A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist
By Reverend Anne Emry
I’d like to speak about boundaries. On one side of the boundary is US and our tribe, those like US. On the other side of the boundary are NOT US, and not our tribe: those who are not like US. We’ve been talking about the boundaries in our Lenten Series: Blessed are the Poor. That is the boundary between those who have enough and those who do not. I’d like to talk about another boundary: the boundary between Christians and Jews. We are very civilized people. We are very polite. We don’t talk about latent prejudice. We don’t talk about anti-Semitic messages we have heard growing up or secretly believe, but the truth has a way of getting out; there has been a long and ugly history between Christians and Jews.
Coming to Hingham has given me the opportunity to become friends with three Rabbis. We study scriptural texts together, and I am constantly amazed at how the context of Christianity depends on the Jewish context of the Ancient Near East in the first century, and how our traditions have grown up together, in conversation with each other. I understand much more about our faith, our Lord (who was Jewish), his disciples (who were Jewish), and his mother (who was Jewish). Anti-Jewish prejudice has absolutely no place in our faith, and yet vestiges remain.
As an active member of the Hingham-Hull Religious Leaders Association I have heard about this kind of trouble—graffiti and general nastiness. Most recently, I have learned of events in Bedford, Massachusetts that are completely appalling. In the High School there has been anti-Jewish graffiti and name-calling, and the problem has shown up in the games and classroom conversations in the Elementary School. I’m not going to repeat the details, because to repeat it is to give it force. The reality is that anti-Jewish hatred continues to exist.
One problem for us as Christians is that in Holy Week, we read sacred scripture that continues to vilify the Jews. We can retranslate them to reflect that some of the Jewish leaders definitely opposed Jesus, but not all of them. And when we say “the Jews” we should more properly say: “the leaders, “the people,” or “all of humanity.” The way we read our sacred texts can actually perpetuate anti-Jewish hatred if we don’t engage the issue directly—the way I am determined to do today. Jesus of Nazareth was charged by the Roman authorities with sedition, and was executed on a Roman cross. But Jews—the collective, all Jews—become known as “Christkillers.” The legacy of that charge becomes acute during Holy Week, when our texts speak about the death of Jesus, when we hear that his blood is on “the Jews.” A better answer to the question “who killed Jesus” is: Humanity.
In Bedford the entire community is getting involved to address this problem, and I am very grateful for their work. It is important to realize that there is less than one degree of separation between our community and Bedford—which like Hingham is a small, picturesque, affluent town in the suburbs of Boston. I think we can learn from what has come to the surface there, which may be festering under the surface here. Hatred of the Jews has no place in our faith, it is an ugly, ignorant prejudice.
In the account of Jesus conversing with the woman at the well, Jesus crosses many boundaries. By even traveling through Samaria, Jesus was entering territory that was considered taboo by the people of Israel. If you imagine the geography, Galilee is at the top of the map, Samaria is a large area to the south, and Jerusalem is below it, even further south. To travel from Galilee to Jerusalem, most Jews would take the long way around, taking the road along the shores of the Mediterranean, to avoid walking through Samaria. Jesus walked right into the contested zone between US and NOT US.
When Jesus told the story about the Good Samaritan, was saying something shocking and offensive to his Jewish hearers, who believed that there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan. By telling a story where a priest and a Levite pass a dying man on the road, where the only help for the man came from a Samaritan, Jesus challenged them to live up to their values of caring for people in need in stark and attention-getting terms.
Jesus never met a boundary he wouldn’t cross. He was in Samaria, at a well, in the middle of the day, alone with a woman who we are told has a very bad reputation. This was a dangerous situation, full of taboos. Why was she the only one there? Nobody in their right mind carries a large jar to a well to fill and carry home at the hottest time of the day! But because she was probably not popular with the other women in town, she avoided the normal times, which would have been dawn and dusk, and came in the middle of the day. Some people like to preach on this text as if this woman wasn’t very savvy, as if she didn’t understand the wordplay and imagery Jesus was using. Some day I would like to have the Gospel text read as a theatrical dialogue, to give the woman’s voice a chance to come out. There is edge and nuance and ironic humor—a wonderful text. And after having heard it read, it won’t surprise you to learn that it is the longest dialogue in the Gospel of John. It is multi-level theological banter. At the heart of this conversation is the image of Living Water.
Jesus was telling her who he is in the clearest of terms: that he is from God, and speaks for God, and is the Messiah. In talking about Living Water, Jesus was quoting Jeremiah: “The LORD said ‘My people have forsaken the fountain of living water’” (Jer. 17:13) It is a beautiful image: Living Water welling up as a fountain of eternal life. Living water had a specific meaning—flowing water, fresh water, rain water. Living water—in Hebrew Mayyim Chayyim, is necessary for ritual purification. In modern Jewish tradition, it takes the form of a Mikveh, a ritual bath. So if someone is seeking purification, or most interestingly, conversion, they immerse themselves in living water, in the Mikveh. Is any of this sounding familiar to you? You get the baptismal imagery? This is why the more I learn about Jewish tradition; the more I see a reflection of how our faith has developed. Jewish tradition doesn’t call the water in the Mikveh holy water–there are significant differences—but I learn more about our traditions seeing how they are similar and different from Jewish traditions, and I treasure that.
Jesus said to the woman that he was the source of Living Water. I think she got what he was talking about. She threw down her water jug and ran to town to say to the people there: “He isn’t the Messiah, is he?” But what she meant was: “He is!” And many people came to believe in Jesus, and he stayed with the Samarians for two days, which means he ate with them, which means he crossed another boundary of table fellowship. And he invited a suspect group into the community of believers. Living water overflows all of the boundaries we try to establish. The Living Water of hope and joy that we have through our faith is what allows us to transcend boundaries of historic prejudice.
In Bedford, the Superintendent of Schools, the Bedford Clergy Association and other community organizations are publicly and proactively working to address antiJewish hostility. The Rev. Chris Wendell (rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church) is part of a public campaign; they call it “Love your neighbor”. I will close with the prayer they have written:
May we be blessed with healing from all hatred, May our homes overflow with loving kindness, May all our children grow up in the safety that encourages them to be their own best selves, May our public spaces welcome strangers and friends with abundant grace,
And may our citizens of all backgrounds and traditions share generously with, and learn eagerly from, one another. May we love God, and our neighbors. Amen.