I am glad you could all join us this afternoon, at a most unusual time of day for a church service, especially since you have all likely been to church at least once already. We are grateful to Pastor Paul Pingel and the community of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church for extending us hospitality. And I hope you had the opportunity to welcome one another, visit with friends, and meet some new faces. These gatherings are always occasions to give thanks to God and to encourage one another. Welcome.
Every year from January 18—25, usually around Martin Luther King Day and the Anniversary of the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, a couple of weeks after the start of the new year, and a couple of weeks before Superbowl Sunday, we mark the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It really is a week long observance, but we are fortunate to be able to set aside one day; well really, an hour and some of an afternoon. Nonetheless I am confident we are mindful of what brings us together—our common faith in Jesus Christ and his desire that “[we] may all be one, as [the Father and he] are one” (Jn 17: 22).
Ecumenism is not a word we often use in everyday conversation. But all it means is that we are making an effort to move toward greater cooperation and unity among our different Christian traditions. For many generations we have given the world poor witness of Christian charity, as Jesus commanded us to love one another. Individuals and communities would claim to follow Jesus and embrace his gospel, boldly exalting God’s enduring mercy and kindness amid the darkness, selfishness, and sinfulness of an unbelieving world. Yet in the same breath we also behaved in a most unchristian manner, denouncing one another as misguided, resistant to the truth, in league with the devil. We hurled insults at each other and called each other names—not good ones. Then we gathered in church each weekend to profess undying fidelity to God; publicly committing ourselves to live in love, and to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth. But fortunately, some of us have seen the grave error of our ways. It is fairly recent, as in the last 100 years, that Christian communities have made a serious effort to break down the barriers to unity among the members of the body of Christ. Some efforts have been encouraging, and we continue to work hard.
To break down the barriers between peoples we see the need for a fundamental change in our attitude. Though we regarded each other suspiciously in the past, we have since realized how our fears were unfounded. It took a couple of generations for instance to set aside our animosity against people behind the Iron Curtain, having demonized them for so long. So it has taken us some time to set aside our distrust of other Christians who prayed the Lord’s Prayer differently, who didn’t use the same bible as us, who believed differently about the Eucharist, grace, and salvation, and who spoke an unfamiliar church language. Slowly we ventured into unchartered territory when we began sending our children to the same schools, and engaged with one another in the secular marketplace. Pretty soon we were extending a hand in friendship, initiating official church-sanctioned dialogues, and breaking bread informally at potluck socials and community functions. We seem less inclined to regard or treat other Christians badly when we knew them by name, or when we shared a meal with them, or when we prayed together. Perhaps we are less hesitant to defend them now when others disparage them, or when bigotry rears its ugly head in other ways. And considering it wasn’t long ago we were soundly warned against entering a different church than our own lest we incur eternal damnation, it is short of miraculous that today we can sit calmly among Episcopalians and United Methodists in a Lutheran church, call on God together in prayer, sing the same hymns, read from the same bible, and listen to a Catholic priest preach, and then go downstairs for cookies and lemonade without fear of offending one another or inviting the wrath of God.
Despite what we read in the gospel story, Jesus did not have to travel through Samaria. He went because he intended to meet a Samaritan woman at the site of Jacob’s well in the heat of the day. She came for a bucket of water, or so she thought. He came thirsting for her faith.
“Give me a drink”—best line in all of scripture. The well was deep, and she owned the only bucket within reach. The well and the water belonged to her people. He was a foreigner in her country, among a people his people despised. And being an unaccompanied woman in their culture, they shouldn’t have even been conversing. And still he asked her for a drink. It was the middle of the day. The sun was bearing down hard. He had walked a great distance. His thirst for water was a natural human need. She was well aware of his thirst, or at least he made her think he was thirsty for water. If he didn’t want her water, he would not have asked. But as he asked her for a drink, he also offered her more than what she came looking for herself.
“If you knew who it was who was asking you for a drink, you would have asked him for living water.” The woman was curious. He looked harmless. Should she be fearful of his offer? He seemed willing to drink her water. Should she reciprocate and ask him for his living water in return? What sort of game was he playing? Jesus the Jew was willing to defy a long-held and revered custom of his people, and drink Samaritan water drawn from a Samaritan well in a Samaritan bucket at the hands of a Samaritan woman in the land of Samaria. He saw no threat from the woman or her people as many of his own people would have seen in that situation. And if Samaritan water is able to quench Jewish thirst, it might even work the other way, too. Here was an opportunity to recognize and appreciate what another might bring who was formerly unwelcome and considered suspect. That fear was clearly unfounded, that custom without merit.
Several years ago, I was leaving home for church on a Saturday afternoon when I heard a knock at the front door. I was dressed just like this. And when I opened the door, there were two Mormon missionaries standing there. “Hi,” I said. “Even if I wanted to stay, I have to get going.” They both paused, wide-eyed. I’m sure this had never happened to them before. “If you don’t mind, might we have some water to drink?” I never gave it a thought then, but two Mormon missionaries were at my door, asking me, a Catholic priest, for a drink. Was it a set-up? I didn’t think to ask them for some of their water to drink. It would have been a snappy come-back, and we would have shared a moment of scriptural convergence, but too late now.
What is it we truly fear from other Christians, especially those unlike ourselves? If we can recognize a thirst that we share with them, and that we probably have water to offer each other in our thirst, would we go out of our way to offer them what we have, or ask them to give us some of theirs? I suppose someone has to make the first move.
A year or two after I arrived in Waynesboro, I decided to reach out and invite the local pastors of the three other partner churches that my bishop, Bishop Walter Sullivan, had signed a covenant with at a statewide ecumenical gathering I went to in Lexington. I had nothing to lose. I didn’t know anyone in the area. I wouldn’t be surprised if no one had ever heard of LARCUM. It took us four pastors one lunch at a local Mexican restaurant to agree to meet again, and invite some of our people to come up with a plan. There was no manual. We would have to write it ourselves.
When Jesus asked the Samaritan woman for a drink, he crossed a barrier, and invited her to do the same. He did not ask her to take a risk he was not willing to take himself. And in a short time, she was asking him for water to quench a thirst she did not even know she had. At first she seemed offended that Jesus would trivialize her ancestors who dug the well that had served her community for generations. “Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob?” His answer dodged the question. “This water will quench only temporarily. I have water that will become a spring within you, gushing to eternal life.” “Well then,” she said. “I want this water.”
Then he brings up her five husbands, and that the man she was living with was not her husband. At first glance, it appears he was itching for a fight. What was he getting at? He has never asked a question like that of anyone before. But she proves she can dodge as well as him. “I see you are a prophet.” And that opened up into how they worshipped the God they shared in common. She had already called him a prophet. She did not object when he told her they worshipped what they did not know. “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
“I know the Messiah is coming. When he comes he will proclaim all things to us.” She thought she was leading the conversation. Instead she walked right into his revelation. “I AM.” It wasn’t really a response to her comment about the Messiah. He was drawing her to a new level of understanding and truth. Her next move was to offer others the living water that was now a spring within her gushing to eternal life.
It is clear Jesus and the Samaritan woman had broken through some barriers, all because someone took a risk, acknowledged the dignity and giftedness of the other, and offered a treasure too good to resist. He was thirsty for her faith. She encountered the One who knew everything about her, and so transformed her that she would never be the same again. And she knew she just had to give others what she had received.
I am convinced we have come to know and love Jesus Christ better since we began sharing water from our different wells. We should not fear to venture into unchartered territory to discover our deeper thirsts, and the living water Jesus provides to quench our thirst. I would even challenge us to take what we have learned from this experience to break down other barriers of race and culture and religion.
The Rev. Franklin Graham was wrong to oppose an opportunity recently at Duke University to break down barriers and quench a thirst for justice and understanding. The tragic events in Paris two weeks ago remind us there is never any excuse for violence, but we can’t also poke people in the eye and claim we are free to incite hate. Freedom is both a privilege and a responsibility. And until we are willing to venture into a strange land with a thirst that needs quenching, we will never believe anyone has anything we want. If we want to quench another’s thirst, are we also willing for them to quench ours?
Rolo B Castillo © 2015