I hope that you have enough stockpiled toilet paper, hand sanitiser, flour, rice, pasta… I was puzzled and disbelieving when I heard that there was a rush on toilet paper and then news stories of violence and conflict over people trying to get toilet paper in various shops – pushing and grabbing and struggling over toilet paper (and worse!). I heard of a couple of people who had pre-ordered boxes of toilet paper ordered from a charitable group that uses profits to build toilets etc in developing countries, had their order stolen from their front verandah!! Toilet paper, who’d have thought it??!!
This situation is a highly individualistic response to threats that come from beyond us. The Coronavirus is spreading in ways we don’t know and can’t control and it generates fear and uncertainty. A small panic escalates and there is widespread panic as people try and bring some small measure of control to their lives. It sometimes blows out to a ‘me versus them’ response that is defensive and about protecting me and mine. This stands in stark contrast to what we experienced through the bushfire crisis where there was a profound level of community built in, through and around the crisis. Everywhere one turned there were stories and experiences of people working together to overcome the dire threat and the catastrophic impact of raging bush fires. What is it that determines whether the responses we make are generous, inclusive and build deeper community to work together for a common good? What causes us to dissolve into irrational, fearful divisive life where we view others as ‘other’ or different or enemy?
It would seem that tribalism and formation of exclusive groups is a common trait for humans. We see and experience it everywhere, from families that break apart into splinter groups opposed to, and fighting, each other to conflicts within and between nations, where fighting and animosity, division and hatred are rife. There is a healthy rivalry and competition that doesn’t take itself too seriously, where we identify with a group of people and find a sense of belonging and are identified separately from another similar group. When this rivalry becomes too ideologically defined and the boundaries to solid and exclusive, violence ensues. Mostly this violence is in the form of exclusive behaviours and rhetoric but sometimes escalates into more serious forms.
Over time tensions form traditions and hatred solidifies and there is historic division and exclusion. Barriers, boundaries and armies are employed to maintain the ‘integrity’ of the separation. Traditional tribal and other loyalties reinforce hatreds, divisions, suspicion and hatreds. This is much of the story of humans and our history. Everywhere we look, there are examples of such tensions, conflicts and exclusive behaviours – even when a virus threatens and we cling to our own toilet paper or cast ‘blame’ onto other ethnic groups and shun particular people out of fear and suspicion – and difference.
This week’s Gospel story (John 4:5-42) is a wonderful story that captures this historical and traditional conflict between two groups of people who were from one historical family but fell out and developed ideologies that excluded one another. The Nation of Israel divided in 922 BC. Ten tribes in the north seceded from the nation and formed the Northern Kingdom of Israel (Samaritans). War ensued and they were victorious, cementing the divide. They developed traditions that varied from the Southern Kingdom of Judah (Jews) and ideology, tradition, law and ritual developed to enshrine difference and exclusivity. Each made claim to their own authenticity as descendants of the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. As time and distance, history and geopolitical interactions in the world around, moved on the differences and enmity grew. In Jesus’ time there was a radical and deep divide such that Jews travelling through the region would not walk through the region of Samaria (Northern Kingdom) but travel around it.
One day Jesus did travel through the region and stopped at a traditional well that derived its name and origin from Jacob, one of the patriarchs. It was a special place but also represents a place of courtship, drawing on traditions from early Genesis stories and traditions (eg Genesis 24 and 29). Sitting in the warm sun at noon, his disciples off in the village, he encountered a Samaritan woman who came to the well to draw water for her family. Against the cultural norms and ethnic traditions of the time, Jesus engaged this woman in conversation, asking her to give him a drink. She was surprised and commented why he, a Jew and male, should break with cultural norms and cross ethnic barriers and talk to her, a Samaritan woman. Males would not engage females in conversation without other male family members present and Jews would never talk to Samaritans – male or female. Hatreds that build slowly and intensely and are never easy to break down but in this encounter, Jesus opens a conversation with an ‘enemy’ and ignores cultural rules to build a relationship and respond to this woman as a human being loved by God!
The conversation ensues and builds as they speak about water that brings deeper life. It is a metaphor for the deeper and richer spiritual truths and experiences in God that all seek and yearn after, but which is often lost in maintaining divisions, ideologies and status quo. The woman yields to her yearning for the true and deep spiritual life that is promised in the traditions and hopes of her people and the faith of the patriarchs (and matriarchs).
Jesus’ offer of ‘Living Water’ that will refresh her soul and bring life eternal is something that touches her deeply and she is eager to embrace his offer. Through the conversation Jesus pushes aside the deep and ideological divisions that separate people and create suspicion, hatred and violence. In a metaphorical moment he asks about her husband and she replies that she has no husband. Jesus suggested that she has had 5 ‘husbands’ and the current ‘man’ is not her husband. This dialogue refers to the 5 cultural groups imported into her homeland centuries earlier (722 BC) when the Assyrians conquered the land and forced intermarriage of the people. She and her people share the bloodlines of these 5 foreign cultures and the current ‘man’ in her life is the Roman Empire that holds her people in its rule – without inter-marriage. Jesus offered this women the deep joy and hope of identity and worth as being truly human and this grace and love broke open hostility and exclusiveness and embraced a connected, inclusive life grounded in a deep experience and connection in God.
The woman embraced the offer and in a transformative moment she transcended her bounded exclusive life held by traditions and hostilities and opened to life in all of its fullness and wonder. She rushed into her village to share this news of love and freedom, inviting a gracious and eager response to hear for themselves from this One of God who brings life, peace and worth to each person, drawing all into a deep sense of human community that is held in the heart of Divine love. This is the hope we yearn for and need!