Sermon by Pádraig Ó Tuama, Guest Preacher, on 15 March 2020
Reading was John 4:5-42
Good morning friends, in these strange times. Strange times with a virus that shows us how fragile we are to something so tiny.
And strange times to be one year after a horror attack visited by a person of Christian affiliation to a community of Muslims in Christchurch. For us, it’s a year, but for those affected, it’s yesterday.
We will talk today about the thirst to belong, and the need to find belonging outside of the places of convenience or habit. It’s not directly related to the anniversary, but it’s not not related either.
Our text, as you heard is John 4 — an encounter between Jesus and a woman from Samaria. She is a loved character in all Christianities, her conversation with Jesus is extraordinary. In the Eastern traditions – both Catholic and Orthodox – she is named — Photine: the light-filled, or luminescent one.
And that is what we’ll call her. Photine is a rich feature of the gospel of John. She, it seems, is thirsty to experience and remember herself in a new way. Perhaps because of her identity as a Samaritan, or because of the way her own people treat her, she may not find it so easy to break free from the constraints of culture or other people’s imagination of her past.
She is, like many of us, keen to find a way to be more free in herself, and more free from the things people project onto her.
Firstly, a little context: John’s gospel is the latest gospel written and it is distinct from the other gospels. Gone is any reference to the Kingdom of God. For this gospel Heaven is here already, eternal life is to be experienced in the way we engage in the here-and-now. There aren’t any demons in John’s gospel either, and instead of a load of miracles, there are just seven.
And John’s gospel is also filled with extended dialogues between Jesus and other characters. Jesus has already engaged in a dialogue with Nicodemus (3:1–21), and later on will engage with a crowd (6:22–71), the authorities (7:14–52; 18:12–59; 9:1–41) and the crowd again (10:22–42).
So Photine sits in with other dialogue partners in the fourth gospel. These dialogues are frequently filled with conflict — the conflict of belief/unbelief, of light/dark, of following/not following. These dialogues serve as a way of embodying the message of Jesus into a tool for the listeners to this gospel to embody in their own lives.
Some people think — and there is great value in this — that the conversation between Jesus and Photine is a way of symbolising a discourse between Jews and Samaritans.
To hop–skip–and–jump through centuries of history here’s a brief historical sketch: Samaritans, it’s thought, were part of a remnant of Jews left behind after the initial conquest of the ten northern tribes of Israel by Assyrians in about the seventh century BCE. Those who stayed behind — or, more accurately, were left behind — intermarried with other peoples. Their Jewish practices became mixed with other religious practices; and while it maintained many of the aspects of Judaism, was distinct enough to cause significant sectarian anxiety between the two belongings.
These two religious devotions were not as far apart as some depictions imagine; they did worship on different mountains, yes, but many of the emendations of the Samaritan Torah are what finally ended up in an agreed–upon Torah of Judaism. The extraordinary biblical scholar Sandra Schneiders suggests that the five husbands may be a literary device to refer to the five accusations of infidelity levied against Samaria by the Jews.
Whether you see this encounter as a way of imagining two schools of thought — like the recent film The Two Popes for instance — or a depiction of a private conversation between two private individuals, there is value in both. In each, there is the question about how a people, or a person, fits in with their identity.
Photine is one of the most richly depicted characters in John’s gospel. When Jesus speaks to her, she questions his audacity in speaking; when he promises her water that will never run out, she replies that he has no bucket. She is quick-witted, undaunted, intelligent, observant and engaging.
While there is no direct reference to humour or energy between them, the tone of the description and the openheartedness of her language shows her as a person at ease with language, insightful, wary about other people’s power, and not ashamed of her needs. and yet, she is a sole actor. Why is she there at the late hour, the hottest time of the day, getting water? Is she avoiding people? Is she shunned?
Jesus, too, has found a companion with her. He is often finding time away from his own: his own people, his own family, his own followers, his own religious belonging. He belongs and he doesn’t belong, he is in and out. He has things to say to his own, but he finds himself on the outside.
Jesus and this woman have much to share with each other. It is no surprise to me that they had what seems to be an elemental recognition of intellect, experience and intuition in each other.
How do we belong? And what do we do with our thirst to belong?
In our thirst to belong, people do terrible things: they sacrifice their integrity, we treat people as members of a big ‘other’ group without treating them as individuals; we re-enact the wars of history in the stories of today, we escalate hatred and get caught up in old stories.
When I was younger, I learnt about the English. I have no time for Empire, but I know that most people today living in England are either ignorant of the impact of their empire or else feel far from it. Hating the English today is a diminishment of them and — ultimately — me.
What groups do we learn about? Usually — like the Jews and Samaritans — neighbouring groups are too close for comfort, and we create hatreds for our near neighbours that we don’t demonstrate to people who are far away.
Most violences against another group begin in the imagination both of ourselves as well as the other. We imagine that THEY are corrupt because of blah, blah, blah and WE are not corrupt because of blah, blah, blah.
Violence of attitude begins in the imagination of the other. Recently I worked with a group where they were very concerned about how Muslims treat LGBT people. They were deeply concerned, had read various bits of the Quran, and read articles etc.
However, the thing was that this group of Christians weren’t particularly welcoming themselves. They certainly didn’t think LGBT people deserved welcome, acknowledgement , sacraments , leadership, apology, acknowledgement. It is so easy to fantasise about THEM because of blah, blah, blah, when really the thing we project onto THEM is often something close to home itself.
Jesus and Photine are both people on the edges of their community, each called by their own integrity into an imagination of themselves and the other that leads them to audacious places.
Jesus and Photine were each on the edge, and the only way into a bigger imagination of their civic belonging was to bring people along with them.
She rushed home and said to people ‘Come meet the man who told me everything I ever did’. She invited her people across a sectarian divide to learn from people of so-called Otherness.
Jesus needed conversation with his followers because they were shocked at his having a private conversation with a woman from Samaria. Was it because she was a Samaritan, or because she was a woman? Unfortunately, people, because of the latter. In this encounter with Photine, Jesus demonstrated that he believed women had minds, intelligences, beliefs and reasons in their life, All of their very own.
It’s a shock to think that this was a surprise then; it’s an abomination to recognise that this is alive now. In a strange way, one of the messages of this text for us today is to seek belonging outside the places of our belonging; to push the boundaries, to imagine that our ways of life as groups of people will be enhanced by meaningful encounters with the other; and not just simple ‘aren’t you lovely’ encounters, but ones that go to the heart of things, ones that invite us to say when we disagree, to meet, to talk, to speak from the mind of belief and the heart of yearning. To be open to ourselves in the space created between ourselves and another.
Jesus, in your name, much horror is done.
People cultured by the cultures that have grown around you
imagine that the horror they create
is justified in the name of right.
You, who knew torture, knew that torture is never true.
We, who today mark an anniversary of horror,
note with horror what people are capable of doing.
In the face of this, may we remember: the fifty-one members of the beloved community,
and their families, and their friends, and their colleagues,
and the futures they’ll never see.
What starts in an ungenerous imagination
can lead to horror.
So may we remember
to nurture in us an imagination that is generous towards all others.
Because you did this, and in you,
people on different sides of empire
found themselves laying down their hostilities.