Togetherness and Difference
A Homily for the Class of 2017
Justin C. Maaia
John 4:5-15, 19-26, 40-42:
So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers 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.’ The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’
Good evening everyone! Please sit as you are able.
It is an honor and a pleasure to have this opportunity today. I get to take this ancient, sacred text and relate it to this wonderful, and also sacred, trailblazing Class of 2017. I promise you I am going to do that. But first, I think there is some translating to do. If you would bear with me, I want to walk you through my first few attempts to re-translate the opening lines of this story, to bring it up to date to our time and place:
1. First attempt: “A Yankees fan came into the local juice bar for a drink, and Jesus, donning his well-worn Red Sox cap, said to her, ‘Buy me a Smoothie, will ya?’”
2. Or: “Jesus, fresh from the NRA annual meeting, happened upon a delegate from the Democratic National Convention. He asked her for a sip from her Nalgene bottle…”
3. Or how about this one: “Jesus, an Israeli Jew, met a Palestinian woman at a grocery store near the Green Line in the West Bank. “Hey, could I trouble you for a drink?” he asked.
4. And one more: “A member of the rebel alliance came to Alderaan to refuel her ship. While there she was accosted by an ex-Storm Trooper named Jesus, who asked her to help him rescue his friend Po Dameron…”
Jesus is always surprising us with new ways to be in relationship, relationship with God and relationship with each other. We see that here with this interaction between Jesus, a Jewish man from Nazareth, and this person who is supposed to be radically other, a nameless Samaritan woman from Sychar.
Back in the First Century, the Jewish and Samaritan people were closely related, but diametrically opposed, groups. The Samaritans were descended from a group of Israelites in the northern part of the Kingdom of Israel who were left there while the Israelites in the south were conquered and exiled by the Babylonians. A hundred or so years later, the Persians defeated Babylon and allowed the exiles to return.
However, by that time, the two groups had diverged. The Israelites who had been exiled now called themselves “Jews” because they were mostly made up of people from the tribe of Judah. They claimed to be the true Israelites. They had endured the exile, and they had preserved the Torah, and they were the heirs of King David, who came from the southern city of Jerusalem. A group of northern Israelites, now called Samaritans, claimed that they were the more authentic Israelites, that they had remained on the land and had preserved a more original scripture, and that the Jewish people had been tainted by the influences of Babylon and Persia during their exile.
So, back in the First Century, a reference to a Jewish person and a Samaritan person would have evoked the kind of image we have of any two groups who are closely related but fight like cats and dogs. Brothers and sisters, Red Sox and Yankees, Pepsi drinkers and Coke drinkers, Vampires and Werewolves, Star Trek fans and Star Wars fans, DC comics vs. Marvel, the Washington and Dallas football teams, your high school teams and your rival high school’s teams, Democrats and Republicans, Israeli’s and Palestinian’s – have I succeeded in ruffling all of our feathers yet?
To most of us, it seems abhorrent to lump these supposedly binary opposites together. Similarly, Jewish persons and Samaritan persons would have seen each other as radically other, while to any outsider they would have appeared as close as can be. So why the division? Doesn’t this seem a bit silly? And yet, isn’t this what we ALL do, ALL THE TIME?
Think about the Protestants and Catholics in Britain and Ireland who have killed each other over the centuries. Not only are Protestants and Catholics both Christians of course, but in England and Ireland of all places, not only are these two groups both Christian, but they are both so similarly Christian. The Anglican church and the Catholic Church are barely distinguishable to an outsider. Even to an insider! How many Catholics have I met making a pilgrimage to this very Washington National (Protestant) Cathedral! My own catholic middle school was one of them.
And what about our political divisions. Liberals and Conservatives here fight like cats and dogs. And yet they both believe in first generation rights, in rights to life, liberty, and property, in democracy, in capitalism as the best economic system, in the individual as the basic political unit of humanity. They will have you believe they are as different as night and day. But if you plot American conservatives and liberals on the world spectrum of political philosophy, they are about as different as night and later that night.
And finally, since I have already opened a Pandora’s box, let’s look at men and women: Biologists, geneticists, neuroscientists will tell you we are over 99% the same. In fact, we share 50% of our DNA with bananas, 70% with slugs, and 98% with chimps! So male and female human beings are pretty darn close to one another, far less than 1% different. And yet, how much do we accentuate that 1%? We have created an entire set of social structures to accentuate this difference – clothing, hair styles, films, books, toys. Even schools, like this lauded all-girls institution.
In our story, Jesus cuts through all of these artificial differences. Jesus wants to show us what is really real. He doesn’t want to eliminate differences, mind you. He doesn’t try and get the Jews to be Samaritans or the Samaritans to be Jews. All of these superficial differences can remain, as long as we worship “in spirit and truth.” As long as we can keep ourselves centered in spirit and truth, the differences don’t matter anymore. Differences can and should still exist, but they don’t have to divide us. We can be in a relationship. Indeed, a relationship requires both of these things. Relationship requires difference and it requires togetherness. That is one of the messages this passage is revealing to us.
But I want to go against this message for a moment, so that we can think about another way this story might be relevant to us here today, as we celebrate the class of 2017. I want to accentuate the difference between men and women for a moment. And please know that I am using these terms fluidly, and in the sense in which we all have both manly and womanly aspects to us.
Let’s look at this story in the context of some of the other stories about Jesus that you may have heard here over the years. I am thankful to a friend of mine, Reverend James Lumsden, for pointing this out to me. Some of you may remember when Jesus met John the Baptist. John told one person, Andrew. And Andrew, he met Jesus and he went home and told his brother Peter—one person. And then there was Philip. Philip went home and also told one person. He brought Nathaniel into the mix. In all of these stories, the men who become the apostles, Jesus’ closest students, they all go off and tell one friend. Pretty good, right? But something special happened in the story we heard today. Jesus met a woman – a Samaritan woman no less—and what does she do? Does she go and tell some one about Jesus? NO! She goes and tells the whole village about him. And she brings Jesus to her village and, after a couple of days, her fellow Samaritans say to her “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.”
This story of a woman spreading the Good News to a whole village, this image is what gives me hope as you graduate in a couple of short days. I have seen the class of 2017 change NCS in immeasurable and invaluable ways. Particularly, you have instigated a change in the discourse we have about important issues here, both within the school and with our brother school. And there are countless ways you have influenced NCS, both big and small, individually and communally. I think you have found a lot of good news during these last four, six, or nine years here at NCS, and I know that you will all go out into the world and spread that good news to the whole village. Because like both Jesus and that nameless Samaritan woman at the well that day, you are trailblazers. Amen.