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The History We Carry and The Sermon That Wasn't

Sermon Preached March 27, 2011
St. Mark's Episcopal Church - Evanston
Lent 3A - John 4:5-42
Jews and Samaritans do not get along. Both Luke’s gospel story of the Good Samaritan and today’s gospel reading, the story of the Samaritan Woman at the Well, make this quite clear. What is not necessarily clear on a first reading of these stories is that the animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans goes back centuries – in fact, the hostility goes back to at least the 8th century before Jesus’ birth. At that time, the Israelite people were divided into two kingdoms – a Northern Kingdom with Samaria as its “capitol” and a Southern Kingdom with Jerusalem as its “capitol.” But in 722 BCE, the Assyrian Empire sacked Samaria and took occupation of the Northern Kingdom.[1]

135 years later, in 587, the Babylonian Empire occupied the Southern Kingdom and sent the Israelites into exile. When Babylon itself fell to the Persian Empire, an edict proclaimed liberation to the Jewish exiles in 538 BCE. Their return to Jerusalem was slow at first, but their dedication and devotion to rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem and restoring their lives was a central focus. While the Jews in Jerusalem were beginning this reconstruction, the peoples still living in Samaria offered their assistance. But the Jews back in Jerusalem felt that the Samaritans’ faith had been so corrupted by living side by side with Assyrians for so long that they rejected their offer, fearful that the perceived corruption might spread among their own people. Bernhard Anderson, an Old Testament scholar writes,

“the [Samaritan] hand extended in friendship curled into a fist. . . [and] the Samaritans did everything in their power to stop the building of the Temple, which they regarded as a symbol of revived Jewish nationalism.”[2]
It would take more than two decades for the new Temple to be completed. Although synagogues would begin to emerge throughout the countryside in the post-exilic period, for Jews “there was no real substitute for the Temple.”[3] As the rift between the Samaritans and the Jews continued to grow, the Samaritans eventually built their own temple on Mount Gerizim. And it is here that our story of the conflict between the Jews and the Samaritans comes to a close as, in 128 BCE, John Hyrcanus, the Jewish leader at the time, destroyed the temple at Mount Gerizim.

The Samaritan woman at the well said to Jesus, “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”[4] And in this simple statement, more than 800 years of history is laid before two people who have never met before.

[NOTE: What follows is not what I preached; however, I promised to post the sermon that wasn't . . . so, here it is]:

You and I cannot hear the tone of voice used by the Samaritan woman so it is unclear whether her words are filled with contempt or bewilderment or just simple confusion. Why would a Jewish man be talking to a Samaritan – let alone a Samaritan woman - let alone asking for a drink of water from her water jar? Why would he offer her water after asking her for water? If he has water, he certainly doesn’t need her help. Whatever the Samaritan woman is feeling and experiencing as this encounter begins is based on assumptions and misconceptions that have lived on in her community and have been passed down through the generations about who the Jews are. And these assumptions and misconceptions keep her from hearing what Jesus is saying, keep her from seeing who Jesus is, and keep her from understanding what Jesus is promising. But the power of God in this story is the miraculous breaking down of these preconceived notions as, bit by bit, Jesus breaks through to her, breaks through her prejudice, to show her that he sees her for who she is and offers not judgment, but eternal life.

The Samaritan woman at the well says to Jesus, “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus replies, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. . . . But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”[5]

Bernhard Anderson writes, “From the earliest times Israel was bound together, not by human factors such as race, economics, or politics, but by its relationship to Yahweh, the God of the covenant community. Israel was not a nation . . . but a people.”[6] In his response to the woman at the well – and in his response to the disciples when they returned “astonished that he was speaking with a woman” – Jesus seems to be reminding them and us that the Who that we worship and the Relationship that we nurture is the core of our faith. The race, the economics, and the politics are all a part of what make us who we are (Jesus knew the woman at the well); but our worship, at its best, brings us together around a common God, the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of Moses and Miriam, the God who sent Jesus into the world to meet us at the well, the One who offers us living water and new life.

Earlier this month, nearly 200 delegates attended a church-wide consultation to reflect on the work of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music in response to a resolution of the 2009 General Convention. The Resolution called for “a renewed pastoral response” and “for an open process for the consideration of theological and liturgical resources for the blessing of same gender relationships.”[7] House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson told the deputies in attendance,

“We don’t agree on every single word and every single approach and on all of the theology. Some deputies didn’t agree on C056. They said so then and they say so now and that’s okay. Some of us did agree and we have moved together in a common rhythm. We have learned from each other and it reinforces the fact that we are the holy people of God brought together by God in holy and Christian community.”[8]
Prior to 1976, similar conversations were held about the ordination of women.

In 1967, approximately 50% of the black Episcopalian clergy signed a declaration which, in small part reads,

“We, who are priests of the Episcopal Church, are filled with anguish by an unrighteous and scandalous system that has been allowed to exist within the House of God . . . today, at all levels of the Church’s life – in neighborhood congregations, in diocesan committees and commissions, and in the organization of the national Church there can be seen a subtle and a well-nigh systematic exclusion of laity and clergy who are Negroes from the heart of the Church’s life.”[9]
Several events since then have signaled steps forward in the Church’s understanding of gender and race and the uses of power. These include the 1988 and 1991 General Convention resolutions on racism and accountability, the Pastoral Letter declaring racism a sin, and the election of Barbara Harris, the first woman and an African American to become bishop.

Who we worship and the Relationship that we nurture is the core of our faith. The race, gender, sexual orientation, economics, politics, and past injustices are, indeed, a part of what make us who we are; but our worship, at its best, brings us together around a common God, the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of Moses and Miriam, the God who sent Jesus into the world to meet us – as we are - at the well, the One who offers us living water and new life. That is the Spirit of God! And “those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”[10]

[1] 2 Kings 17:5-6a.
[2] Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, Fourth Edition. Prentice Hall, 1986. 517.
[3] Anderson, 520.

[4] John 4:20.
[5] John 4:21-24.
[6] Anderson, 209.
[7] Resolution C056. Liturgies for Blessings. As published online. Accessed 26 Mar 2011.
[8] Mary Frances Schjonberg, “Deputies Leave Historic Meeting Eager to Discuss Same-Gender Blessings with Wider Church,” Episcopal News Service. March 21, 2011. Accessed online 26 Mar. 2011.
[9] From “General Convention Special Program” available online, accessed on 26 Mar. 2011.
[10] John 4:24.


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