Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Samaritan Woman and Racism

John 4: 5-42

The Samaritan Woman at the Well

Jesus comes to the Samaritan woman at the well. She is, perhaps, the most broken woman in the whole Gospel story. The very fact that she comes at noon to draw water, rather than in the early morning when the other women of the village would be there, suggests that at the very least she is ashamed. In all likelihood she is the subject of scorn and derision. People look down upon her because of her brokenness in marriage and in relationships.

Jesus, we are told, is tired. As he addresses this broken, lonely and ashamed woman, he asks, “Give me a drink.” It is an invitation to be at risk. It is an invitation to cross boundaries and ancient taboos. He is thirsty, and she has a bucket, and there is the well of their mutual ancestor Jacob.

Notice how Jesus does not look down upon her as the others do. He calls no attention to her brokenness. He does not tell her to get her act together. It is good to see how Jesus approaches broken people – not from a superior position, but from a humbler, lower position even from his fatigue: “I need you,” he says. He is tired. He is thirsty. Those of us familiar with this story will recognize this thirst of his. Among his very last words on the cross are the words, “I thirst.”

What Jesus is seeking here is someone who shares his thirst. His thirst is a thirst for peace. What he calls God’s shalom. This shalom is in turn a thirst for justice and healing for all people, especially people like this Samaritan woman. Most of all, Jesus thirsts for dignity and respect for all people. Not some people. Not a lot of people. All people.

This woman knows no respect. But Jesus reaches out to her from his need, not hers. By reaching out to her from his own need he gives her dignity and respect—there is something she can do for him. Jesus gives her identity and purpose. Suddenly something new, something real, wells up inside of her. It is a new confidence, a new spirit. And from this new spirit her real thirst is revealed. It is a thirst that will not be quenched by the waters at the bottom of Jacob’s well. She thirsts for real life, authentic life, and Jesus gives it to her without cost and without condition.

Yesterday some of us from Saint Peter’s and others from the region and community met with the Task Force on Reparations for Slavery and Racism. We learned a lot about our church’s, the Episcopal Church in Maryland’s, very origins being enmeshed with slavery. Many of our oldest and earliest churches were built with money from the Tobacco Tax – a tax based per person in each household, including each slave. The African slaves worked the tobacco fields, providing the money with which their owners, predominantly Anglican/Episcopalians, paid the tax that grew our diocese. By and large these were not churches that openly welcomed black slaves to worship. And as the history of our diocese unfolded, one can readily see that mission churches were founded to serve black communities specifically so they would not be inclined to worship in white Episcopal congregations. And, of course, those that allowed blacks to worship often required that they sit in separate seating in “slave balconies.”

It would do a disservice to the quality of our conversation yesterday to attempt to distill it into manageable sound-bites, but it was astonishingly frank, very much like our Lord’s conversation with the woman at the well. Everyone in the room learned something new about what it means to be black and white in American culture. We agreed that as Christians, and as Episcopalians, our most basic and core ministry we share with our Lord is a ministry of Reconciliation – a ministry of repairing a broken world.

We also spent time sharing about “The No Talk Rule” – how in White and Black families and communities there were things having to do with race that just were never talked about. For instance, I grew up in a community and a church that for most of my younger years had one black family, Dr. Percy Julian and his family. Although Dr. Julian was a member of our church, no one ever mentioned his accomplishments: the first scientist to have synthesized cortisone and progesterone. I only found that out in 1992 when the US Postal service issued a stamp in his honor. Nor was it ever discussed that when Dr. Julian moved into Oak Park, Illinois, that there were those that harassed his family and tried to fire-bomb their house to get them to leave, which I only learned about this past year when PBS did a documentary on Dr. Julian. Things like that just did not happen in suburban Oak Park, so we did not talk about it. The No Talk Rule only hurts us all in the long run.

Perhaps most importantly yesterday, we acknowledged that not much progress can be made until there is an honest understanding and admission of the role White Privilege, or White Supremacy, plays in American culture.

The disciples return with lunch and appear horrified that their master Jesus has compromised himself by talking with this woman, a Samaritan, in broad daylight. Even Nicodemus had the tact to come in the dark of night. The disciples cannot understand the crossing of ancient boundaries, such a departure from the old taboos. This is pretty much where we find ourselves in our conversation of race, reconciliation and reparations. Blacks and Whites can lapse into viewing “the other” in the same way Samaritans and Jews looked at one another in Jesus’ day.

As we listen to this story this morning, I believe we are challenged in two significant ways. First, we must acknowledge that the brokenness of race relations persists to this day. Secondly, we must approach the work of repair and reconciliation from the same posture Jesus assumes with the Samaritan woman - not from a superior position, but from a humbler, lower position.

Like the Samaritan woman, we all come to the well over and over again to draw water. But do we see the man sitting at the well? Can we hear what he is saying to us? Are we even aware he is speaking to us? Can we feel what it is like to be asked by Jesus to do something for him? Can we see how it is that Jesus does not look down on the poor and broken ones? He does not look down on those who are utterly different from him like the Samaritans. He does not come with something to give them. He does not come pretending to tell them how to live their lives. He does not say, “Here, I have what you need. Take this and become like me.”

Instead Jesus says that the Samaritan woman has something that he needs. There is something she can do for him. Hearing this news she is liberated from all that weighs her down. He enters into a relationship with her first. He gives her value. He gives her purpose. He gives her new life by simply letting her know there is something she can do for him. We wonder if we might approach the poor and the broken hearted as he does. This story means to ask us if we can approach others, the “Samaritans” of our world, in this way. This story means to ask us if we are willing to reveal our brokenness to these others and to him.

Slavery and Racism are the brokenness we all carry. Until we acknowledge it and reveal it like Jesus, it will persist. Until we can acknowledge there is something we need from each other, the brokenness of Racism will not go away.

As we move steadfastly toward Holy Week we remember that as the story nears its conclusion on the cross, Jesus is still thirsty. He is still thirsty today. And we are, all of us and each of us, that Samaritan woman. We come to the well week after week. Week after week Jesus asks us for a drink. We know the kinds of things for which he thirsts. Jesus continues to thirst for dignity and respect for all people. He thirsts for justice and peace for all people.

Are we ready to bring him a drink? Are we ready to talk with him? Are we ready to reveal our own brokenness to him and to one another? Jesus is sitting before us right now. He is tired, very, very tired. He asks us to give him a drink. What shall we do?


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