Samaritans

A Spring of Water gushing up to Eternal Life

A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 19, 2017

St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California

“The water that I will give them will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

Today’s Gospel is long, because it’s a great story and there really isn’t any way to break it up. There’s so much fascinating detail that we could look at and discuss for a very long time, but we are going to focus on the path of preparation for baptism as the ancient lectionary takes us through Lent.

The woman in this story was a Samaritan and it was a Samaritan village. The Samaritans were not Jews, though they shared the first five books of the Bible with them. To an outsider, they might look quite similar, but the bitterness between the two groups at that time would make the current feelings in our country look mild by comparison. Of course, we tend to hear that term as “Good Samaritan,” but when Jesus told that other story involving a Samaritan, the effect was similar in his context to what it would be in some quarters in this country if he had described the “Good Radical Islamic Terrorist.” The woman was a Samaritan, and each thing she said to Jesus was an essential part of the outline of Samaritan theology and belief. What I notice is that she uses her theological arguments to keep from engaging with Jesus, or facing the truth.

Just as in last week’s lesson, there is a comic misunderstanding.  One of my professors once remarked that the woman thought Jesus was a plumber.  The Greek phrase that we translate as “living water” means running water, like a stream, or a spring, or an aqueduct. “Give me this water, so I don’t have to pull jugs out of the well anymore!” But the Living Water that Jesus was talking about was refreshment from God that takes us out of all of our defensive arguments and crafty evasions.  Life in humble freedom, not in winning arguments. When Jesus shows that he sees through her evasions, she says, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.” And then she again dives into the theological argument, advancing the Samaritan view of what the great prophet Moses, had taught them. Then Jesus says it directly: “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” We learn here that it is not subtle or forceful arguments that connect us to God, but living in truthfulness.  And it is not having the right prescribed formulas or activities, but living in the compassion of God.

The woman is still debating with Jesus about the nature of the messiah, when the disciples return. We should note that they misunderstood Jesus in just the same way that the woman had. She had misunderstood about the Living Water and when Jesus told them, “I have food that you do not know about,” they were looking around for a secret picnic basket.  Though they had been with him, they still did not understand; they were still confused. So he said it again, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” Our food and drink are the love of God and flourishing in his Spirit.  As Jesus explains that “one sows and another reaps,” and that “others have labored and you have entered into their labor” the woman returns from the village with a bunch of other Samaritans. She has heard Jesus, she has understood, and she has shared his word with others. In this case, it happens that those others were exactly the last people in the world that Jesus’ disciples were expecting; least of all expecting to become one with themselves.

The woman was indeed the apostle to the Samaritans. What she shared with them was what she understood, “he told me everything I have ever done.”  In other words, Jesus knew her, and she knew and understood that she was known.  She was converted to truth.  She had been thinking of the hard work of drawing and lugging water and she had the fantasy of running water. But Jesus gave her the transformation of Living Water, the water of baptism, of dying and rising with Christ, of being sustained and refreshed by God’s spirit, of swimming in that water without fear of drowning or worry about going thirsty.  She told her fellow villagers the truth that she knew, but they learned the truth from Jesus—they asked him to stay for two days, to share with them the Living Water and the Food of Eternal life.

Living the Christian life and preparing for baptism are not things that we do individually, by reading books or gazing at our computers. We learn Christian life in community, we prepare for participation in the death and resurrection of Christ by learning to be generous and courageous by living with others who are also learning courage and generosity. “Then 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 Savior of the world.’”

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen

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Go and do likewise

A sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 10, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?

Two Sundays ago, our lectionary Gospel readings set out with Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem. Today’s lesson directly continues in the Gospel according to St. Luke. The journey started in Jesus’ home district of Galilee, in the far north of Palestine to Jerusalem, in the southern part of Palestine. A large part of the journey is through the district of Samaria. That roughly overlaps where the northern Kingdom of Israel was before the Assyrians overran it and then the Babylonians invaded and took many from the southern Kingdom of Judah into exile. In that district of Samaria was a large number of towns populated by Samaritans. The Samaritans regarded themselves as the true followers of Moses—they observed the laws of the Five Books of Moses and offered sacrifices on Mt. Gerizim, which they believed was the place that God had appointed, not Jerusalem. The Jews, including those who were the majority in Galilee as well as those from Judea, regarded the temple in Jerusalem as The Holy Place. The Jews believed that the Samaritans had intermarried with idolaters, that their worship was polluted, and that they were generally a people not to be trusted. These two groups did not have an amicable relationship. In fact, they got along better with the gentiles with whom they shared no common traditions, than they did with each other.

When Jesus began his journey to Jerusalem, he sent messengers out and a Samaritan town rejected them. Jesus’ disciples, the brothers James and John, whose nickname was the “Sons of Thunder” came to Jesus and suggested that they should call for God to rain down fire on that village. That epitomized the relationship of the Jews and the Samaritans.

In our reading today, a lawyer stands up, and in this case, he’s a man trained in the interpretation of Jewish law. It’s clear from the way the text is written that his questions are meant to test Jesus and put him in a difficult place, to make him say things that would not be popular with the crowds.  So when he asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he’s not looking for an answer, but a debate.   Jesus agrees with him, “Do this and you will live.” There is no difference in the essential core of the spiritual life and the Jewish law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

But now the lawyer wants to pin Jesus down, “And who is my neighbor?”

He was looking for Jesus to draw for him the boundaries of the righteous and the unrighteous.

When Jesus tells the story, he doesn’t give guidance on how to decide who your neighbor is.  Do you see that? He doesn’t give a narrow or a broad definition. He doesn’t say one group is neighbors and another is not. He doesn’t say that some might become neighbors in such and such a way.  He doesn’t say, you’ll know they are neighbors by their love of you. He does not even say that everyone is your neighbor.

Jesus tells a story about how to BE a neighbor. Not to figure out who to treat like a neighbor, just how to be one. And in this situation, at this time, Jesus chose to tell this Jewish lawyer about a Samaritan who behaved like a neighbor. The man who was beaten by robbers was clearly Jewish, like Jesus and the lawyer, and the two other characters in the story were clergy—a priest and a Levite. The religious people in this world may think that being religious makes them much more neighborly, but that isn’t the case. Not according to Jesus.

Jesus chose as his illustration of who could be a neighbor, a person that all of his hearers, not just this lawyer, but also his own disciples, especially James and John, regarded with disrespect and anger. When Jesus described the Samaritan, when he saw the man injured by the road, Jesus said that he was moved by compassion—the Greek root of the word implies that he felt the man’s pain and need from deep in his insides.

Jesus turns to his questioner and says, “Who acted like a neighbor?”

“The one who showed mercy.” There was no other possible answer to Jesus’ question.  Jesus refused to respond to the question of who your neighbor is. Instead he said, “Go and do likewise.” This was not necessarily good politics, but it was what Jesus meant.

This week—I’m not sure what to say.  The shooting of Alton Sterling and of Philando Castile by police officers. Shootings that would not have happened to white men. Then Thursday night, the massacre of police officers in Dallas, Texas Dallas Police Shootingwho were conscientiously doing their job of keeping a peaceful protest safe.  Anger and fear reacting in violence.  We are in a country where everybody seems to shout—“NOT MY NEIGHBOR!” And even those who are quiet, quietly see others as the transgressors, the untrustworthy, the scary— “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But it was one of those transgressors, one of those Samaritans, who was deeply moved by compassion. Who saw the humanity of the wounded man, who put himself on the line for the sake of his healing.

It’s easy enough to see how people habitually do not treat one another as neighbors. It’s easy enough to see the disastrous results of that.  What is not easy to see is how to unravel the violence, the hate, and the simple self-pity of those who allow violence to flourish. I don’t know what to say.

But it was obvious, even to his hostile questioner, when Jesus asked, “Which one of the three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who into the hands of the robbers?”  It was the one who showed him mercy. And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”

Let us pray our Psalm for today, once more. Psalm 25:1-9 in the insert.

To you, O Lord, I life up my soul, My God, I put my trust in you:

Let me not be humiliated, nor let my enemies triumph over me.

Let none who look to you be put to shame; let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes.

Show me your ways, O Lord.

and teach me your paths.

Lead me in your truth and teach me,

for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long.

Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love,

For they are from everlasting.

Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions;

Remember me according to your love and for the sake of your goodness, O Lord.

Gracious and upright is the Lord;

Therefore he teaches sinners in his way.

He guides the humble in doing right

And teaches his way to the lowly.

All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness

To those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.

He set his face to go to Jerusalem

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, June 26, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

Today’s gospel reading is the beginning of the large middle section of the Gospel of Luke. Basically before this, Jesus has been preaching, teaching and healing in and around his home district of Galilee, but now, after the Transfiguration, when Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus in God’s glory on the mountaintop, Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” In other words, he made his firm decision to bring his ministry to Jerusalem, the seat of the temple and the spiritual heart of Judaism.

This passage sets the tone. Jesus is not just wandering around, seeing what will happen or making occasional pronouncements. This journey is serious business. Much of the imagery is derived from the scriptural descriptions of the prophet Elijah, even when what Jesus says contrasts with the earlier prophet.  Elisha says to Elijah, “Let me kiss my father and my mother; and then I will follow you.” Elijah’s response was, “Go back again; for what have I done to you?” But Jesus’ response was, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” I don’t think Jesus was undermining respect for family, and family obligations in this. However, his journey to Jerusalem, which clearly included his own crucifixion, was nonetheless an urgent journey to life. There was no turning back to focus on death.

Jesus had sent out messengers in advance to prepare the way for his journey. And some came to a Samaritan village, and that village rejected this journey to Jerusalem.  Most people don’t know much about the Samaritans. A small group of them still exists in Israel.  The Samaritans were the descendants of the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Israel—the northern part of the Kingdom of David that split off after the reign of Solomon. During the time of Jesus, there was a pretty substantial population of Samaritans in Palestine, definitely a minority in an area that was predominantly, but not exclusively Jewish. The Samaritans regarded themselves as descendants of Abraham who worshiped God properly, in the place and manner that Moses had spelled out. For the Samaritans, that place was Mount Gerizim, where they still offer sacrifices to this day, NOT in Jerusalem. The Samaritans had definite opinions about Jerusalem and most of them were unfriendly at best. So it isn’t that surprising that when these advance men for a trip to Jerusalem came into town, the Samaritans gave them the heave-ho.

James and John, the brothers also known as “the Sons of Thunder,” wanted to rain fire down on the Samaritan village and destroy it. After all, can’t those stupid Samaritans see the truth? Don’t they know that this is the Savior and he’s going to Jerusalem to save everybody? Shouldn’t we teach them a lesson? Jesus turns around and says, “No!” This is not a show of power, the Kingdom of God is about life, not about force and punishment and death.

And with Jesus, they moved on to the next village. His remarks make clear this is not a casual journey; it’s not a camping trip just for fun. This is a journey to life, and for life—but that life encompasses all the difficulties of real life, including danger and death. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head,” Jesus said to someone who glibly said he would follow him anywhere. This journey is serious business and it’s not about following some celebrity or hero around.

I love the final saying in this lesson, but it doesn’t make sense unless you’ve worked on man plowing field with horsesa farm. When you plow a field or plant seeds, whether you are using a tractor, or a mule to pull your plow, it is important to plow straight furrows, next to one another or the ground won’t be thoroughly or completely cultivated, or planted or mowed. Doing this is relatively simple—you look at a point ahead of you at the end of the field and keep going straight toward it. If you turn your head, you won’t go straight, usually you will veer off toward the direction you are looking. Just like driving a car in traffic without paying close attention. So Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

The Kingdom of God is God’s life-giving compassion for God’s people, which is to say—us, living in that compassion and living out God’s compassion in the world. In this whole lesson, Jesus is making clear that focusing on life is not trivial or easy. You can’t take your eye off the goal of abundant life, or turn around into self-indulgence or arrogance. There is no compassion or life in fire-bombing the Samaritans, or playing at following Jesus while being unprepared for Christian life in the long haul.

Here at Trinity, I have experienced life in the Kingdom. Remembering God’s compassion for all of us, mourning with those who mourn, and rejoicing with those who rejoice. We walk with Jesus, and offer him our hospitality, he who has no place to lay his head.  With him we carry in us the gift of life and of love which we have received from those who have gone before us, and those with whom we share this day, and those who will continue to grow in Christ into the future. We share with him the path of life. Let us be thankful. Let us receive his generosity.

From today’s psalm:

O Lord, you are my portion and my cup;

it is you who uphold my lot.

My boundaries enclose a pleasant land;

indeed, I have a goodly heritage.

I will bless the Lord who gives me counsel;

my heart teaches me, night after night.

I have set the Lord always before me;

because he is at my right hand I shall not fail.

My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices;

my body shall rest in hope.

The Samaritan Apostle

A sermon at St. Paul’s-on-the-Hill, Ossining, NY for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, March 23, 2014

 

Believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.

The Gospel today is long. That’s because it’s a great story and there’s no way to break it up.

The woman in this story was a Samaritan. The Samaritans show up a number of places in the Gospels, especially in the Gospel of John and we often skip over, or misunderstand who the Samaritans are, or especially how they were regarded among Jesus’ hearers. Under kings David and Solomon there was a united kingdom of Israel which broke into a northern kingdom called Israel and a southern kingdom called Judah after Solomon’s death. The Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, represent the religion and perspective of the southern kingdom of Judah. The capital of the northern kingdom was Samaria until it was destroyed by the Assyrians about 200 years later. It was another century and a half later that the Babylonians destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and took the leading citizens of Judah into exile in Babylon.

There is still a very small community of Samaritans who live on the slopes of Mount Gerizim and live according to the laws in the Torah and offer sacrifices there. There is a complex and interesting history of the Samaritans which I won’t go into, but they were a substantial population during Jesus’ time, not quite as large as the Jewish population, but many villages in the part of Judea between Jerusalem and Galilee were populated by Samaritans. The Jews and the Samaritans had different understandings about the origins of the Samaritans though their shared scriptures varied only in whether God should be worshiped at the temple on Mt. Gerizim or on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem.

The account that was accepted by the Jews (and supported by the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah) was that the Assyrians had destroyed and deported most of the residents of the kingdom of Israel (thus the 10 lost tribes of Israel) and settled non-Israelites who were also idolaters in the land. Any Israelites who were left had intermarried with these idolaters—thus any of their worship was polluted, idolatrous and heretical. The Samaritans believed on the other hand, that they carried on the true traditions of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses and that the Judeans had profaned the worship by moving it from Mt. Gerizim to Jerusalem. This was very serious business; each group regarded the other as worse than other sorts of foreigners because of their betrayal of what was most holy. Of course, other characteristics were attributed to these people, as people do with groups that are despised—they were dirty, dishonest, ignorant… From either group’s perspective, not only would you not want your daughter to marry one, you wouldn’t want to come into contact with one of them at all.

So that’s the background of this conversation—Jesus asks THAT sort of woman for a drink of water. And she responds as you would expect—“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” And the entire long discussion involves all the main points of Samaritan theology and their differences with the Jews. She was so intent on arguing her points, that she couldn’t hear that Jesus was saying something completely different—as he told her about living water, and true worship, she responds with the Samaritan theological talking points: Jacob gave this land and well to his son Joseph, the ancestor of the Samaritans, and true worship is on Mount Gerizim, not Mount Zion.

But Jesus is not trying to win a theological debate—he’s talking about being alive in the presence of God. The turning point is when, in a very tight place, she asserts the Samaritan understanding of the returning Messiah and Jesus says to her: “I am the one, the one who is speaking to you.” This personal connection breaks through her defenses, and convinces her that this life he offers her is something different than the old debates between one group and another. The whole point of her being at that place was to fill up her water jar and take it back to townNiagara Springs—but she leaves the water jar there and she goes and tells everybody in town—“Come and see…Could this possibly be the Messiah?”—in fact this makes her the first apostle, that is, one sent to bring others to Christ. One might say that she leaves her jug and brings Living Water to the town.

This story is so rich and full that it really would warrant a whole Lenten study series to fully appreciate it. Being transformed through receiving the living water of Christ directs us toward baptism and Easter which are the real point of Lent. Among the many insights that can be drawn from these lessons today, the one that I would like to point out is that this woman had some real legitimate religious traditions and theological understanding, but she was stuck—one can surmise that a lot of it had to do with personal issues, that she was trying to hide and defend at the same time. When she really met Jesus she had to give up, not the religious truth, but how she formulated them, and how she defended herself and her group. As we move forward in faith, and face new situations in a changing world, sometimes we also have to be ready to give things up and change when Jesus asks us to follow him…maybe even leaving the water jug behind.

And God said to Moses: “Strike the rock and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.

And Jesus said, “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

The Good Samaritan Sermon for Trinity Church Ossining, July 14, 2013

“A lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher, he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’

So Jesus asks the lawyer what the law says, or rather, to summarize what Holy Scripture has to say on the topic.  And the lawyer knows it, he says it perfectly, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  This is not controversial; everybody who knows scripture acknowledges this.  But being a lawyer, this man wants to define the limits of his liability on this: “And who is my neighbor?”

So Jesus tells a story which has become so familiar that everybody is sure that they know it: “Yeah, yeah, Good Samaritan. Let’s eat.”   The thing we often skip over, or misunderstand is who the Samaritans are, or especially how they were regarded among Jesus’ hearers.  Under kings David and Solomon there was a united kingdom of Israel which broke into a northern kingdom called Israel and a southern kingdom called Judah after Solomon’s death. The Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, represent the religion and perspective of the southern kingdom of Judah. The capital of the northern kingdom was Samaria until it was destroyed by the Assyrians about 200 years later.  It was another century and a half later that the Babylonians destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and took the leading citizens of Judah into exile in Babylon.

Samaritan worship

There is still a very small community of Samaritans that live on the slopes of Mount Gerizim and live according to the laws in the Torah and offer sacrifices there.  There is a complex and interesting history of the Samaritans which I won’t go into, but they were a substantial population during Jesus’ time, not quite as large as the Jewish population, but many villages in the part of Judea between Jerusalem and Galilee were populated by Samaritans.  The Jews and the Samaritans had different understandings about the origins of the Samaritans though their shared scriptures varied only in whether God should be worshiped at the temple on Mt. Gerizim or on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem.

The account that was accepted by the Jews (and supported by the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah) was that the Assyrians had destroyed and deported most of the residents of the kingdom of Israel (thus the 10 lost tribes of Israel) and settled non-Israelites who were also idolaters in the land.  Any Israelites who were left had intermarried with these idolaters—thus any of their worship was polluted, idolatrous and heretical. The Samaritans believed on the other hand, that they carried on the true traditions of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses and that the Judeans had profaned the worship by moving it from Mt. Gerizim to Jerusalem.  This was very serious business; each group regarded the other as worse than other sorts of foreigners because of their betrayal of what was most holy.  Of course, other characteristics were attributed to these people, as people do with groups that are despised—they were dirty, dishonest, ignorant…  From either group’s perspective, not only would you not want your daughter to marry one, you wouldn’t want to come into contact with one at all.

There are many examples or analogies that apply to people today, in our American pluralism, our prejudices have become so diverse that what might have impact on some, might simply make others feel self-righteous or offended.

Eric Barreto teaches New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. I will read a brief passage from something he wrote on this story:  http://sojo.net/blogs/2013/07/10/scripture-good-samaritans-all-around#.Ud15oSTRJPU.facebook

“Imagine yourself not as the Samaritan seeking to love God and neighbor. Imagine yourself as the person in need. A man on the brink of death. A woman in deepest grief. A man lost in the world. A woman with no hope. Imagine yourself at your most vulnerable, deep in despair with only one hope: perhaps someone will help me.

Now imagine that the stranger who is most kind, most loving is not the upstanding citizen who looks and thinks like you. Imagine that she or he is that person you dismiss as a bigot or a heathen, a racist or an instigator, a misogynist or a baby-killer. Imagine that your succor is delivered by someone whom you would never consider to be your neighbor, your friend, your sister or brother in the faith. Imagine that your greatest need is filled by such a person. What would that teach us about the meaning of loving God and loving neighbor?

In short, we might discover that loving God and neighbor know no bounds — that if we look at the world with God’s eyes, we would see Good Samaritans all around us.”

The Kingdom of God that Jesus brings is a community of those who aren’t necessarily alike.  In fact members of the Body of Christ may not even like one another—even to the point of finding one another a bit scary.  But as neighbors we learn to accept the love of one another—even of the scary Samaritans—and that’s what brings us together in our communion meal.