Text: John 4:5-42 (Living Water)
Who are we? How do we describe ourselves? And with whom or what do we identify? These are some of the questions that come to my mind after hearing today’s Gospel reading.
In the reading, the author notes that a person who approaches Jesus is a Samaritan; she in turn notes that Jesus is a Jew; and the author reminds us that these two groups dislike each other.
Gender forms part of the story as well. When Jesus’ friends return, they are shocked that Jesus is talking to a woman he doesn’t know.
Finally, the conversation highlights religious identity. As a Samaritan, the woman worships YHWH on the mountain on which she and Jesus have met. And as a Jew, Jesus worships YHWH at the Temple in Jerusalem.
Today, we might identify ourselves in a similar fashion. When asked to describe myself, I might say that I am a Canadian male Christian.
But there are a thousand other ways to identify ourselves: by our opinions on various issues, by likes and dislikes, by work, by recreational choices, by the place where we live, and so on.
During the last few centuries, nation has grown in prominence as a marker of individual identity. This is especially true right now when populism is on the upswing in countries around the world. So today I look at the struggle between nationalism and internationalism within the church.
In today’s reading, Jesus comes down on the side of the universal over the particular and of the eternal over the temporary. Jesus says, “the hour is coming — indeed, it is already here — when people will worship God in spirit and truth.” He contrasts this with worship at specific locations like the Temple in Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim.
Jesus also focuses on eternal life. He says, “those who drink the water I give them will never be thirsty; the living water I give will become fountains within them, springing up to provide eternal life.”
Eternal life is not an easy concept to grasp. Some think it means that our egos will never die. I sympathize with this notion given how strongly attached we are to our egos.
But for me, eternal life is a symbol of a unity that we glimpse in moments when we wake up to Love. In such moments, our egos disappear and we taste the promise of a return to God. In such moments, we may not only not care if our egos survive our own death, we may give thanks that they will not.
I had a few such glimpses yesterday at an event called “Common Ground” at the former Alex Taylor School on Jasper Avenue. Inner City Pastoral Ministry organized this event along with the Anglican Foundation and Edmonton Presbytery of the United Church as the first of four seasonal gatherings. The theme of the first one was prayer, and about 100 of us came.
Most were youth, but the gathering including people aged eight to eighty. From the opening prayers led by elders in Cree and English to the final round dance led by the songs and drums of grade school children, the event help put into motion our prayers for courage, mutual respect, and love.
Sometimes it seemed chaotic. Sometimes I didn’t understand what was going to happen next. But several times yesterday, I glimpsed a bit of the shalom and reconciliation that we seek, and I loved it.
ICPM will hold three other gatherings like this in 2017 at the start of Summer, Fall and Winter. They will focus in turn on Wisdom, Healing, and Thanksgiving. I recommend them, and I thank our Witnesses to Truth and Reconciliation, Mary-Anne and Nancy, for encouraging me to attend the first one yesterday.
Who are we? We are a million different things. Each of us is unique, from our DNA to the quirkiness of our psyches. Our diversity — based on a particular family, time and place — is part of what makes life endlessly fascinating.
But when we drink the Living Water offered by Jesus, sometimes we glimpse our unity with all people. While remaining unique, we feel connected to others, the earth, and the deep Source of Love from which we have come.
To my mind, the union we sometimes taste in communal prayer, in the love exchanged between friends, and in the struggle for social justice is the Living Water that Jesus proclaims in today’s reading.
The opposite of this is so-called Christian nationalism. Today’s most prominent spokesperson for Christian nationalism is Steve Bannon. As the Chief Strategist for the new U.S. President, he is also the second most powerful person in the world. Bannon says that Judeo-Christian values are under attack from Islam, and he is working to ensure that the United States remains a white settler state.
It won’t surprise you that I object to Bannon’s nationalism and his attempts to connect it to Jesus. I appreciate the skits about the bizarre world of today’s Washington on “Saturday Night Live” in which Bannon is always dressed in the robes of the evil character Skeletor from Mattel’s “Masters of the Universe” stories!
Part of me understands the appeal of Christian nationalism. In the face of rapid social change, we struggle to maintain a solid sense of self. The tribe into which we were born into can sometimes seem like the only anchor left.
But when I remember the disastrous results of past attempts to bolster national power at the expense of the rest of the world, I scramble to find other ways.
Last Wednesday, UN Special Envoy and Hollywood celebrity Angelina Jolie confronted the question of nationalism at a speech to a meeting of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Geneva.
She said: “Today we see a rising tide of nationalism, masquerading as patriotism . . .
But I consider myself to be a proud American and an internationalist. I believe anyone committed to human rights is an internationalist.
Internationalism means seeing the world with a sense of fairness and humility, and recognizing our own humanity in the struggles of others. It stems from love of one’s country, but not at the expense of others. It stems from patriotism, but not from narrow nationalism.
Internationalism includes the view that success isn’t being better or greater than others, but finding your place in a world where others succeed too; and that a strong nation, like a strong person, helps others to rise up and be independent.”
To my mind, Jolie’s internationalism is far closer to the Way of Jesus than so-called Christian nationalism.
This year as Canadians mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation, my prayer is that we will find space to both love our country and remain humble; that we might rejoice in the success of all peoples; and that we might support the efforts of all nations to be strong, independent, and inter-connected.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus confronted divisions between men and women, between tribes, and between religious traditions. In the face of these divisions, he offered God’s Living Water, which could unite men and women of any tribe and tradition who worship in Spirit and Truth.
This Living Water leads us from the particular to the universal, from the nation to the world, and from here to eternity.
Who are we? We are all unique, and at the deepest levels, we also one in the Spirit.
And for this I say again, “Thanks be to God.”