Year A.FB; 3 Lent; 3.12.2023
The Rev. Carolyn H. Eklund, Rector
One of my favorite shows on PBS is a program called, “Finding Your Roots.” In each episode scholar and host, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. leads two famous people through historical records and DNA testing to gently reveal their ancestry. There are always surprises. For example, African American scholar and activist Angela Davis learned that she is not only a descendent from a patriot of the American Revolution. She directly descends from one of only 100 people who traveled to America on the Mayflower. Two years ago, we learned that Roseanne Cash, daughter of Johnny Cash and his first wife has a maternal great-great grandmother who was a slave.
In my own family, we always believed that we descended mostly from German immigrants. But recently, my sister Marilyn learned that we have even more ancestry that comes from Scotland and maybe a smidgen from somewhere near Turkey on my dad’s side. I delight in the beautiful mix of ancestry that immigrants of our country have given us. Not for one minute do I think that a Pure Race, a White Race is what God intends for humankind. In fact, I believe that God sent Jesus to demonstrate connection, friendship and love between people of all kinds.
The story of the Samaritan Woman at the Well in John’s Gospel is exactly why I believe God’s intention is to lead us all to build bridges of love between people of all kinds. Jesus very pointedly demonstrates that the Good News of God’s love aims to link adversaries and enemies in kindness and love, ending thousands of years of animosity and hatred between Jews and Samaritans.
In the story we heard this morning, we learn that there is not only animosity between Jews and Samaritans. There is a strict boundary between a woman drawing water from her ancestral well and a male who initiates a conversation. “Give me a drink,” says Jesus. Choosing not to ignore this stranger’s imperative for a drink, she speaks to him. “How is it that you, a Jew, asks a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” If anyone listening to this story had any doubt at all that this was a forbidden, edgy interaction, the narrator tells us in parentheses, “(Jews do not share things on common with Samaritans.)”
Well, why not?! Why is the author of this story making it so clear that there is a breach of a boundary between a Jewish sojourner who is thirsty and a Samaritan woman who has had some questionable household partnerships in her life? What is it between Samaritans and Jews that is so hostile?
I don’t want to get too much in the weeds of the ancient tribes of Israel and what happened to them in the course of 1000 years or so. I know we lost an hour this morning, so I’m not going to stay in the weeds! But I am really, really curious about why these two peoples who lived in such close proximity hated each other?
Why can’t they all just get along, I say!
In Scripture we know that twelve tribes of Israel descended from Jacob’s twelve sons. Ten tribes in the north were called the Northern Kingdom. At about 1000 BC these tribes succeeded from the union, so to speak. They even took the name “Israel” with them. This separation was the beginning of hostilities.
Then, two hundred years later, the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom and mixed-up nationalities. They moved non-Northern Kingdom people into the area and deported many others out in order to prevent rebellions. This mixture of peoples became known as Samaria.
A couple hundred years later the Babylonians conquered the southern region called Judah where the Jerusalem capital was and where a thriving population of Jews had built a temple. The educated and elite Jews were deported to Babylon. The Temple was destroyed. This was called the 50-year exile.
Then the Persians came and conquered the Babylonians – DON’T YOU JUST LOVE ANCIENT HISTORY?? SMILEY FACE! – The Persian leader Cyrus the Great allowed the deported Jews to move back and repopulate the southern region and Jerusalem, called Judea. Cyrus even allowed them to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. The neighbors to the north, the Samaritans were excited by these plans and offered to help. But the Judeans refused their help. And Boy! Did that hurt their feelings and the hostilities mounted.
What has captured my attention in all of this is that the Samaritans kept their ancestral identity of being descended from the northern tribes. Those hundreds of years, they still honored Jacob as their direct ancestor. In the way the Samaritan woman spoke to Jesus you can hear that she proudly draws water from the well of her ancestor Jacob and compares their worship on Mount Gerizim with the Jews’ worship in the Temple in Jerusalem.
For their part, sadly, the Judeans, the Jews that Jesus and his disciples descended from, “…considered the Samaritans mongrels and half-breeds.” And THAT faulty prejudice kept the two nations at odds.
Jesus entered Samaria on a hot day at noon and dismantled this prejudice by a simple demand, “Give me some water.” The conversation was a clear gesture of taking this woman seriously. Jesus introduces her to Living Water that comes from God. There was no bigotry, no prejudice. He never looked down on her ancestry. The boundaries fell away, melted by the Living Water Jesus offered.
She was so moved by the saving words of Jesus, his complete and utter embrace of her, we discover that she became the evangelist to the Samaritans. “…because of her testimony…” her town even invited Jesus, a Jew, to live with them for two whole days!
Those of John’s community listening to this moving story surely heard the word, “Savior” on the lips of a whole town of Samaritans. It’s the one and only use of the word, “Savior” in John’s Gospel and it’s the Samaritans who bear witness to Jesus the Savior of the World.
The Samaritans, “mongrels and half-breeds,” were important witnesses to Christ’s saving and Living water. When I read in my studies this week that they were considered “mongrels,” I felt sick because that word was used by the Nazis in their evil quest for racial purity. In an article entitled, “Mongrel Nation,” that appeared in “The Smithsonian” magazine just after 911, author Geoffrey C. Ward reinforces our national diversity and resilience while cautioning us on our Civil War and Germany’s history.
He wrote, “Some in the confederacy believed the Union cause was doomed because ‘The Yankee Army [was impure and] included African-Americans and immigrants from everywhere.’” He went on to write, “Adolf Hitler had his own version of that view: ‘Americans would never be able to defeat the Thousand-Year Reich,’ he assured his aides, ‘because they are a mongrel people.’”
This story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman is an urgent witness to eliminating human-made boundaries of hatred and division being erected so swiftly right now in our country, even by lawmakers. It teaches us that God in no way wants to limit human connection, freedom, peace and kindness.
Today, this third Sunday in Lent in St. Paul’s, Brunswick, Maine. What if our faith community made it our mission to “…break down the walls that separate us and unite [all people]…in bonds of love…?” (BCP, p. 815)