i preached this morning at st mary's ealing (which i do about once a term). unusually i was asked if there was something i had in mind rather than there being a series or lectionary text chosen to work from. i was very taken with a chapter in bible blindspots (more about that in another post) by nestor miguez called samaritans and empire. that together with previous ponderings led me to work up a talk i called 'good samaritans?' i developed it as a reflection from photine, the woman at the well in john 4 - i have used that name as that is what she is known as in the orthodox tradition. when i suggested it i had no idea what would be happening in the world and church this week but it somehow felt pertinent. i don't often write sermons out but i did for this one and have added some scripture references into it for those who are curious to explore further. i am not especially giuven to posting sermons here but thought i would this time round.
if you like the gist and want to read further then you might like these three articles/chapters:
samaritans and empire by nestor miguez in the book bible blindspots;
prayer of the sent away by ryan dueck in the book unsettling the word
unmasking state theology by gerald o west also in the book unsettling the word
anyway here's the talk/monologue
Readings: 1 Kings 12:1-24; Luke 9:51-56; Luke 10:25-37
[Today I am going to present a reflection on the readings as today’s sermon by presenting you an imaginative reading from the woman at the well or Samaritan woman. I hope this has something to say into our world today and indeed our church. I won’t draw any conclusions - you can draw those for yourselves.]
Hi! My name is Photine though you probably know me as ‘the woman at the well’. You probably already worked out that the whole encounter between me and Jesus shouldn’t have happened. There was a lot of animosity between Jews and Samaritans. Jews despised us and so 99.9% would walk around going the long route rather than actually have to go through and God forbid meet a Samaritan! Jesus was different - he decided to meet those whom others avoided and despised. As I say we met at Jacob’s well and I have never forgotten it. Jesus and his friends stayed with us for two days after that which was amazing and we talked and talked. I am not sure you realise quite how incredible what Jesus did was.
The disciples were a bit slower to catch on to put it mildly. Even after they had spent those two days with us in our village (John 4:40) a few months later they still wanted fire to rain down from heaven in judgement on us Samaritans (Luke 9:51-56). I was shocked and at least disappointed when I heard that story many years later - they should have known better.
I am getting ahead of myself - let me rewind. A bit of history will probably help. You may be familiar with it but don’t worry if not. When our people were freed from slavery in Egypt we were in twelve tribes (of Israel). When we entered the promised land eventually the land was distributed between the tribes. We all settled and worked out how to live in the land - thanks be to the God of our fathers Abraham Isaac and Jacob. God is good. After Joshua it was a a bit chaotic really and leadership sort of moved round the tribes - the Judges were from many tribes - Gideon from Manasseh, Samson from Dan, Deborah from Naphtali (we think).… Then of course against the advice of the prophet Samuel, we demanded a King. Saul, David and then Solomon who were all from the tribe of Judah, ruled as Kings from Jerusalem. There are explicit instructions in the law about how kings should rule (Deut 17:14-20). But they pretty much ignored the parts about accumulating wealth and about not lording it over the people. By the time of Solomon he was running an expansive building programme including the temple, with a huge labour force made up of indigenous peoples or foreigners as we thought of them and Israelites (though notably not including people from their tribe of Judah!) (2 Chronicles 2:1-2). He was a real slave driver and that became his reputation. The prophet Nathan counselled against building a temple (1 Chron 17:3) but that was ignored. Empires and colonial powers can’t resist that city-temple combination - conveniently God legitimates their extractive policies and exploitation of the people. The rich city elites get richer and the peasants get poorer. It’s what Samuel said - ‘the king will take’! (1 Samuel 8:10-18)
I think that is what created the tension that led to a split. Under Solomon, Jeroboam rebelled and took the 10 tribes in the North and Solomon was left with the tribe of Judah and most of the Levite priests too - Jerusalem was the place of the temple. His son Rehoboam who you heard about in the reading succeeded him as King.
They say history turns on key moments. Rehoboam had a real opportunity for peace and uniting Israel as one, for a reset if you like. But instead he ignored the elders who advised this was an opportunity for uniting the people together as one. Instead he listened to the young who no doubt were enjoying their wealth and privilege, the fruits of exploitation. They liked the status quo. So Rehoboam turned the screw, and said he intended to be more of a slave driver than his father Solomon. It’s what empires do - sacrifice whatever or whoever gets in their way. Well you can imagine how that went down - rebellion, violence and resistance. From then on we were separate. They had their Kings we had ours. Sometimes we fought, sometimes there was peace.
Jerusalem was in the area of land that the tribe of Judah took from the Canaanites. We loved that city but after Rehoboam couldn’t really go there any more. That’s how we ended up with our own sacred site and built a temple at Mount Gerazim - it’s a special place of course because it’s where the blessings were read back in the day with Moses - yes from that mountain! Looking back maybe for us who were being written out of the story that sign of God’s favour was why we chose it?! It was King Omri who decided we also need a capital city of our own. He bought a hill and built a city named Samaria from which you can see the Mount Gerazim (1 Kings 16:24). Well the tribe of Judah (and the priests) did not like that at all. Chronicles pretty much writes the Northern Kingdom out of the records - have you ever noticed that?! Guess who wrote that version of history! Not us. As I tell you this I have tears in my eyes - we are the same family - we are all one people, blood brothers and sisters, it shouldn’t have been that way.
Who are God’s people? It’s a pretty basic question. Is God a tribal God or the God of all the world, of all peoples? When God spoke to our father Abraham he said that all nations would be blessed through him. We (Israel) were always meant to bless all peoples. Since the spilt gradually the Judahites (now known as Jews) claimed God’s favour was just for them - they were God’s people - forget the rest of us - the blessing of God on all of Israel collapsed. It’s ironic that we were meant to bless all peoples but what emerged was an ever decreasing defended group claiming they were God’s chosen people and that God was only with them and not with others. In both the Northern Kingdom which over time became known as Samaria and the Southern Kingdom (Judah) people turned away from God. And we reaped the fruit of our ways which was what was said in the law all along - wild beasts, famine, war and ultimately exile (Leviticus 26). There were some good kings but the overall pattern was not. No one ever believed it would happen but in the North we were taken captive by Assyria. and in the South some years later Babylon. Samaria was over run by the king of Assyria and he sent people from 5 nations round about to live there (2 Kings 17:24). And of course they brought their religious practices with them. The King of Assyria did send back a priest to teach the ways of the Lord. That has been used to beat us ever since - the 5 nations things, prostituting ourselves to other pagan gods. The author of the book of Kings says ’To this day they persist in their former practices.’ (2 Kings 17:34) which is bit rich to be honest. But that is what we had to live with - accusations of heresy, idolatry.
The return from exile as recorded in Ezra and Nehemiah is another screw turned really for us Samaritans and other Israelites which is now canonised. Anyone undocumented was in trouble - you had to prove your ancestry i.e. really were one of the chosen people meaning you were a priest or from Judah or Benjamin and elite at that! And those who married foreigners were publicly named and shamed and in some cases beaten. The women and children just sent away. It’s unbelievable really. Of course many of them ended up with us in the North. It’s purity gone mad - imperial politics acting in the name of God - what kind of God would do that? One who hates foreigners?
I hope you get my drift - it’s important to fill the back story. We talked long into the night with Jesus about all of this when he stayed those two days. Jesus is so incredible. He came to Samaria, he spoke with me and when I shared about our sacred site he didn’t mind. He suggested it was about something beyond that - Spirit and Truth (John 4). And what amuses me no end is that everyone who reads the account in John’s gospel thinks I have had lots of husbands but when Jesus said I had 5 husbands - I knew he was talking about that central reason we were hated or what the accusations were - the 5 nations we had supposedly got into bed with! He was letting me know he got all that and it didn’t matter - he had not come to judge. He didn’t judge us but helped us all find the living water he talked about while remaining worshippers as Samaritans - it was extraordinary. The disciples did not know where to look over those two days! But like Hagar I knew he was the God who sees - he saw me, he saw us.
And it didn’t end there with Jesus - his story of the Samaritan who helped the beaten up man when the Levite and pharisee didn’t was brilliant and shocking at the same time - you can imagine how that went down with the powers that be! After he had ascended and the Spirit came we caught wind that it was to come in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth - yes Samaria - thanks be to God!
I remember wondering whether our name ‘Samaritan’ which was seen as a curse really by the Jews when I met Jesus, could ever be seen differently. But Jesus flipped the script or had a good go. What does the word mean in your time I wonder? Do you use that word for good? Is it possible that there are good Samaritans?!
I relay this to you in the future as followers, disciples of Jesus, my sisters and brothers. I imagine these kinds of issues are long gone in the body of Jesus:
claiming God as being for one chosen group and not another;
calling other followers heretics or unbiblical;
domination, oppression and forced labour that comes with empire;
colonial settler expansion and land grabs in the name of Jesus;
expelling undocumented workers.
I am sure these must be a thing of the past I mean when it comes to the church, Christianity.
Jesus is such good news.