Sunday, 19 March 2017

Encounters at the Well - the Samaritan Woman and witnessing in Nablus today

Homily - Lent 3     Year A            19.iii.2017             

(Lectionary: Exodus 17.1-7; Romans 5.1-11; John 4.5-42)

We’ve just heard a Gospel reading that’s too long to print into the weekly pewsheet - and so long that you might wonder where to start unpacking what it’s about. It’s about Jesus, of course, and more importantly again it’s about Jesus and his relationship to other people and to one person in particular. It’s the story of an encounter - his meeting with a Samaritan woman at a place known traditionally as Jacob’s Well. It’s a dialogue which doesn’t follow one particular thread but goes off this way and that. It breaks off as the woman goes away and later returns - with other people including the disciples and the woman’s fellow-townspeople coming on the scene as well. At the end you might feel confused. Where did the conversation get them? What happened to that woman? What is the point of all that discussion about the place of true worship? What might have happened next? - to the woman? to the other Samaritans who come to belief in Jesus? What happens during the two days Jesus spent with them? - but we don’t hear anything of what went on during that time…

We’re not going to get all those questions answered in just a few minutes now. Except to say that this is a human encounter. St. John’s Gospel so often has a theological point to make. But here the point is that critical issues about our faith have to be worked out in everyday circumstances - in the encounter with strangers, in confusion as to what anybody is talking about, in hospitality, in the need to break off to attend to other things that demand our attention. If you wonder what is going on between Jesus and the woman he meets at the Well, then perhaps you could ask what would be going on if you were part of that encounter. What would you think of Jesus, what would he make of you, how would your conversation go - and where would it get you? How would things go on from there? These are questions to reflect upon, not to answer in a hurry.

If there’s one verse from all those long readings we’ve heard today that might serve as a key to help our understanding, I think it’s one in today’s reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “While we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly…” It’s part of a bigger argument for St. Paul. What the death of Jesus does is something we’ll explore in the days of Passiontide before Easter. But for now, it’s those words, “at the right time…”

Time and place are all-important. The distinctive thing about the Christian faith is that it grows out of the relationship of God and humanity. God is seen to be at work in human history, God is revealed in human flesh, God meets us in Jesus - often unexpectedly as in the case of today’s Gospel story - but always “at the right time…” - in the right place.

Jesus’ meeting with the Samaritan woman is at a particular time in a very particular place. “Jacob’s Well was there,” we’re told. That would resonate with any Jew - a place marker on the journey of Jacob as he came to understand God’s purpose for him and for his people. But it’s also a place which would emphasise the divisions between Jews and Samaritans, two peoples with an ancestor in common, but divided on how to practise their religion and put their faith into practice.

Jacob’s Well is in Sychar, to use the Biblical name. For Israelis, it’s now known as Shechem; for Arabs, it’s the modern city of Nablus. I remember nearly 40 years ago, having Samaritan residents pointed out to me as I was driven through the streets - in 2015 there were only a total of 777 Samaritans recorded throughout the whole of Israel and the West Bank, a tiny remnant, and since the 1990s they’ve been unable to live in Nablus itself following the violence of the first Palestinian Intifada. But it’s likely that many of their ancestors were assimilated into the predominantly Muslim population of this third biggest city on the West Bank.

And the city of Nablus today is a bustling city. Visiting it again last month as part of our pilgrimage, I’d carried preconceived ideas. I’d remembered the first time I’d gone there - just a quick visit to the place said to be Jacob’s Well, that place where Jesus met with the Samaritan woman. I’d remembered looking up and seeing Israeli soldiers watching from the rooftops. And I think that left me with a feeling that this was a town to get in and out of as swiftly as possible for the sole purpose of visiting that Biblical site.

But now I realise I was wrong. So much of the West Bank is scarred by occupation by Israeli forces, by the incursions of settlers, by restrictions placed on those who live there as to where they can go and when; and they live with uncertainties about whether there’ll be water in the taps or electricity to heat and light their homes - as well as lots of rubbish in the streets. But as we drove through Nablus people were simply getting on with life: in the centre the streets were choked with traffic; there were stalls on the streets and shopping malls too; life and work were carrying on. I’d expected hostility - but instead this was normality and if people in other cities of the Middle East were able to live in such a positive fashion the region would be the better and certainly more peaceful for it.

The Christian presence is tiny - about 650 in a city approaching 200,000 - and Anglicans are very much a minority amongst the Christians. There’s much we can learn from them.

The majority of Christians are Orthodox and we visited their church, built over the place where Jesus is said to have talked with the Samaritan woman. We drew water from the Well - some were brave enough to drink from it. We prayed and sang in the crypt around the Well - and then there was time to look at the church. When I’d visited it five years ago, I couldn’t remember it from my previous first visit. This time I found out why - it hadn’t been there 40 years ago. It was built as a memorial to the parish’s previous priest, Philoumenos, a Cypriot who had served his congregations in Palestine for over 40 years until he was found murdered by the Well - probably killed as he’d said his evening prayers. Jewish extremists had issued threats a week before, demanding that all Christian symbols should be removed from the shrine. No one has ever been charged with the murder. Distrust and hatred could have held sway.

But his successor, Fr. Justinus, dedicated himself to building the new church which stands there now. It’s a fitting resting place for Philoumenos who is buried in the upper church - and it’s both a place of beauty and a living witness to Christian faith in this overwhelmingly Muslim city. Philoumenos was not the first inhabitant of the city to have died for his faith. In the middle of the second century a pagan Palestinian philosopher called Justin came to faith in Jesus Christ. His was to be one of the most important contributions to the Christian understanding of how Jesus could be both God and human - and for the sake of his faith he died. He’s been remembered ever since as Justin Martyr. The word martyr has a double sense: these days normally used for someone who has died through religious mistrust and hatred; but the more basic meaning is simply “witness.” It’s to believe something and act on that belief, regardless of the inconvenience or cost.

So we visited that Orthodox Church which so visibly maintains a witness built on a faith expressed in that city for 2,000 years. But we also visited a rather smaller and humbler place - St. Philip’s Church, which has been an Anglican presence in Nablus since the middle of the 19th century. Its witness may seem less obvious, but the Anglican Church has maintained a school - now a kindergarten - there since 1846, and during the last 170 years it has provided for Jews, Muslims and Samaritans as well as Christians. For over 100 years there has also been a hospital, built by the Anglican Church: St. Luke’s Hospital with its 60 beds. Both school and hospital are open for people of all faiths. The parish priest, Fr. Ibrahim, spoke of the pressures of life in general and for Christians in particular. For such a small community it meant a lot that visitors should come from other countries. For our part, we could only be struck by how much he and his people were doing with so many difficulties and constraints set against them. And perhaps we need to recognise how our failure of perception has been part of the problem. There had been an Anglican presence in Nablus since the 1840s, but the first Arab priest was appointed only in 1901. The first Anglican missionaries preached only to the Jews of the town - but they had the Bible in Arabic from 1865 and it was the Arabs themselves who asked to learn more. And so now it is an entirely Arab congregation - and one which works to foster harmony. The cloth on the church’s altar had pockets sewn into it where people can leave their prayers. It’s not only Christians who make use of it - Muslim visitors also leave their prayers there.

Our visit was a humbling experience. How important is our faith to us? How much difficulty will we put up with to practise it? What do we hope to share with others? Do we trust that our prayers will be heard? - and encourage others in their prayer?

Today’s Gospel reading - set in that city now called Nablus - shows a clash of cultures, a confusion of faiths, deeply held and contradictory convictions. But in the end the encounter of Jesus and the woman at the Well is about two people who practise mutual hospitality, who overcome suspicion, listen to one another - and so come to a better understanding. If only we could do the same!

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