From Pastor Ray’s sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Sunday, March 26, 2017
Jews are better than Samaritans. Everybody knows it. Jews are God’s chosen people. Jews are pure. Samaritans are not. And there’s “proof” to back up the claim. (See 2 Kings 17:24ff for the proof summarized here.)
First, everybody knows that Samaritan’s Jewish blood was diluted due to intermarriage.
The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been defeated by the Assyrians Empire. Many of the people had been taken out of Israel and resettled in other places. And through an act of the King of Assyria, other non-Jewish groups were brought into Israel to ensure Assyrian domination. These people intermarried with the Israelites that remained in the land, giving birth to “mixed race” children who became known as Samaritans. Because of their mixed heritage, Samaritans were unclean—just one step above Gentile ‘dogs’.
Second, everybody knows Samaritan’s Jewish faith was polluted.
When The Assyrian empire resettled Israel, the new people brought their own religions with them. But due to a spiritual crisis in Israel, Assyria also sent Jewish priests back to teach the people how to worship the God of Israel. As a result, the Samaritans developed a hybrid religion that included elements of other religious practices. They worshipped God (and other gods) at a high place on Mt. Gerazim, not at the Temple in Jerusalem—the “right” place to worship. Because of their mixed religion, Samaritans were not true Jews—just one step above pagans.
Samaritans were diluted and polluted and therefore ought to be excluded. Pure Jews had nothing to do with impure Samaritans. The people God had chosen had nothing to do with the people God had rejected.
Over time, the names of the Empire changed. The Assyrians were defeated by the Babylonians. The Babylonians were defeated by the Greeks, the Greeks were defeated by the Romans. But hundreds of years later, Jews still had nothing to do with Samaritans. Jews didn’t go through Samaritan neighborhoods—unless they absolutely had no other choice. Jews didn’t associate with Samaritans. Jews hated Samaritans and would have been happy if God obliterated them from the planet.
And into this world of ethnic and religious division Jesus shows up. And Jesus can’t go around Samaria on his way to Galilee like every other Jew. No, he decides he “has to” go through Samaria. And then, he decides he has to take a pit stop in Sychar. And then, he decided to start a conversation with Samaritan—and a woman, no less. (See John 4:4ff)
From Jesus’ disciple’s point of view, this had to be the Road Trip From Hell! Every time Jesus makes a decision, it pushes them to interact with the almost pagan half-breeds they have been told ought to be avoided.
But Jesus is teaching his disciples—both his “then” disciples and his “now” disciples—that the old prejudices and the old divisions and the old exclusiveness and the old boundaries cannot be maintained in God’s new kingdom.
Jesus had to go through Samaria because God included Samaritans in the Kingdom of heaven! Wrap your head around THAT!
So, Jesus—who is on God’s Kingdom of heaven mission—crosses the lines and not just the territorial line of nationalism, but the cultural line of gender politics, engaging a woman, AND even the line of religious exclusivity. Not only is Jesus “nice” to Samaritans. Jesus breaks down all the barriers that separate them—even the religious walls. As the woman at the well reminds Jesus, the Jews say you can only worship God at the temple and Samaritans say God is to be worshipped at the high place. So, Jesus, what is the correct location? And Jesus’ answer is quite unexpected from a Jewish point of view: “The day is coming—and now is—when true worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth.” Jesus does away with the religious exclusiveness altogether! The correct answer is “neither!” Wrap your head around THAT!
Osvaldo Vena, professor of NT at Garrett Evangelical Seminary, (he’s an expert unlike me) says that John includes this story in his gospel for the benefit of his faith community that is struggling with the challenge of having Samaritans (both male and female) in their church. The lesson of John 4 legitimizes Samaritan inclusion as equal members in the body of Christ—fully equal so that even the women are to be included in the company of evangelists, teachers, and church leaders. Jesus’ action of crossing the ethnic, gender and religious boundaries shows us that the old boundaries cannot be maintained and should not be used as a criteria for keeping people out of the full fellowship of the church.
Sadly, the church has failed to learn and live out the lesson, choosing instead to maintain the old boundaries and old presumptions about the ‘other.’ White Europeans are more intelligent than Africans. And there’s “proof” to back up the claim! An American physician, Samuel George Morton, conducted studies of cranial capacity in the early 1800’s. He concluded that based on head circumference, Africans were mentally inferior to all other humans. His work legitimized white supremacy and justified the subservience and enslavement of Africans. Despite the fact that Morton’s research and his scientific method have been debunked, and despite that all subsequent studies have shown no correlation between cranial capacity and intelligence, the narrative of black mental incapacity persists—even to this day. Just 5 years ago, a study called The American National Election Study found that 44% of white respondents still believed that white people were more intelligent than black people. And you can find this belief present in every strata of white society including the church.
Sadly, the church needs to continue to learn the lesson of breaking down the boundaries of who is accepted within the circle of God’s new community. Like the Jews of Jesus’ day, we have been told stories about people that are so deeply embedded within us that we frequently aren’t aware of until we are confronted with a passage like John 4. We still maintain old stereotypes, old prejudices, old boundaries of exclusion based on presumptions about race (blacks aren’t as intelligent as whites), ethnicity (immigrants are criminals), gender (women are the ‘weaker’ sex), gender orientation (gays are perverted), youth of color (Latino kids in groups are gangs) and religion (Muslims are terrorists). We, like James and John, the Sons of Thunder, would prefer to maintain mistrust and disgust for the outsider/outcast and call down fire from heaven by drone to consume their villages, or incarcerate, or deport, or build walls. Jesus would show us a different way—the kingdom way that refuses to categorize people into “us” and “them”, “good” and “evil”, “right” and “wrong”, but instead creates a new “us” in relationship to himself.
Jesus is stranger, indeed. The question is, will we be stranger too?