Sunday, March 5, 2023

Who Is God when We Don't Share Things in Common?

Who Is God when We Don't Share Things in Common?

Psalm 95; John 4:5-42 
March 18/19, 2017 
St. Mark Presbyterian Church 
D. Mark Davis  
I am traveling this week and unable to post my typical translations. Instead, here's a sermon I offered six years ago that might be of interest. 


In James McBride’s memoir, he tells a difficult tale of his mother, a Jewish woman who was abused by her father, impregnated by her black boyfriend, and ostracized, fleeing life in Suffolk, Virginia for life in Harlem. She ultimately marries a black man and together they have eight children. After his death she remarries and has four more children. So, James McBride’s memoir is filled with reflections of a man who lives as a black jazz musician, but whose mother was this heroic, strong white woman, disowned and twice-widowed, who ensured that all twelve of her children went to college. When Ruth Shilsky married Dennis McBride in 1942, it was quite a scandal that would not have been tolerated in most parts of the US. In fact, during the civil rights and Black Power movements, most of James McBride’s siblings did not identify themselves as bi-racial, but only as African Americans. 


Ruth Shilsky had to leave Suffolk, VA when she was pregnant with a black man’s child because everyone knew that blacks and whites did not share such things in common. 


That’s the tension that the narrator names at the heart of our story from John’s gospel: Jews don’t share things in common with Samaritans.


From the Jews’ perspective, the Samaritans get history all wrong by telling the right stories from the wrong perspective. They get geography all wrong by honoring the mountain of the well of Jacob instead of the mountain of the holy city. They get religion all wrong by clinging to the false temple that lay in destruction right there on that very mountain called Gerizim, which the Samaritan woman still thinks makes that mountain holy. They get their ancestry all wrong because they were essentially foreigners, brought in by the Assyrians centuries ago, when many of the Israelites were exiled. They interbred with the remnants and now think they are purebloods. This whole scenario played out dramatically in the fourth chapter of Ezra, when Samaritan leaders came to the leader of the Jews and offered to help build the second temple, which Cyrus had authorized the Jews to build. They came, claiming to be of one blood and one faith, claiming to have interest in worshipping and cohabitating together, but the Jews said, “No way.” In fact, along the way one of the Scribes of that story changed the wording of the Samaritans from “we do sacrifice to God” to “we do not sacrifice to God.” The Jews’ refusal of the Samaritan’s help became the basis for excluding others from temple worship for centuries to follow. 


So, while Jesus is thirsty and she has a bucket, here’s the problem: Jews don’t share things in common with Samaritans. 


And here’s the other problem: Jews share everything in common with Samaritans. 


Their geographies – as different as they liked to name them – were common stories of being dislocated and relocated by Empires and Regimes over the centuries. 

Their histories – as differently as they liked to remember them – were common stories of trading independence for survival, and identity for accommodation.  

Their religious sites – as differently as they thought they made them – now there’s a story to be told. During that brief period of time when the Jews had thrown off one Empire and had not yet been taken over by the next Empire, the high priest John Hyrcanus had destroyed the Samaritan’s temple. It all took place about 120 years before the birth of Jesus. Surely a temple lying in ruins means that their religion is wrong, yes? 


Obviously, the temple in Jerusalem, one of the great wonders of the world during the time of this story, was the place where God’s presence was most highly concentrated on earth. But, when you dig a little deeper, the glorious temple in Jerusalem was not the temple that King Solomon built during the monarchy or the Second Temple that Ezra and Nehemiah built after the exile. It was a temple mostly built by King Herod, a Roman tool. And most importantly, by the time this story in John’s gospel was written, the temple had been destroyed by the Romans. What the Jews and the Samaritans held in common was that both temples on both mountains lay in ruins. 


So, on the one hand, Jews do not share anything in common with Samaritans, and on the other hand, Jews share everything in common with Samaritans. How does that work? Its is an important question, because it lies at the heart of so many of the tensions we face today on how to live with globalism, how to get along with racial differences, how to communicate among genders, how to think about new arrangements of marriage, and particularly how to honor cultural diversity and still maintain a respect for human rights and dignity in an age of globalism. The tension between the differences and the sameness of Jesus and this woman at the well is not just an apt question for our day, it is the question of our day when we aim to be a people respectful of diversity and committed to inclusion. 


Let’s look at this challenge in two different respects. First, with regard to simple human existence: It is true that the Samaritans draw water from a well that has peculiar significance to them, from “Jacob’s well,” the location and history of which defines them as a part of the covenantal community alongside of Jews. It means everything to them for the very same reasons why it cannot mean the same to the Jews. Whether this is “Jacob’s well,” and whether that means that they are participating in the covenant whenever they draw from that well is not a matter on which Jesus and this woman will agree. But, one thing that binds them together, even with their differing historical and political geographies is this: They both need water. And, in the end, what they need in common is far greater than how they differ. 


The other way we can look at it is this: Jesus and this woman will never agree on which mountain is the sacred mountain. She lays out the problem clearly: Our people say Mount Gerazim is the sacred site for worshipping God; your people say the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem is the sacred site for worshipping God; which is it? And, frankly, Jesus gives a B- answer before getting to the A+ answer. He initially answers as a proud Jew, speaking out of his cultural particularity: “You worship what you don’t know; we worship what we do know because salvation comes from the Jews.” But, then Jesus gets to the heart of the matter: “The day is coming – even now it is here – when those who worship God will worship in spirit and in truth.” When we look at the fullest and deepest expression of God – what the theologian Paul Tillich called “the God beyond God” – we begin to see that behind every religiously and culturally specific God there is the God beyond all particularity. Beyond all of our theologies about God is the God who is ultimately unknowable. Behind all of our words about God is the God who cannot be named. 


We need our categories about God – all of the particular ways that we label God are less about who God is than what we need to think about who God is. We need our limited concepts in order to name who we are in relation to God. We need our histories in order to have some sense of our identity. We need our culturally specific ways of speaking about justice and naming truth. While those differences often divide us, they also define us. We really need them in order to be fully human. And yet, beyond those differences are the commonalities that mark us as a global family. So we’re left with a mixed bag of inescapable difference and inescapable sameness. 


So, James McBride tells the story of his mother Ruth, a white Jewish woman who was married to two different black men and bore twelve babies who identified as either bi-racial or black. When he pressed her to identify herself she refused to take on either the label of black or white, saying simply, “I’m human.” And when her son asked her once what color God is, she faced the question that we all face when we have the need to create God in our image in order to know what it means to be created in God’s image. Her answer was perfect: God is the color of water. That is, in fact, the name of McBride’s memoir: The Color of Water.


Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans. And Jews share everything in common with Samaritans. The time is coming, indeed it is here even now, when those who worship God will worship God in spirit and in truth. May God give us the capacity to live in honor of the God who is the color of water. 


  1. Sometime it would be quite nice to have your translation of this passage. But I have found an interesting contribution to our understanding of the story:

  2. Although I love your translations and commentary, this was a very useful post. In our discussion, my Bible study group came to 2 realizations about this passage:

    For one thing, this discussion with the Woman at the Well is one of two that Jesus had with unnamed women which apparently changed his thinking about his mission. The other one was in Mark 7:25-29, in which the woman convinced him that saving non-Judeans would not diminish his work for the Judeans. In each of these cases, Jesus reacted, as you said, as a Jew, but then realized that his true calling was wider.

    The other thing is about Jesus' turning down an offer of food after his conversation with the woman - I think he felt the intellectual thrill of his expanding consciousness as an epiphany, and it energized him although he had been very tired before it.

    Our discussions often revolve around what knowledge the human Jesus had, as opposed to the knowledge he had as God. We have kind of a working theory that all the knowledge of God doesn't fit in a human brain, so that in many ways, Jesus often had human perceptions of his purpose. When he realized that what the Woman at the Well said was true, he had a moment of recognition of what he had been sent for.


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