This morning’s scripture just happens to be one of my favorite from the Gospel. One reason is this story is rich in imagery. I can see the well, the tired Jesus who watches the woman walk to the well he sits by. I imagine that the well is surrounded by trees probably olive or maybe a fir-tree and I can smell the dust that still floats in the air from the passing of the travelers. I can feel the noon day heat and see the woman walk through the heat shimmer on the road as she carries her water jugs to the well.
Now, I am quite sure you are all familiar with story of the ‘woman at the well’ but let me recap for you, the highlights so to speak. Jesus is traveling with his disciples because he is avoiding the Pharisees in Judean territory. Tired, thirsty, and hungry, he stops by a well to rest while his companions go on ahead to search for food for the mid day meal. A woman comes to the well to draw water and Jesus asks her for a drink. They end up talking and Jesus awakens something in the woman who runs to the village to tell everyone else. We have all heard this story hundreds of time and I’m sure you can tell me why this woman is so special and why it was so radical that a Jewish Man, a Rabbi, was talking to a woman, a Samaritan woman. Think of it this way, here are Jewish men, traveling in a territory that all other Jewish people avoided like the plague and they are even willing to eat their food and drink their water! Scandalous! But in the heat of the day, maybe things look a little differently to hot, tired and dusty people. But more than the individuals of the story I’d like to talk about what this story meant to the community that was hearing it for the first time.
I have been trying to come up with a comparison for today’s time and maybe this might give you a tiny idea of what this journey meant in first century terms. Suppose you had to travel to Monroe and between you and your destination lay a land filled with criminals, sexual predators, and mentally unstable people, called the Monroe State Prison. And just suppose the accepted route to Monroe goes around the Prison and takes 7 days , but, if you went through the Prison territory, your journey would take you 1 day. Which route would you choose? Remember the people living in the Prison area are outcasts and to speak to them or get the dirt from their ground on you will make you unacceptable in polite society forever. Don’t even think of eating, drinking or speaking to the residents. That was the choice Jesus and his disciple had to make. Do you now have some idea of just how radical it was for Jesus and his companions to even be in Samaritan territory, let alone speak to someone or eat and drink their food?
There are Biblical Historians who believe this is not an actual encounter of Jesus and the Samaritans. That it probably is a reading back into the ministry of Jesus due to a post resurrection Samaritan mission, and the influence of Samaritan converts on the Johannine communities. That means that someone, the author of John or someone else added a story of the conversion of the Samaritan community by Jesus himself. The writer wanted to legitimize the Samaritans position within the evolving community of first century Christians. Does that change the meaning of the story, well maybe, because, for me I think the story has a great deal to do with the embracing of “the other” even when that “other” was as despised as Samaritans were. It’s not just about a woman who was the first apostle to a hated people, rather this is about one group of people trying to welcome another group they once found repugnant.
The writer of this passage is struggling with the presence of a people who 20 or 30 years before would have been banned from their places of worship but now are part of their community. People who were really thought of as charity cases in the best of moments. People they could help so they would feel good about helping someone less fortunate than they were. People they could say “boy I’m so glad I’m not one of them!” I’m not saying that it is better to be an outsider, what I am saying, and the writer of John is saying, is there is no difference in the eyes of God between any of us. This passage is trying to tell two communities, which probably were at odds with each other, that Jesus would have found both sides to be worthy of God’s love and that if God find’s each side acceptable then why couldn’t everyone in the community.
The plight of this first century community is not so different from the one we are facing today. Today we too are struggling as a community with the addition of people from other cultures who bring some new and strange ways of worshiping into our midst. I am not talking about Queen Ann Christian Church or any specific church, rather I am talking about the wider church and how we as Christians are struggling with welcoming the new ethnic churches into our fellowship of compassion, justice and mercy. It is often difficult to see God in ways different from ours even when it is enlightening and transforming; but it can also be scary.
I can just imagine how the members from both sides of the Johannine community felt because I’ve been there. I’ve been on both sides of the issue of acceptance of the “other,” a little afraid that what I believe will be challenged and at the same time exited that what I believe will be challenged. If I am honest with myself I have to admit that learning I don’t have all the answers means that I just may not be as secure in God’s love that I thought. If we all stop and think it is where we all are when a new way of “seeing” God is presented to us. So first let’s look at how the Jewish Christians visualized God, Christ and Holy Spirit.
Jewish Christians in the first century were primarily Jewish in nature; they saw their world through the lens of the Hebrew Scriptures as taught by Temple and Synagogue. That meant that by becoming Christians they had already made a huge transition to a new way of thinking and many felt Christianity should remain as Jewish as possible because that is what they were comfortable with. Do you remember all those arguments about Gentiles between Paul and the Disciples?
The Samaritans, on the other hand, were no longer purely Jewish and as a result they were not able to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. Therefore The Samaritans set up their own place of Worship on Mt. Gerizim and developed their own worship customs, mostly in defiance of Temple authorities.
So now you have two groups that hated each other being converted to Christianity and entering into community together, each with different ideas about worship, and God. Wouldn’t you feel threatened? Wouldn’t the other feel threatened? Yet there is a conflict here, they’re Christians and that means they are my brothers and sisters in Christ, so they can’t be bad. Oh it just makes my head hurt to think about it. Wait a minute both sides say, if you worship the way I do, which is the right way, then we won’t be strangers anymore, we’d be one. Can’t you just see both sides coming together across a table and speaking those words at the same time? My head is beginning to hurt again.
Does this scenario sound familiar, we’ve all been in those places where we’ve been threatened by someone else’s way of worship, yet somehow we also find something wonderful in those moments. The unfamiliar becomes a door way into a new understanding. We just have to get beyond our own belief that we are the right ones. It is a fact that most new Disciples churches are ethnic, and that means that we will encounter new ways of worship and praising God that are different from our own. As a faith community we are not called to assimilate the other into our way of worship, nor are the others called to assimilate us into theirs. Rather each community is called to celebrate the life and faith of all and recognize the presence of God in the diverse ways we all reach out to the Divine ones.
As part of my course work for a Masters of Divinity I am interning this year at a Day Shelter for urban First Nations People, The Chief Seattle Club, and so I work two days a week with individuals that have held a status not all that dissimilar to that of the Samaritans. They too have been, are, a despised people, a people forgotten unless we discover they have a resource we, the dominate culture, want. We see them as one people yet I have come to learn just how diverse their cultures are. Just like the rest of the diverse people’s of the United State the members of the Chief Seattle Club are made up of many different tribes each with their own unique cultures and ways of being. I have learned much about being a person of faith from being with, eating with, sitting with, and praying with people who have a deep spirituality. It’s not my spirituality, but I honor the beauty of their hearts because God honors them.
This week I was asked how I, a Christian, can accept people who may not believe the way I do. Our discussion was long and involved, at least on his part, I just kept saying what every way you are fed by God and the Spirit is right for you and I honor that. I am a Christian, I will always be a Christian, but just as Jesus went into Samaritan territory and recognized God’s presence I too recognize God’s presence in the people I meet, whether they are First Nations people who follow their own tribal beliefs, Muslims who follow Mohammad or Buddhists who look for enlightenment through the teachings of the Buddha. All are children of God.
In the NRSV version of Romans 5:1-2 Paul says “5Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we* have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access* to this grace in which we stand; and we* boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” I have some problems with this version, mostly because I don’t like the way the word ‘justified’ is used.
But I really like the way it is restated in the paraphrase bible The Message: “1-2By entering through faith into what God has always wanted to do for us—set us right with him, make us fit for him—we have it all together with God because of our Master Jesus. And that’s not all: We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand—out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.” Yes we as Christian find our way through the Master Jesus, but God has thrown open the doors and as we stand there we discover new spaces where God’s glory is magnified. So it’s not what we have been used to and maybe it will challenge us. But, oh the spaces we will discover when we embrace the other.
I keep hoping we will be better than the first century Christians and open our doors to new ways of visualizing God, finding God in unexpected places, seeing God in people we haven’t met yet.
Sermon presented on March 27, 2011, @ Queen Ann Christian Church
©Ruth Jewell, March 26, 2011