In 2010 Commentary Magazine held a contest for the best scriptural exegesis. The contest’s winner was one Manny Sherberb, who included the following joke as part of his winning scholarship.
“A young business man gets onto an airplane, settles into his seat and opens his laptop to get a little work done in route. Shortly after takeoff, the elderly gentleman sitting in the row next to him starts talking to himself, “Oy, am I THIRSTY!” he says.
The businessman tries to ignore this gentleman to continue working.
A few moments later, again the old man exclaims to no one in particular, “Oy, am I THIRSTY!”
This time the businessman glances over a bit annoyed, and then refocuses on his work.
But every fifteen seconds, like clockwork, from his seatmate he hears, “Oy, am I THIRSTY!”
Finally, the young man can’t take it anymore; as soon as the seatbelt sign flickers out, he gets up, goes to the back of the plane, gets two of those cone cups, and fills them with water. He walks back up the aisle and wordlessly hands the old gentleman the two cups.
He immediately brightens up, “Thank you, young man!” And eagerly drinks both cups of water, heaves a sigh and smacks his lips in satisfaction. For a few moments all is quiet.
The old gentleman soon breaks the silence, “Oy, was I THIRSTY! Oy, was I THIRSTY!”
Jesus and his disciples had been making their way through Judea, baptizing new disciples as they went. When Jesus learned that the Pharisees gaze had been drawn from his cousin John to him, he decided to go back to Galilee ahead of them. “And he must needs go through Samaria,” as the King James Version says.
“Well, what was the need, Jesus?!” as the great James Forbes asks.
There had been a long standing riff between Samaritans and Jews that started some 700 years earlier – around the time of the schism of the kingdom – involving a family argument over whose god was the true God, whose religion was the true religion, whose holy city was the real holy city and whose temple was the real temple.
And, even though both groups claimed Jacob as their common ancestor, neither group would have anything to do with other. Certainly, a Jew would never drink from the same cup as a Samaritan; much less condescend to ask one for a favor – to fetch him a cup of water. Oy!
When those kinds of antagonistic sentiments – even between family members – fester long enough, people start categorically demonizing one another; calling each other names: untrustworthy, unworthy, unclean – devious, dirty, lazy, evil.
We’ve seen it happen time and time again throughout history.
But Jesus had come to redeem all people; to reconcile the nations. Jesus had come – not to judge, or moralize, or marginalize – but to reach out to the widow, the stranger, the orphan, and the outcast.
This was Jesus’ urgent need: to do God’s will. This was the bread – the food – Jesus had of which the disciples knew not [Jn. 4:34].
So, the same Spirit that drove Jesus into the wilderness on the heels of his baptism now compelled him to go through Samaria.
By midday he had made his way to Jacob’s Well, just outside the village of Sychar.
And there he has an unlikely encounter with one of the village women fetching water. Unlikely because all the other women of the village would typically go to get water for their families’ needs first thing in the morning.
But this woman is of questionable repute; she is well known to the other women of the village – as well as to, apparently, at least several of the men – and thus has been labeled a social outcast . . . dirty, unworthy, evil; which is why she is getting her water from the public well in the heat of the noonday sun; to avoid the condemnation, derision and ridicule of the other women.
We should not be too quick to join in that condemnation, however, as we view her from the distance of time and culture. Her life is – at least in part – the result of living in a severe patriarchal society; one which devalued women, objectified women, exploited women, victimized women. And then turned around and demonized women for the very plight they found themselves in.
The reality was that men could divorce their wife for any reason, literally at a whim; leaving a woman without any resources, any family, or any real prospects for self-support.
Women had no recourse, no power, no intrinsic worth, and certainly no justice in this ancient culture.
It was a social condition about which Jesus was, no doubt, well aware.
Now that doesn’t mean that this Samaritan woman was without any personal culpability at all. People make choices, of course, about how to respond to the life circumstances they find themselves in.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton made a choice. Rosa Parks made a choice. Gloria Steinem made a choice. Linda Sarsour made a choice.
But this Samaritan woman may well have felt – at that time, in that culture – that she had no choices; no other options to the life she was leading. She had quite likely resigned herself to the unrelenting skepticism that whatever promise life might have once held for her, had now long evaporated. Perhaps had even come to believe that there was something terribly wrong with her, wrong with men, wrong with life, or, even, wrong with God.
As one observed, “She made her lonely trek to draw water each day from Jacob’s Well, but it mattered not. Life had no vitality for her, no point, no purpose, save making her lonely trudge to the well each day; out of sight, out of mind.”
But, rather than add to the condemnation of this woman, Jesus reached out to her in love; breaking every social taboo to do so. He aligned himself with her by acknowledging his own thirst, his own humanness; sharing, perhaps, even his own sense of aloneness. He pierced the depths of her broken heart; offered her an alternative to the way she was living.
Jesus empowered this beleaguered, alienated woman by giving her a choice.
Jesus became for her, what Allen Jones called, “the bearer of the miracle that I matter.”
It makes me think of the story Anne Lamott tells in her autobiography, Traveling Mercies, about the time when she hit bottom, was physically ill from drinking and taking drugs. She had just had yet another abortion and was hiding out in her houseboat apartment.
“As I lay there,” she writes, “I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner . . . The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there . . . But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus. I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this.
“And I was appalled,” Lamott continues. “I thought about what everyone would think of me if I became a Christian, and it seemed an utterly impossible thing that simply could not be allowed to happen. I turned to the wall and said out loud, `I would rather die.’
“I felt him just sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love, and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that’s not what I was seeing him with.
“Finally,” she says, “I fell asleep, and in the morning, he was gone.”
Haunted by this encounter, Anne Lamott ends up wandering into a little Presbyterian church, and as she sits in a back pew, finds herself contemptuous for all that was going on, and yet remembers, “I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling—and it washed over me.
“I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along at my heels . . . and I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there for a minute, and then I hung my head and said . . . `I quit . . . All right. You can come in.”
“So this was my beautiful moment of conversion” (New York/Anchor, 109).
The Samaritan woman, enrapt in her own beautiful moment of conversion, runs back into the village to tell everyone she meets about this One who saw into the depths of her broken heart and satiated her arid soul. “Could this be the Messiah?”
Meanwhile, Jesus is debriefing his astonished disciples, using this unexpected encounter as a teaching moment. Pretty soon, a number of the other villagers follow the Samaritan woman back out to Jacob’s Well to see this man for themselves. Their hearts are, in turn, also convicted and they end up hanging out with Jesus and his disciples for two more days.
Jews and Samaritans – long estranged, embattled – are brought together again at last by one who was deemed an outcast by both groups; a woman who bore witness to an experience of love and justice in Jesus Christ, and the truth that she, indeed, mattered to God.
In his book the Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, Jonathan Sacks writes, “Islam, Judaism, and Christianity remind us that civilizations survive not by strength but by how they respond to the weak; not by wealth but by the care they show for the poor; not by power but by their concern for the powerless. The ironic yet utterly human lesson of history is that what renders a culture invulnerable is the compassion it shows to the vulnerable. The ultimate value we should be concerned to maximize is human dignity—the dignity of all human beings, equally, as children of the creative, redeeming God.”
Frankly, I’m worried about what I see going on in this country today. I’m worried about the policies emerging from Washington D.C. which seem to tell so many millions of people – both in this country and abroad – that they just don’t matter. And I’m worried about the division I see happening amongst the people of our country, the growing rift between our American sisters and brothers. Worried about the walls being built between nations, peoples, races, and religions.
I’m worried that irreparable damage is being done to three of the world’s great religions; the derision and demonizing, the enmity and intolerance being instigated between those who share the same spiritual ancestor: Abraham.
Most of all, I think, I’m worried about the integrity of our own beloved faith; because so much of what I see happening seems to be coming from those who claim to be Christian.
It all seems so hopeless sometimes. And then I’ll see something that renews my hope.
The Atlantic magazine recently reported how Tarek El-Messidi had been planning to leave Philadelphia to visit family. But when he heard that Mount Carmel Jewish Cemetery had been desecrated, he cancelled his flight. El-Messidi is Muslim, but he felt it was important for him to be with his hometown Jewish community at that moment. “Both communities in America are being targeted right now,” he said. “There’s a rise in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. That could have just as easily been a Muslim cemetery…”
“Issues like Israel-Palestine often divide the two communities,” said Tarek, but “I’m not asking about the politics of the dead people whose graves we’re trying to repair.”
Despite the sadness of the desecration, El-Messidi bore witness to hope, “the silver lining in this tragedy, and this kind of eco-system of hate, is that both communities are reaching out, getting to know one another, and standing together to defend each other against this kind of bigotry.” (Emma Green, 2/27/17)
Don’t be too astonished: God’s justice love in Christ Jesus knows no boundaries, no walls, no division. Not male or female, nor Jew or Greek, nor Christian or Muslim.
It comes to us in unexpected ways, from unexpected sources.
The Holy Spirit of God moves where it wills.
Let this, then, be the need that drives us back out into the world: to advocate understanding in the presence of discrimination; to show mercy rather than condemnation; to express compassion in response to hatred. And, as God’s children in this world, let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.