As John 4 opens up, Jesus leaves Judah in the south and heads north to Galilee. That’s not such a big deal except that to get there, he had to cross through the land occupied by the Samaritans. Way back several hundred years before, the Jews had a falling out over where the temple was to be located. Some wanted Jerusalem and some wanted Shechem. Jerusalem won out and Shechem eventually fell out of favor. For a few hundred years there was even a divided kingdom with a northern King in Shechem and a southern king of Israel in Jerusalem. Shechem finally fell and was absorbed by the local tribes who were a mixture of Jewish and non-Jewish, all living in the province known as Samaria. But remember this had once been land that the Jews had occupied. Way back in Genesis, Jacob had a well that he gave to his son, Joseph. Jacob built an altar near this well and called it El, El-Ohe-Israel, or God, the God of Israel. (Gen 33:19)
The Samaritans have a similar root with the Jews, but their Scriptures differ. For instance, they contend that Abraham sought to sacrifice Isaac on Mt. Gerazim in Shechem. The other faction held that Mt. Moriah, upon which Jerusalem was built was the site of the near-sacrifice. Bother the Samaritans and the Israelites built temples on their holy mountains.
At the time of Jesus’ ministry, the Samaritans and the Jews were not even friendly neighbors. They were enemies. It was verboten to have contact with them, for to do so would make a good upstanding Jew unclean. Actually, it was verboten to have contact with any foreigner for fear of ritual impurity. But the Samaritans were a special case. They occupied a land that had a conflicted memory for the Jewish people. Better to have no contact than to be persuaded or duped or manipulated by the enemy. Remember how Jesus spoke in Luke 10 about the Good Samaritan as an illustration for loving one’s enemies? Think of the countries that might be the enemies of the US, or at least perceived as such.
So Jesus goes in to Samaria at high noon. It’s hot and he’s thirsty. He sits down by a well. A woman approaches the well and Jesus speaks to her. This was unheard of, a good upstanding Jewish man speaking to an unaccompanied woman. What might the neighbors think? There had been no preconditions to the meeting. For all we know the Samaritan woman had not been fully vetted. But then he goes even farther and asks her to give him a drink. To drink out of a woman’s hand for whom you had not determined her menstrual cycle would make you ritually unclean. On top of that, to drink out of a foreigner’s hand let alone the same well is also highly irregular if not blasphemous. It seems so absurd, until we think of the segregated drinking fountains in the US a few generations back. Our history as a country is one in which we segregate ourselves by race, by class, by nationality, by language, by religion. We do this in part to make sense of a chaotic world—embracing the familiar. But then again, doing so blinds us to the lessons that we can learn from others. Candidates now talk of controlling our borders and we make quick judgments of people based upon superficial qualities like skin color or language. Just think of the raids at the meat-packing plants in southern Minnesota, Iowa and other places. Think about the anti-Arab fear-mongering that is ever-present in our post 9/11 world. Think of the prejudgments people make of Sarah Palin because she talks like a Minnesotan. Jesus’ discussion with the Samaritan woman at the well was a deeply political move. He was blurring the lines of country, culture, gender and religion. Perhaps he was imagining a world beyond borders.
John Lennon said, “Imagine there’s no countries. I wonder if you can. Nothing to kill or die for. A brotherhood of man. Imagine all the people, living life in peace.”
Think of what we do when we create borders. Borders are boundaries. They are places where we can feel safe. They are created to protect the interests of one country over another. To protect one territory and its resources. It’s created often in order to keep or establish peace. We establish laws on this side of the border and they are good laws—laws protecting the environment, civil rights, the desires of the populace. That’s all well and good. But there is a shadow side to the border issue.
Borders create barriers between people. They can create envy for what is on the other side. So we build up our borders or erect fences or punish wrongdoers so that we can feel safe again. And it works for a while. But in the end, the fear builds up to a point of collapse. We start being more concerned about keeping others out than we do about our own quality of life. We start to make up stories about outsiders. We start to suspect people of a different accent or a different skin color. We don’t do it intentionally or even consciously many times, but we do it just the same. We enact policies like preemption, attacking anyone who might threaten us. This makes us paranoid and I think sick as a people.
But is it realistic to Imagine a world without borders? Wouldn’t that be anarchy? Probably, and that would not be a good thing, especially when there are nuclear warheads in increasing countries.
Maybe a world beyond borders is not what we need to imagine. Maybe we need to rei-magine borders themselves. People on the other side of the border can give us a clearer sense of who we are. They can point out our blind spots, our narrow-mindedness. Our myopia. I made the mistake of calling my country American when I was in Nicaragua several years ago. My Nicaraguan friend said ever so gently, “You mean the US. I live in America, too—Central America.”
Maybe we are to imagine a world beyond racism. Maybe we are to imagine a world beyond assumptions about another because of their nationality. This past month, we have seen this city reel from the senseless killing of a young college student in the Seven Corners neighborhood. People wonder if it’s gang-related, if it has something to do with factions amongst the Somali community. And yet when anyone is taken out in the prime of their lives, we realize that regardless of our race or our language or our heritage, we ache for a world where there is an end to bloodshed.
Back at the well in Samaria, Jesus was still thirsty. As Jesus started talking about living water, the Samaritan woman said a startling thing in response: “Are you greater than our father Jacob who gave us this well and drank from it?” While thinking she was trying to understand Jesus’ metaphorical speaking, the Samaritan woman actually told of the common ancestry of the Jews and the Samaritans. It’s Jacob and Rachel and Leah and Bilhah and Zilpah. Jesus and he Samaritan woman were envisioning a world beyond borders. They were remembering their common ancestry. They were drinking deep from a well that was Jacobs and the Samaritans and the Canaanites and today the West Bank.
There is a common humanity that needs to be recognized and affirmed and even celebrated beyond borders. There’s a hymn that we often sing:O for a world where everyone respects each other’s ways,
Where love is lived and all is done with justice and with praise.
We welcome one world family and struggle with each choice
That opens us to unity and gives our vision voice.
O for a world preparing for God;s glorious reign of peace,
Where time and tears will be no more, and all but love will cease.”
(New Century Hymnal #575, words by Miriam Therese Winter)
Sisters and brothers, on this World Communion Sunday, in this election season, let us remember that we are all part of a common humanity. We have drunk from the same well, and if anyone is thirsty, it behooves us to give them drink, no matter who they are and no matter what they have done. This is the radical work of Jesus. It’s to imagine a world beyond borders where we recognize each other as part of a larger and blessed family of God. And that’s certainly a cause for celebration.