How displaced he must have felt on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. At least he could find a newspaper he could read, find a few people that understood him, for while he had mastered several languages, he could not speak English. Thank goodness for Yiddish newspapers, allowing Moishe Zakharovich Shagalov to follow what was happening in the war. Or maybe it wasn’t goodness, for those papers told him that his hometown had been completely destroyed, his people crushed, ashes on the wind.
But we are too far into the story. It begins in in the little village of Liozna, just outside of Vitebsk in what is now Belarus but was then a part of the Russian Empire. This was the Russia of the Tsars, of sanctioned anti-semitism and pogroms, but he managed to get an education. He could have hidden, pretended to not be who he was, but instead he chose to embrace his Jewish identity. In 1910, at the age of 23, he moved to Paris, where he would study and paint for several years. He was back home in Vitebsk, a visit that was supposed to be brief, when the The Great War broke out, leaving him trapped, leaving him to witness the October Revolution of 1917. Like many Jews, he had no great love for the Imperial Russia, but the revolution was dangerous as well, a mad beast unleashed. He was by then one of the country’s most respected artists, so he was offered the post of commissar of visual arts. He wisely took a less prominent, less exposed role. He did important work during those early years of the Soviet state, including his first foray’s into theatre design. In 1923, he returned to Paris, this celebrated Russian Jewish painter known to the world as Marc Chagall.
He could have painted anything. He was a leading figure in post-Impressionist art, one of the founders of modern art, but he mostly painted from his own location, from his own identity, painted the Hebrew story, the rich soil of three thousands years. He continued to be who he was, defiantly Jewish, guilty by association of Bolshevism, the two things the Nazis hated most, as the winds of war swept across Europe. He did not quite understand the danger he was in when France fell to the Nazis, trusted that he was safe in the Vichy puppet state. It is one of the miracles of that time that his daughter perceived the danger and pushed him to escape, getting him placed on a list of prominent artists to be evacuated. He arrived in Manhattan, a stranger in a strange land, in 1941, where he met many other great European artists, where he found himself speaking Yiddish on the Lower East Side.
After the war, he returned to France. The remaining decades of his life, a gift to the world, gave us some of his greatest work, including his masterpieces in stained-glass, work for the Metropolitan and Paris Operas. His final piece, unfinished at the time of his death in 1985, was a tapestry of Job.
Chagall’s work is Chagall. He brought himself to the canvas, his little village, his faith and ethnicity. While so many scholars try to cut off the identity of the artist, of the composer, of the poet, from their work, this is impossible. The painting carries the life of the painter, the poem the life of the poet, as surely as we carry the story of our lives with us always, as surely as Jesus carries with him the story of his people, the Hebrew people, into every teaching, every encounter. Stripping Jesus of his Jewishness is exactly what allowed for Christian anti-semitism, allowed for the Holocaust.
And here is Jesus, at the well with a despised Samaritan woman. He is breaking every rule in the book, alone with a woman who is not his wife, a woman from that despised other tribe that had been conquered by the Assyrians five centuries earlier. He meets her where she is, at the well. And she recognizes him for what he is, more than meets the eye.
Sure he counsels her, sure he tells her to sin no more, for she is sleeping with a man she has not married. Evangelical Christians are obsessed with what goes on in people’s bedrooms and women’s wombs, rabid in their opposition to marriage equality, and choose to ignore the gentleness of this story, the reversal in the story of the woman taken in adultery, and have long ago abandoned Christ’s only direct teaching on marriage, the ban on remarriage after divorce. They can see how that was a law appropriate to its time that no longer makes sense in ours, but in their pick-and-choose idolatry they reveal themselves to be hypocrites of the worst kind. Jesus, who is gentle and forgiving with regular folks who fall into sin, is not so gentle when it comes to the self-righteous, to hypocrites.
Here is this messiah who is supposed to come from a royal house, is supposed to lead a violent opposition that will throw off the shackles of Roman rule and restore the Kingdom of David. He should be on a horse, in halls of power, at the very least in a fortress surrounded by warriors, but he is not. He is at the well, breaking bread with tax collectors.
He is the living embodiment, the model of God’s love for fickle and finite humans. He meets us where we are, sinners of every stripe. He is a door that invites us to step into a new life.
We say in the United Church of Christ that “Wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here,” and we mean it, but it is so hard. And many use the name of Christ is do physical and spiritual violence against others, to reject people because of who they are. And here is Jesus, with this woman, at a well, inviting her to new life.
We know that the United States turned some Jews away, sent them back, many that were destroyed with German efficiency. Imagine Moishe Shagalov, Marc Chagall, dead in a gas chamber, four decades of art lost to humankind.
Some will have followed the idiotic news coming out of Boston the last two weeks, yet another controversy over a Saint Patrick’s Day parade, as if, in the middle of all that is going on, we should be fighting over parades. The organizers of the South Boston parade decided to ban a group of gay veterans that had participated in the past. Now, it is Boston, and specifically South Boston, so there is more going on than meets the eye, hatred of the mayor who would probably boycott, posturing by conservative Catholics that still preach division and destruction in the name of Christ, but on its face, the controversy came down to this. The LGBT veterans group was barred for a rule violation. Specifically, they were barred for having a small rainbow patch on their uniforms. You see, the rule said the LGBT veterans could march, they just weren’t supposed to let anyone know they were gay. They could bring the part of themselves that risked serving a nation that rejected them to the table, just not the part of themselves that had been rejected, was still being rejected. Ironic that not so long ago the Irish immigrants in South Boston were themselves despised. In the end, sponsors canceled, and the banned group was allowed to march.
It may seem stupid, the bigotry of another age, but lest we get too smug, we might want to take a look in the mirror, for I have been told much the same thing here in Blue Hill.
I am thankful that Jesus accepts us as we are, calls us into new life, invites us to embrace a faith that is defined not by judgment but by love, not by a wall, but by a door, not by a cross, but by an empty tomb.
Early in my ministry I was invited to the New Clergy program at the Chautauqua Institute, an amazing historic summer community in Western New York that was founded as part of the Sunday School movement. The next year I was invited back as a UCC Chaplain of the Week, for there are still Christian worship services every day, as well as lectures, classes, concerts, art shows. There are still denominational houses, including two UCC houses, making the experience affordable to some in the upper middle class. But more and more of the community is comprised of summer homes for the 1%. The institute has tried to embrace diversity but it has become so expensive, and skin color still plays a huge role in access to education and economic success in this country, so it is still mostly white, wealthy and educated. I haven’t been back, for while there is certainly some token diversity in that crowd that has a quinoa and Birkenstock exterior and a Wonder Bread soul, I cannot allow myself to be tempted by the sameness, for how easily I could blend in and forget that I follow a man who met a Samaritan woman at a well, met her where she was.
Christianity would not exist today if the Way of Jesus had been limited to followers of the Hebrew religion. Our faith exists because those early followers radically embraced diversity, because Paul was willing to reconfigure the faith to make room for Gentiles, a term that meant anyone who wasn’t Jewish. Wealthy women, slaves, the poor, Diaspora Jews, all were welcome.
Jesus met people where they were and Christianity took in and embraced people where they were. They brought their whole selves to the table, and those were woven into the fabric of Christianity… Even those wild people on that green island just west of Britannia who still make up a large part of the population of South Boston, that everyone pretended to be two days ago.
Never mind that we would have no jazz, rock and roll, or even country music without diversity… go further, imagine a world in which Jesus only interacted with other Jews, a world where his followers closed ranks after his execution. Imagine no requiems, no Sistine Chapel.
Imagine a world where Michelangelo took his own life because he was rejected for who he loved. Imagine the music we might have had if Tchaikovsky had not taken his own life because of who he loved.
We all bring our whole selves to God, our whole selves into relationship. We are called to be as gentle as Jesus, to meet one another where we are but also to point to new life, for we are all both saint and sinner, all called to the kingdom. We must repent of our love of sameness for it leaves us spiritually impoverished.
Like the woman at the well, we come to God, come to the people of God, with stories, with identities. We are called to be Christ to a broken world. Do we look like Christ?
While Christianity in America has become identified with one extremist and heretical sect, with Fundamentalism and White Nationalism, we in the United Church of Christ dare to proclaim a God who loves all of us, Jewish and Christian and not sure, black and white and gay and straight and gender queer, conservative and socialist, artist and carpenter, parent, mourner, those who are broken and the wounded healers among us, strangers gathered in the name of one who loved, who sat at the well and called a woman to her better self.
May that God call us to our better selves, call us to the one we call God’s son. May God call us to love.