The other Good Samaritan: Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2015

Friday January 24, 2015 Assumption College, Worcester

Sunday January 25, 2015 Union Baptist Church, New Bedford

 John 4: 1-42

Icon of St Photini
Icon of St Photini

It happens now every time I see him. I have a wonderful, kind, and wise colleague. We don’t see one another often, but every time I see him, he seems happy to see me. He opens his arms, and says “Laur….en, how good to be with you again!” Which is lovely, and kind and welcoming. But my name is not Lauren. It’s Laura, not Lauren. Every time. Every time he sees me, he calls me “Lauren.” It’s been going on for a few years now, and I confess I haven’t had the heart to correct him. And the longer it’s gone on, the harder it is for me to say, “that’s not my name.”

Sung:  Will you come and follow me
If I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know
And never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown,
Will you let my name be known,
Will you let my life be grown
In you and you in me?

(Verse 1: the Summons by John Bell)

Let us pray… Holy one who calls each of us by name, stir our hearts again this day. My Lord, I am bold to stand before your people and proclaim a holy word, so send your Spirit among us to give us the Word we need for the road ahead. I claim you as my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ, reverend clergy, I bring you blessings and greetings from the Massachusetts Council of Churches, a network of seventeen Orthodox and Protestant denominations, congregations and individual Christians from across Massachusetts convinced that what binds us together in Christ is stronger than anything that might divide us. I also come to you to prove that someone from Boston can find her way to Worcester/ New Bedford ! Our divisions in the church are not just denominational, but sometimes geographic! Our divisions are not just geographic or denominational, but racial too. There are whole denominations that exist because white Christians refused to worship with black Christians. In Boston, at the old African Meeting House, the freed black parishioners were only allowed to worship in the balcony. A black family tried to do what every other white parishioner had done and purchase a pew for their family. They found a pew in the balcony. Paid for their pew in the balcony. They came back the next Sunday and all the pews were gone from the balcony. For as many times as the Church has gathered as one, we have found ways to separate ourselves- separate men from women, separate white Christians from black Christians, separate Protestants from Roman Catholics, separate ourselves from God. It is good to be together in worship, a foretaste of the unity Christ promises his Church.

As good as it is to be here tonight, I confess that I wasn’t thrilled about the scripture passage this year for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (or the welcome letter from the WPCU team- written by four men). We finally get a Gospel story that focuses on the life and struggles of a woman as a follower of Christ and she goes totally unnamed, so unconcerned were our ancient forbearers in remembering her identity! The Gospel of John gives us this major, countercultural exchange that shouldn’t really happen between a Jew and a Samaritan, a man and a woman, a healing, wandering rabbi and a woman who must trudge up hill to just gather water for her home– and no one could bother to remember a sister’s name? And I confess, that this story from St John troubles me because of the way the Christian tradition has most often characterized this woman as a prostitute. If you want to be very Baptist, I’ll invite you to open up your Bibles with me for a close read of the text- so you can see that in verses 17-18 when Jesus asks her about her former husbands, we could see that there’s nothing in the text of the passage that points to her as a prostitute. We could see that Jesus does not say a word about repenting or speaking of sexual sin. As New Testament scholar and President of Lutheran Theological Seminar in Philadelphia, Rev. Dr. David Lose writes, “She very easily could have been widowed or have been abandoned or divorced. Five times would be heartbreaking, but not impossible.” We know that heartbreak can be that big, that often, that heartbreakingly sad. Or she could have been in a Leverite marriage, an ancient practice where “where a childless woman is married to her deceased husband’s brother in order to produce an heir, yet is not always technically considered the brother’s wife.” Dr. Lose again writes, “There are any number of ways, in fact, that one might imagine this woman’s story as tragic rather than scandalous.” But for centuries the Western Church has left her unnamed and besmirched as a prostitute.

And yet, look at the end of the passage, vs 39-42. Because of this woman’s powerful testimony, many people came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. She is most like John the Baptist, pointing towards the one who would break every barrier and re-connect a splintered people back to God. And no one could remember her name? For a very long time, the Church has thought of this unnamed, widowed woman who proclaims Jesus as the Messiah as scandalous and forgettable rather than tragic, prophetic, and bold.

And yet, as a Christian from the Reformed side of the family, I carry that strong sense that even when we struggle, or perhaps especially when we struggle with Scripture, God has something new to teach us.

When we think of Samaritans, most of us think of the Good Samaritan, the story along the Jericho road in the Gospel of Luke. That Samaritan goes unnamed, but he was deemed “Good.” And even in pop culture, the Good Samaritan is a story most people know and hold up as a model for ethical relationships and the answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” In Luke10, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, the man who stops along a dangerous road to care for a wounded stranger. The Good Samaritan brings him to an inn and leaves some money for the innkeeper to care for him. Christian tradition often makes a helpful distinction between acts of charity and acts of justice- charity is bandaging the wounds of the stranger, justice is challenging and working to change a broken system where so many people are getting hurt on the Jericho Road. When preaching on the Good Samaritan and the Vietnam War at Riverside Church in New York in 1967 Martin Luther King said,

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

The temptation of the Good Samaritan parable is to just give our money and let someone else do the messy work of being in relationship with the stranger, or those other people from whom we’ve been separated.

But this story, our story, in the Gospel of John today of the Samaritan woman asks more of us than just outsourcing our compassion and flinging a coin to a stranger. The scandalous, challenging good news of the Samaritan Woman at the well is this: God doesn’t just ask for our charity towards the stranger, God wants our intimacy as well. Jesus doesn’t just asked to be relieved of his thirst, but wants to know this woman’s life and struggles, to see and be seen, to know and be known. This woman at the well, this woman engaged in a back and forth with Jesus, and her preaching and witness to her village, she is our other Good Samaritan!

I take great comfort in the fact that we are already one in Christ. Despite centuries of division, denominational malaise and sometimes, active hostility towards one another, we who bear the name of Christ are all baptized into the same body. Like it or not, we are brothers and sisters in Christ. There is nothing you or I can do to change this. This is good news. The Church of Jesus Christ is one, already.

Now, we can fail to receive one another’s gifts. We can pretend like the other doesn’t exist, like the priest and the Levite who pass the wounded stranger on the Jericho road. We can treat our particularities as idols, and think our differences are more important than our commonalities. We can forget one another’s names. We can fail to live up to the unity that Jesus prayed for in John 17. We can refuse one another’s gifts. But for all who bear the name of Christ, we are already one. In my frustration over the western Church’s tradition of shaming and then forgetting our other Good Samaritan, I discovered a gift of our Orthodox sisters and brothers- they remembered and named our Good Samaritan woman, Photini.

The Antiochian tradition remembers St. Photini like this “She went and told her townspeople that she had met the Christ. For this, she is sometimes recognized as the first to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. She converted her five sisters (Sts. Anatole, Photo, Photis, Paraskeve, and Kyriake) and her two sons (Victor and Joses). They all became tireless evangelists for Christ. The apostles of Christ baptized her and gave her the name of Photini which means “the enlightened one.” She is remembered by the Church as a Holy Martyr and Equal to the Apostles.”

And for our Greek Orthodox brethren on St. Photine’s feast day on February 26 & following Pascha, they sing “The Samaritan Woman, having come to the well in faith, beheld You, the Water of Wisdom from which she drank plentifully and inherited the Heavenly Kingdom as one who is blessed forever.”

Church, I am so grateful for these Christians who remember and call out the name of Photine, because, to be intimately known requires that we know one another’s names. To be known to one another as Christ knows us requires that we actually know one another, on a first-name basis.

Maybe your name has been forgotten. Maybe someone forgot your family’s name at Ellis Island. Maybe your family name slipped into the sea somewhere in the Middle Passage or your name was changed without your consent on these shores. Maybe people perceive your name as hard to pronounce, like the Patriots tight end Michael Hoomanawanui and so people give you a nickname like H-man, since while we can learn a Russian name like Tchaikovsky but not a Polynesian name like Hoomanawanui? Maybe someone forgot your name as you walked down the street, as they shouted “Girl, why don’t you bring all that over here?” Maybe someone forgot your God-given name as someone shouts “Hey, Hey, Hey you?” Maybe you’ve been called so many other things than a beloved child of God that you have forgotten your own name too?

We need one another to remind us when we have forgotten our names.

Recently, I confessed to an older pastor that I had this colleague who gets my name wrong. She suggested that the next time I see him, after he calls me “Lauren,” that I gently put a hand on his arm and say, “Tom, my closest friends call me Laura.” I promise you that the next time I see Tom, I will tell him my name, so that he can truly know me and we can truly start to repair the divisions in the body of Christ between us. And Church, when you pass the peace, consider this: Tell that other person your name. Say “My name is Laura. The peace of Christ be with you.”

Sung: Lord, your summons echoes true
When you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you
And never be the same.
In your company I’ll go
Where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow
In you and you in me.

May you hear your name called, and follow the Messiah we call by the same name this night, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Published by RevEverett

I'm a pastor in the United Church of Christ here in Boston. I serve as the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Cycliss, seamstress, my book is "Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels." NJ by birth, MA by choice. Opinions are my own. Love abounds.

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