On the Importance of Boundaries

Terri Stewart
July 29, 2011 

Boundaries and the Samaritan Woman: 
A Sermon on Learning from John 4:7-42 

When I was a young adult, I lived in the Bible-belt of North Carolina in a small town outside of Charlotte.  One of the interesting things about the area I lived in was the presence of Heritage U.S.A.Theme Park, the home of PTL ministries run by Jim and Tammy Bakker.  Everybody in the area knew about Heritage.  At Christmas time, they had the most fantastic light display and going there was almost as good as going to Carowinds, the local amusement park.

Then, in March of 1987,[1] Jim Bakker resigned in a sexual scandal.  He was accused of paying off Jessica Hahn to prevent her from revealing that she had been drugged and raped by Jim Bakker and another minister.  In 1989, Bakker was convicted of eight counts of mail fraud, 15 counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy.  He was never convicted of anything regarding Jessica Hahn and still denies that anything wrong, other than adultery, happened. 

I think that is stunningly short-sighted.  Jim Bakker was a multi-millionaire pastor and Jessica Hahn was a 21-year-old secretary.  Bakker was twice her age and had the power to totally financial control Jessica Hahn's life.  Even if there was no physical coercion, Bakker crossed the line of acceptable behavior.  But, Bakker says, "it was consensual."  Really.  He violated a boundary that he should never have even gotten close to.  It was a tragedy.

However, we should not rest comfortably thinking this type of conduct 'is in the past' or belongs to some other church.  In the United Methodist Church, between 140 and 500 incidents of clergy sexual misconduct occurs every year.[2]  That is up to 500 cases every single year.  Our own clergy are violating boundaries.  This has got to stop and it is up to each of us to prepare ourselves and our churches to make sure that it ends.  And of course, we have the ultimate example of Jesus who negotiates boundaries continuously, to guide us in our behavior.

There are at least three different types of boundaries:  geographical, social, and personal.  Geographical boundaries are fairly easy to negotiate.  The boundary between the U.S. and Canada is apparent and you simply need the right paperwork and you're good.  Social boundaries are generally the acceptable behaviors of a group.  This can be more difficult as we move from group to group.  For example, in Seattle, rarely do strangers speak to each other on the bus no matter how closely they are crowded together.  However, in North Carolina, there is no such thing as not talking to someone.  Everyone gets greeted or smiled at.  Personal boundaries are those limits that protect our own selves.  In the context of potential misconduct, it would be limits that are placed that protect the vulnerable person from the powerful person.[3]  Like between a patient and his doctor.  Or a pastor and his secretary.

In our gospel story today, we are presented with Jesus and the Samaritan woman.  This story is one big boundary crossing demonstration.  It is important to realize that crossing boundaries is not always a bad thing.  Instead of thinking of a boundary as a cliff of hard rock that is impossible to cross, boundaries are more like the ocean that washes up onto the beach.[4]  The water is not at one spot.  It ebbs and flows depending on the weather and the lunar cycle.  There is a continuous negotiation of space that we would call the boundary between the sea and the land.  That is more reflective of reality.  Especially with different people.  I have different personal boundaries with my best friend than with the kids that I teach during Sunday School than with my kids than with my husband.  It is a negotiation.  We take the risk and go through this negotiation because ultimately, as people, we have a need to be vulnerable.  It is in our vulnerability that we become known and being known is a precious gift.

In Samaria, Jesus negotiates all three types of boundaries.  First, he negotiates a geographical boundary and enters Samaria.  In doing so, he also negotiates social boundaries.  Jews did not enter Samaria.  The Samaritans and Jews had long standing enmity for each other and generally, Jews would travel around Samaria rather than cross into it.  Jesus also negotiates the boundary between men and women by speaking with the Samaritan woman.  Men of this time period did not generally intiate conversations with women, especially women they did not know, and especially Jewish men and Samaritan women.  Third, Jesus negotiates a new way of interacting with the Samaritan woman.  Jesus asks her for a drink.  Sharing life-giving water at the well is a negotiation of new personal boundaries between Jesus and the Samaritan woman.

 Looking at the story of Jim Bakker and his boundary violations and the story of Jesus and his story of boundary negotiation, you must be wondering what they have to do with each other.  They are both examples of negotiating borders. One was life-giving and one was spiritually death-dealing.   In fact, I think Jesus' interaction with the Samaritan woman was more than life-giving, I am convinced that Jesus healed her in that moment at the well.

The Samaritan woman presents as a trauma victim.  We know a few things about her…she was at the well during the mid-day, she had five previous husbands, and that the man she was currently with was not her husband.  Why are these things unique?  First, women did not go to the well during mid-day and they did not go alone.  But the Samaritan woman did.  Common practice would be that the women generally went to the well together during the early part of the day.  The Samaritan woman was at a minimum an outsider to the accepted social group.  As for her husbands, it is likely that she had married once and her husband died.  This would result in her being passed down, like property, to her husband's brother.  For a woman to have 5 husbands, that would be several deaths.  And finally, she was with a man who was not her husband.  What would be the psychological result of being forced to be the wife of a series of brothers and then the trauma of their deaths?  What would be the psychological result of having no way to survive other than to live with a man who was not her husband?  If we consider the positions of power, the Samaritan woman was powerless while the men in her life held all the power.  And she was treated like property and then like less than property.  Her body and her life were at the mercy of these men.  The Samaritan woman was a trauma victim.

Judith Herman, author of Trauma and Recovery, tells us of the phases that bring healing to those who have been traumatized.  The phases are (1) empowering the survivor, (2) remembrance and mourning, and (3) reconnection. Jesus, in a masterful way, brings the Samaritan woman through each of these phases.  First, Jesus empowers the Samaritan woman to make her own choice.  He asks for a cup of water.  This gives her the opportunity to negotiate her own personal boundary in relation to a Jewish man, by a well, in the middle of Samaria.  There is a lot of stuff in there from a social boundary perspective and potential danger for her.  She has the strength of character to question Jesus about this social barrier between them.  His Jewishness and her Samaritan-ness.  He offers her God in return and she wants what Jesus has.

Second, Jesus walks her through remembrance of her trauma of 5 husbands and the 1 man.  We know that this remembrance is healing because when she goes back to the Samaritan people, she tells them, “He told me everything I have ever done.”[5]  Jesus saw her for who she was.  He saw her gifts and her pain.  He helped her remember and move past the memory into action.

And the action is the third step of healing.  The action of reconnection.  By passing the Word[6] to the Samaritan woman, Jesus enables the Samaritan woman to reconnect to her people.  She goes to them and tells them of the healing power of Jesus.  They listen to her and believe because of her.  Then they go to Jesus and develop a direct relationship with Jesus.  Significantly, the Samaritans return to the woman, pleased that now, not only because of her Word, they believe because they have met Jesus.  She becomes the spiritual mother of the Samaritans.  Not only does she reconnect, she is empowered to become a carrier of the Word, and she becomes a leader in the community.  Jesus and the Samaritan woman perfectly model how healthy and even how healing boundaries are negotiated.  This is far from our initial story of Jim Bakker.

Now, in our immediate sphere, we rarely encounter stories of such magnitude as that of Jim Bakker and Jessica Hahn.  However, there are thousands of ways that boundaries are violated that do not go to this extreme.  In the early history of my home church, a pastor violated boundaries.  He did this not in a sexually aggressive way, but in a way that caused people to be wounded.  He was bossy and insensitive.  Arrogant and directive.  It caused worship wars in the church and split the fledgling congregation.  He ended up leaving the ministry all together.  This was because he did not honor personal boundaries.  The result of this early trauma to the birth of my home church was a long, 15-year simmer of distrust and resentment among the founders and leaders.  Most telling, when new people come into the church, they were happy until they reached the level of leadership and encountered an environment where people did harm to each other.  Then, they would leave.  For the past several years, we have been working diligently on the culture at the church to change the way people treat each other.  Finally, the church is experiencing hope and new growth.  By teaching people in leadership how to talk to each other and to respect each other's boundaries, people are beginning to reconnect with each other and to find a future that includes living water for each other.

This is really a cautionary tale.  It took 15 years for my home congregation to begin to start the healing process over boundary violations that seem fairly benign at first glance.  Jim Bakker's ministry was annihilated.  I would hazard that you would rather not have either possibility occur.  Healthy ministerial boundaries are vital to the growth of the church.  Boundaries[7] help us maintain clear relationships and honor one another.  Having clear boundaries actually frees us to do the work of our ministry.  Boundaries are signals to other people that we are trustworthy.  And let's face it, in this day and age, church people are viewed with suspicion.  We need every boost we can get!

There are two questions we can ask ourselves in our quest for negotiating appropriate boundaries.[8]  They are:

  • "Is this in the best interests of the other person?"
  • "Would I be comfortable if all my acquaintances knew I was doing this?"
  • "Does it satisfy only my needs?"

If you can answer the first two questions with a confident "yes" and the last with a "no," you are probably on your way towards negotiating a healthy, life-giving boundary.  If Jim Bakker had approached his ministry with the best interest of others and with full transparency in mind, he never would have violated Jessica Hahn and he would not have embezzled money to cover it up.  If my home church's previous pastor had approached his ministry in this manner, the church would not have split and he probably would not have left the ministry. 

My challenge to you is for you to go forward in your own ministries as Sunday School teachers, treasurer, committee leaders, music team members, and all the other roles we fill here at church and hold the best interests of the other person as inviolable.  Let us walk with each other and create boundaries that are as refreshing as life-giving water.

Shalom and Amen.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Bakker

[2] http://www.umc-gbcs.org/site/apps/nlnet/content2.aspx?c=frLJK2PKLqF&b=4909851&ct=8799947; The reason it varies so widely is that there is no formal reporting system in the United Methodist Church and many incidents are handled informally rather than go through the appropriate channels.

[3] Marilyn R. Peterson, At Personal Risk:  Boundary Violations in Professional-Client Relationships, (NY: Norton, 1992), p. 3-4.

[4] "Healthy Boundaries for Clergy and Spiritual Teachers:  Participant's Workbook," (Seattle: FaithTrust Institute, 2008), p. 5.

[5] John 4:39

[6] John 4:30 – properly translated 'the Word (logos) of the woman testifying'

[7] "Healthy Boundaries for Clergy and Spiritual Teachers:  Participant's Workbook," (Seattle: FaithTrust Institute, 2008), p. 7.

[8] Ibid.

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