As many of you know, most mornings I walk on the beach at sunrise and for decades now, I begin my day with prayer and meditation and then continue my reflections as I go for a walk, whether I am the beach, a big city, or the wilderness.
One summer, Kate, Matt, and I took a road trip through the southwest, feasting our eyes on the wild and sparsely populated wilderness, experiencing the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, and the stark beauty of the desert. One morning, we were visiting the “little grand canyon,” Canyon de Chelly, in Northern Arizona. I got up and took my walk as the sun rose and then noticed something – I was the only white person around and with blond hair and red beard, I couldn’t hide it. Most of my life, I had been in situations where my race was the majority, but not this morning…. and I felt a little awkward and on the defensive.
Have you ever been a stranger in a strange land? Have you ever found yourself in a place where your experience, education, and ethnicity or gender was the exception? Where you stood out as a minority? I know that I have had to adjust to my minority status as I tried to navigate the streets of Paris or preach at an African American church. Of course, I’ve had the privilege, given my race and gender, to be in the majority in most settings – and have to imagine how it felt for my wife to be the only woman minister in a group of 40 males or how some of my African American or Latino friends feel when they break the color bar in some professional settings or when they’re stopped on the road by a local constable.
Those of us who are in the majority need to imagine what it felt like to the African American women working at NASA, described in the film “Hidden Figures,” not only black in a white workplace but women in a man’s field, and in one case, regularly having to race across the campus to the colored women’s restroom.
In today’s scripture, Jesus is a stranger in a strange land as he walks through Samaria. While he may not be at risk physically, he is outside his comfort zone and ethnic community, and has found himself to be a minority in need of the help from a person of the other gender and the Samaritan majority community.
These days, there are tensions between the United States and Mexico over immigration. Such tensions were much worse between Jews and Samaritans despite the fact that they shared a common religion, common ancestors, and a common genetic heritage. Faithful Jews looked down on Samaritans as inferiors: they were descendants of the Northern Kingdom, which had split from Judea after King Solomon’s death in the 10th century before Jesus; during the Babylonian exile of the Southern Kingdom, many of them had intermarried with the indigenous Canaanites; and moreover despite the fact they were of the same religion and ethnic lineage, the Samaritans accepted the first five books of the bible as authoritative and not Psalms, Proverbs, the prophets, and wisdom books.
Most Jews looked down on Samaritans as inferior racially and spiritually, and Samaritans returned the favor. That’s the reason Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan was so radical to his first listeners – to most Jews of Jesus’ time, a Good Samaritan was a contradiction in terms.
Jesus didn’t belong in this Samaritan neighborhood and what is worse, he encounters a Samaritan woman and asks her for some water. Even drinking it would contaminate him spiritually. Now, on the other side, the unnamed Samaritan woman’s neighbors had their own problems – a woman consorting with a man from outside her family, a Samaritan helping a Jew, and what’s worse, this woman has had several husbands – and even if they’d all died of natural causes – there was in their way of thinking something wrong with her ethically, as evidenced with her current relational situation – living with man outside of wedlock. They sure had something to talk about!
But, Jesus and the woman do something amazing – they break down barriers. Jesus treats a Samaritan as an equal; a Rabbi treats a woman as intellectual companion; God’s chosen one welcomes a person of dubious morals and inferior ethnic status.
My youngest grandson James said something a few weeks ago that astounded me in its insight: without any prompting, he asserted in relation to extraterrestrials, “to the aliens we are aliens.” In other words, put in our earthly context, those people whom we judge also judge us, those whom we believe to be strange see us as strange in our lifestyle and habits, what we assume as normal may be viewed as impolite or unusual in another cultural or ethnic setting.
The encounter of Jesus and the Samaritan woman breaks down the walls we erect between ourselves and others. This woman is an “other” – she can be judged, objectified, and humiliated and it doesn’t matter. But, to Jesus, there are no “others” – all the walls his culture and ours erect are of no consequence in God’s realm of Shalom –
Young and old, Jews and Samaritans
Healthy and sick, White collar and blue color
Black and white, Native and immigrant
Homeless and comfortable, Addict and clean and sober
Sinner and righteous, Saved and unsaved.
These standings have consequences of course in our social interactions and legal system, but they are not the basis of judgment, condescension, or ostracism.
For Jesus, we are all in this together. In Jesus, we all belong. All the nuisances and nobodies, the strangers, the folks whose presence makes us uncomfortable, have a place at the table.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta, next month’s Mystic of the Month, was criticized as a Christian for ministering to the dying untouchables – after all, they’re Hindus, and they’ll be dead soon – why waste your time on them? To which she replied, they are Christ in all his distressing disguises and I want to give them a little heaven on earth.
Jesus reminds us that our greatest service to God may be outside the walls of our church. What happens in worship inspires us to break down barriers between ourselves and others the rest of the week. We don’t need to stay in our silos, but we can find – depending on our life situation – ways to reach out to strangers, whether it be the Muslim woman filling her gas tank on the corner of 28 and Old Stage or buying groceries in Star Market, the homeless person you encounter as you go into Alberto’s, the cleaning person at your hotel room, who may very well be an undocumented – or as some say, illegal – alien. We can realize that despite all the divisions our culture places between us, we are all God’s beloved children and deserve respect and affirmation, even as we recognize the laws of our land.
To Jesus, there is no other. We are all in it together. We are all Christ in his distressing – and beautiful disguises – we are all at times nuisances and nobodies – and the good news is that God still loves us, the good news is that we can reach out to one another, the good news is that we can see Christ and then be Christ to each other, creating a little heaven here on earth.