Breaking down the barriers.

1 Kings 10:1-13; John 4:1-26

Martin Luther King leaning on a lectern. Deuts...In December 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, champion of civil rights for American blacks, received the Nobel Peace Prize, presented to him by King Olav of Norway, in recognition of his tireless campaign against oppression and prejudice.

Four years later in 1968, black dustmen had been on strike in Memphis for a week, and Martin Luther King went there to orchestrate a massive non-violent protest. Dr King was being put under great pressure from some other black leaders because of his avowedly non-violent approach to gaining simple justice for American blacks. He spoke at a pre-march rally on 3rd April in which he made clear exactly what he supported in this unequal struggle. He also referred to the numerous threats of violence that he had received, some threatening his life. He said quite openly that he had been warned not to go to Memphis if he wanted to stay alive. He ended his last recorded public speech with these words:

“And then I got into Memphis and some began to talk about the threats of what would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers. But I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountain-top and I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place, but I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will, and he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Dr King was taking a short break the following morning on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, where he was engaged in a conference. As he turned to return to his room, the assassin’s bullet rang out, making a direct, deadly hit on Dr King’s neck. In vain he was rushed by ambulance to hospital, but he never regained consciousness.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the struggles of the civil rights movement in America against racial prejudice and injustice during the 50’s and 60’s. In more recent times our attention has been drawn to South Africa and apartheid. It’s hard sometimes to relate to events that happen elsewhere in the world, especially from the comfort of our sofas in our living rooms. We often feel removed from them, sheltered, as if they happen in another world. Perhaps we feel ourselves to be beyond such things, above them even. But, in our cocooned existence, we forget that we’re just as guilty as anybody else. We conveniently overlook our own prejudices whilst condemning somebody else’s. We see the speck in our neighbours eye but do not notice the log in our own eye, not realising that it’s a barrier between us. Fortunately God often takes it upon himself to tap us on the shoulder and draw our attention to the situation. He sees the barriers between us even if we don’t. And I think that’s what Jesus does in this passage from John’s gospel. He breaks down the barriers between himself and the woman of Samaria. For you and me it’s God tapping us on the shoulder.

Prejudice is pretty rife in the Bible, and often the targets for some of that prejudice are Samaritans. They came from the region of Samaria which was a territory in the uplands of central Palestine. It was an area of attractive, fertile land. It’s rich soils produced valuable crops of grain, olives and grapes. In Old Testament times it had originally been the home of some of the ten tribes of Israel. However, it’s relative prosperity made it an attractive target to invaders. At one point, practically the whole population was carted off to foreign lands, leaving just a handful of survivors, who ended up inter-marrying with the incoming foreigners. Now, to the Jews this is an unforgivable crime. It meant that the inhabitants of Samaria had lost their racial purity. They had lost their right to be called Jews. Later on the same thing happened again in the south, to Jerusalem. Its inhabitants were carried off to Babylon, but they didn’t loose their identity. They remained stubbornly and unalterably Jewish. When the exiles returned to Jerusalem they set about rebuilding the temple. The Samaritans offered to help, but they were told that their help was not wanted. They had lost their Jewish heritage and therefore had no right to share in the rebuilding of the house of God. This was the beginning of the quarrel between the Jews and the Samaritans.

So, for Jesus, he is already breaking down a barrier by even talking to this woman. Both sides are so set in their ways of hatred against each other. Their quarrel is full of bitterness and scorn. Their minds are made up before they’ve examined the facts or taken the trouble to look at the whole person instead of being blinded by their prejudices. I’m reminded of the student who once went up to a well-known evangelist and said, “I’ve made up my mind. Don’t confuse me with facts!” It’s no wonder then that the Samaritan woman should be so surprised that Jesus, a Jew, should speak to her.

For Martin Luther King, his goal was to break down the barriers of prejudice between blacks and whites. To achieve social justice for his people. The America that he addressed was a nation whose racial wrongs were sanctioned by unjust laws. African Americans were singled out as prime victims and forced to accept a system designed to maintain the inferiority of their lives. Much like the system set up in Biblical times by the Jews to keep the Samaritans in place, I should imagine. But in rejecting this condition, Martin Luther King used the power of persuasion and the influence of his position to involve black Americans in realising that they were somebody.

At the height of the segregation storm a first-grade pupil went on her first day to a newly integrated school. An anxious mother met her at the door at the end of the day to inquire, “How did everything go, Honey?” “Oh, Mother! You know what? A little black girl sat next to me!” In fear and trepidation, the mother expected trauma, but tried to ask calmly: “And what happened?” The little girl replied, “We were both so scared that we held hands all day.”

Jesus broke down the barriers in another way as well. This person that he was speaking to was not only a Samaritan, but also a woman. Now the rules said that it was forbidden for a Rabbi to greet a woman in public. In fact a Rabbi might not even speak to his own wife or daughter or sister in public. To be seen doing so meant the end of his reputation. Yet Jesus spoke to this woman. And she wasn’t just any woman. She was a woman who had had five husbands and was living with another man. No decent man would have been seen in her company, let alone a Rabbi. Yet Jesus spoke to her.

So the picture we have before us then, is of Jesus breaking through the barriers of both nationality and orthodox Jewish custom. What’s God saying to us then?

All though we’ve seen examples of only two types of prejudice, I think that God wants us to ask ourselves some hard questions. Prejudice comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes. We may well suffer from or be a party to racism, or sexist regulations. But it could also be to do with age, or with disabilities. It may be that we find it hard to be a Christian in our workplace because we’re made fun of. Someone once said, “In highbrow circles, ridiculing Jews is Nazism, ridiculing blacks is racism, ridiculing feminists is sexism, but ridiculing Christians is freedom of speech.”

What sort of hard questions should we be asking ourselves then? Well how about checking to see whether we feel resentment towards others. This could either be causing us to inflict our prejudice on another, or be the symptom of our suffering from another’s prejudice towards us. Do we put our own personal needs before those of others? Are we defensive about our own position? Have we got a biased attitude? If so, why? Have we taken the time to consider all the facts, or both sides? And if, or rather when, we discover those prejudices in our lives, what do we do about them?

Firstly, I think we need to be truthful. The Samaritan woman’s experience began with being compelled to face herself and to see herself as she was. William Barclay puts it like this. “There are two revelations in Christianity; there is the revelation of God and the revelation of ourselves. No person ever really sees themself until they see themself in the presence of Christ; and then they are appalled at the sight.” He goes on to say, “Christianity begins with a sense of sin. It begins with the sudden realisation that life as we are living it will not do. We awake to ourselves and we awake to our need of God.”

Secondly, we should follow Jesus’ example. He wasn’t put off by the opinions of those around him, or by the taboos laid on him by society. He didn’t set out to criticise the woman but rather to be her friend. He didn’t condemn but understood. By doing so he broke down the barriers that were between them.

Martin Luther King, as a Christian and a leader, always acted as he believed, in accordance with his faith. I’ll end with a quote from his Christmas Eve broadcast, given shortly before he was assassinated, in which he outlined his vision for humanity:

“I still have a dream that one day every Negro in this country, every coloured person in the world, will be judged on the basis of the content of his character rather than the colour of his skin, and every man will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.

I still have a dream today that one day the idle industries of Appalachia will be revitalised and the empty stomachs of Mississippi will be filled, and brotherhood will be more than a few words at the end of a prayer, but rather the first item on every legislative agenda.

I still have a dream today that one day justice will roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I still have a dream today that in all of our state houses and city halls men will be elected to go there who will do justly, and love mercy and live humbly with their God.

I still have a dream today that one day war will come to an end, that men will beat their swords into plough shares and their spears into pruning hooks, that nations will no longer rise up against nations, neither will they study war any more.

I still have a dream today that with this faith we shall be able to adjourn the councils of despair and bring new light into the dark chambers of pessimism. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when there will be peace on earth and goodwill toward men. It will be a glorious day, the morning stars will sing together, and the sons of God will shout for joy.”

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