ROMANS 15:7; JOHN 4:1-42


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            My hands still become clammy when I think back to my junior high days.  You see, I literally lived on the wrong side of the tracks.  In elementary school I had been king of the hill: student body president. president of the letterman’s club.  In elementary school other kids wanted to be my friend.  They wanted to sit next to me at lunch.  Then, in the middle of the sixth grade, we moved across town.  My parents thought by moving I would be attending an academically better junior high.  Academically, it may have been better, but relationally, it was a nightmare.  It was the most challenging move of my life.

            The worst part was having to ride the bus to school.  Only kids who lived on the “wrong” side of the tracks rode the bus to school.  We were poorer, we did not dress “right,” and the more affluent kids made fun of us.  After a month of riding the bus, I did whatever I could to avoid it.  I begged my mother to drive me to school.  I rode my bike when it did not rain.  Then, on those days when I could not avoid the bus, I made sure as few people as possible saw me.  I waited until everyone else had gotten off the bus to sneak off.  At the end of the day, I waited until the last possible moment to get on the bus.  I boarded swiftly, quickly finding a seat and slumping down so no one could see me.  After being “in” in elementary school, I was “out” in junior high.

            It’s a horrible feeling being on the “outside.”  I think it was like that for the Samaritan woman whom Jesus encountered on his way from Judea to Galilee.  The most direct route to get from Judea in the south to Galilee in the north was through Samaria.  While making such a trip, Jesus came to the Samaritan town of Sychar and stopped at a spot that would have been in a AAA tour book if they had such things in those days.  After all, Jacob’s well, an historical site on the national registry, was located there.

            Jesus and his band arrived at the well at midday when the heat would have been the greatest.  Tired from the journey, Jesus sent his disciples into town to purchase food.  Usually no one came for water in the middle of the day, but shortly after he got comfortable, a woman arrived with a heavy jar on her shoulder.  Jesus had only to look at her to know the story.  Only “outcasts” came at that hour.  The “respectable” women in town came in the evening when the temperatures were cooler.  These evening gatherings at the well were sort of a social institution where women in the village came to exchange small talk and learn the latest village news.  This woman who came at noon side-stepped all that to avoid the pain and embarrassment of being ostracized, the object of village gossip.

            Her sin?  Loose living.  She had been married five times and was living with someone new.  Jesus caught her by surprise by asking for a drink.  After all, Jews did not share things in common with Samaritans, something akin to separate drinking fountains that is a part of our racial history here in the States.  Nonetheless, Jesus asked her for a drink and engaged her in conversation, and what a conversation they had!  They talked about all sorts of things:  Jews, Samaritans, worship, holy places, her past and her present.  When she left, she was a different person.  Instead of avoiding people, she headed straight to the heart of town to tell her neighbors about this amazing man who knew everything about her - just as they knew everything about her - but who loved and accepted her, and respected her.

            Jesus’ actions remind me of Sir William Osler, one of the most esteemed physicians in modern medical history.  The two-volume biography of his life depicts not only his genius as a physician, but also his qualities as a person.  It is told that one day Osler entered a pediatric ward in a London hospital and noted with delight the children playing at one end of the room.  Then his gaze was drawn to one small girl who sat off to one side, alone on her bed, a doll in her arms.  She was clearly suffering from loneliness.

            A question to the head nurse confirmed what he suspected - she had been ostracized by the other children.  Her mother had died.  He father had paid but one visit, bringing the doll she now clutched tightly.  Apart from that, no one had come to see her.   The children taunted her saying that she must be an awful person since no one ever came to visit her.

            Osler was at his best in moments like this, and he immediately walked over to the girl’s bed and asked, in a voice loud enough for the other children to hear, “May I sit down?”  He said, “I can’t stay long on this visit, but I have wanted to see you so badly.”  Those describing the moment said the girl’s eyes became electric with joy.

            For several minutes the physician conversed with her.  He asked about her doll’s health, and listened to the doll’s heart with the stethoscope.  Then, as he rose to leave, his voice lifted once more, said, “You won’t forget our secret, will you?  And mind you, don’t tell anyone!”  As Osler left the room, the ignored child was now the center of attention.

            I like to think something similar happened with Jesus and the woman at the well.  Something electric took place.  Her eyes began to sparkle again.  Her self-esteem rose.  Someone had reached out and accepted her.

            Following in Jesus’ footsteps, the Apostle Paul invites us to participate in the ministry of acceptance.  He writes in his Letter to the Romans,


            Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you for the glory of God.


            Other translations substitute the word “welcome” or “receive” for the word “accept” and let me offer some suggestions for how we can battle the tendency to judge rather than accept.  Let me offer some suggestions as to how we fight the desire to turn away rather than welcome.  Let me offer some suggestions of how we can become accepting, welcoming, receiving individuals.

            First, we fight first impressions.  I recall my first impression of guy named Tom Hayes.  Tom was the principal of the local middle school.  My first impression of him was less than flattering: he appeared pompous, a real know-it-all.  Our first conversation took place in my office.  He came in to voice his displeasure over the firing of our choir director.  He was a choir member, and he thought the firing was without merit.

            Two weeks later, out of the blue, Tom invited me to play racquetball.  I thought he wanted to use that as an excuse to bend my ear some more about rehiring the choir director, but he never brought it up.  After knocking the ball around an hour, I asked him, “Tom, is there anything special you wanted to talk about today in addition to playing racquetball?” 

            He replied, “No, I thought we got off on the wrong foot, and I just wanted to get to know you better.”

            That was the first of may racquetball games between us.  We became close friends.  In fact, he became one of my confidants. 

            That would have never happened if Tom had not taken the next step.  My first impression almost kept me from a great friendship. 

            Second, avoid labels.  A man from Florida, reflecting back on his New York school days wrote,


            For many years I rode the New York City subway to and from school.  People are interesting to observe, and I found myself labeling them and putting them into various categories.  Not only did I decide how attractive or repulsive they were, how old they were, how rich or poor;  I judged their character, deciding in my own mind whether they were good of bad people.  Mentally I condemned some and praised others, disliking some and liking others.

            One day we students were given a test in class.  We were given photos of one hundred people we had never seen.  Below each photo was space for us to give our opinion about as to each person’s IQ, vocation, education, character, etc.  I knew I would be good at this because of my experience of judging people I met on the subway.  The results were fantastic.  The entire class, including me, misjudged completely.  We were wrong on most counts.


            I often find myself on the receiving end of labels.  When I fly, get the inevitable question, “What do you do?”  When I say, “I’m a Presbyterian pastor,” they say, “Oh, I see.  Good for you,” and the conversation usually stops.  They quickly find something to read so they don’t have to speak to the religious guy next to them.  I, also, wonder what other labels, in addition to the “religious fanatic” label, they attach to me?  “Uptight?”  “No fun?”  “Goody two shoes?”  

            So, number two, if we are going to welcome, accept, receive one another, we need to avoid labeling.  Third, we need to let Scripture be our standard.

            A number of years ago, Ross Robson served the First Presbyterian Church in Omaha.  In the mid-eighties Ross took a month and traveled through India, going from mission station to mission station.  Knowing he would be in Calcutta, he decided, on a lark, to call Mother Teresa to see if he might be able to meet this great saint who had chosen a life of ministry to the hungry, the ill, the dying.  Ross did not think it was possible to receive an audience with her, “But nothing ventured, nothing gained,” he thought.  To his surprise, he was informed by the person answering the phone that he could indeed meet Mother Teresa on a Sunday afternoon at 2:00 P.M. 

            Ross spent an hour with her.  During the course of their time together Ross asked her, “How do you do it?  How do you take the stench, the suffering?”

            She replied by quoting Scripture.  He said, “As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.”

            Scripture was her standard.  According to Scripture, each person we meet is valued and a beloved child of God.  This third suggestion asks us to work on seeing people through Christ’s eyes: welcoming, receiving, accepting each individual equally. 

            C.S. Lewis in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader from the classic Narnia tales, gives us a vivid picture of loving and accepting people “warts and all.”  During the voyage Lucy undergoes a spell that allows her to see and hear what others are saying about her.  Even though she is in Narnia, she can hear and see what others are saying about her in England.  Under the spell she overhears one child say of her, “Not a bad kid in her way.  But I was getting pretty tired of her by the end of the term.”

            Lucy’s response was fierce and immediate.  Lucy did not want anything more to do with this girl.  For Lucy the friendship was over.  She said, “Well, you jolly well won’t have the chance any other term.  Two-faced little beast.”

            What Lucy could not see, however, was that this girl really liked her.  It was just that the girl was in the presence of older girls who were criticizing Lucy, so she was afraid to speak on behalf of her friend.

            Aslan, the Christ figure in the story, does a great thing.  He helps Lucy see her friends as they really are, and to accept them and their weaknesses.  He also helps her to see that her friends really do like her despite her own weaknesses and frailties.

            Someone once said, “Jesus loves you, and I’m working on it.”  This is what this particular one another passage calls us to do.  Work on it.