger for love and acceptance.
Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” —although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
The Gospel writer, John, is calling our attention to three factors that set the stage for Jesus’ encounter with the woman with modern-day problems. Jesus left Judea to avoid a growing controversy. The Pharisees (religious leaders) were upset over the apparent rivalry between the baptism of Jesus and the baptism of John. They couldn’t understand it and they were choosing sides. A major conflict was brewing. Jesus wanted nothing to do with petty, legalistic controversies.
John also calls attention to the route Jesus took on his way to Galilee. He chose the most direct route, traveling through Samaria. Most Jews of Jesus’ time would take the long way around to go from Judea to Galilee, doubling the travel time. The reason most Jews chose the longer route was prejudice, pure and simple. For centuries, the Jews did not associate with Samaritans and would rather endure the hot, long, uncomfortable road than to let go of their bigotry.
Jesus chose the short-cut through Samaria, and in doing so, he also cut through the ignorant, narrow-minded prejudice of his day. He was actively demonstrating inclusiveness and unconditional acceptance.
Jesus stopped at an historical site called Jacob’s Well. It was about a half-mile from the town of Sychar. Jesus rested here while his friends went into town to find something to eat. I can’t help but think that Jesus’ open mindedness was already wearing off on his friends: prior to hanging out with Jesus, they would never have been caught dead in a Samaritan town!
As a Samaritan woman approaches the well to draw water, Jesus seizes the opportunity and initiates a conversation with her:
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “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.”
Jesus came as a teacher, which is why those who approach him frequently call his “Rabbi”. According to Jewish law, rabbis were never to talk to a woman in public – even to their own wives or sisters! In fact, rabbinical law said, “It is better to burn the Law than to give it to a woman.” In that culture, women were regarded as totally unable and unworthy to receive and understand such lofty concepts as theology and religion. The status and regard for women in that culture was abysmally low.
The Jewish-Samaritan quarrel was more than 450 years old, but it smoldered as resentfully and bitterly as ever. Add to that this rabbi talking to a mere woman. No wonder the Samaritan woman was surprised when Jesus talked to her! He was shattering the barrier between men and women and the barrier dividing cultures.
Coming next: Beyond Barriers, Part 2