Widening Circles

"Circles in the Sand", by Pamela Silver, 2002
“Circles in the Sand”, by Pamela Silver, 2002

Scripture Passage:  John 4: 5-26 (Lent 3A)

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.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped 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 worshipers 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.”

In this season of Lent, we have already read several stories of journeying and movement from one place to another.  We have read of people that have all been called to something new.  Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to lead a discussion with the Tuesday UMW Circle on “Immigration and the Bible”.  It’s based on a book with that same name by Joan Maruskin that was published to be a 2013 UMW study.  Now, that “immigration” word is, for us, probably nothing less than a lightning bold word.  It is so politically charged nowadays that most of us shy away from it.  But the truth is, it is what the Bible is about.  The Bible is about movement.  It begins with God’s Spirit moving across the face of the earth and ends with a depiction of a city, a New Jerusalem, moving from heaven to earth.  And in between, we read stories of people continuing to be uprooted.  They move from one place to another seeking safety and sanctuary and we are continually given reminders of how we are called to welcome the stranger into our midst.  The Bible is a story of movement and a story of welcome.  And along the way, the call is not to build and prosper but to encounter each other and enter each other’s lives.

But each of us in this world works hard to preserve our perceived image of what that world should be—a world where our political views, our boundaries we have drawn, our wealth and possessions we hold, our standard of living and our understanding of who God is remain intact.  The problem is that our need to preserve ourselves usually gets in the way of our ability to connect with others, our ability to encounter the rest of God’s children.  Because if each of us is waiting for the other to respond in love first, then love will never be the response and the walls of hatred become stronger and more difficult to tear down.        

Take the relationship between the Samaritans and the Jews.  Both believed in God.  Both had a monotheistic understanding of the one true God, the YHWH of their shared tradition of belief.  But where the temple of YHWH for the Jews existed on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, the Samaritans instead believed the Scriptures supported the worshipping of God on Mount Gerizim near the ancient city of Shechem.  And with that, a new line of religious understanding was formed.  The Samaritans believed that their line of priests was the legitimate one, rather than the line in Jerusalem and they accepted only the Law of Moses, The Torah, as divinely inspired, without recognizing the writings of the prophets or the books of wisdom.  These differences between the two peoples probably began as early as one thousand years before the birth of Christ and what started as a simple religious division, a different understanding of how God relates to us and we relate to God, eventually grew into a cultural and political conflict that would not go away.  The tension escalated and the hatred for the other was handed down for centuries from parent to child over and over again.

So here is this woman depicted as a stranger, an outcast, a Samaritan.  And here is Jesus breaking all of the boundaries of traditional and accepted Judaism.  First, he, unescorted, speaks to a woman.  In the Talmud, the rabbis warned that conversing with women would ultimately lead to unchastity.  In fact, Jose ben Johanan, of Jerusalem, who lived around 160 B.C., wrote, “He that talks much with womankind brings evil upon himself and neglects the study of the Law and at the last will inherit Gehenna (or the destination of the wicked). ”  Secondly, Jesus speaks to a woman of questionable repute.  Now, in all probability, this woman was probably just a victim of some form of Levirite marriage gone bad, where she had been handed in marriage from relative to relative as her husbands died, leaving her penniless and out of options.  And, finally, Jesus speaks to the so-called “enemy”.  The truth is, there is nothing about this woman that is wrong or sinful or anything else that we try to tack on her reputation.  The woman was just different.  Her life had been difficult.  She lived in darkness.  And the most astonishing thing is that this seemingly low-class Samaritan woman who is not even given a name in our Scriptures becomes the witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Because, you’ll notice, Jesus did not just ask her for a drink.  He engaged her in conversation about spiritual matters.  Once again, the Gospel is found not in Jerusalem and not on Mt. Gerizim but in our shared existence as part of this “new humanity”.  The Gospel is found in our encounter with each other.  Here, too, Jesus enters a new phase of his ministry.  Up until this point, Jesus’ encounters have been pretty ethno-centric.  But, here, the Gospel begins to spread to other ethnicities and other peoples.  It begins to include an encounter with the world.

For most of us, our problem is that we are always waiting for someone else to make the first move toward acceptance and reconciliation.  But Jesus did not wait.  Jesus stepped into encounter.  That is what we are called to do.  We are called to go forward on an unpaved road to meet the other. We are called to somehow reach through our prejudice and even our fears and take each other’s hand.  We are called to cross boundaries, rather than constructing them.  We are called to reach through our differences and find our common, shared humanity, all children of God, all made in the image of God.  That is the way that peace is found—one hand at a time.  And that is the way that we encounter Jesus Christ.

Putting this study of “Immigration and the Bible” together, I began to see a new pattern emerge in the Scriptures—well, new for me as I read the Scriptures through a different lens.  The Biblical story is a story of God calling us to go forth and our drawing borders, walling ourselves off, protecting who we are and what we have.  God calls us to go and we draw borders.  God calls us to go and we construct gates.  God calls us to go and we build walls.  But we are called to encounter the stranger.  It is more than being welcoming.  It is more than letting them into our carefully-constructed lives.  It means entering their life and completely opening ours to them.  It means that they become us and we become them.  It means that we encounter each other.

We are in the middle of this season of Lent.  It IS the season of wandering, the season of the wilderness journey.  We always begin Lent with Jesus going into the wilderness, leaving what he knows, leaving the comforts of home.  And I think that part of the reason for that, is that we are called to be wanderers, aliens, and sojourners.  We do not stand in one place waiting for others to come to us.  The Christian journey is always moving us toward something, so we go the way that God calls us to go and along the way, we gather the children of God.  We encounter each other. As Jesus once said, “Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.”  In other words, go and encounter each other because that is how you encounter Christ.

I live my life in ever-widening circles that reach out across the world.  I may not complete this last one but I give myself it it. I circle around God, around the primordial tower.  I’ve been circling for thousands of years and I still don’t know:  am I a falcon, a storm, or a great song? (Rainer Maria Rilke)

We are more than one-third through our Lenten journey.  At this point, where are you circles drawn?  Which ones need to be widened?

Grace and Peace,


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