A couple weeks ago, I watched a speech for seminary graduates online by Rev. Dr. Jonathan L Walton who is “an acclaimed author, social ethicist and religious scholar. He is the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals” and a minister at Harvard University. He was giving sermon to the 2018 graduates of Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. I got my first master’s degree there at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education which is now part of Union Seminary, so I am interested in what happens there. I scribbled down notes while he was speaking so that I could share some of it with you. The title of his message to those graduating was “Who Cares” and he used the John 4 passage, much of which Rodger and I read to you, about Jesus in Samaria and the women at the well. [Whoever created these stain glass windows found this story important too as it is gorgeously memorialized here in our sanctuary.]
Rev. Walton stated that caring is a dominant theme from Genesis through Revelation. Throughout our sacred book he takes note that God sides with the oppressed and stands against oppression. The Old Testament prophets certainly do such as in the Book of Amos, chapter 2. Amos, as God’s mouthpiece, proclaims against leaders and others in Israel too because they are those “who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way,” so they profane God’s holy name.
The Book of Isaiah proclaims, “let the oppressed go free.”
In the New Testament we read in Matthew chapter 25, as the author speaks of goats and sheep: contrasting people who will live with God forever and those who will be pushed away from the Lord at the final judgment when we come before Christ. The criteria are based on feeding the hungry, clothing those in need, visiting the sick and those in prison, and of critical issue still today- welcoming the stranger.
In all those instances and many more, God identifies with the oppressed. Rev. Walton’s question is: Have we lived a life that is worth living as we treat others as we would treat God? When we do so, we will have empathy for other cultures as Jesus, a Jew, did with the woman at the well, a Samaritan. Jews believed they had nothing in common with the Samaritans and as I’ve said in another sermon, derogatorily called them “dogs.”
I agree with Jonathon Walton when he mentioned that we live in a world that rewards deceit and deception, to our detriment! Too many people, including Christians, can easily trade moral virtue for the common cause of today’s society. He stated that “leaders here and around the world are like emperors without clothes!” I think that, at least in part, means too many in positions of power, including us in some ways, with naked abandon, care much more for themselves than for other people.
I was reminded of Meghan Markel and Prince Harry, now the Duchess and Duke of Sussex, as they are in the news so much due to their recent courtship and wedding, and how I repeatedly heard the manner in which they care so very much for those in need and those who are oppressed. Even before they were together they advocated for and helped those who were in sad conditions and, now that they are together, they will continue in the same manner, as British royalty. They each have so very much and yet are very mindful that wealth is a gift and a gift they are to share with others, especially the oppressed.
“Samaritans were viewed with dehumanizing disdain by Jews even though they shared a border and followed the same scripture.” All this animosity was due, in large part, to their disagreement on where the Temple (with a capital “T”) should be located. For Jews it was Jerusalem and for Samaritans it was Mount Gerazim near Shechem. Because of that difference, and issues that ensued out of that difference, the two were mortal enemies. They couldn’t tolerate each other’s cultures or people. This lack of tolerance for differences, always an issue but certainly prominent today among some, reminds me of the west and the lack of forbearance with the Middle East’s culture and religion. Of course, I’m not referring to terrorists, and we can find terrorists in any culture, but all the other people who are the vast majority of those cultures. “When we fail to acknowledge the validity of other cultures, we are looking for what makes us unique and special and emphasizes vain desires.” The prevailing thought is ‘we are better than they are and more in the right.’ That is a form of narcissism, certainly a biblical sin.
Too often, both in our country and world history, whole groups of people are criminalized for their identification. In WWII, the Japanese is this country, most of whom were American citizens, were interred in what were not the best of conditions. During that same time, the Jews in Europe were taken to internment camps and many were taken to gas chambers or shot. In 1948, South Africa formalized Apartheid, the word which means apartness. That system called for the separate development of races in the country. It was originally to be “equal development and freedom of cultural expression” [on SAHO website] but in practice it was grossly unequal, as we all know.
All these instances taught us that devaluation of one group, and we can surmise what those groups are today, too effortlessly leads to hatred, slander, malice and even death.
Rev. Dr. Walton invited his listeners to “walk with me in your Holy Ghost imaginations” as we think of an ancient Jewish woman pulling her children closer when a Samaritan passes by. And of a woman minding her business when someone pulls out a cellphone and calls the police. Also, when the woman at the well is categorized as a prostitute. The narrative doesn’t in any way say she is a prostitute but had been married five times and now lived with a man. It was not unusual for a woman to remarry when her husband died or divorced her because it was harsh living for a woman alone in Jesus’ day.
Jesus never calls the woman a prostitute. He doesn’t even condemn her for her lifestyle when she acknowledges that she has had five husband and now lives with a man. No, he doesn’t condemn her but instead, he commends her for being honest with him. I think we may go so far as to say that Jesus thought, who cares concerning this woman’s love life. She didn’t have to earn his compassion. Rev. Walton explains that there is “no moral clause here in her identity. Jesus’ treatment (of her) is not predicated on goodness any more than marginalization was predicated on her sinfulness.” How deviant or how holy her personal lifestyle and behavior, was of little consequence to Jesus for he simply wanted to tell her some good news while having a theological discussion with her- unheard of for a rabbi! He wanted to invite her to the belief that he would offer her living water, therefore, drawing her into a closer relationship with God through him. No, this was not about who she was but who Jesus was. He was, and is, the one who cares regardless of whom you are. He puts the person first before any rules and regulations.
We hear of this in our Mark lesson as Jesus acts for people even when it goes against the rules. “Outlook” magazine editor, Jill Duffield, recently wrote about this passage. She says that the Old Testament book of Joshua came to her mind while she read our passage in Mark. In chapter 24 it is stated, “choose this day whom you with serve.” And it brought to mind Deuteronomy chapter 30: “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life.” Jesus chooses life. She chooses him and wants to follow him.
He did for the woman at the well what he does for those who followed him when, on the Sabbath day they need sustenance and proceed to pick grains of wheat to eat. That doesn’t sound very appetizing to me but it is important to their lives. Yet, it was against the Law of Moses to do that on the Sabbath. One’s food had to be prepared the day before. You and I both know that the disciples had nothing and had to depend on others or fend for themselves to survive. Jesus chooses life for himself and his disciples. The Pharisees, the religious leaders, notice this and are very indignant about it.
Going on in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus similarly disregards the Law, as it was practiced, when he goes into the synagogue, and notices a man with a withered hand. He puts a question to the disapproving Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” The Pharisees are silent on this matter and we can imagine why. Jesus is not pleased with them and proceeds to heal the man’s withered hand. Here he gets to the intent of the Law and that is to take care of the people of Israel and especially those in need. It is at this point that the religious leaders begin to conspire against Jesus, in Mark’s Gospel. He is a threat to their authority, their power and their wealth. According to Rev. Duffield, their moral clause wasn’t actually the law but their own power. She explains, “In short, they chose death to sustain their own worldly lifestyle.”
It does seem absurd that anyone would chose death over life, evil over good (especially if mental illness isn’t involved.) It’s difficult for us to imagine that a person of faith, well acquainted with Scripture and having a solid prayer life, would chose death and evil over life and good, isn’t it? Of the Pharisees we may say: “Why are they so blind to the presence of the holy in their midst?” Why don’t they recognize the value of what Jesus is and who Jesus is? Well, we may recognize that they were blinded by their societal and religious identity and couldn’t or wouldn’t want to see beyond that.
A challenge for us in our lives is this: We may say, “Oh those ridiculous Pharisees” when all the while we fail to pull the pharisaical log out of our own eyes. How often do we vote because it benefits us or those we love? How often do we pass by a person in need because it isn’t a convenient time? How often do we demean another culture or group of people to make ourselves feel better about and unholy proud of our own culture or lifestyle? To quote Rev. Duffield, “Too often we are at the ready to protect our advantages even at the expense of other’s healing and wholeness. Too often we do whatever it takes to preserve our own advantages while failing to see how our actions handicap others.”
I think we can draw similar conclusions from what Rev. Duffield wrote and what Rev. Walton. Rev. Walton explains, that “Jesus’ regard for the woman at the well is not pity or transactional. He doesn’t seek anything in return because the act of compassion itself is enough reward.” He values her humanity and dignity, her personhood as a creature of God.
We ask, who cares? Well, God cares, that’s who. Our gracious Savior cares for all people and surely we can do no less. May we all go and do likewise. Amen.