The End of Christian Fratricide [I have a dream]

March 19, 2017 | John 4:5-42 | Lent 3

Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman offers a nice bookend to the John 3 story of Nicodemus approaching Jesus in the stealth of night.   One commentator called it a diptych but I don’t like to cuss on my blog.  This seems to be John (the author’s) message: whether you are a self-assured but secretly insecure religious expert or a person of the wrong ethnicity (Samaria), wrong gender (woman), and wrong wrongness (I’ll explain below), the love of Jesus is for ALL.  It can happen in the middle of the night or under the hot noon sun, it matters not.

Jesus will answer your questions,

straighten out your theology,

and offer you more than you could have ever dreamed or hoped for.

Jesus was the original Oprah at Christmastime, except instead of a now-13-year-old Pontiac G6, Messiah offers you something timeless, priceless, with a slightly better warranty.  You get living water, YOU get living water, YOU get living water, and YOU get living water.  ERRRRRRBODY GETS LIVING WAAAAAATTTTAAAA.  JOY RISING.  YAAAAAAASSSSSS.  

[If you can’t picture the Lord of Hosts as a black woman, just watch the Shack.  But you won’t find me in the theaters.  It’s not because I think the Shack will lead you astray and cause your faith to fall; quite the contrary, I think the Shack is a compelling work of fiction that is worth the read.  But when you have more children than adults in your household, ya gotta make sacrifices.  Some people give up stuff for Lent; I gave up movies for the next eighteen years.]

But I digress.  I go back to the Samaritan woman and this even more compelling story.  I said earlier that it was wrong on numerous levels for Jesus to engage this woman in conversation, and for whatever reason, this woman was forced to draw her water alone, at the hottest part of the day whereas her peers would have gone en masse at dusk or twilight.  Why she was shunned, nobody knows.  But contrary to popular opinion and countless homilies on this passage, it was not a foregone conclusion that she was an adulteress.  There’s lots to say on that, but I’ll leave you with this analysis on Christianity Today.

We don’t know why.  But we do know that Jesus did not hold to the same anti-Samaritan prejudices that His fellow Jews harbored.  To give us a better understanding of the Jew/Samaritan rift, here is a simple chart I made:

Jews

Samaritans

 

Culture: The Dominant culture in this relationship.  Jesus was a Jew.

Culture: The minority culture.  The woman at the well was a Samaritan (Jesus was on “enemy turf” during this John 4 encounter).

Ethnicity: Considered themselves pure, unadulterated and set apart from the surrounding Gentile cultures

Ethnicity: Pejoratively viewed (by the Jews) as mixed and defiled, because they intermarried with Gentile (non-Jew) peoples introduced by the conquering Assyrian King (see 2 Kings 17:24)

Religion: Protectors of the true faith; considered themselves as the true heirs of the Abrahamic promise.  

Religion: Due to their multicultural heritage, Samaritan worship was a hodgepodge of practices and beliefs that drew from various cultures and religions (Koreans, think 짬뽕 ).  The King of Assyria actually had to recruit a Hebrew priest from exile to go back to Samaria and teach the people how to worship Yahweh. (2 Kings 17:29-41)

Sacred Space: Worshiped in the holiest location – the Temple in Jerusalem.  When the Samaritans offered to help in the rebuilding of the Temple, they were deemed enemies of the state (due to their ethnic and religious diversity) and summarily rejected and outcast (see Ezra 4)

Sacred Space: Eliashib, a former high priest, was shunned by Nehemiah because his son married a Samaritan mixed race girl, and the story goes that Eliashib relocated to Mount Gerizim (Jn 4:20) where father of the mixed-race girl, Sanballat – who also happened to be governor of Samaria – built a new temple for Samaritan worship.

Do you follow David Platt or Rob Bell?  John Piper or Tony Campolo?  Franklin Graham or Shane Claiborne?

And this brings me to my blog title.  Fratricide is a strong accusation and certainly in the John 4 story, we see no such thing.  But check out this story from Josephus, a contemporary of New Testament times.  As you can see, there was ongoing tension between Jews and Samaritans that sometimes spilled over into murder.  Today, we may not  see Christians actually killing one another but there exists deep-seated fear and loathing between some groups.  I see a lot of parallels between the Jewish/Samaritan divide of  Jesus’ time and the Conservative Evangelical(CE)/Progressive Mainline (PM) row being played out in today’s Western Christianity.

I find myself in an interesting position because for most of my adult life I have identified with Conservative Evangelical:

  • I grew up in a Korean immigrant church (which heavily lean conservative) and in fact, I still serve in one.
  • During undergrad I was a part of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship while on campus and an Assemblies of God church on the weekends.
  • I also own an NIV Study Bible and listen to Francis Chan sermons and Hillsong and Jesus Culture.

But I find much to appreciate about the progressive Christian movement:

  • a friend recently added me onto a FB group entitled “Progressive Asian American Christians(PAAC)” and I gladly accepted.  Boy, was I surprised to find just how big that umbrella is.
  • Also, I am ordained in the United Methodist Church, probably the biggest mainline denomination in the West today.
  • I like to preach from the NRSV and I count Ken Fong’s Asian America and The Liturgists as two of my favorite podcasts.

I have close friends and family who fall on either side.  In fact, I would also venture to guess that the congregation that I dearly love and pastor is also divided down the middle.

[disclaimer: Identifying and labeling movements often require precise & incisive language and an attention-t0-detail on the smallest minutiae; I am about to paint with a giant foam roller.  Please note and give grace when possible.]

So here is a juicy question: who is the dominant culture in the CE/PM drama in my analogy?  For reasons that are too long to mention in a single blog post, I would have to say that the Conservative Evangelical movement is most akin to the Jews, mainly because I see a common thread between the two for a desire to hold on to a traditional orthodoxy.

And yes, in many ways I do see the Progressive Mainline camp as closely aligned with the maligned Samaritan people – from the dominant culture’s perspective, of course – primarily because there is a foreboding sense that the PM group has watered down its beliefs and acquiesced to the surrounding culture to the point of being unrecognizable from the prototype (if there is such a thing).  Again, I am painting with a giant brush so please forgive me here.  This is simply my observation and probably deserves greater explanation.

But as I reflected on this week’s Lectionary Reading, this is what I see Jesus doing.

  • I notice that Jesus crossed barriers and risked breaking societal protocols as well as long-standing Jewish/Samaritan hostilities to encounter this woman – with love I might add.
  • He considered a relationship with a Samaritan woman as more important than holding on to a centuries-long grudge that Jews held against their morally and genetically inferior Northern cousins.
  • Jesus did NOT say, “Get your theology and practices right and then you’ll be in good standing with God.”  He said, “ask me for a drink and I will give you fresh, living water.”

Yes, it is true that Jesus needed to correct the Samaritan woman’s wayward religious practice:

Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you Samaritans will worship the Father neither here at this mountain nor there in Jerusalem.  You worship guessing in the dark; we Jews worship in the clear light of day. – John 4:21 The Message

So a person may reasonably conclude, “Woah! He pretty much says we the Jews got it right but you’re wrong! This must mean that Jesus sides with the Jews, and by extension in Sam Nam’s analogy, the Conservative Evangelical church.”  But  we read further along in the passage that Jesus offers correction (and grace) to the Jews as well:

But the time is coming – it has, in fact, come – when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. – John 4:23-24 The Message

Jesus is plainly stating that God is looking for a certain kind of worshiper, the kind who will worship in Spirit and in Truth.  And what is even more amazing is the fact that Jesus expects to find these kinds of worshipers among both the Jews AND the Samaritans.  By extension, I fully believe that Jesus sees Spirit and Truth worshipers among the Conservative Evangelical AND the Progressive Mainline camps of today.  And because His motive is love, I believe that Jesus can and does offer correction to wayward theologies and practices in both camps even today.

The Church as a Safe Space, a Kill-Free Zone

Nearly a century ago, academics in the Presbyterian Church experienced painful schism when faculty from Princeton Seminary left what they thought was a bastion of liberal theology and moved to Philadelphia to open Westminster Theological Seminary.  Today, the UMC , my beloved denomination, is showing some wear and tear at the seams (see Wesleyan Covenant Association).  Let me go on record and say that I hope we don’t split.  Furthermore, I hope we stop with the character assassinations and the demonizing of those who hold onto views different from our own.

One observation I’d like to close with: on the PAAC page, I have read countless stories of how people have been hurt by their home church.

Judged by their pastor.

Ostracized from their community.

Shunned by their own family.

These Asian American Christians seem to have found a space space on the PAAC page to address their questions, voice their frustrations, and find community and a sense of belongingness.  There’s a lot that doesn’t make sense to me.  In fact, there are some postings I disagree with.  But overall, I am grateful that this online community exists.

Here’s to hoping that the church retakes the place of leadership when it comes to leading with a loving embrace to all.

Here’s to hoping that the church becomes known for the radical ways in which barriers are broken, friendships are initiated, and God’s precious gift of living water is shared amongst all who gather.  Because if there’s one thing that Conservatives and Progressives have in common, it is this: we are all thirsty.

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