By Jason Burns
According to Osvaldo Venu, professor of New Testament Theology, Jesus teaches us a hard lesson in today’s gospel, which is that “community can only be built when we are not afraid of overcoming old prejudices.”
As a Jewish man, Jesus has a superior social advantage when he encounters the Samarian woman at the well. Firstly, because he is a man and secondly because he is Jewish. Jews of the first century were very elitist, and for them society was broken into two categories, those who were chosen as God’s people and those that were not. Upon arriving in Sychar Jesus and his disciples are technically outsiders, although because of their tradition the disciples act like they own the place and are prepared to look down on anyone who is not like them, we should not condemn them for this, nor should we feel sorry for them because their behavior was simply a product of their tradition and is therefore changeable. The Samaritan woman looks surprised when Jesus asks her for a drink because she would never expect a Jew to acknowledge her existence, let alone ask her for something.
Through his willingness to put aside his institutional prejudices Jesus is opening God’s love to a non-Jewish audience and he is doing it from a place of vulnerability. He becomes vulnerable by indicating that he needs help to get a drink, putting the Samaritan woman in the position of power. During their conversation, Jesus indicates that while he needs her assistance to get the water from the well, the well water will only quench his thirst for a short time and that he can provide a living water that will leave no one thirsty. So in the end, the thirsty messiah and a resourceful woman, who gave into the drive of the holy spirit within her, find that they need one another in order to grow, not only as people, but as a community.
Community is built when barriers are pushed and even eliminated. In today's gospel Jesus breaks down the 1st century barriers of gender and race by bringing a non-Jewish woman into the fold. The disciples are appalled at this. They are appalled because for them, Jesus is the promised messiah of the Jewish people; they don't understand that Jesus was sent for all. One of the reasons it is difficult for the disciples to understand this is because it is through their ethnicity and faith that they relate to Jesus. From their perspective, the messiah was sent to aid and protect Jews, not the Samaritans. They would prefer that their community of believers continue to be a club for Jews only. Jesus, however, won't have it and sets out to break down all barriers between God and his creation.
Barriers, whether physical or abstract, are a very real phenomenon in human life. In some cases, they can even be good. It is important, at times, to set limits in order to protect ourselves from burn out and at times even from one another; but it is also important to recognize that barriers can create a sense of exclusivity that is contrary to the teachings of Christ. Jesus refused to reserve his good news for the Jewish community alone, which is clearly what his followers would have preferred. The disciples, at least early in their ministry with Jesus, attempted to keep Jesus to themselves, they were not interested in sharing their God and their messiah with anyone who didn't share their values and traditions; but Jesus, time and time again set them straight, sometimes gently and sometimes not so gently. The point is that Jesus was clear that we are supposed to build a community with one another, and that in order to do so we need to focus on God and not on the artificial barriers we construct which lead to prejudice and exclusiveness. Many of the Jews of the first century were more concerned with following the law and who to include in their ranks, as opposed to paying attention to their long awaited Messiah; in fact they were so focused many of them didn't even recognize the messiah when they were speaking to him.
Over the centuries, Christians have created many barriers that have led to exclusion and prejudice and that have ultimately resulted in a breakdown of community. In some cases this has been intentional and in many cases not.
The most common form of Christian community is the parish, which is a human construct designed to bring order to the chaos of our human condition. Parish communities are important, they provide a strong sense of belonging and comfort for their members, but there is a danger in that. There is a danger that our love for God, which presumably brought us to become a part of a parish, will be transferred to the building and the institution it represents, this love of building and the institution is a barrier to growth as a community because it often leads to exclusivity and a resistance to anything that may threaten the building, the institution and the way a particular parish has always done things. If a community of faith wants to grow, if it wants to survive, then it has to abandon its’ prejudices; it has to abandon the idea that the way it has always been done is best; it has to abandon its’ love of its building; it has to abandon its’ love of the things in the building and it needs to abandon the idea that it is somehow superior to other communities of faith, because the truth is that it isn't. Every community of faith, no matter how large its’ building is, no matter how long it has existed, no matter how large its congregation on Sunday is, is equal in the eyes of God. God did not create buildings and institutions, we did. God created us to be in community with both each other and more importantly with him and as hard as it might be let go of our prejudice towards change and our own sense of superiority and power, we have to let it go. We have to accept the grace of God, put our trust in him and open our doors and ourselves to his will.
A little over 4 years ago I and my wife chose to move our family from St. Andrews to St. James. This was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made in my life. My last Sunday there was the annual meeting in 2013 and after the meeting I went up to the sanctuary for a quiet moment alone and as I sat there, watching the sun stream in through the window that was given in honor of my great grandmother, framed by the wall sconces given in honor of my grandparents, I cried. I cried because I was saying goodbye to a place I love, I was saying goodbye to the things that represented 30 years of memories, I was saying goodbye to family and friends, and I was saying goodbye to a thing that was and is a intricate part of who I am. Now the St. Andrews I knew and love is going away and so is the St. James that I have grown to love, but that is okay, because it is when we are vulnerable that we are truly ready to open ourselves to spiritual growth as a community. As the congregations of St. Andrews and St. James merge over the next few months it is vitally important that we stay focused on where God is leading us as people of faith. Our combined concerns about which vestment will get used, which furniture we will keep, how the leadership team will be structured, how much the endowment might grow are all human concerns based on our own egos and prejudices.
Jesus, in order to reach all of Gods people, set aside the prejudices he grew up with and engaged with the woman from Samaria, he then began to push the disciples to do the same; and because he did that, Jesus was able to break through the barriers in his life and pave the way for the transforming power of the Holy Spirit to do its work in the world through us, but in order for that to happen we have to let go. As sad as I am about the closing of the building known as St. Andrews, I find hope and solace in the fact that the path before us, as the new congregation of Saints James and Andrew, has been blessed by the grace of God, that our time of sadness and frustration will subside through the grace of God and we will be able to move forward as a new community of faith, rooted in scripture and our shared love for God, love for one another and love for the new traditions we will build together as a place we can grow. AMEN
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