The blessings of the road less travelled
Some time ago I read that the Gospel of John could be very well described as, “The Book of Missed Opportunities.”
You see, at the beginning of the Gospel we are told about Jesus coming to his own, and that his own folk did not receive him (John 1:9-13).
Then we learn about Nicodemus, the sage who came at night to meet Jesus and, as far as we know, left still without much of a clue (3: 1-17).
Later on, when Jesus began to talk about the hard road ahead, many disciples(!), began to leave (10: 60). Then we heard about Pontius Pilate missing the boat when he asked in derision, “What is the truth?” (18: 38). And then, the story about “doubting” Thomas (20: 24-29).
Today, in our Gospel lesson, we learn about a chatty Samaritan woman, who for all her faults, real or imaginary, kept pressing Jesus. Again, in this story, we find another missed opportunity.
After the disciples returned, they began to realize what happened while they were away. I wonder how the disciples might have felt once they heard Jesus offering the woman the “water of life,” while at the same time they were searching for food! “Did we miss all of this while we were looking for a McDonald’s?”
In many ways, Lent help us to take stock to the “missed opportunities” in our own life.
Today, however, I would like to say a few words about someone who never lost an opportunity for reaching out in love, to heal, to encourage, and to lift up – our Lord Jesus Christ.
Our gospel lesson is representative of what Jesus meant when he committed himself “to seek” those who had been bumped and tossed away by society.
In the power of God’s love, Jesus was not afraid to break barriers or to upset the powers that be. Even knowing that eventually it might cost his life, Jesus never lost an opportunity to bring people closer to God – especially those who have been given up by society and the church of his day.
For Jesus there are no lost causes -- every single human being is worth redeeming and bringing back home, safe in God’s loving embrace.
When Jesus decided to leave Judea and to go back to Galilee, back north towards his hometown, he had two choices. The shortest route through Samaria was about two or three days walking distance. The longest route required him to cross the Jordan to the east bank – through the back-door of the country – and then to cross back to the west bank to reach Galilee.
Surprisingly, the shortest route through Samaria was the road less travelled. No decent Jew would go through “the wrong side of the Jordan,” so to speak.
Jews hated Samaritans for historic, cultural, religious, and political reasons. (Think Alabama country boy meeting a San Francisco’s urban techie!)
And yet, in spite of all the no-noes, Jesus chose the road less travelled, the road that in Robert Frost’s immortal lines, “made all the difference.”
Jesus and the disciples were weary after long hours of walking. It was noon, and so they made a stop at the well. In a way it was the right time, for at noon, at the high heat of the day, most people stayed indoors.
And even if John doesn’t tell us, perhaps the timing had to do with the assurance that it was unlikely to find Samaritans at the well at such time of day. In the view prevailing at the time, like many people of their time, “they didn’t had anything to do with ‘those’ people.”
Enter the Samaritan woman. Did she come to the well at noon because she had been shunned by the community as well? Or, perhaps, was she so ashamed of herself that she didn’t want to be seen by others? If she found others at the well, how would they treat her? Would they be preachy and judgmental?
We don’t know anything about how she came to be in the circumstances that she was. Like her, we all do stuff that eventually we may come to regret. And yet, sometimes one may feel so overwhelmed by the circumstances – or even by the need to survive – that one would make decisions which otherwise one wouldn’t.
But, when she came to the well expecting no one to be there, there was Jesus. And much to her surprise, Jesus engages her.
And as the gospel tells us, eventually she came to drink of the water of life. She brought an empty vessel – perhaps as empty as her own soul – and her life was transformed into a vessel that overflowed with grace and love. So much so, that rather than hiding from the community, she brought them in, so they could be transformed by God’s love, grace, and mercy.
Going back to Jesus, one would have expected Jesus to use the time to rest and, perhaps, to take a nap – He was human, after all.
But Jesus never lost an opportunity to reach out in love. So, Jesus set aside his own comfort and engaged the woman in a way that would not only transform her and her own community, but all those who have read the story all the way up to us.
So here is the thing. Culturally we would have expected the disciples to kept moving on as to get away from a hostile country. Equally, I am sure the Samaritans would have loved to see the strangers leave the their water well alone. “The sooner they go, the better,” they may have thought.
But the gospel tells us that the encounter was so transformative for all involved, that they stayed for two full days. And when I mean “all involved” I mean that not only the Samaritans were transformed, but the disciples themselves.
Perhaps this experience came to mind when, after Pentecost, Peter had a vision (Acts 10:19) about reaching out to those who were not Jewish.
Cameron Fry, a Pastor and Teacher from Texas offers his insight on the story this way,
“When we consider Christ’s intentionality, his strategy to free this woman from bondage and ignite her hope through his identity, how can we not get excited? Like Jesus, we should want to restore life amidst the broken hearts and dreams we encounter. We should want to ignite change in those who doubt their worth.
“But above all, we should want to accept the call to lead others to a greater understanding of who God is. Because at the end of the day, God’s love is contagious and captures why we’re here: To encourage the discouraged, to be salt and light, to be unity in community, and stir love as the root of faith.
Let me suggest that behind every wall and behind every barrier that has been set by human minds there are hidden blessings and transformative opportunities. But it is up to us not to miss any opportunity to reach out in love. Our calling is, like Jesus, to go fearlessly and hopefully across the lines that history, culture, and politics, and even religion set up to keep us divided from one another and from God.
Again, in the words of Pastor Fry, “Like Jesus, we should want to restore life amidst the broken hearts and dreams we encounter. We should want to ignite change in those who doubt their worth. But above all, we should want to accept the call to lead others to a greater understanding of who God is.”
Paraphrasing Robert Frost, Lent is a time to consider the roads taken and those we forgo for some reason or none. In the same way, every day offers us choices – the main one being what are we going to do with the opportunities that life brings to us all at work, at home, at school, at the market, and even here in church.
For sure it is not in the listed in the Bible, but to close this meditation, I wonder if the gift of intentionality may not be something we should seek from God. Being intentional to seek opportunities to reach out in love to a world that desperately needs to quench their thirst for meaning, peace, and hope with the Living Water that Jesus offers.
Taking the road less travelled may not make a big difference to us. But it could possibly be transformative for those whom we may meet along the way.