March 30, 2014 John 4:5-42 from “The Message”
“What if we gave up divisions for Lent?” That is a question posed by New Testament professor Brian Blount in the recent edition of The Christian Century. “What if we gave up divisions for Lent?” It’s an ambitious proposition. It could change the world, but it would require the world’s participation. We might actually create the kin-dom Jesus kept talking about.
We currently live in a world constructed by divisions: regional, economic, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, differently abled, ideological. You could probably come up with even more. Blount suggests: what if we “harvest them into one magnificent, writhing bundle and just let them go. What a season of Lent it would be!”
But we don’t. We hold on to those divisions for dear life - protecting our turf, defending our ideology, claiming our religious beliefs to be the one and only truth, ostracizing those who look or sound, act or believe differently than us - erecting walls to keep us safe from the “others,” and comfortable in our sameness.
And where has this gotten us? The same place that the Jews and Samaritans were in when Jesus approached the woman at the well. He was journeying from Judea in the south, to Galilee in the north, and between the two was an ethnic minefield called Samaria.
“Samaritans are descendants of two distinct groups: the remnant of the ten tribes who were not deported when the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell in 722 BCE to the Assyrians, and, foreign colonists from Babylonia and Media brought by the Assyrian conquerors of Samaria. Tension between the Samaritans and the Jews, who returned from the Babylonian exile, was created in part by the Samaritans’ opposition to the rebuilding of the Temple.” (The Jewish Annotated NT)
It was also created by the Jews who destroyed the Samaritans rival altar on Mt. Gerizim. There are always two sides to every conflict.
By the first Century CE, the two groups were behaving like feuding cousins. Like so many family feuds that go on for centuries, the reasons that perpetuated the religious and ethnic divide, and their distrust and dislike of each other grew more complex and difficult for outsiders to understand. Their religious beliefs were actually quite similar, but they argued over their differences.
Does any of this sound familiar? Think Easter Orthodox vs. Roman Christianity, Protestant vs. Catholic, Mainline vs. Fundamentalist, Orthodox Jews vs. Reformed, Sunni vs. Shiite. How long would it take us to count the number of places in the world today mired in arguments, sometimes erupting in violence over these kinds of divisions, while others are seething right under the surface, ready to erupt? - each believing that God is on their side.
Last Sunday we were discussing the moral and spiritual evolution of the human species in our adult faith formation class, and it was pointed out that we’re evolving at an infinitesimal speed. But then, it took over a billion years to get this far. I guess we’re slow learners.
Jesus was on a mission, and it had to do with more than getting from Judea to Galilee. He’s traveling into that minefield to deliver a message, to set an example. Actions speak louder than words sometimes. Combine the two and maybe the message will get through.
How do we tear down these walls we’ve built and erase these divisions? Or maybe a better way of looking at it is: How do we retain the integrity of our differences while building bridges of understanding, respect and cooperation. How can we come together to create the kin-dom in this fractured world of ours?
Jesus and his disciples have been walking through that hot desert. Jesus rests by a well on the outskirts of town while the others go looking for food. He’s parched and in need of water. He’s also waiting for an opportunity, and encounter.
Women were the ones who fetched the family’s water at the well. It’s the middle of the day in the scorching heat - not the time when they would most likely come to the well. So he waits. We know Jesus talked to women, but to engage a Samaritan woman would be shocking, to say the least. “How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman for a drink?”
Lesson 1: To bridge a division - whatever is creating it - you have to reach out to the other - break down cultural taboos - even if it means walking into enemy territory. Jesus could have avoided Samaria altogether and taken a longer route around it. Here he invites us to travel to those uncomfortable places where we might meet people who don’t think like us, who we disagree with, who offended our relatives years ago and we’re still holding a grudge.
Lesson 2: Crossing the divisions requires giving and receiving. Jesus and the Samaritan woman both had something to offer the other. Both offers were life giving. Jesus couldn’t make it across Samaria without water. He, in return, is offering a different kind of water - the life giving love and acceptance and grace of God that is available to all of us alike. That divide is of human construct, not of God. Jesus is telling us that God does not respect that divide that they had so religiously maintained.
Lesson 3: Crossing the divisions requires communication. Duh? That seems obvious, but how often do we avoid communicating with those on the other side of the divide. Jesus models the importance of growing in understanding. Are those differences we’ve embraced really valid? Do they matter in the larger picture?
The woman asks Jesus a hot button theological question: Where is the proper place to worship God? This question lies at the heart of their division over the years. Jesus’ answer speaks to us across time and the many divisions we have erected: “...the time is coming - it has, in fact, come - when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. It’s who you are and and the way you live that count before God.”
How often do we get all hung up about trivial matters that are not important to God? - are not what really matters in life?
Jesus crossed those boundaries - reached out - and the divisions evaporated. He and his disciples stayed for two days in that village worshiping and praying with the Samaritans - eating with them too, no doubt - something they never would have done before - creating community where there was once a divide.
Lesson 4: You have to get to know one another. That takes time. Jesus tells them - and shows them - that God is not confined to a temple or a shrine on a mountain, reserved for a select few to worship, but within each of our spirits.
Talking to our confirmation class recently, the question arose: What boundaries would Jesus be crossing today? What boundaries would he be asking us to cross with him? They may not be as obvious as the divisions in the Middle East or other more volatile places in the world, but there are divisions right here where we live.
I belong to a group called Daughters of Abraham - over a dozen women: Christian, Jewish and Muslim, who meet once a month to learn about each other’s faiths and traditions, and grow in friendship. Last week we read from all three traditions on various themes and then talked about what we had just heard. We discussed the differences, but more important, we talked about the commonalities, how when you peel away the details, the message is so often the same.
clergy group down south