July 29, 2012

Rev. John Watts

NampaFirst UMC



John 4:1-9

We were all stunned and horrified by the massacre in a movie theater near Denver.  I wonder if you even heard about the pick-up truck crash in Texas that happened two days later.  It wasn’t considered particularly newsworthy, but more lives were lost.  It was a white Ford F-250 with a seating capacity of 3.  There were 23 on board when it veered off the road and crashed into trees.  Fourteen died.

None of them carried identification.  They had tooth brushes, toothpaste, and changes of underwear and socks, but that was it.  It’s believed they were from Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala.  It’s pretty clear they were illegal immigrants seeking a better life in the United States.

We have between 12 and 14 million immigrants living in this country illegally.  Even with unemployment so high here, still they come.  Every day over a thousand find a way to sneak across our border trying to find work.  Many of them die trying.

We thought we solved this problem in 1986.  It was called the Simpson-Mazzoli Act.  President Reagan signed it into law.  It was a brilliant combination of getting tough on employers and granting amnesty to those who were already here.  It failed miserably.  The problem is much bigger now than it was back then when we “solved it.”

I won’t even get into all the political back and forth that is magnified many times in this election year.  I think one thing we all will agree on is that this one certainly qualifies for the “hot topic” designation in this sermon series!

I do want to share with you a little about an experience I had in 2008.  I was serving on our cabinet at the time and the cabinet of the Desert-Southwest Annual Conference based in Phoenix invited us to join them for five days on Arizona’s border with Mexico.  We met with an organization called Humane Borders.  This is an inter-faith group best known for the water stations they have established in the desert.  There are 86 of them.  They are replenished with fresh water weekly.  I actually got to participate in pushing a wheel barrow with three five-gallon water bottles along a trail to one of these stations.  There’s a 30-foot high blue flag marking each location so those in distress can see it from a distance.

You can imagine they’ve been criticized for this ministry.  They’ve been told they’re just encouraging more border crossings.  They point out in response that people don’t cross the border in search of water.  They cross the border in search of jobs.  And fear of death has not seemed to be much of a deterrent.

Another part of our border experience was in Nogales, Sonora, on the Mexican side of the border.  We spent time at a church whose primary mission is to those who are about to attempt a crossing and to those who have been caught and sent back, many of them in very bad shape.  This church does their best to discourage these border crossings.  But they are there for those, and there are many, who are bound and determined to go.  And there are also many who have gone and been sent back time and time again and still are determined to try again.

While we were there, an ABC film crew arrived.  They were filming a segment for a series called “World News on the Border.”

We had a couple of 108° days here recently.  108° would be a cool day on the Sonoran desert in the middle of summer.  So why do they cross?

I got to visit with several of them.  Many of them were young fathers who took very seriously their responsibility to provide for their families.  They hadn’t been able to do so in Mexico.  America was their only hope.  It’s hard to blame them.  It’s hard not to admire their courage.  If I were in as desperate a situation as theirs, would I have the courage to risk my life for my family?  I hope so.

Today’s scripture is set in the desert and in the heat of the day.  It says it’s the sixth hour.  That means it is noon.  Jesus is hot and tired and resting beside a well.  Jesus actually has crossed a border to be where he is.  He has left Judea.  He has entered Samaria.  He’s not lost.  He chose this route deliberately.  He knows very well that there’s bad blood between Jews and Samaritans.  He knows very well he’s in hostile territory.  But he’s there as if to say that he refuses to participate in this hostility between two peoples.  He’s there to say that God’s love extends to all.

And then a Samaritan woman comes to the well.  It’s her job to haul water back to the village.  She would have loved to have five-gallon clear plastic bottles and a wheel barrow, I’m sure!  She’s more than just a little surprised to see a man sitting there, especially a Jewish man.

Jesus asks her for a drink of water.  I find it interesting that we never learn if Jesus actually gets this drink of water.  Because as soon as he makes this request, Jesus and this woman at the well start talking.  It’s quite the conversation.  If I were Jesus, I would have made sure I got my water first.

The conversation begins where the scripture we read today ends.  “The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’  For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.”

Isn’t that a sad statement?  “For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.”  It’s so matter of fact.  There’s no pain or pathos or hope or longing in these words.  No feeling at all.  Just resignation.  This is the way things are, always have been, always will be, and there isn’t a thing anyone can do about it.

At least the Jews weren’t at war with the Samaritans.  That would be worse.  But that would at least change the status quo.  Eventually the war would end and the peace would begin and there would at least be an opportunity for something to change in the age-old animosity between these two groups.  But the Jews and the Samaritans hated each other too much even to fight.  They didn’t want to get that close.  They just kept their distance.  “For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.”

And borders help keep people apart.  Borders help create that illusion that there is a fundamental difference between the humanity of someone who is born on one side as opposed to someone who is born on the other.

There is an organization called “Doctors without Borders”.  Doctors and trained medical caregivers from all over the world are sent all over the world to wherever there is a need.  It doesn’t matter where the person in need lives or the color of their skin or the color of their nation’s flag.  All human beings just by virtue of being human beings deserve to be treated with dignity and cared for with compassion.

So, do we even need borders?  Would we be better off living in just one big, happy world?  “Imagine there’s no countries,” sang John Lennon with a little questionable grammar.  No countries and no borders would certainly solve the immigration problem.  But do we really want all the problems that would create?  I don’t think so.  I think we know enough about human nature and our fallen, sinful condition to see that “one world government” would not very likely be a utopia.  It would more likely to be hell on earth.

And so as much as Christians believe that borders should never get in the way of helping people, Christians in this country at least ought to get on our knees daily to thank God for giving us this country.  With all of our problems, we are still what Abraham Lincoln called, “the last best hope of earth.”  As a matter of fact, that’s a big part of the reason we have such an immigration problem!  Who wouldn’t want to live in this country?  In East Berlin they built a wall to keep their people in.  Here we’ve had to build a wall to keep other people out.  But our wall isn’t working very well.

So what’s the answer?  I’m not running for anything, so I haven’t tested this with any opinion poll, but here’s what I think.  First, secure our borders.  That’s easier said than done.  We heard that so many times when we were on the border.  People who are ingenious enough and determined enough will find a way past most any fence we will ever build.  Nothing we do will keep people like the ones I met in Nogales from finding a way in.  We can’t seal our borders, but we can secure our borders.  We can stem the flow.  Any sovereign nation needs to be in a position to decide who gets in and who is allowed to stay in.  Related to this, we need to step up our law enforcement to keep out the drugs and the crime and the violence that come with them.  Again, to at least stem the flow.  It’s only after we succeed in securing our borders that step two will succeed.  That’s where Simpson-Mazolli fell short.  We never secured our borders.  So more people just kept crossing.

Second, we need to deal humanely with the illegal immigrants who are already here.  I know amnesty seems to be a bad word these days, as Senator Lindsey “Grahamnesty” can testify.  But whatever we call it, we’re not going to be able to deport 12 to 14 million people.  And I don’t know why we would want to try.

It seems to me the answer is to slow the river of new immigrants coming across to a trickle, and then we will be able to assimilate those who are already here.  And rather than living a secret life, running from the law, paying no income tax, losing the social security tax they have paid, living like second-class citizens, they can eventually become true citizens, full citizens, first-class citizens.

It’s been interesting for me to ponder this subject this week in the context of the beginning of the Olympics.  What an amazing sign of hope that all the countries of the world can still come together like this in friendly competition!  Countries that were bitter rivals before the games started and will be bitter rivals after the games end send athletes who meet and compete and become life-long friends.  All the hatred and suspicion and bigotry that we even find 2000 years ago in that sad, sad verse, “For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans,” are somehow transcended, at least for these 17 days.  And if we can get along for that long, why not longer?

I shared with you my experience in 2008 of visiting the border.  I’d like to close by share an experience I had in 2001.  I was in Togo, on the western coast of Africa.  It was an evangelism conference.  I was learning evangelism along with African pastors who have a whole lot to teach us.  But that’s another story.

We were staying in Lome, the capital city.  Lome is near the border with Ghana.  Near, but not on the border.  I knew that in the back of my mind.  But I didn’t think about that when I went one morning for my daily run.  I ran on the beach.  I love to run next to the water at low tide, when the sand is hard and wet.  It was a beautiful morning and beautiful scenery.  I was enjoying my run, as much as I suppose it’s possible to enjoy a run.

And then I became aware of loud voices.  Loud and angry voices.  It crossed my mind that they might be yelling at me, but I quickly dismissed that thought.  I kept running.  Maybe even a little faster.  Then I saw out of the corner of my eye a man running at me.  He was motioning for me to go back.  I could make out in his broken English two words: “border” and “stop”.

You see, I had crossed the border from Togo into Ghana without knowing it.  I’m thankful they weren’t as hard core on securing their border as I hear some advocating in this country.  I’m lucky I didn’t get shot.  I was only too happy to turn around and make my run a little shorter than I had planned.

But you know what?  I didn’t see a line on that beach to tell me I had crossed from one country into another.  And you know what else?  God doesn’t see that line either.  God doesn’t see us as Togolese or Ghanaian, as Mexican or American, as Jew or Samaritan.  God sees us as human beings.  And so the least we must do in dealing with our immigration problem is to treat all people concerned with the dignity and the compassion all human beings deserve.

God, we acknowledge that this is an abstract issue for some of us.  It’s easy to talk about and pontificate about that which does not affect us directly.  But for many, for millions, this is a real life issue.  And so we pray for those who are living this every day.  For those in this country who know they are breaking the law by being here.  For those who are right now crossing the desert in hideous heat hoping first to survive and then to find a better future.  For those who risk their lives daily to enforce immigration law.  For farmers and other employers who would be in a world of hurt without the good, hard work done by immigrants.  And we pray for those in positions of power, from our president on down, for wisdom in crafting just laws, not according to opinion polls, but according to what is right.  This we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.