The Gospel Lesson of John 4:5-42 presents to us Jesus leaving his homeland and entering a Samaritan village where He engages in a theological conversation with people whom the Jews considered religious enemies.
The Gospel lesson of the Samaritan woman touches upon a topic that has plagued Christians from the very onset of the faith. How can one bring together diverse peoples who are not just strangers but rather are even enemies one of another and unite them into one church? The New Testament shows us how difficult it was for the first Christians – all of them Jews – to reach out to Gentiles and to include them in the table fellowship. The Jews had many prohibitions about eating with Gentiles. Their religion as practiced called them to be different and separate from all the other peoples around them. It was virtually the basis for their entire spiritual discipline to keep themselves separated from the non-Jews in order to keep themselves pure.
It was a difficult transition for Jews to believe it was good and right to welcome Gentiles as family at the same table. We see in the epistles of St. Paul him wrestling with these issues. And in Acts 15, we see the Apostles struggling with whether converts to Christianity had first to become Jews following Jewish dietary laws, circumcision and other Jewish practices in order to become Christians. The Apostles decided that becoming a Jew was not the prerequisite for believing in the Messiah. So Christianity morphed from a Jewish religion into being a form of Judaism that welcomed Gentiles into the faith. The dividing walls between races were brought down.
The pattern has continued to repeat itself through time, so that as Greek speaking Gentiles began to dominate the Church, then the Christians again had to wrestle with whether it was required to become a Greek in order to be a Christian. Converts!
The Samaritan Woman, Photini is her name in tradition, places before Jesus exactly what separates Samaritans and Jews:
“Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.”
Let’s talk about what separates us. Who is right? For we have nothing to talk about until we know who is right on this essential issue which has separated our peoples for centuries.
Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Jesus takes a Judeocentric viewpoint in that debate but then changes the terms of the debate. It is not a matter of worshipping God in only one place or the other. It is not a matter of geophysical location. The issue is worshipping “in spirit and truth.” That which has divided Jews and Samaritans theologically and made it impossible for these people to get along or worship together is irrelevant. True, spiritual worship is not a matter of place but of spirit and truth. The Messiah, Lord of the Sabbath, declares other religious ritual to be for humans and to serve our religious needs. We are not meant to serve the Law, but the Law was meant to serve our religious growth.
When the disciples return to Jesus and see Him speaking with the Samaritan woman, they are obviously uncomfortable with what Jesus is doing. Social barriers are being crossed, religious differences are being ignored. Suddenly a multitude of Samaritans are coming to see Jesus. The disciples were probably pretty quickly overwhelmed by the events and their understanding of Christ.
From the time of the Apostles, Christianity has struggled with incorporating new peoples into the church. The same goes on in our parishes today. New people enter the church with diverse perspectives, and parishes struggle with how to maintain the unity of the faith. How do we bring together people who are rivals or even enemies? In America, civil culture wars enter into the church threatening to divide people whose common unity is Christ. Liberals and conservatives find it hard to agree on anything, but in the Church, Jesus Christ is Lord and Christians have to figure out how to love one another. How do we welcome strangers into our communities? How do we bring the Gospel to people who do not believe God has any interest in them or worse that God could love them? How do we overcome in Christ that which divides us so that we can serve God?
Christ in reaching out to the Samaritan woman and her townspeople, modeled a way. We have to know what is universal in the Christian message. We have to know what it means to love others as Christ loves us. And we have to believe the oneness Jesus envision in John 17 for the Church is not an impossible ideal but rather fundamental to the Body of Christ. So essential that we each have to deny ourselves and take up the cross in order to follow Christ.