May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to our God.
Jesus’ in-depth conversation with the Samaritan woman is full of complexities, contradictions and boundary-crossing violations.
Boundary-crasher #1: Jesus engaged a Samaritan in conversation and requested of her a drink of water.
Samaritans were descendants of the twelve tribes of Israel who were allowed to stay in Israel when many of the Jewish leaders were deported. When the exiles returned, they wanted to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, but the Samaritans disagreed. They had lived without the Jerusalem temple for almost two hundred years and their faith had slowly evolved away from the Jerusalem centre. Those who returned from exile found the Samaritans faith and practice to have evolved in such a different direction, that they no longer considered the Samaritans Jews. They were considered people of another culture and faith with whom they should have no contact.
Boundary-crasher #2: Jesus offered eternal life to a woman of ill repute.
We preachers used to say that the Samaritan’s gender constituted another boundary which Jesus crossed. But in Jesus’ day, most Jewish sects allowed men to strike up a conversation with women. Jesus himself did so with Mary and Martha. New Testament Jewish scholar Amy-Jill Levine sites other historical examples of Jewish men in the first century initiating conversation with women. The provocative boundary in this story is not the gender, but the type of woman the Samaritan was. She had five husbands and was currently living with a man with whom she was not married. Perhaps that’s why this woman came to the well not in the usual hour of a cool morning, when the town women would gather socially to draw water and catch up on the latest, but at the heat of the day, when no one else would be there to give her the evil eye.
Boundary-crasher #3: Jesus welcomed Samaritans into the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Samaritan woman was the first evangelist in the John’s gospel. She was so convincing in her testimony about Jesus, that many Samaritans began to follow Jesus. They invited him to stay with them for two days—which means that Jesus and his disciples ate, drank and lodged with the Samaritan community as he offered them teachings, constituting multiple boundary violations.
I have lived through my own boundary-crashing dilemmas. Although I grew up in the United Church, I had a 10-year foray in the Southern Baptist Convention. I had long been concerned about poverty and the environment, but was warned by Southern Baptists not to confuse these issues with the gospel. It was fine to be concerned about social justice, but I had to keep them separate from my faith. “Keep politics out of religion,” they said, “Adhere to the separation of church and state.” But when I studied overseas for one year in Switzerland, I found Baptist churches there marching against nuclear arms. They had put together their social concerns with their faith. Through their inspiration, my theology became more holistic. I was discovering the social gospel, which aligns social justice issues with the teachings of Jesus. As my theology was opening up, it allowed me to look at my own sexual orientation. After two years of intense struggle and a boundary-crashing crisis of faith, I finally accepted who I was, just as God had created me to be.
From what I remembered of the United Church’s commitment to the social gospel, it seemed as though it would be the best church home for my theology. I had also heard that it was accepting of lesbian and gay people. And so, directly after my Southern Baptist graduation in 1986, I moved from San Francisco to Saskatchewan to serve a rural, three-point United Church pastoral charge (which means three little churches in three different towns). It was a wee bit of a culture shock! And I had no idea that the United Church was just beginning to enter a multi-year furor over sexual orientation.
Nancy was teaching elementary school in one of these small towns. I first fell in love with her canoe and the rest followed. But we kept our relationship secret because we knew that both of our jobs could be in jeopardy, should people find out. Tension was mounting in the United Church. Almost daily, the front pages of the newspaper carried stories about United Church debate over the acceptance of lesbian and gay ministers—what was called “the issue”. In our small towns, United Church children were being harassed at school by children of other denominations. Out of defense of their own children, parents in our churches were becoming angry that “the issue” about “those” people was affecting their community. Out of pastoral care duty, I visited congregants who were furious at the United Church. I listened to their fears and anger, trying to offer a compassionate ear. One person told me that he wanted to round up all of the homosexuals, put them on a raft and sink it in the middle of the ocean. I knew that fear lay underneath their anger, which helped me find compassion for them, but their words were pretty hard to hear.
As well, because of my commitment to social justice, I did my best to help the rural voice be heard, as it is often marginalized in the United Church. This commitment included helping one of the churches I served write a petition against homosexual ministers, as I was the only one who knew the correct format of General Council petitions. This church then passed a motion at a Board meeting, that I had missed, to not allow homosexuals in their pulpit. When they brought their motion to the pastoral charge Board, I was amazed when it was defeated by the other two churches.
I was faced with a huge dilemma. I was not out, but how could I stay with integrity? I made it clear to the one church that I did not agree with its petition, nor its motion. If this church was ok with me holding a contrary opinion and if they did not boycott the Mission and Service Fund, as was happening across Canada, I told them that I would stay. The fact that they were ok with my response indicated that they must have been somewhat divided.
But the mood across the country was not only contentious—it was becoming dangerous. A heterosexual colleague who supported lesbian and gay people began receiving death threats. Lesbian and gay people who were out were ostracized. Some lost their jobs. Others lost housing. Nancy and I had a get-away plan in case either of us found our homes sprayed with homophobic graffiti. We feared for our safety.
As I look back on this traumatic time, I now realize that this was when I began to feel called to a third way through the impasse of two, deeply entrenched sides. I was inspired by Rev. Ken DeLisle, who was out as a gay man and able to sit and listen to the hate-filled rhetoric of Community of Concern in order to address their underlying fears. It was through personal stories and relationships that people slowly began to cross forbidden boundaries and find healing. It was a contemporary way of living out the boundary-crashing example of Jesus.
But Jesus didn’t only crash boundaries. He developed relationships with the very people he was challenging. The second most common theme Jesus preached about was money and poverty. He repeatedly challenged the privileged. And yet, he developed relationships with the very people he was challenging—tax collectors, wealthy patrons, the leader of the Sanhedrin. Jesus was constantly crashing boundaries and welcoming forbidden relationships. In spite of his challenging words, he consistently welcomed all into God’s kin-dom, for every single person is a beloved child of God—everyone on all sides of an issue. As our anthem has reminded us, all created beings are God’s.
Jesus’ example and my own experiences have shaped my passion for conflict resolution, ecumenical work and interfaith relations. Rather than hanging out with like-minded groups, I have long preferred to develop relationships with mainstream denominations and mainstream interfaith groups. It is much more difficult work, but I truly believe it is the only way to cross certain impasses. I still remember how challenging it was at a few World Council of Churches meetings when we tried to listen to and include the voices of some denominations that were adamantly opposed to clergy who were women, let alone lesbian or gay. But I’m convinced that if we don’t maintain these difficult relationships and resist the urge to vilify and condemn those with whom we are radically opposed, our world doesn’t stand much chance.