Is it a sin to be white? Of course not. It is a sin to believe and behave as though being white makes no difference in the world today. As if we don’t have advantage, access and opportunity that others don’t, simply by virtue of our race. If we are to be true to the gospel Jesus gave us, we can no more go around our white privilege than Jesus could go ‘round Samaria on his way to the cross.
Samaria was part of Israel, a region between Galilee to the south and Judea to the north. And Jewish travelers generally went around not through Samaria, for one simple reason: they were not welcome there. Judeans and Galileans believed themselves better people, and better Jews, than the Samaritans. As you might expect, as you can hear in the voice of the woman with whom Jesus speaks, the Samaritans resented it. The resentment was about 900 years old, starting with Assyria. One group after another invaded and occupied Israel, Jews from Israel and Judah both carted off into exile in Egypt and Babylon, while most Samaritans stayed put and were occupied by the foreigners – Assyrians especially, who took them as slaves . . . and wives. The Samaritans maintained Jewish faith and practice as best they could, for generations.
In the fifth century BCE – when King Cyrus of Persia started repatriating whoever wanted to go home – the Jews who went back to Israel would have nothing to do with the Samaritans who’d been there the whole time. Jerusalem was a wasteland. Samaritans wanted to help it and the Temple. The returning Jews said, “Y’all are nasty and we don’t want anything to do with you,” and were still treating them that way 400 years later, into the time of Jesus. They were a nasty, half-breed people, association with whom would violate one’s religious purity. You could do business with them, but you couldn’t eat with them, drink with them or socialize with them.
When I take Scout to the vet, she doesn’t know where she is until we get to the door; and then she puts her butt on the ground, and I have to drag her and promise lots of treats. This is how I imagine Jesus got the disciples into Samaria. As soon as we get to the first little village, you can go buy as many treats as you want. And they all say, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah! It’s also how he was able to go see the person he had gone to talk to in the first place. She might have been a rabbi, if she’d been born in another place and time. Woman rabbis are a dime a dozen now. Jesus affirmed the rabbi in her, debated with her like an equal. Hers is his longest conversation in the gospels, the first to whom he voluntarily confessed himself as Messiah, “I AM.”
Some traditions name her. Do you know it? I’ve told you before, but it’s been awhile: Photine. Pick the word apart and you’ll figure out what it means. Bright as the sun, enlightened one. Christendom has generally been more interested in her sex life than her intellect, her scholarship and her faith, while for Jesus it is the least interesting thing about her. I think he brings it up to get it out of the way, to say she needn’t lie about what doesn’t matter anyway – at least not to him. He brings it up to get it out of the way, so they can talk about what they both want to talk about – that is, the gospel of Samaria.
Would you pray with me? In every place on this earth or in our own memory we are reluctant to revisit, places and memories that bear no resemblance to the people we desire to be, you have already been there, O God. Been there, looked around and restored it with your grace. May we know the same is true about our neighbors – all our neighbors, however different from us they appear. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
He asks for a simple drink of water. Her answer seethes with 400 years of oppression. Like that scene in Little Women when Laurie complains about having to leave for college. Jo says she’d commit murder to go to college. Like when the friend in our Global Women group refused to answer the conversation question in what other time and place you might like to have been born. “None,” she said; “no time has been good enough to women to want to go back to it.” His answer to her answer is everything she’s waited for – someone to talk to about the things she longs to talk about. They are two rabbis, discussing biblical history and the nature of God in metaphor and symbol like a script she has rehearsed over and over again.
“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.”
“Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.”
“Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Jesus then ruins the moment:
“You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”
Then her quip of comedy gold – “Sir, I see you are prophet!” – which she uses to turn the conversation back to the religious and political! Jesus follows her willingly. She speaks of their segregated worship – his people in Jerusalem, hers on the mountain at Gerizim. He speaks of their reunion – when they shall worship God not on the basis of negotiated territory, but in spirit and in truth. I know the Messiah will explain it when he comes, she says – what oppressed people always say when liberty seems too much to hope for. To which Jesus replies, I AM the Messiah.
A HUUUGE thing to say, but we aren’t given to see or hear her response – because the disciples are back. Astonished, John says. Mouths hanging open but no sound coming out. What could he possibly want. He’s talking to a woman. Friends, can you just try – just for a minute, try – to get your brain around the kind of either ignorance or arrogance it takes to be utterly shell-shocked at the possibility that the Lord of the universe might have reason to talk to a woman. I think we’ve mostly gotten over that. But the church still gets astonished that Jesus might talk to a transgender person. To someone we would call a white supremacist.
The disciples are astonished but, meanwhile, she’s put down her water jar to run to town, announcing, Come see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done. He may well be the Messiah! As they are on the way, Jesus deals with his disciples. They want him to eat. He tells them, I have food that you know nothing about. Again with the spiritual metaphors. They scratch their heads and stare like a tree full of owls. The Samaritans return and listen like he’s feeding them mother’s milk. He stays two days with them and they all end up believers.
Three things I want to unpack: First – can we please assume that when she says Jesus told her everything she’d ever done, she wasn’t talking about sex? But rather, about faith; about prayer; about the scriptures; about the things of God that had occupied her heart and mind for longer than she could remember. His disciples have been with him for months and all they know is that he talks to women and eats air, apparently. To her he offers up the essential truth of his existence: I AM. You are speaking to I AM. All we know of her response is that she drops her water jar and runs to fetch back her whole community. John doesn’t describe her heart and mind and soul blown open – since there are no words for that anyway. All we can see of it is the loss of bitterness and hate. The Jew for whom she’d not draw a drink of water is now the hero of her life, and she brings her village to him too.
Secondly – like her, enlightened by the presence of Jesus in our lives, we will find ourselves doing things we would not imagine otherwise. Being braver, louder maybe; leading communities to think and talk and act in different ways than they have before; becoming neighbors with people we once kept apart from. These are interesting days to talk about keeping apart from others. We may be called to get close in ways the world will caution against, called to ask ourselves what Jesus would do, what Jesus would have us do, given his example and his teaching that we are obligated to the sick and hurting among us.
Thirdly, the gospel who is Jesus comes into Samaria and undoes 900 years of prejudice and racism, 400 years of segregation – not in the entire territory but in the hearts of those who meet him. Or, at least some who meet him. His disciples are not there yet. But there or not, they now have Samaritan sisters and brothers. Because as it turns out, the gospel of Jesus Christ in Samaria turns out to be the same gospel of Jesus Christ it was in Galilee. And getting our heads and hearts around that is, and has been from the beginning, the most astonishing thing about the gospel. For God so loved the world, the whole boatload of us. Jesus talks shop with a Samaritan woman as if they were standing in a synagogue, and his disciples have to pick their chins up off the floor.
One day in India our group was in yoga circle talking about our day, and Nancy – Nancy is awesome – said, “India has taught me that I actually don’t like monkeys. I only like the idea of monkeys.”
No wonder Jesus has to go through Samaria, else we’ll all just keep liking the idea of Jesus – the Jesus who thinks and talks and acts just like we think Jesus ought to think and talk and act. Instead, Jesus marches to the cross, dragging his disciples and church along with him, past all our prejudice and our privilege, through the sucking mud of our assumptions and our apathy, step by step, watching him meet stranger after stranger after stranger, until finally our idea of the gospel of Jesus is smashed to pieces on the truth of who he was, and is, and shall always be. As he told our sister Samaria – I AM.
Would you pray with me?
John 3:16 is the first Bible verse I ever memorized, and I don’t remember not knowing it. I also don’t remember thinking about what it meant – only what Sunday School teachers said it meant: that if I gave my heart to Jesus I would go to heaven when I died. I had to grow up and read and pray for my own self to discover that we don’t have to wait 70 or 80 years to cash in that memory verse. Eternal life doesn’t begin when we die. It never begins, and it doesn’t end. We live in it – like fish live in water.
This time-and-space-bound kingdom full of flesh and bone, so much noise and so many words, so much beauty and so much heartache, where death is both ever-present, sadder than sad, and a channel to that deeper, wider life, is but a pocket of that ocean my first Sunday School teachers called eternal life. I also kind of imagined John 3:16 lived on a Bible page all by itself. And here it is tucked inside a story about a man named Nicodemus who visits Jesus at night and turns out to be a living example of the very story Jesus tells him – one of those born again followers of Jesus. Or, maybe, a daylight disciple.
Would you pray with me? When we are tempted to make faith small, O God, to tuck and fit it into the lives we already have, may seekers like Nicodemus draw new vision and courage from us and from our life together. We ache for the courage to abandon our grip on things that do not last, to embrace what cannot be lost. Amen.
In a world so full of chaos and suffering, why should my life be so calm and comfortable? I wrote that in my journal on Friday morning – and was promptly just appalled at myself. Because the answer is so profane and trite. My life is comfortable and calm because I choose for it to be – which got me to thinking about Nicodemus and his choice to go see Jesus at night and how that worked out for him. He also had a pretty easy life, considering his time and place – Roman-occupied Israel. A member of the Sanhedrin – the Jewish ruling council – the group that will eventually petition Pilate to have Jesus put to death, he has status and power, political and religious.
One of John’s major themes unfolds in chapter 3: darkness and light. Often as not, he puts them in the same sentence:
And the theme has a sharp edge the church in good faith must address: “darkness and light” has embedded itself into our church language and our everyday language as “blackness and whiteness.” Every time we refer to some moral situation as a gray area, what do we mean? We mean it is neither black nor white, neither right nor wrong, bad nor good. Which color is right? Which color is bad?
In movies who wears the white hat? The good guy. What color is the tower that smart people live in? Ivory. What do our hymns have to say on the subject?
He's the Lily of the Valley, the Bright and Morning Star,
He's the fairest of ten thousand to my soul.
Whiter than snow, Lord, wash me just now,
As in Thy presence humbly I bow.
And the one this morning:
For each perfect gift of thine To our race so freely given,
written in 1864 by an Englishman and sung in white churches who know good and well he meant the human race.
Most hymns are quotes from scripture, and they are accurate metaphors. Snow IS white. But white is no more clean than red or green or purple or brown. Purity as whiteness is a Bible theme that was never meant to register as a skin color. White western culture did that hundreds of years ago and left a residue so embedded in our language we mostly don’t hear it until it’s pointed out to us. But hopefully we want it pointed out since it’s hurtful and, most of all, divisive to the body of Christ.
Nicodemus is the one who visited Jesus at night. He is introduced this way three times in the gospel of John, beginning here. Did they know each other already? or does Jesus simply recognize him for who he obviously is – a Jewish ruler; member of the Sanhedrin, the group he knows will eventually drive him to the praetorium? Instead of small talk, they fall instantly into rabbinical debate.
Nicodemus: Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God;
for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.
Jesus: Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God
without being born from above.
Nicodemus: (taking the bait) How can anyone be born after having grown old?
Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?
Jesus: I’m not talking about your mother. I am talking about the kingdom of God.
Birth there happens by water. And Spirit. Don’t pretend you don’t know
about Spirit. Spirit is what sent you here. Just like the wind, it sends us
where we would never go on our own.
Nicodemus: How can these things be?
Jesus: Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you still pretend not to know?
The scene continues like a play in which Nicodemus listens along with the audience to Jesus’s sermon about the darkness and the Light – the light by which he thought and prayed, apparently, by which he re-read his Bible, by which he watched and listened in his Temple council meetings. The light is changing how he thinks. We know so because we can hear it in his voice when he shows up again in chapter 7, this time in the daylight.
The crowds have really gone after Jesus. Rumors are spreading about him being the Messiah. Folks are getting noisy and the Sanhedrin is worried about Roman attention, so they send their own soldiers to arrest Jesus. But the soldiers themselves are taken by Jesus’s teaching charisma – so they leave him alone, which makes some of the council members even more upset, reminding the soldiers whom they work for, when Nicodemus (who had once gone to Jesus at night) tentatively pipes up to remind his colleagues that our own law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing. A reminder they do not appreciate at all and to which they respond by calling Nicodemus a Galilean and suggesting he search and see that no prophet will come from Galilee. A response that proves them both mean and ignorant.
I feel for Nicodemus here, watching him trying to integrate what he likes about Jesus with what he likes about his calm, comfortable life; sprinkling radical faith on top of his solid reputation in a town where reputation matters. Hoping that isn’t what Jesus is talking about when he says, And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light. Here, and over and over again, John will say that Jesus is the Light. The Light. Jesus has already given me all I need. My choice: to hoard all my trinkets and toys like they are going to save me. Go figure.
In chapter 7, Nicodemus gave it a shot and mostly failed. At least he’s doing Jesus’s working in the daytime now and still letting the Lord work on him, apparently (see Chapter 19 of John). Turns out there’s another member of the Sanhedrin who secretly followed Jesus. Remember his name? Joseph of Arimathea. Neither of them is mentioned throughout Jesus’s arrest, trial and execution. Nor when Jewish council leaders go to Pilate to ask that Jesus’s legs be broken so he’ll be dead and buried – the whole ordeal out of sight before Passover tourists arrive in Jerusalem. John says, in the midst of it Joseph went to Pilate to ask for Jesus’s body. Nicodemus buys and brings the burial spices. Together they carry the bloody, filthy soiled body of a condemned criminal – handle it, intimately, in ways no Jews who cared about ritual purity would consider.
Nobody doubted whose side Nicodemus was on now – now that he’d just embraced the body of a dead criminal. Again, friends, not just dead: eviscerated. Blood, urine, feces – human death is really, really messy. However dark it looked and sounded and smelled at the moment, Nicodemus chose to embrace the Light. I can’t tell you what was in his head and heart, but Jesus knew. Jesus knew that first night in the middle of the night when Nicodemus first came to see him, when Jesus received him and entertained his questions and pushed back with questions of his own – questions about the Spirit which Nicodemus was trying so hard NOT to listen to. And the other question: “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things?” Only in the dark he didn’t know. Only so long as he stayed in the dark he didn’t.
But he didn’t stay. The Spirit moved him to the daylight – the same way it will move the rest of Jesus’s disciples in this story soon enough. It moved Nicodemus to go where Jesus went. To the praetorium and the cross, to embrace death without a shred of fear. Nicodemus’s bid to faith began in the middle of the night and took him to a graveyard where he chose to love the light rather than the darkness. To love the light demanded that he move, that he commit to certain action, to certain allegiances that would sever him from the comforts of life as he’d known it so far.
Still, he embraced the cross, not knowing for sure what came next – only confident in the words of Jesus as he’d heard them once before: For God so loved that world, that whoever believes in him, is bound for everlasting life. May his wisdom and his courage bring our own hearts, minds and bodies to such faith.