Text: John 4:5-42 (Living Water)
In today’s Gospel reading, a Samaritan woman at a well notes that Jesus is a Jew. She expresses surprise that as a Jew and a man he feels free to ask her for a drink of water. Back in the time of King David, Jews and Samaritans had been one people. But by the time of Jesus, they were separate communities and they didn’t get along.
This Samaritan woman is correct, of course, to say that Jesus is Jewish, although many people today have forgotten this fact. In his book, “Meeting Jesus Again For the First Time,” Marcus Borg tells of a Bible Study class in a Roman Catholic parish where the leader works very hard to convince the students that Jesus is Jewish only to have somebody respond, “But the Blessed Mother for sure is not.” After all, if the Virgin Mary is not Catholic, then who the heck is?!
But the truth is that Mary and Joseph, Peter and Paul, and Nicodemus and Jesus are all Jews who study the Hebrew Scriptures and worship at the Temple in Jerusalem.
Despite this fact and despite Jesus’ statement to the Samaritan woman that “salvation is from the Jews,” today I want us to consider that Living Water is neither Jewish, Samaritan, nor Christian. Rather, it is a symbol of the healing available to all who seek to know and love God.
“Judea and Samaria” is a phrase often found in news reports of the past 50 years. It is what the state of Israel calls the West Bank of the Jordan, a region captured by Israel in 1967 and illegally occupied despite UN resolutions ever since.
Samaria is to the north. It used to be the northern Kingdom of Israel, which was created 3,000 years ago after the United Kingdom of David broke into two parts. For more than 200 years, the descendants of the subjects of David were ruled by a kingdom in the south called Judah centred in Jerusalem and one in the North called Israel and centred in Samaria.
The Kingdom of Israel was defeated by Assyria in 720 BCE, while the Kingdom of Judah survived for another 150 years before Jerusalem in turn was destroyed by the Babylonians. During the 50 years that the leaders of Jerusalem lived in captivity in Babylonia, they developed Judaism as a religion based on Holy Scripture.
When these leaders returned from exile and rebuilt Jerusalem, Samaritans still lived to the north of Jerusalem. Samaritans shared most of the cultural practices of the people in Jerusalem, who now called themselves Jews. They were subjects of the same empires — Persian, Greek, and then Roman. But over the centuries, Samaritans and Jews came to dislike each other.
To the Romans who occupied Palestine, the differences between the two must have seemed minor. But to the members of these two communities, these differences loomed large and there was mutual distrust and hatred.
This reminds me of Ukraine and Russia today. The people of these two countries seem similar to me. They are both descendants of Slavs. Their languages are close. Russians and Ukrainians can usually understand each other. Most belong to the eastern Orthodox church. Ukrainians and Russians have lived side by side for centuries. Why can’t they just get along?
The same thing could be said about Samaritans and Jews in the First Century. They both spoke Aramaic. They both traced their ancestry to Abraham and Moses. They both suffered under the yoke of Rome. So why did they hate each other?
For whatever reasons, they did hate each other, although Jesus is a gracious exception. With his parable of the Good Samaritan and his conversation with a woman at a well, Jesus models a ministry of reconciliation.
The woman assumes that as a Jew, Jesus will worship in the Temple in Jerusalem. But Jesus says that soon people will worship neither on the mountain in Samaria nor in Jerusalem. Since God is Spirit, those who worship God will worship in spirit and truth, and spirit and truth are independent of tribe or place.
God is not Samaritan or Jewish or Roman. God is the Spirit of truth and love, which exists everywhere and in all people.
Jesus offers the woman at the well Living Water, which would quench her thirst forever. But this Living Water is not found in one place like the Temple. It is found wherever people pursue truth and love.
Today, I have mentioned Samaritans, Jews, Ukrainians and Russians. To close, I also mention Canada’s First Nations. As we hear the survivors of Indian Residential Schools next weekend, I pray that God’s Living Water will sustain all of us who go to the Shaw Conference Centre.
The Samaritan woman at first confused the Living Water of Jesus with the details of Jewish worship. In a similar way, the Christian church of the past 1700 years confused the details of European culture with the Living Water symbolized by Jesus.
In 1986, the United Church of Canada made a step towards reconciliation with First Nations people when the Moderator, the Rev. Robert Smith, offered the following apology at General Council in Sudbury. He said:
Long before my people journeyed to this land, your people were here; and you received from your Elders an understanding of creation and of the Mystery that surrounds us all that was deep, and rich, and to be treasured.
We did not hear you when you shared your vision. In our zeal to tell you of the good news of Jesus Christ we were closed to the value of your spirituality.
We confused Western ways and culture with the depth and breadth and length and height of the gospel of Christ.
We imposed our civilization as a condition for accepting the gospel.
We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result you, and we, are poorer and the image of the Creator in us is twisted, blurred, and we are not what we are meant by God to be.
We ask you to forgive us and to walk together with us in the Spirit of Christ so that our peoples may be blessed and God’s creation healed.
The Moderator was suggesting that First Nations people had Living Water to share with the Europeans who conquered them. But for centuries, the exchange was just one way — an imposition of European and Christian ways on native people.
With that 1986 Apology and another one offered to survivors of church-run residential schools in 1998, the United Church has begun a long process of turning away from the imperialism of our ancestors. We work to reconcile with First Nations brothers and sisters, and we want to learn from the wisdom of the 10,000 years of native life in the Americas before conquest in the 16th and 17th centuries.
This month, by learning some of the teachings of the Four Directions, we have tried to model mutuality in our worship services.
God provides us with Living Water that sustains us in the ups and downs of life. Jesus symbolizes this Living Water in the church. But this Water is not Jewish, Christian, or European. It is a source of healing that breaks barriers between Jews and Greeks, men and women, and native people and immigrants and leads us into the heart of the God who is Spirit and Love.
Living Water abounds, and it has never been captured by any Temple or Church. It is vastly bigger than anything we can create. It is the Living God who leads us all to Jerusalem, wherever that may reside in our hearts.
This week, God’s Spirit will lead many of us to the Shaw Conference Centre. There with trembling hearts, we will try to worship in spirit and truth despite the painful legacy of empire — whether Babylonian, Roman, or European — a legacy that is evident in our cities and lives to this day.
Living Water will sustain us there, regardless of whether we believe it comes to us from the East, the West, the North, or the South. It will remind us that we are all one people and inspires us to work for the day when we can live in peace and harmony with justice for all.
Thanks be to God.