Monday, March 27, 2017

So What I Said Was: Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, Racism, Sexism, Empathy, and Lent

The past two weeks, in two different places (Village Chapel of Bald Head Island and West Newton Friends) I spoke on the familiar story of Jesus and the Samaritan women. So what I said (sorta) was:

Compared to the width and breadth of the mighty Roman empire, Palestine at the time of Jesus was just a tiny speck. A mere 120 miles from its northern tip to its southern border. But even within this tiny plot of geography which Jesus and the disciples found themselves walking, were three major divisions of territory – and belief. In the north, where they started their journey, was Galilee.

The most direct route to Jerusalem from Galilee was through Samaria. However, many devout Jews arranged for extra travel time to skirt the whole territory. Those who didn’t, traveled at their own peril. Samaritans attacked pilgrims on their way to the holy city. Jews led assaults on Samaria, destroying their temple on their holy mount, where they held that Moses had received the 10 commandments.

It was into this that Jesus walked this day.

Now, most of the time when we hear this familiar story, we focus on the woman at the well. And her story is a fascinating one. But today I want us to look at what this story tells us about Jesus and his nature.

It’s noon. The middle of the Jewish day of that era, which runs from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. It’s also the hottest time of the day. Jesus is weary and thirsty. The disciples go ahead to town to buy some food. Some major attitude change must be occurring in them, for them even to go buy food from Samaritans. A Jewish truism held that to eat with a Samaritan was as eating “swine’s flesh.”

As Jesus sits there, at a well on the land Jacob had given to his son Joseph, whose body had been buried there after the Exodus from Egypt, he’s approached by the familiar woman of the story. His dealings with her give us insight into three important aspects of Jesus’ personality.

The first is that it shows us, in its fullness, the humanity of Jesus. Here is no man free from the demands of our common life. He’s been walking a long way, he’s hungry, thirsty and tired. His life, his walk, was an effort for him, the same as it is for us. And so Jesus, in his humanity, shares in ours.

A second thing it shows is the depth of his empathy. From any other religious leader of the opposition of the day, the woman most likely would have fled. She would fear such a person as condemning and hostile – because of her race and her lifestyle. But she talks to Jesus and it is he who begins the conversation. We have only the barest record of what was said – the Bible never pretends to be a stenographer’s record. What we have is what the gospel writer thinks we need to know. One has to wonder what else was said. Whatever it was, the woman opens to Jesus – a friend who came not to criticize or condemn, even though many might say she deserved criticism and condemnation. Jesus does not even give her his quite common command to “go and sin no more.” He lets her be. In his empathy he sees she has need of his grace, not judgment, for the judgment she’s laid on herself over her lifetime has been probably almost more than she can bear. He lets her off “Scot free.”

That’s good news to us today. Not that it gives us license to behave any which way, but it shows us that God looks on the inner person and sees the heart. A person may act outwardly contrite and yet have a heart of stone. That’s what Jesus often got on the Pharisees about. Or a person may not seem to have “paid for his or her sins” and yet grieve over them in the very deepest part of his or her being. And that is the man or woman to whom Jesus extends his love and sympathy.

Finally, the story shows Jesus as a breaker of barriers. In this case the barriers of racism and sexism. The hatred between the Jews and Samaritans ran deep and wide. Jesus would have nothing to do with it. He made the Samaritans heroes of some of his stories and conversed freely with them – as he did the woman at the well. It’s no wonder, with the history of hatred, the woman was surprised he would speak to her – a Samaritan. But speak he did. And indeed he stayed with the Samaritans for two days after this encounter.

He also broke the barrier of sexism. Some of the Pharisees of this time were known as the bruised and bleeding Pharisees. That’s because their interpretation of the Law forbid them from speaking to a woman in public, even their sisters, mothers, or daughters. Yet Jesus sits and talks with this woman as if she was as capable of understanding as any Jewish man. This is highly unusual, for many Jews (as did other religions of the day) believed that a woman was incapable of understanding the things of God and so such talk would be wasted. Some doubted women even had souls.

Jesus dealings with this woman, as well as many others, show that the faith he established is one of equality of all people. Thus in Galatians, Paul can write, “I Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

If Jesus’ was a breaker of barriers, how can we, his followers, be any less? We need, as part of the gospel message, to show a church that welcomes all regardless of race, gender or any other distinction and to work to eliminate such distinctions in our community.

To a Jew of Jesus time, this encounter was an amazing one. It should be so for us today. Here came the Son of God dusty, thirsty, and tired. He breaks through the barriers of race, religion and gender to love everyone in his and their humanity. He invites us today, as he did that Samaritan woman 2,000 years ago, to drink from his well, a draught of water that will quench our every thirst.

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