Samaritans and Religion

For a famous religious leader, Jesus didn’t seem very religious. Religion teaches us the details of how to be right with God and determines who we are supposed to hate. Jesus doesn’t get with that program.

Samaritans and Religion— the video

Sometimes I’d like to begin a sermon with a classic opening that everyone will remember for all time.  Unfortunately, all the good ones have been taken. LIke, “It’s a tale as old as time.” Or, “A long time ago in a galaxy far away,” although I have to admit that very few sermons begin in another galaxy.  The line I wish I could have started today’s sermon is, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” That just says it all. And frankly, I’d like to take Dicken’s title as well: A Tale of Two Cities.  Because that is exactly what we have here.

From the point of view of Jerusalem, Samaritans were heretics, through and through, having nothing to do with the proper religion of Yahweh.  Frankly, the region of Samaria, otherwise known as the northern kingdom of Israel, has always been an idol worshipping bunch, always in opposition to God’s proper path.  Their first king, Jereboam, set up golden calves to worship Yahweh with, all to prevent people from worshipping in the true place of worship, the temple in Jerusalem. Because of that idolatry, God tore that kingdom down by the Assyrians. Then the king of Assyria moved a bunch of foreigners in, who didn’t know anything about the proper worship of the proper god.  And then they set up their own temple to a god like Yahweh, but they did it all wrong. It is in the north, instead of Jerusalem. And they didn’t have the right priests, from Aaron’s line. The Samaritans were as good as gentiles, and no good Jew would enter into the house of a Samaritan, or share food with them.

But from the viewpoint of the second city, Samaria, things were quite different.

They say that the place chosen to properly worship God was not Jerusalem, but Sheckam, where the tabernacle was kept until David forced it to be moved.  They say that they are not foreigners at all, but proper Jews who have worshipped Yahweh correctly all this time. When the Judeans returned from their exile by the Babylonians, they offered to build their temple with them, and the Judeans refused their help, calling them ungodly.  So they built their own temple in the north, which was the proper place to build it anyway. And because the Judeans rejected some of their own proper priests, the Samaritans adopted them and they followed the books of Moses religiously. The Samaritans aren’t the newcomers. Rather, the Judeans are the innovators, the heretics.

Both sides were pointing at the other, saying that they do not understand the truth of God.  They disagree about history and about politics. And they never really tried to understand each other.  They built their borders and they followed their religious practices, and they regularly taught that the other group was heretical.

They were considered to be like many evangelicals consider the Mormons or Jehovah Witnesses.  Almost Christian, but not really. They use the word “cult” for them. And they only try to understand them to dismiss and reject them.  Even so, Samaritans were considered an abomination of the Judean practice. And the Judeans were considered the same by the Samaritans. Even closer than the Mormons, the Samaritans are very much like how most Christians consider Muslims.  They don’t really worship the same god, their worship practices are idolatrous. They don’t know the truth of God and are in fact enemies of God.

Which is why Jesus’ response when he came to Samaria was pretty strange.  For a Jew. Frankly, his actions might be considered anti-Jewish.

First he dismissed the traditional separation between men and women.  He knew the woman he was speaking to was single, but didn’t give himself the proper distance.  In fact, his meeting of her at the well followed a traditional mating ritual, which is… awkward.   How did Isaac, Jacob and Moses meet their wives? By hanging out at a well, looking for an available woman.

Jesus also rejected the proper separation between the Samaritans and Jews.  He wanted to share her water. And he hung out in their town for a while, not just passing directly through.

The strangest thing is the passage we read today.

A time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.

Jesus gives lip service to his Jewish position, that “salvation is of the Jews”.  But then he undermines the major disagreement between the Judeans and the Samaritans: which temple is the proper one to worship at.  He says, Frankly, both sides are wrong. They are both demanding “God’s truth” when neither one recognizes the basic truth of God-- that God is not limited to a single place.

I want to point out that what Jesus is saying here is completely radical for a first century Jew.  The heart of all Judaism in the first century is the Temple in Jerusalem. That is the only thing all Jews around the world agreed upon-- that proper worship and prayer should be done there and only there.  They disagree about the interpretation of laws, about what their Bible is, about the proper priesthood, but they all agree on the temple. In fact, scholars today call that period of Judaism, “Second Temple Judaism”-- it’s in the name!  And here Jesus is saying that it isn’t significant. That to insist upon it misses the point of true worship.

Jesus had insisted upon this through his whole teaching.  Healings and forgiveness that should be done at the temple, Jesus brought to the people.  Prayers that should go to the temple, Jesus accepted himself. And then when he visited the temple, Jesus spoke of the destruction of the temple as if it were insignificant.  Just another thing God has to do.

And this isn’t the only place where Jesus treated Samaritans differently.  Here, he accepts all the Samaritans who have faith-- not in Judaism, but in his message of welcome.  He makes it clear that he expects to see these Samaritans in the kingdom. Just like the Samarian leper whom he praised for his gratitude in Luke.  And the Samaritian Jesus made an example of in the famous parable. Anyone who has faith, who does acts of mercy, they are a part of the kingdom. Even if they are a (quote) “heretic”.

Jesus isn’t afraid of heretics.  Or pagans. Or sinners. Frankly, for a religious leader, Jesus is pretty flex. He insists that people care for each other, show acts of mercy.  That they produce acts of faith, of trust. But he isn’t much to insist on certain religious rituals or think that certain words or rituals are the “secret” to connect to God.  For instance, Jesus keeps quoting parts of what we call “The Lord’s Prayer” and he is always getting the wording wrong! As if there IS no proper wording. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about what we pray.  Just that the details aren’t so important.

In religion, the details are ALL important.  We have to do things this way and not that way.  And most importantly, religion teaches us the right people to hate.  We need to hate atheists. We need to hate Muslims. We need to hate people who have similar beliefs, but aren’t close enough for us.

I’d say, if religion is all that, then Jesus isn’t very religious.  He taught us to love. To enact mercy. To trust God. And then do what you think is right.  The details and rituals aren’t important to him.

Mind you, rituals are really important to us.  Certain ones work for us and others don’t. Rituals and songs and prayers and clothes and the right words can make all the difference as to whether we are connected to the Spirit or not.  But that has nothing to do with God. God came to us and said, “Yeah, all that stuff, it isn’t really important to me. What is really important is that you enact mercy and do justice.” Frankly, it’s what he has always been saying.

I think if Jesus were here today, he would tell Christians to dismiss the differences between the Mormons and the Evangelicals, between the Muslims and the Christians, and also between the Evangelicals and the liberals.  The religious dividing lines are symply social markers of different peoples, different things that work for us. God, meanwhile, loves and reaches out to all the peoples of the world, no matter what their religion. And he doesn’t insist that they change their religion.

One day, a Muslim, an atheist, a pagan and a Christian walked into a bar, they had a good time and then they made a plan for the poorest in their community, and through that plan they are still helping others.  I know this is true, because I’m the Christian in that equation. And the atheist and Bahai and pagan are some of my friends. And i am confident that in God’s final day, I will see them because no matter what their religion, they are listening to the Spirit of God who tells them to love and that’s what is most important.

Even so, we might want to dismiss conservative Christians. They seem like they are doing so much damage, especially today.  But these same people have created systems which have literally saved the lives of millions of people. Hospitals, food deliveries, shelters.  People are delivered by some whom we might call religious bigots. I wonder then, how does God see them? Does God see them as bigot, or as people who are just doing their best with what they know?

This month, I’ve been talking about how God deals with their enemies.  First, we talked about how God through creation didn’t destroy the enemies-- the seas and darkness.  He kept them alive and just set some boundaries for them so that other creations could survive as well.

Then we spoke about the Canaanites, the major enemy in the Bible.  God didn’t destroy them, either. Instead, they are welcome into God’s kingdom, if only they show mercy and trust in God.

Now we talk about the Samaritans and we find out that God didn’t consider them an enemy at all.  Just people with their own point of view. Just like Muslims. Just like Evangelicals. And God is trying their best to work with them where they are, through his Spirit, just like us.

It seems to me that God gets a bad reputation about how their enemies are treated.  As if God will come down all fire and brimstone and destroy every last enemy into ash.  But that’s not how the Bible talks about God at all. Frankly, I think that, for the most part (not completely) God is really kind to his enemies.  As if they actually loves them.

Which is exactly what Jesus said.  Jesus said, “Love your enemies because God loves his enemies.  He loves everyone without exception and so you are to do the same, as God’s children.”

We are to imitate God’s love of their enemies.  So this means that we should completely welcome people of other religions because that’s what God does.  We should accept our national enemies and stop our hatred. And the people who directly attack us and harm us and steal from us, we need to set proper boundaries, but not to try to harm them.  To care about them.

Just like God does.

Steve Kimes