Jesus Transforming the Culture and the Church

2001 Covenant Conference
Evening Worship, November 1, 2001


Jesus Transforming the Culture and the Church  

John 4: 3-14; Eph. 2: 14-16

Jean Kim
Founding Pastor, Church of the Magdalene

 It is ironic that that I preach here tonight, the least preacher whom no one would want to hear except God. It is an honor to preach for the Covenant Network this evening. I took the conference theme as my sermon theme, Jesus transforming the culture: Why the church matters in the 21st Century.

What is the culture?
The Dictionary of Feminist Theologies says that culture is

the totality of any given society’s way of life. It comprises a people’s total social heritage, including languages, ideas, habits, beliefs, customs, social organizations, traditions, arts, symbolisms, crafts and artifacts. Every individual is a product of a particular culture, some of whose traits are acquired spontaneously from the cultural environment and others through a deliberate system of education and conditioning.

I was conceived in the womb of my abused mother, raised in a culture dominated by males, and matured in a Korean Christian church culture that discriminated against women. And I became a radical in the Presbyterian Church, USA.

Let us understand several key points of the text.

Point one: Jesus crossed racial boundary.

Samaria lay in between Judea and Galilee. Anyone who wished to go from Judea to Galilee, had to pass through Samaria unless he took a detour through Transjordan. Jews avoided going through Samaria at all cost because the relationship between the Jews and Samaritans was a very hostile one.

The breach between the two was long and deep rooted; Jews were proud of themselves as chosen and homogenous people.

When Assyria occupied Northern Palestine in 721 BCE, many Samaritans were taken into exile and Assyria replaced foreigners into Samaria. The remnant Samaritan Jews had no choice but living with foreigners, marrying them and worshipping pagan gods that foreigners had brought in.

The Samaritan’s culture, population, and religion became diverse one. Jews had a difficulty of accepting this reality and despised Samaritans as racially and religiously mixed and unclean (Read 2Kings 17).

The hostility was sharpened by the erection of a Samaritan temple on the Mount Gerizim about 400 BC, claiming that this shrine, not the Jerusalem Temple, was the proper place of worship. Destruction of the this temple by Jewish troops in 128 BCE heightened their enmity.

But Jesus chose to go through Samaria perhaps to reach out to the rejected Samaritans, and to expand his ministry from the boundaries of Israel to people outside. Therefore, for Jesus to go through Samaria meant tearing down the geographical and racial wall between the two.

Point two: Jesus crossed gender boundary.

Usually a request for water to a woman who was drawing water by a tired and thirsty traveler would have been a most natural thing. But Jesus’ request for water shocked the Samaritan woman. She responded, “How can a Jew, ask a woman for a drink?”

Rabbinic traditions taught men to thank God daily that they were not women. A Jewish man did not initiate conversation with an unknown woman, even their own women, because the rabbinic tradition taught that a woman’s voice was a sexual enticement and that he who talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself.

Divorce was easy for Jewish males. The school of Hillel taught that a man could divorce his wife for spoiling his dinner.

Jews and Samaritans did not use vessels in common. If the Samaritan woman complied with Jesus’ request, he would have had to drink from her vessel since he had none of his own. This would have involved a risk of ceremonial pollution for a Jew. The fact that it was a woman and a Samaritan made that risk higher.

No wonder why Jesus’ request astonished the woman. But it didn’t matter for Jesus. Jesus was breaking gender taboo by asking the Samaritan woman for water.

Point three: Jesus was hosting the Samaritan woman.

Jesus said, “If you knew who was asking you for a drink, you would have asked him for a drink and he would have given you the living water.” Jesus was ready to offer her his gift of living water. Here his role reverses. First Jesus was a guest asking the Samaritan woman for water. Now he is hosting her with the living water. Living water means the gift of Spirit, grace, life eternal and salvation.

He treats the Samaritan woman as his worthy guest for the salvation. So here he goes again violating another cultural taboo that Samaritans don’t deserve salvation except the chosen people and that a man wouldn’t host a woman with such a precious gift.

Point four: Jesus lifted up the Samaritan woman to the witness stand.

Jesus did not judge her past marital life. I don’t know why she had five husbands. For me, one is enough! He accepted her unconditionally as she was, invited her as a partner of theological discussion and finally revealed himself to her as the living water and the one who surpasses all human-built temples.

She left her bucket at the well and ran to her village to witness to whom she met, exclaiming “Can he be the Messiah?” She now became a host and invited her townspeople to come and meet Jesus. Jesus ended up staying in Samaria for two days. Many Samaritans believed in him.

In her culture women weren’t allowed to witness to anything except the death of her husband. However, Jesus lifted her up to the witness stand for good news and became the first missionary to Samaria. She deserves to be his disciple.

Jesus broke the tradition and culture that qualified only a man to be a witness, or evangelist or disciple.

We can summarize that Jesus is taking every risk, crossing every boundary, breaking every taboo, overturning, surpassing, shaking, challenging and transforming the most binding, oppressive self-righteous, personal, social and religious culture of his day by hosting the Samaritans, the enemy of the Jew in to his life and to salvation.

St. Paul summarizes so well in our Ephesians text as follows:

For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall between us that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through – the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.

For the church to transform the culture, we need to examine a few important realities in our day.

1. Economic reality:
The U.S. became the wealthiest nation in the whole world owning 59% of the world wealth and having 4 million millionaires and 170 billionaires. Many of us are blessed with many opportunities for education, jobs, families, place to live, pride and dignity. Many of us can sing a song of blessings.

However, in the United States, 35 million people suffer from poverty.

  • Three million people experience homelessness every year.
  • Four million children under age 12 go hungry.
  • Women and children are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population.
  • 40% of the homeless population is working poor.
  • 20% of the all U.S. households own 85% of the total wealth, creating a huge gap between the rich and poor.

Ronald Sider says in his book Rich Christians in An Age of Hunger , “Possessions are the most common idol for rich Christians today. Affluence is the god of 20th century North Americans.”

Our churches are sold out to materialism, greed, and consumerism.

2. We created a racially diverse culture.
There is no other country under the sun that welcomes people like the U.S does. God intended the world to be diverse like colors of flowers. We achieved it, but one race has sometimes despised and oppressed the other racial minorities. In the U.S. only 12.9% of the total population is African Americans but they occupy half of the prison system. After high school, more Black youths go to prison than to college. Why? 12.5% is Hispanic population. The Native Americans were here first but were thrown out of their land and ended up drowning in alcohol poison. We also hear about mail-order brides, and many GI wives, and undocumented aliens, and many other racial minorities, who struggle to survive through poverty and racism. Especially people from Afghanistan experience even threats to their lives. Our churches are sold out to racism.

3. Religious diversity:
We live in the most religiously diverse culture. According to an article “documenting diversity ” in the October 2001 issue of Christian Century , in the U.S. there are now more Muslims than Episcopalians or Presbyterians, and at least as many Muslims as Jews. Los Angeles is the most complex Buddhist city in the world. But this is not a good time to be Muslims in the United States.

4. We have a drastically changed new reality since September 11.
The complacent American life suddenly turned into fear and threat of terrorism by more possible suicide attacks and chemical/bio-terrorism.

Priority goes to supporting war and building up the militarism. We might see more people fall out of jobs and fall into poverty and homelessness. Relationships with different ethnic people turned into suspicion, fear, mistrust and paranoia. The September 11 attacks pushed the whole country into crises. We can add the culture of violence, sex, drugs and many others to our reality.

Where have churches been?

I was sent out to the whole nation by the Hunger Program of the PC(USA) to motivate Presbyterians to do something to end homelessness. I have spoken to 300 groups in 27 states so far.

During my speaking tour I have observed three models of the church in our society.

The first is a country club model that is very exclusive, discriminative, other-worldly, self-serving, self-righteous, focusing on spirituality, personal salvation and blessings, and protective of buildings and carpets and keep church locked up to keep the poor, homeless unclean guests away.

I have seen many churches that drove Jesus out of the church and lost him.

The second is a send-a-check model that does what the country club model does but sends checks to charity programs. Although we need money to do good programs, these churches still exclude many needy people into their sanctuary.

The third is Christ’s model. It is entirely opposite from the country club model. They are open, inclusive, welcoming, accepting and hosting the poor, homeless, despised and unclean guests into their sanctuaries.

This reminds me of the Old First Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. When Larry Boyce, a gay artist, knocked on the Old First Presbyterian Church for a place to stay, it was the 12th church he had visited after being denied by 11 other churches. It is quite a moving story that this church welcomed him and hosted him for nine months until his death. Larry Boyce left gorgeous artwork on the ceiling of the church. With his piece of art, Larry Boyce is living in that church forever because it was his last home on earth that welcomed homeless Jesus.

Where should the churches be?

Jeremiah cries out in Chapter 7 for us to change:

Hear the word of the Lord, Reform your ways and your actions.If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless, or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, if you do not follow other gods, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers for ever and ever.”

I want to summarize what Jesus did in the word “hospitality.” The Church must be transformed into the home of hospitality.

God’s original intention was hosting human beings as guests and requiring them to host one another. Jesus came to this world as our home, food and drink. His death on the cross was the best hospitality he offered for the whole humanity.

I have been hosted by Jesus for all my life. In return, I hosted homeless, mentally ill and substance addicted people for 30 years through the ministry I was leading.

During my speaking tour for the past few years I was hosted by 80 different families. So I have 80 homes in the nation.

Hospitality is more than inviting someone to the dinner. It involves opening up, welcoming, accepting, giving, sharing, loving, advocating, even sacrifice.

As we understood Jesus in the John and Ephesians texts,

Jesus’ Hospitality knows no enemy, no outsider.
Jesus’ hospitality knows no boundary, no discrimination, no racism.
Jesus’ Hospitality knows no gender, no sexual differences.
Jesus’ hospitality knows no rich, no poor.
Jesus’ hospitality knows no greed, no poverty, no hunger.

Jesus’ Hospitality only knows love unconditional.
Jesus’ Hospitality only knows hope that uplifts the despairing.
Jesus’ Hospitality only knows grace that forgives unforgivables.
Jesus’ Hospitality only knows compassion that feels other’s pain.
Jesus’ Hospitality only knows shalom that ends all wars.
Jesus’ Hospitality only knows justice for all the suffering.
Jesus’ Hospitality only knows binding wounds and brokenness.
Jesus’ Hospitality only knows honor that praises the most lowly.
Jesus’ hospitality crosses every boundary to include everyone in his home.

Jesus’ hospitality knows no division, but solidarity.

Yes, the church matters more than ever in the 21st century because the nation and the church both are in crises.

The church must be the energy, guide and value for the culture.

To transform them, we must bring Jesus back. The Jesus who knows nothing but love; who knows nothing but unity and oneness;

We must bring Jesus back who was at the well and broke every hostile wall. We have to bring Jesus back.  Amen.

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