Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Reflections on our Fear of Other

Here's my sermon for last Sunday, there were some light edits the morning of, but you get the gist.

Today's scripture is from John 4 verses 5-42 and it the story about Jesus’s encounter with a Samaritan woman at the well. 

It begins with Jesus sitting at a well in a Samaritan city.  Jesus is in a foreign land amongst a people with a different culture and world view that conflicts fairly significantly with his Jewish background.    It's around noon and the sun is hot and beating down.  Jesus has been traveling for awhile and I'm guessing he's pretty tired.   Then John says:  

7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 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.)[a] 10 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.” 11 The woman said to him, “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?” 13 Jesus said to her, “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. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15 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.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “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. What you have said is true!” 

After acknowledging that Jesus is correct about her current marital status, the Samaritan woman and Jesus continue to go back and forth in a theological discussion where Jesus challenges the notion that God should be worshipped either on the mountain in Samaria as the Samaritans believed or in the temple in Jerusalem as the Jews believed.  Instead he offers an alternative view where he makes the claim that God is spirit and truth and can be worshipped anywhere.  Then the Samaritan woman says

25 “I know that the Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he,[c] the one who is speaking to you.”

27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah,[d] can he?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to him.

While she was gone the disciples encouraged Jesus to eat, but Jesus, having had this profound experience with the woman, said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35 Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36 The reaper is already receiving[e] wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”  

Some scholars infer that the others who have "labored" before the disciples may include the very Samaritan woman whom Jesus had just met and who was off talking to the people in her village at that moment.   Not only is Jesus involving a Samaritan person in his ministry he is laying the groundwork to include women in his group of disciples and followers.  

And this woman, an outcast in her own right, was highly effective in her own ministry as John then tells us: 

39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony,  . . . 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

There's a lot going on in this story, but I want to focus my thoughts today on Jesus's radical interaction with this Samaritan woman.   I think it's sometimes hard to realize what a big deal it was for Jesus to be even talking with this Samaritan woman at the well.  I don't think it can be overstated the animosity felt between the Samaritans and the Jews during this time period.   The Samaritans were the neighbors to the North and though both groups could trace their history to similar roots . . . over time the people of Samaria had developed different cultural and theological practices that involved interracial marriage and blending religious beliefs from multiple sources.   This was partly evidenced by the discussion at the well regarding where God should be worshipped.   These different cultural norms conflicted with the Jewish way of life which focused on purity and maintaining their special relationship with God as the only “chosen people.”   There were bitter arguments between the two groups about how folks should live and what was the "right" way of viewing the world.  The fact that they were neighboring lands forced them to cross each other's paths and heightened the level of conflict.  These clashing cultural constructs are why the story of the good Samaritan would have had so much weight.  My guess is that individual Samaritans and Jews did not spend much time socializing or getting to know one another and that misunderstanding and fear of the unknown led both groups to make up a lot of things about the other group.      

This "fear of other" or fear of people that are different from us is not a new phenomenon nor is it something that humanity has been able to overcome.  Prejudice and discomfort with people who look, talk or act differently from us is not something just relegated to our textbooks or something we only talk about in our history lessons at school.  All we have to do is look around a bit to see that throughout our world there are groups of people who are marginalized and oppressed based on their cultural, ethnic, and racial backgrounds.  Women and members of the LGBTQ community are also marginalized in the towns and neighborhoods where they live.  Many ruling dictators exploit and enhance these divisions in order to maintain power over the people who live in their country. 

And sadly, we are experiencing more and more division in our own country and more than likely in our own neighborhoods and community.  It seems that many people want us to be divided into groups based on race, class, religion, sexual orientation or political views.   These folks use our very human tendency towards the fear of other as the wedge to do this.  

So we tighten control over our borders and build physical and metaphorical walls to keep people out.   And, even more upsetting to me, we see a small but unfortunately growing number of people, empowered by this fear of other, vandalizing sacred spaces and committing violence against people they have decided don't "belong" in our country.   Several of my friends from medical school whose families are from India have described patients making comments to them about not wanting to have them as their doctor because they are muslim or they are "illegal" and don't belong.  Though they grew up in this country and have been practicing medicine for many years, they are suddenly finding their presence in the community where they live and serve being questioned by people who believe they have more of a right to be there.  

As a white Christian male in American society, I have a hard time even imagining what it is like to be hated for the way I look, or where I'm from or what people perceive me to believe.   I did have one small experience, however, that shed some light on what it must feel like to be treated as an outsider.   

I was traveling through Malawi as a World Service Corps volunteer during the summer of my junior year in college.  Throughout these two months, I was well aware that I was a visitor in this small African nation.  The food was different, the language was different.  At 6 feet tall, I towered over most people and my skin color was out of place in every village I visited.  They even had a word to describe foreign white people like me - Mzungu.  I’d hear the word Mzungu shouted by children wherever I went.   Still, for the most part I felt welcomed by the people I met.    

However, there was one day when my experience was much different.   We had just finished visiting a Community of Christ congregation in the town of Dwangwa and were going to the bus depot to try to find a ride back to the town of Mzimba where I spent most of my time.   Bus depots in Malawi were always quite the site to behold.  The mini-buses we rode were called Mutatos.  I call them mini-buses but the mutatos were really converted minivans with 4 rows of seats in the back that could carry between 12 and 16 people at a time depending on how many people wanted to go somewhere.  At the depot they were lined up in a row, with horns beeping trying to get our attention.   The driver's assistants were standing outside of the vans yelling out the names of the town where they were going, trying to entice people to ride on their particular mutato.   Lilongwe, lilongwe lilongwe! or Mzuzu, Mzuzu, Mzuzu they would shout as if saying the name of the town over and over again would suddenly convince you that this was a place you wanted to go visit.     

My Malawian travel buddies and I were working our way through the chaos. We passed by very friendly vendors who were trying to sell us pretty much anything we could think of.  Through the din of horns and voices we were listening for the familiar Mzimba, Mzimba, Mzimba chant.  Then I noticed a young man walking towards me.  His eyes stared directly into mine as we passed.  When I was close enough to hear him speak he said, "Hey Mzungu, get out of our country, you don't belong here, you American people have ruined our lives.  Get out of here."  I held his gaze for a moment before I looked away. 

I didn't know what to say or how to respond.    I remember not being sure how to feel as we found the Mzimba bus and headed on our way.  I remember feeling afraid as he was talking to me, I remember feeling that maybe he's right, maybe I shouldn't be there, I remember thinking about all the awful things done by European and American colonialists over the years and that maybe my very presence was just perpetuating that unjust relationship.   But most of all, I felt ashamed of who I was. . . At the same time, I felt this strong desire to be heard . . .to say to him, I'm not who you think I am.  I'm not like people that have come before me who have exploited the resources of your country.  I'm not who you think that I am.   But I didn't get the chance.  It was truly a helpless feeling.  

And I can't help but think about how helpless many people in our country are feeling right now. Folks who are desperate for people to understand them for who they are.    As I've spent time reflecting on these issues, I've had a hard time finding hope in this time of increasing division, separation and misunderstanding.    

But when I read today's scripture, I do find hope.   You see Jesus chose a different path and he models a much better way to respond to people that are different.     Here he was, a stranger visiting a land full of people different from him, a people whom many felt threatened the Jewish way of life.  He could have easily ignored this woman and would have been supported by his culture to do so.  Yet, he chose to see through the cultural and religious differences created by his community.  He chose to see this woman for whom she was, a person standing in front of him - a woman who helped him get something to drink and wanted to engage him in a conversation.  

And how exactly did Jesus respond to this situation?  Several commentators highlight the fact that Jesus engaged this woman as a worthy conversation partner.   These two people had a theological discussion where both challenged each other and asked questions, both listened to each other, and both grew from the experience.   In the Jewish tradition, questioning another person’s point of view as Jesus did with this woman, demonstrates that Jesus thought she had value.  In his book "A Rabbi talks with Jesus," Jacob Neusner  talks about how a rabbi dialoguing and arguing with others is a sign of respect.  He says, “[asking hard questions] is my form of respect, the only compliment I crave from others, the only serious tribute I pay to the people I take seriously -- and therefore I respect and love." 

The disciples would see this dialogue as they returned and their "astonishment" at this radical interaction reaffirms their cultural norms and feelings towards the Samaritans.  There was a big discussion in the early church about whether or not to have the Christian movement go beyond the Jewish people and this conversation with the Samaritan woman shows how much Jesus was willing to break down those barriers.   That the Samaritans were worthy of following Christ was further reinforced in Acts chapter 8 when Philip was sent to Samaria to share the word of the gospel and the Holy Spirit was shared with the Samaritan people.   

So we must take from this story a call to expand our community.   As the New Testament scholar Osvaldo D Vena writes about this scripture "Jesus left us with a crucial lesson to be learned: community can only be built when we are not afraid of overcoming old prejudices and are willing to break the social conventions that dehumanize us.  The living water that Jesus promised the woman, symbolized in the water that Moses made come out of the rock in Exodus 17, is God’s purifying water, the Holy Spirit (7:37-39), which can purify our hearts of old hatreds and hostilities and form us into a diverse people of God on earth."

But how on earth do we do that?  How do we go against the cultural pressures and norms that push us to want to only be around people that are like us, that make us feel comfortable?  How do we overcome the fear of other?  How do we follow the spirit’s gentle nudge to overcome these engrained barriers?  As I've thought about these questions, I keep coming back to the spiritual practice of deep listening, or mindful listening, or what some call holy listening.  Deep listening involves being fully present with someone and trying to understand their perspective.   Mindfulness guru Thich Nath Hanh says that when you are truly engaged in the practice of deep listening you begin to understand another person's suffering.

When I look around there's not much deep listening going on these days.  We have become constantly distracted by our phones, our busy schedules and are lost in our own thoughts and ideas.  Karyn calls me out on this all the time at home.  Oftentimes, when Grayson or Brooks or Karyn has something really important to say, all I respond with is uh huh, uh huh, uh huh.  Clearly I am distracted and not listening.  I’m guessing many of you been there too.  

But besides our increasing distractions, in the past few months it seems that many of us are choosing to avoid hearing perspectives from other people who are different from us.      Mindful listening, where you are truly present with a person, shows that you value this person as an equal.  Jesus did this with the woman at the well and on many other occasions.   In fact I think most of the healing power that he had came from his ability to listen and understand another person's suffering.  As a doctor, I know that I often provide much more healing through listening and being present with another person’s suffering then I could ever provide with fancy medication and procedures.    

If we are going to expand our communities as we are called to do, the first step is to identify the stranger among you.  Who in your life is feeling marginalized, who is thirsty for someone to understand them and their perspective or to understand their suffering.   At Grayson's elementary school, they have a bench.  This bench is where kids go when they are feeling alone or left out.  Then the other students have been taught to notice when one of their classmates is at the bench and to go up that child and ask them to come play.   What a wonderful lesson for these kids!  They are being taught to seek out the excluded or marginalized and invite them to be included.  Now it's not as easy in our adult world to identify people that are feeling left out, but I bet that if we open our eyes and are paying attention we will be presented with many opportunities to share the living water of Jesus in the form of deep listening.  

And when you are presented the opportunity to engage in mindful listening, spend time focusing on listening to understand that person.   Avoid the temptation to formulate your response right away.   As one of my palliative care mentors often says, put on your curiosity cap and ask more questions to get a greater understanding.  

Listening with intention is not easy and it can sometimes be exhausting, but it is vital to human relationship and it is vital to creating peace.  As one of my personal heroes Mr. Rogers once said "Listening is a very active awareness of the coming together of at least two lives. Listening, as far as I'm concerned, is certainly a prerequisite of love. One of the most essential ways of saying 'I love you' is being a receptive listener."
In doctrine and covenants Section 163 verse 3c and 4a we are reminded
c. There are subtle, yet powerful, influences in the world, some even claiming to represent Christ, that seek to divide people and nations to accomplish their destructive aims. That which seeks to harden one human heart against another by constructing walls of fear and prejudice is not of God. Be especially alert to these influences, lest they divide you or divert you from the mission to which you are called.
4 a. God, the Eternal Creator, weeps for the poor, displaced, mistreated, and diseased of the world because of their unnecessary suffering. Such conditions are not God’s will. Open your ears to hear the pleading of mothers and fathers in all nations who desperately seek a future of hope for their children. Do not turn away from them. For in their welfare resides your welfare.

As you sit here now, I want you to think about who in your life is thirsting to be heard?  Who in your life feels on the margins and needs someone to connect with them on a deeper level?  Who is the stranger that can open your eyes to new ways of seeing?  Who in your life needs you to understand their suffering?  We have an opportunity to broaden our community everyday.   As we think about our own spiritual practices, I challenge each of us to practice mindful listening.  In that spirit of love we can follow Jesus' example at the well and break down barriers between us so that we can all drink from the living water of God's love.