This is the second time I have had the privilege of preaching at a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service in Seattle. The first was in 2009 when I was still at the National Council of Churches and before Mardine and I had any thought of moving to this beautiful part of God’s creation. This one comes as I am preparing to retire from teaching at the School of Theology and Ministry and move, with Mardine, to southern California. So it is a good opportunity to say how blessed I feel to have been part of this ecumenical community (and still am part of until June!). I give thanks to God for the witness to God’s inclusive love that is made by Joyce Cox, Michael Ramos (and his predecessors at the Church Council of Greater Seattle), Jan Cherry, Loren Arnett, my colleagues at STM, Michael Trice and Mark Taylor, and so many others. May God continue to bless your ministries on behalf of Christ’s one church!
I realize that our text for this year’s Week of Prayer comes from an ecumenical working group in Brazil. I, however, have not lived in Brazil; and so I will begin this sermon with a story from a place where I have had the privilege of living.
I was teaching in India in 1987 when I went to visit a former student of mine, Rev. Gnana Ponnian, who served something like twenty-five tiny congregations near the very tip of southern India. Gnana didn’t have a car, so he traveled to his scattered flocks on an old Enfield motorcycle that looked like it was held together with duct tape. But I got on behind him, and we roared into various villages where word would somehow be spread to the fields that the pastor was there; and, within an hour or so, people would gather for worship.
Gnana was (still is, as far as I know) a pastor in the Church of South India, a church that is the result of a union involving Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. As one of the architects of this union put it, “We got tired of being divided by old European disputes.” Around 80 percent of the Church of South India’s members come from the group now known as Dalits–those who were once called “untouchables” or “outcastes.” The Indian Constitution outlaws untouchability, but caste oppression is still present in India, especially rural India, and certainly was in 1987. Some of the Dalit communities I went to with Gnana were simply clusters of huts, set apart like little satellites from an actual village.
In one of these, we gathered for worship under the thatched overhang of the most prominent house. Gnana led the prayers and I preached. (Parenthetically, I remember that before I spoke they wanted me to sing, which is a really bad idea! But I launched into the great anthem of the World Sunday School Association, “Jesus loves me, this I know…,” which nearly all of them sang with me–in English.) I have no idea what I said in my homily, but it was surely some variation on the theme that “God loves you.” That in the kingdom Jesus proclaimed, everyone is welcome at the same table. In the words of John’s gospel, “God so loved the world”–and that means all of us. “The Word became flesh and lived among us”–an amazing declaration that all “flesh” is precious to God. Sometimes I fear that we take such words for granted, but I guarantee you that is not the case in Gnana’s congregations.
In this particular hamlet, there was a boy whose English was quite good; and so Gnana, wonderful pastor that he is, designated this boy to be my translator. It obviously made him feel quite proud! While I preached, and he translated into Tamil, I could see a woman who sat in the rear and off to the side–an apparent outcast among outcasts. After we finished, and I had prayed over children with various illnesses (which I also prayed I wouldn’t get), I asked the boy to help me speak with this woman. He clearly didn’t want to, but I coaxed him to come with me. And as we approached, she pulled her dupatta (scarf) over her face and turned away, but not before I saw that she was badly disfigured. I said something, but before he could translate, she mumbled a few words. “She says,” he told me, “that it’s not right for you to be talking with her.”
I start with this story, perhaps because it haunts me, but also because it is as close as I’ve ever come to grasping the situation of the woman at the well. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” And not just that, but one who comes to the well in the middle of the day when she is sure to be alone. An outcast among those the ancient Jews considered outcasts.
Let’s take a closer look at this astonishing text, starting with verse 9, which contains one of the great understatements in all of scripture: “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” In 722 BC, Assyria conquered Israel, the northern kingdom of what had been the united monarchy of Israel and Judah. As described in 2 Kings 17, the Assyrian ruler destroyed the cities of Israel, including the great city of Samaria (after a three-year siege), dragging many of the inhabitants into exile. (I report this as dry history, but, of course, those sentences mask a tremendous amount of human suffering.) Almost immediately, however, the Assyrians rebuilt Samaria by importing people from other nations–a typical ancient practice designed to diffuse the possibility of rebellion.
The result was a number of hybrid customs. In the words of 2 Kings: “They worshiped the Lord but also served their own gods, after the manner of the nations from among whom they had been carried away.” For ancient Jews, Samaritans, as they came to be called, were a people “mixed and impure.” And the animosity worked both ways, especially after the Jews, in the second century BC, destroyed the temple of the Samaritans on Mount Gerizim. We read in Luke’s gospel, how a Samaritan village would not receive Jesus and his disciples. Most Jewish travelers from Judea to Galilee skirted Samaritan territory to avoid danger, including the danger of being polluted by contact with those whose religion and ethnicity weren’t “right.”
(I will add, parenthetically, that we often despise most those who are, in fact, closest to us. Disciples, my denomination, started as part of the Restoration Movement on the American frontier, a heritage that also includes the Churches of Christ. But I have had Disciples leaders tell me, with a straight face, that we have more in common with the Russian Orthodox than we do with these other “restorationists”! So it was with Jews and Samaritans.)
So when we read that Jesus “had to go through Samaria,” we realize that this is not a geographical observation, but a theological one. It was necessary for Jesus to go that way in order to demonstrate what reconciliation looks like in the flesh, to demonstrate the extent of God’s shocking inclusiveness.
Let’s return now to the woman at the well, an account, you will recall, that comes on the heels of the story of the Jewish religious leader, Nicodemus. Sermons on this text often speak of the woman as “fallen,” of questionable morals–but this misses the point for two reasons.
First, if a woman was married five times in ancient Palestine, it would surely have been due to circumstances beyond her control–perhaps because her husbands had died or because she was barren and, thus, rejected. In any case, her outcast status was more likely a sign of victimization than moral transgression–as with the woman in India who, I learned from Gnana, had been disfigured when she spurned the advances of a higher-caste man.
To say it another way, this is not the story of the forgiveness of a sinful individual. (Notice that Jesus doesn’t offer forgiveness.) It is the story of the reconciliation of communities, a point that is reinforced if we read the “five husbands” reference symbolically, as I think it was intended. According to 2 Kings, Samaria was repopulated with people from five nations. With this in mind, we see that the woman at the well is a wonderfully personal representative of the Samaritans as a whole. They had inter-married with five ancient peoples, and now, while not inter-marrying, they “lived with” the oppressors from Rome. To them, Jesus says “You, too, are welcome in God’s community, a community in which there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Samaritan, religious leader nor outcast. All have access to the living water that is not dependent on wells owned by particular groups. All are children of the One who can be worshiped on any mountain.”
Probably like many of you, I love the particularity, the earthiness, of this narrative. The very humanness of the interaction itself shows us that reconciliation happens face to face (in the flesh) and through the reciprocal sharing of gifts. (She, after all, has something that he needs.) But this is not simply the story of individual encounter. It is the story of communal barriers being dismantled–and, as such, is an astonishing proclamation of the inclusivity of divine love.
John 4 is not usually counted among the classic texts of Christian unity–such as John 17, Ephesians 4, or 1 Corinthians 12–but I now think it should be. The church envisioned in the ecumenical movement is not an amalgamation of churches that maintain, however subtly, their old patterns of exclusion and discrimination. It is a new kind of community in which differences of nationality and ethnicity are not obstacles to the unity of God’s children. It is a new kind of community in which those we may have considered “lesser” or “other” turn out to be the real evangelizers whose experience of Jesus leads them to call him “savior.” It is a new kind of community, what Dr. King called the “beloved community,” in which those who have been excluded find a welcome.
This brings me, finally, back to India. My students there, such as Gnana, know intuitively that Christian unity is not simply a matter of Dalits and non-Dalits living side by side. They know it is a new community in which no one is outcast and all find a place at the table. Yes, in the short term, we give thanks that rich and poor, those at the center and those at the margins, exist together in the body of Christ. But the vision that compels us is of the day when no one, whether Samaritan or Dalit, sits in the rear and off to the side.
This is the gospel! Thanks be to God!
The Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon
Spehar-Halligan Visiting Professor of Ecumenical Collaboration in Interreligious Dialogue, School of Theology and Ministry, Seattle University