THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT
Prayer of the Day: Merciful God, the fountain of living water, you quench our thirst and wash away our sin. Give us this water always. Bring us to drink from the well that flows with the beauty of your truth through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” John 4:9.
Disputes over how, where and by whom God is to be worshipped are as old as they are heated and bloody. The first murder recorded in the Bible grew out of a dispute about the right worship of God. See Genesis 4:1-16. That is what the Samaritan woman’s question is all about and it reflects animosity going back for almost one thousand years. Recall that the Israelite kingdom built up under the leadership of David split following the death of his son, Solomon. The Southern Kingdom of Judah continued to be ruled by descendants of David and worshipped in Jerusalem at the temple built by Solomon. The Northern Kingdom of Israel ultimately established its capital in Samaria and was under the control of several successive dynasties. In 722 B.C.E. the Northern Kingdom of Israel was invaded and destroyed by the Assyrians. Judah fell to the Babylonians more than a century later in 587 B.C.E.
Though many Israelites were displaced as a result of these conquests, a substantial number remained in the land. Among them was an ethnic group claiming descent from the Northern Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh as well as from the priestly tribe of Levi. These “Samaritans” had their own temple on Mount Gerizim. They believed this mountain, rather than Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, to be the location chosen by God for worship. When some of the exiles from Judah (now properly called “Jews”) returned from Babylon to Palestine in order to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple, they met with hostility and resistance from the Samaritans and other inhabitants of the land. Both Jews and Samaritans regarded themselves exclusively as the one true Israel. Thus, the very existence of each represented an existential threat to the other. The depth of Jewish animosity toward Samaritans is reflected in at least one daily prayer used in some synagogues pleading for God to ensure that Samaritans not enter into eternal life. Ellis, E. Earle, The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary, (c. 1974 Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 151 citing Oesterley, W.O.E., The Gospel Parallels in the Light of their Jewish Background, New York, 1936, p. 162. Of course, the Samaritans were equally ill disposed toward Jews.
Nevertheless, in spite of their mutual hatred, Jews and Samaritans had much in common. Both were Israelites. Both claimed lineage from Sarah and Abraham. They shared the same language and the same scriptures. Both had far more in common with each other than with the Roman overlords enslaving them. As much as they might have wished it otherwise, these two peoples were inescapably bound up together in a common history. That conflicted history comes to a head in Jesus’ encounter with the woman of Samaria.
This story has a contemporary ring to it. After all, we in this country who identify as white are only now coming to grips with our own tortured history shared with indigenous peoples murdered and dispossessed by our colonial ancestors. We are only now beginning to understand the essential role played by African slaves whose forced and uncompensated labor built up the back bone of our nation’s industrial power and wealth. We are only now learning the full extent of our exploitation of the Mexican and Chinese laborers we imported from abroad to build our railroads and then quickly moved to deport once we had no further use for them. We are only learning now that the American history we were taught in school was, at best, woefully incomplete. At worst, it was pure propaganda.
So how do we proceed in the face of our tortured history? I suggest we follow Jesus’ lead. He does not begin by engaging the Samaritan woman in a theological debate. He does not question her morality or the legitimacy of her faith. He does not begin by addressing “the issues.” Jesus begins by asking for a drink. He does not disguise his vulnerability and dependence on the woman. Instead, he tells her “I need you. I need your help.” What this woman might have expected of Jesus, if anything, we can only guess. But it is clear that she is taken by surprise. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” The woman launches into the longstanding dispute over which of their respective temples is the proper place for worship. Jesus will have none of it. God seeks worshipers-Jew, Samaritan or gentile, who worship God in Spirit and in truth. Again, we can only guess what was going through the woman’s mind as she raced back home to tell her people of that remarkable Jew who asked to share her water jar and spoke to her as a fellow Israelite.
The interchange between Jesus and the woman of Samaria concludes with a small detail that you might have missed if you were concentrating only on the heady theological issues. The woman leaves her water jar at the well before returning home-an act of compassion and kindness for this strange, thirsty traveler. She quenched the thirst of this odd prophet who promised to quench her thirst with living water. Amazing things happen when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, lay aside our defensiveness and humbly ask for the help we need. God knows those of us faced with troubling realities that threaten to undo the myths by which we have learned to live need help. God knows that our overwhelmingly white mainline churches need help seeing themselves-ourselves-as we are seen by God. We need the patience of Jesus to hear the stories of those victimized by our claims of privilege without defensiveness, without judgment and without the need to be right. Only after we have heard, understood and taken responsibility for the truth do we dare speak.
Poetry offers us, among other things, an opportunity to listen for and hear voices that have been too long excluded from the telling of the American story and ignored by the church. Here is one by June Jordan.
1977: Poem for Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer
You used to say, “June?
Honey when you come down here you
supposed to stay with me. Where
against the beer the shotguns and the
point of view of whitemen don’
never see Black anybodies without
some violent itch start up.
The ones who
said, “No Nigga’s Votin in This Town . . .
lessen it be feet first to the booth”
Then jailed you
beat you brutal
you blue beyond the feeling
of the terrible
And failed to stop you.
Only God could but He
fortress from self-
Humble as a woman anywhere
I remember finding you inside the laundromat
lion spine relaxed/hell
what’s the point to courage
when you washin clothes?
But that took courage
just to sit there/target
to the killers lookin
for your singin face
perspirey through the rinse
you stood mighty in the door on James Street
“BULLETS OR NO BULLETS!
THE FOOD IS COOKED
AN’ GETTIN COLD!”
A family tremulous but fortified
like the lilies
filled to the very living
one solid gospel
one full Black lily
in a homemade field
Source: Directed By Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan (C. 2005 by The June M. Jordan Literary Trust; pub. by WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2005). June Millicent Jordan (1936–2002) was an American poet, essayist, teacher and activist. She was in 1936 in Harlem, New York, the only child of immigrants from Jamaica and Panama. Her father was a postal worker for the USPS and her mother was a part-time nurse. When Jordan was five, the family moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn. She began writing her own poetry at the age of seven. Her poetry and other writings explore issues of gender, race and immigration. Jordan was passionate about using Black English in her writing and poetry, teaching others to treat it as its own language and an important outlet for expressing Black culture. You can read more about June Jordan and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation websilte.