The emperor Hadrian is best known for the wall constructed during his reign to mark the northern border of Roman Britannia, appropriately called Hadrian’s Wall, but the empire he ruled was massive, half again as big as the continental US, stretching from modern England to the Middle East, and it is to that eastern edge of that empire that we turn our attention this morning, to the Palestine of those ancient Roman times and to the Palestine of today.
The Bar Kokhba rebellion, a full-scale war between Judeans and Romans, broke out in the year 132 of the Common Era, while Hadrian was emperor and a little over a century after the execution of Jesus. This third and final Jewish War was devastating for both sides. It is believed that more than 580,000 Jews were killed, with many more dying of famine and disease in the following years. Countless thousands of Jews were carried off in chains, enslaved, while all the rest were prohibited from Jerusalem and the region around it. Roman casualties were heavy as well, with the 22nd Legion disbanded completely due to heavy losses, and the 9th never recovering, disbanding a few years later. The only worse defeat suffered by Roman forces to that date might have been against the Germanic tribes at Teutoburg Forest, an infamous battle that left Augustus literally banging his head into the wall while shouting “Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!”
After the the defeat of Simon Bar Kokhba and his forces, Jewish religious leaders in the Diaspora and among the refugees abandoned their belief in an earthly messiah, moving from the notion of a real human who would re-establish the Davidic Kingdom to an abstract and spiritualized longing for deliverance. In other words, things were so bad, they stopped daring to believe what they said they believed, what they had believed for centuries. They did this because believing that change could actually happen in the real world and working for that change felt too dangerous. Violence didn’t solve their problem, so they simply gave up. Jewish religious life became deeply insular and conservative, no longer attracting converts as it had in the past. What had been an outward facing and evangelizing tradition became inward, focusing on and emphasizing ways in which the community was apart, us versus the world, which almost always ends with the world versus us.
According to the church historian Eusebius, writing in the early 4th century, had another structure built during his reign, though on a smaller scale than that wall that stretched from coast-to-coast in England. It was temple to Venus intentionally placed over what was believed to be the tomb of Jesus. It isn’t clear in the historic record why he did this, though the Romans had difficulty telling Christian from Jew, understandable because of the tremendous overlap between the two movements up to that point, and besides, the Romans thought both groups were weird, calling them atheists for their refusal to believe in other gods.
That temple to Venus would be replaced when Christianity became the state religion under Constantine, sometimes thought of as the first Christian emperor, though it is an exaggeration to call him a Christian. In any case, his mother, Helena, was devout by all accounts, and tradition tells us that she rediscovered the tomb.
The new structure, covering both the tomb and the nearby site traditionally claimed as Golgotha, is called the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Like the City of Jerusalem and the entire region of Palestine, the church is a contested space, one of nine locations covered by the “status quo” decree of Sultan Osman III in the 18th century. Two of the nine sites covered, the Western Wall and Rachel’s Tomb, are disputed between Jews and Muslims. The remaining seven are disputed among Christian sects. In the case of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the sects claiming major control are Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, and Roman Catholic, though Coptic, Syriac, and Ethiopian communities also make claims and have a presence on the site.
In 2016, a bonafide miracle took place at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. You see, the Christian holy sites covered under the status quo have been in a state of such disrepair that they make our US infrastructure look good. The situation could best be described as slow motion collapse. And it is occurring because the Sultan’s decree required that everyone agree before any change was made. Consensus is hard to achieve even when you start with a shared belief, and there will always be someone, some small faction, that is willing to obstruct just to prove that they have more power or are somehow smarter than everyone else, that their belief is the only right belief. So all sects were at the risk of losing everything, the whole history, because of hubris and self-righteousness.
This digging in is sick and insane and destructive to community, to nation, to faith, is all too common, and often leads to violence. In 2002, a Coptic monk moved his chair from the agreed spot into the shade. Eleven ended up hospitalized. Then there is the immovable ladder.
Pictured on the cover of your order of service, this ladder has been in place with only a couple of brief interruptions since 1757. The Israeli police have had to be involved. In reality, it is just a ladder leaning against a wall, a particularly well made cedar ladder. It has come to symbolize disagreements in belief and practice between the Greek and Armenian factions of the status quo. Pope Paul VI described it as a visible symbol of Christian division.
While the ladder is still there, things had become desperate enough by 2016 for the warring factions to finally agree to repairs at the church, the miracle I mentioned earlier, and fortunately in time, before all was lost. Work began with the Aedicule, the small inner-most chapel that contains what is believed to be Christ’s tomb, and hence, the epicenter of Christian faith, for everything turns on the resurrection, on the idea that love wins. This would be the same tomb to which Nicodemus, who we met last week, came bearing myrrh and aloe to anoint the broken body of Jesus.
During the restoration, marble cladding was removed from the tomb for the first time since 1555. At first, the results were disappointing, with only fill beneath the marble. But two days later, below the fill, they found the original limestone burial bed intact. This is not proof that this was the tomb, and tombs were re-used, bones moved into ossuaries, but there was certainly a tomb in a site in Jerusalem very near where tradition tells us the Romans executed thousands, so it is possible.
But we are not at Golgotha yet, not at the tomb, not in today’s reading. We are in another place of labels and lines and name-calling. We are with the Samaritan woman at the well.
Jesus is, as always in John, speaking poetry, trying to wrap ideas that don’t fit into words in words, and so people are more than a little confused. Living water? You don’t need to eat because your food is what exactly? Nonsense to them, and sometimes even to us, though we know how the story will end and we’ve had two millennia to think it through.Those listening to Jesus at the time were far too concrete in their interpretation, while our interpretations have left the words of Jesus so fluffy and spiritualized that they have no ability to guide our real lives.
But I am not interested in parsing the words at the moment, even the words Jesus speaks that convinces the woman that he is a prophet, for I accept that the work of God is beyond me. I am interested in geography, bodies, and boundaries. I am interested not in what metaphysical truths we can learn from this encounter. I am interested in what human truths we can learn.
Samaritan today refers to a particular ethnic group I have mentioned before, one that practices an Abrahamic religion they believe to be the original form of Yahweh worship. We are not sure if they were the remnant left after the fall of the Northern Kingdom, or they were a remnant left behind during the Babylonian Exile, but they were certainly separated by that point, retaining their own unique scripture and practices that are distinct from those in the Judaism of the Pharisees and the Rabbinic tradition.
Samaria was one of the two names given the Northern Kingdom during the years after Solomon, when the Hebrew people were split in two, hence the name Samaritan. The other name for the northern kingdom was Israel. Today’s Judaism springs from the southern tradition, from Judea. After the northern kingdom was destroyed and depopulated by the Assyrians, the term Samaritan was used both geographically and culturally, to describe all those who lived in Samaria, most of Palestine north of Jerusalem, non-native immigrants and Yahweh-worshipping natives. It was this latter group that was so despised by the Jews, for like the Copts and Ethiopians doing epic battle in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, no one fights better than those who are closest, who share the most in common. And the primary battle between the Yahweh-worshipping Samaritans, represented by the woman at the well, and the Yahweh-worshipping Judeans and Galileans, represented by Jesus, appears to have been over where to worship. The Judean elite of Scribes and Pharisees believed you could only worship where they had control, in the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The Samaritans believed you should worship at Mount Gerizim, in what is today the West Bank. The few remaining Samaritans still live on and around that mountain.
Over a century before Jesus, during a short-lived period of independence, the Hebrews had reclaimed the region around the Sea of Galilee, but to get from Judea to Galilee, you had to pass through Samaritan territory. In fact, even this is too neat a description, as the entire region was marked by small enclaves, some cosmopolitan, some of a single ethnic group, some antagonistic, a bit like the Balkans, like Bosnians, Serbs, Croats, and Kosovars. Scripture tells us that Jesus crossed cultural boundaries all the time, crossed between territories, sometimes in transit, sometimes to practice ministry among strange people.
The Samaritan woman at the well is not geographically Samaritan. She is definitely ethnically Samaritan, a worshipper of Yahweh. She refers to “our ancestor, Jacob,” notes the conflicting belief about where to worship, even mentions the shared messianic longing of the two related peoples.
In other words, all the things she and Jesus share in common that should bring them together simply pull them further apart. Samaritans hate Jews. Jews hate Samaritans. The “good” Samaritan is used in the story of the same name to show just how despicable the self-righteous are in their lack of compassion precisely because everyone knew Samaritans were dirt-bags, so if the Samaritan turned out to be better than the righteous Jews who passed by the victim, then they must really be bad. It takes something to be outdone by a Samaritan. Even in this interaction, filled with blessing and grace, a story that brings Samaritans into the Jesus movement, even here Jesus exhibits a certain chauvinism, “salvation is from the Jews.” The Good Samaritan may be a beloved story that teaches us about compassion, but we must remember that it had the impact it had precisely because of racism. If racism hadn’t defined the Good Samaritan as undesirable, the story would be the parable of the really nice dude…
Yet, no one gets beat up at Jacob’s Well, these Jews, followers of a Jewish religious leader and these Samaritans. They are civil. Jesus and the woman both break rules and move beyond the us versus them, beyond hubris, beyond the past centuries of hate, beyond immovable ladders, to find common ground and make something new.
This is pretty remarkable. Scripture tells us that when Jesus left, he left behind a community of Samaritan followers. Imagine if the Woman at the Well had been like so many today, too busy talking to listen. “I don’t know how they do things in Galilee, but here in Shychar, we do things our own way. If you want to share your good news here, then you better focus on Mount Gerizim.” But she doesn’t.
Jesus is able to see past the labels, to listen past the labels, past the ways she is labeled as other, as subversive, as dangerous, as unclean, and to stay fully present to her, not just a Samaritan, but also an adulteress. This is one of two times in John where Jesus encounters a woman guilty of adultery and chooses grace over judgment, something some of his bedroom obsessed American followers could stand to learn. This Samaritan Woman is able to be open, to hear him even when he makes that obnoxious and divisive statement about salvation coming from the Jews, which from her point of view certainly sounds like the same old racism that has pulled the two tribes apart. There are so many points where they could just walk away.
This could have gone so very differently. The gospels tell us that Jesus is driven out of town more than once. He is almost stoned twice in John. Paul has no success in Athens, where they are all too smart to hear the good news of a God who is universal love. We know that so many do not experience the renewal and re-birth of Christ’s good news, good news that will that spread across the Empire in communities that desperately need good news, that some folks will miss out because they have no room in their heads or in their hearts for what is new, and the message of Jesus is new, right now, for today. “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship God in spirit and truth.”
Jesus is not asking if they want a new reality. Jesus is naming the new reality that exists whether they like it or not. Pride and arrogance could have prevented her, this Samaritan woman, from hearing the proclamation, but she followed the path of patience and humility, and learned, and saw, and chose.
“So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word.”
Oh, how wrong it might have gone.
But he was patient, flexible, even if we can critique that whole salvation from the Jews thing. She stuck in there, even when it was hard, and learned to see God in a whole new way. Many in the community learned how to see God in a whole new way.
Because scripture keeps a narrow focus on the community immediately surrounding Jesus, it is easy to forget what both scripture and scholars tell us is true, that Jesus had created many small communities of followers throughout the region during his preaching and healing ministry. There was not one single understanding of Jesus even from the beginning, so it is no wonder that we have diversity of belief within the New Testament canon. The Samaritan Jesus-worshiping community at Sychar was no doubt one of those pockets of belief.
There was no one way to understand Moses and Yahweh, yet a Jewish miracle worker and teacher and a Samaritan adulteress were able to be present to one another.
And on the far side of the world Christian turns against Christian while buildings literally fall down around them, a chair in the shade and a filled ER. In Washington, people are so busy shouting at one another and seeking the approval of extremists that they have forgotten the regular people, and the nation is falling down around us.
Can we at least be present to one another here? Will we choose walls or wells?