The Hospitality of Living Water—Compassion
Scripture: John 4:1–30, 39–42; Acts 2:44–47
(Blog Inspiration includes Luke 10:25–37)
“The hardest part about writing is that FIRST you have to defrost your freezer.” –Ernest Hemingway
As I write, it is Easter Monday, two hours before dawn. The world is dark and I have tiptoed down the stairs as not to disturb my husband or our dog, Carter. Just twenty-four hours ago we were waking up with the hope of new life and reconciliation that the resurrection brings. Alleluia!
I should have sent this blog to our editor, Betsy Ensign-George, long before Holy Week even began, so I apologize up front for the delay. And while these days our freezer is a frost-free model, I relate to Hemingway’s words and can report that our closets, cabinets, and pantry have been de-cluttered and organized this month. This phenomenon reminds me of exam week in college when my dorm room was spotless. Procrastination has its perks.
I serve as the Director of Christian Education & Spiritual Formation at First Presbyterian Church, Pasadena, Texas. I am also married to the pastor. In our family the 40 days of Lent before Easter were filled with hours of prayerful preparation of additional services, creating and coordinating opportunities for the community to deepen the experience of the season, including a day of silence and solitude at a nearby retreat center, hosting a Seder meal for the congregation and friends, and setting up and maintaining an open sanctuary daily with 18 self-guided prayer stations, walking with three youth through their confirmation, and attempting to approach all of the above with a contemplative and calming presence as we journeyed toward Jerusalem.
In addition to observing the liturgical season, in the past two weeks we’ve travelled to Austin to celebrate our grandson’s second birthday and welcomed one son and his girlfriend for three days after they made a spontaneous road trip to Texas from their home in Peoria, Illinois.
I could use my full schedule as a reason for procrastinating the writing of the blog, but I won’t. I love the Lenten season and find the practices energizing and empowering. In fact, I’m not sure if I could have accomplished as much WITHOUT the prayerful practices grounding my days. And spending time with our family was pure bliss, so a full calendar is not my excuse.
I confess that I have wrestled for weeks with this text. While I had an idea of where I felt called to go, I found that I simply could not begin the conversation on paper, but I didn’t know why. Then somewhere in the middle of the night, as I tossed and turned, it occurred to me that one of my struggles was that I really didn’t know who the Samaritan woman was. What I mean to say is that while I’ve heard this story all of my life, I really didn’t know why the people of Jesus’ day hated the Samaritans. In John’s gospel, he adds in verse 9 that “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans” as if to make sure that the reader understands that it was outside the Jewish custom and comfort zone to speak to someone from that region, man or woman. But I didn’t still didn’t know why.
For insight, I went to the other place in the New Testament where we get a glimpse of a Samaritan. It’s found in Luke and is often known as “The Parable of The Good Samaritan.” Luke’s gospel is the only place we find the story but that’s not surprising, since Luke is always concerned with the outsider. He has great compassion for those at the margins of society. (Remember his account of Jesus’ birth? It’s in Luke that the angels share the good news to the shepherds first, while Matthew tells of wise men bringing extravagant gifts. But I digress.) You might recall that the Samaritan story in Luke begins with an expert in Jewish Law testing Jesus, hoping to trick him into saying something that would get Jesus into trouble. He asks how one might have eternal life. Jesus, who also knows the Law well, turns it around and asks him what the Law says. The man answers, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.” After Jesus affirms his answer, the man asks, “But who is my neighbor?” Again, rather than giving a direct answer to the question, Jesus, a master teacher, tells a story of a man who was beaten, robbed, and left for dead on the side of the road. While he was lying there, two religious people of the day walked past the injured man, even crossing the road to avoid dirtying themselves by touching his foreign bleeding and broken body. How Jesus must have shocked his listeners when he told of a third man, a Samaritan, who not only saw the injured man, but ran to clean and bandage his wounds before taking him into the city to further care for him. When Jesus asks, “Who was the neighbor?” the expert in the Law can only reply, “The one who had mercy on him” to which Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”
Since I was a little girl hearing these stories in Sunday school, I’ve known that the two groups did not like each other. But just as I cannot recall the story behind the feuding families in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, I didn’t know the history of the tension between the Samaritans and Jews. After an hour searching (thank God for the internet) I found several causes of the animosity, one having to do with where one should worship, which is referred to in verses 20–22 of John 4 and in our study. While the Jews had built the temple in Jerusalem, the Samaritans had built their temple on Mount Gerizim, insisting that Moses designated this place as THE holy place of worship. In my cursory exploration into cyberspace, I discovered other differences that caused the rift. The Jews looked down upon the Samaritans because they, the Samaritans (1) only accepted the Torah as scripture, (2) recognized Moses as the only prophet, (3) were a racially mixed society with Jewish and pagan ancestry, and (4) offered refuge to those who had violated Jewish laws, to name just a few. Jesus’ decision to travel through Samaria rather than circumvent the area was a radical, intentional, and counter-cultural choice. In making that choice, Jesus showed the world that his love was for ALL people, not simply a chosen few. By showing that the outsider, the perceived enemy, could be worthy of Jesus’ time and attention, and that the outsider could even be the one who extended kindness and compassion, Jesus opened up a whole new world of possibilities for the people back then and for us today.
As difficult as it is to consider, I can’t help but wonder who my Samaritans are. Who are the others, the outsiders that I avoid or even ignore? In this election year, when words of hate and fear are spreading like wildfire across our country and world, when it appears that kindness, civility and respectful dialogue are lost arts, I have to ask: Are there individuals or groups that I judge or look down upon simply because we do not share beliefs? I’d like to be able to plead innocence, but I know that “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us and cleanse us” (1 John 1:8–9). “He who is faithful and just” is the same one who offered the Living Water to the woman at the well, and continues to offer it to everyone each and every day. He is the one who will quench our thirsts when we are parched. He is the one who will free us from the burdens of prejudice and bigotry that we may carry within. He is the one who has shown us what true hospitality means.
In his book Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, Henri Nouwen has redefined the practice of hospitality by pointing to these biblical stories. Nouwen writes that what we call “hospitality” is often a watered down version of the rich original intent. He encourages us to expand our understanding of the practice, writing “Although many, we might even say most, strangers in this world become easily the victim of a fearful hostility, it is possible for men and women (and obligatory for Christians) to offer an open and hospitable space where strangers can cast off the strangeness and become our fellow human beings.” Nouwen does not claim that it is easy, but “When hostility is converted into hospitality then fearful strangers can become guests revealing to their hosts the promise they are carrying with them. Then, in fact, the distinction between host and guest proves to be artificial and evaporates in the recognition of newfound unity.” He continues with “Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.” He writes that hospitality “wants to create a friendly emptiness where strangers can discover themselves as created free; free to sing their own songs, speak their own languages, dance their own dances, free also to leave and follow their own vocations.” Wow! Imagine the impact this expanded vision of hospitality could have in our families, our communities, and our planet if we could look to the “other” as Jesus did. In our organizations (including the Church) what would it be like if we looked at every person as a child of God with unique gifts and promise? Rather than looking at visitors or new members as having the potential to fill vacancies in current ministries, how would it be if we saw them as people bringing new ideas and change, and gave them the space to live into their own callings, cheering them on with our support and love. Jesus saw hidden treasure within the Samaritan woman, and when he spent time talking with her, listening to her and asking for and accepting a drink of water from her, he created such a free space. And in so doing, he created an evangelist who ran and freely shared the good news of Living Water with others.
Life-giving and liberating hospitality has been extended to me many times over the years but I’d like to lift up three Presbyterian Women for whom I am particularly grateful. In 1985, Mickey Meyers, who then served as DCE at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Houston, took my thirty-two year old, new member self under her wing, and exposed me to opportunities throughout the city that stretched and challenged my faith. She asked me to lead an adult Sunday School Topics Class, even though I had no experience. In fact, at the time, I did not even attend a Sunday school class. I remember feeling sick to my stomach that first morning in April 1987 when I began teaching a class on peacemaking, wondering why in the world Mickey had asked me to do this. Even more to the point, I wondered why I had said yes.
When Judy Fletcher, the author of our study, became my pastor, she continued this radical form of hospitality and risk-taking by encouraging, affirming, and supporting my teaching, expanding my leadership roles in the church. She gave my name to other churches in the presbytery as a possible workshop or retreat leader long before I felt qualified. Her radical hospitality continues to this day. A year ago, Judy asked me to write the blogs for this Bible study. By doing so, she entrusted me with her well-crafted words and encouraged me to have fun with the writing; to pour my heart into the work and to go wherever the Spirit led. It has been a joy to do that with Judy’s blessing.
Finally, when Jim was called to serve as pastor in Pasadena in 2010, this loving congregation welcomed me with open arms. I wondered how I might serve in this community already filled with gifted and competent members and staff. I will always be thankful for the gracious woman who then served as the Director of Discipleship and Christian Education, Rhonda Haskins. She gave me a few months to catch my breath and then asked me to facilitate one of the adult Sunday morning classes. With a generous heart, she also encouraged my creativity in other areas as I felt called. Each of these women, Mickey, Judy, and Rhonda, took a risk and gave me the freedom to serve using my gifts. Not one of them told me what or how to teach, but rather created the space, as Nouwen wrote, where I could discover my call, and I am forever grateful.
Who has opened free spaces in your life, helping you discover your own sense of call? Who in your life today might need this same gift of hospitality opened for them?
The sun has slipped up over the horizon and is now high in the sky, flooding my writing space with dappled light through the branches of the oak tree beyond my window. As the echoes of “Alleluias” continue to ring in my head and heart, I pray that we, as Easter people, will boldly practice the radical hospitality that Jesus lived. I pray that we will continue to create spaces where all children, youth, women, and men are free to ask hard questions and risk living into who God is calling them to be without fear of rejection, judgment, or hostility. With God’s help, may we go forth to share and receive the hospitality of Living Water that opens the way to compassion and love for all of God’s people. Everyone. Every. One.
With love and a grateful heart…
Jo Ann Currie