Looking back as far as I can remember, I have always really enjoyed books. I remember sitting as a child with my two brothers in my parents’ basement looking over various children’s books and encyclopedias. One of my happier days as a teenager was when I asked my dad if I could look through his collection of books in the garage, and to my surprise he told me that I could keep whatever I found interesting. To this day I keep two of those books close at hand on my personal bookshelf: ‘The Hobbit’ by JRR Tolkien, and ‘Why We Can’t Wait’ by Rev. Martin Luther King Junior.
I’ve always enjoyed libraries as well. For me, these were places of untold volumes (very punny!) of knowledge and wonder. The people who frequented the library, especially the librarians, were always reading, always learning, and always interested in what I was looking for or researching. While attending the College of Wooster, in Ohio, I spent hours in the vast libraries on campus. To be honest, I spent quite a bit of time in the science library not because I was a science student, but because I found it quieter and more reverent a space, devoted to the quest for knowledge, with names of scientists, philosophers, and religious leaders placed prominently on the walls like that of Moses, Kant, Milton, Darwin, and Saint Paul. I spent hours upon hours in quiet study and research as my mind was expanded; a joy and thirst for knowledge was being fed that I only then was just beginning to acknowledge.
While I was a student at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, one of my favorite professors, Dr. Ken Sawyer, taught Presbyterian History; he was also a beloved librarian in the south side Hyde Park neighborhood. I liked libraries; he LOVED libraries. He would bring to class ancient texts and publications that go back hundreds of years as he shared his love for all things history with my fellow classmates and me. It was in seminary, inspired by Dr. Sawyer, where I would often find myself in the book stacks actually being able to handle and look through publications that reached back hundreds of years, needing the care and delicate touch that the books of such knowledge and history deserved. I read about a God and a Church who were as alive and relevant back then as they are today.
One day while I was serving as an associate pastor in southern Florida, one of my friends and colleagues, our music director, Marlyce, gave me a most wonderful gift. Her father, Ruben A. Pedersen, was a Lutheran missionary in Tanzania, Africa, in the mid 20th Century, and she gave me his ‘Church Service Book’, published in 1929; a book that contained prayers and worship services for all of life’s circumstances. What I love most about this small book are the additions to the original text. Within the pages are notes written between lines of text, pasted over other sections of text, and especially notes written in the margins, in Ruben’s own hand.
This small service book is such a great metaphor for being a Christian. Many of us who join the Church have a very clear and clean idea of what Christianity should look like…much like a new book. However, as we live the days of our lives, we realize that God moves in ways that necessitate notes between lines of text, sometimes entire sections of life to be pasted over, and most importantly, plenty of writing in the margins. Our God is a God of the margins.
The problem, however, is that we sometimes want God to fit into our own pre-determined categories of our lives. We want God to fit into our thinking. If we were exercising, we would call this training the larger muscle groups, and missing the smaller (more important) connective and supportive muscle groups. If we were coloring we would say something like, ‘Don’t color outside the lines, God!’ What are we to do when God moves beyond our rational thinking; beyond our preconceived notions of how the world ought to be; beyond our borders and walls of who is in and who is out?
The world we live in works very hard at trying to keep things, especially people, in their pre-determined spots and spaces. Our current global economy thrives on the notion of having a very few people with the majority of wealth; while the majority of people struggle to make ends meet. Our ‘developed’ nations around the world consume the majority of the world’s resources, while the ‘developing’ nations fight for the scraps from the world’s table. We have created ‘first world’ and ‘third world’ cultures, races, and ethnicities. We fight against those who do not feel comfortable living as one of our two prescribed genders. We make laws and theological statements prohibiting and condemning couples for the sake of ‘protecting the sanctity of marriage.’ Yes, we as humans, have a knack for wanting things to fit into the categories that make most sense to us. The problem that we so often run into, of course, is this: what happens when your categories in life do not match up with mine? Or better yet, what about God’s?
So what does Jesus say about this? Our scripture text this morning comes from the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John, as the author tells the story of Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman at a well.
Now, this story is FILLED with wonderful nuggets of information and insight. We can talk about the religious differences between the Jewish people and Samaritans. We can talk about the Samaritan woman herself serving more as a symbol of the religion rather than a particular individual. But what I would like for us to focus on today is how God moves within the margins of this story.
We pick up with Jesus needing a drink. Simple enough, right? But with Jesus, one can never assume anything is quite as straightforward as it all sounds…
5So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.
6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
It’s the middle of the day; when everyone else would be avoiding the heat and sun. Most people would get their water at the beginning or end of the day. And then…
7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”
Jesus, a Jew, talking to a Samaritan woman. His disciples were in town looking to scrounge up some food. Jesus could have easily understood the religious and cultural categories at play here, yet he still asks the woman for a drink. Jesus knows the lines that society has placed on her and him interacting, and he continues nonetheless.
9The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
10Jesus 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 changes the focus to God. Here we have Jesus for the second time coloring outside the lines, as now he violates not only the cultural categories of the time, but now the religious etiquette as well.
The author, John, spends the next few sentences enjoying a great play on words and symbols, similar to the beauty of Shakespearean verse and dialogue…
11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”
13Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
15The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Now Jesus is really breaking the rules as he brings up the woman’s personal life; are we at violation #3 here?
16Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’ 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!”
19The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”
21Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.
By this point an appropriate image to coloring outside the lines may look more like a toddler who has the ability to color for the first time; the chaos and colors that erratically cover the page. Here, Jesus is stepping well beyond the traditional categories of interaction, conversation, and now belief, as he points not to the temple, but to the Kingdom of Heaven which transcends space and time.
25The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.”
26Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
We will hear these words throughout the remainder of the Gospel of John, as these stories become less about the particulars of the world, and more about the nature of our Savior. Jesus says, ‘I am he.’
A similar conversation will occur with his disciples, as the author teases the same play on words to allow Jesus to proclaim God’s Kingdom now to the disciples.
Finally, the story circles back to the woman, now serving as an evangelist herself, while she still tries to understand who this Jesus person is.
39Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
This is what Jesus does. He finds us in our nice, cleanly organized, categorized lives. Then he slowly, lovingly, starts awakening us to those…other parts of life which we rather not talk about—the margins of our lives.
“You are right in saying ‘I have no husband…’” we heard Jesus say to the woman.
Perhaps he would say to us, ‘You are right in saying that life didn’t turn out the way you thought it would.’
‘You are right in saying that school, or work, or family, or friends can be a lot more confusing than you thought.’
God knows that our lives are not nearly as clean or organized as we try to present them to the world. God understands that there are parts of our lives that we rather not talk about; places we rather not venture.
And yet God understands that it is within these parts of our lives…in the margins of our lives, we need God’s presence, love, and grace the most.
This is our Good News this morning: If God is truly the Savior of the world, then God moves also… especially… within the margins of the world and our lives.
The life and ministry of Jesus was based on the notion that there is no area, subject matter, or category in our lives, or in the world, where God was not actively present. Here, today, our faith proclaims and celebrates the same: God is present in all of the categories, blank spaces, and margins of our lives.
So how does this affect our understanding in the world today? As we worship a God of the margins, we are reminded every day that the categories and sections that we have a tendency for creating in this world do not apply to our God. In fact, perhaps we should be taking a cue from our Creator in understanding that the categories and lines that the world makes are needed to be broken at times if we are to share God’s love with those whose lives are spent within the margins of society today.
Friends, we worship a God who moves within, through, and sometimes despite any category, list, section, or margin we or the world tries to create. We worship a God who seeks us out in the darkness of these places, and shares with us light in the love and grace of Christ Jesus.
And as we are recipients of God’s love in the margins of our lives, we are called to be agents of God’s love and grace to others in our lives today.
We are called to the margins of society.
We are called to break down these margins and categories that have been used to put us in an unjust order.
And we are called to share God’s love and grace with the world as we, together, help realize God’s Kingdom here on earth.
May God’s grace encompass us.
May Christ’s love enlighten us.
May the Spirit’s breath call us ever forward.