Repair Work: Boldness    

Mark 7:24-30       3.20.22

We have all heard stories of women who were bold enough to break into a male dominated career path or a particular workplace. Some of you have done that. Trailblazers, we call them. I can’t tell you how many times I have been to church meetings and been the only woman in the room.  One has to have a measure of hutzpah to be that kind of a trailblazer. And what about the hutzpah on the part of Black Americans who too often are the only dark face at an event or a meeting or a workplace?  When you are the only woman, the only Black, the only physically disabled person, the only youth, you may feel a need to steel yourself, take a deep breath and gather up a good helping of hutzpah before entering the space. Hutzpah is a Yiddish word originating in Hebrew. It can mean nerve, gall, audacity, supreme self-confidence and conspicuous boldness.

Hutzpah can be perceived positively or negatively, depending on which side of the table you are sitting. The middle-aged man in the grey suit might say to himself about the woman who is now in the office next to him: “She’s got some hutzpah to come in here and challenge our ways of operating.”  At the same time, that woman’s classmates in graduate school are saying, admiringly, “She’s got all the hutzpah she needs!”  I recently read an article in The Baltimore Sun detailing the extremely negative reactions of white neighbors in several parts of this city who are clearly upset at the hutzpah of Black restaurant or bar owners who have set up shop nearby. They have been calling repeatedly to report bogus noise violations, leaving dog feces on the front step, leaving rude notes—anything they can think of to intimidate and harass, trying to get the restaurant owner to leave their neighborhood.  Unfortunately, some of those restaurant owners interviewed are considering relocating.  All I could think when I read the article was, “What in the world?  It is 2022!”   

I like thinking of hutzpah as conspicuous boldness, that is boldness that you just can’t miss. If anyone in the gospels is conspicuously bold, it is the Syrophonecian, or Greek, woman who stands up to Jesus.  She expects him to free her daughter from an unclean spirit.  She knows he is able.  She believes he will.  Yet, because of her cultural roots, because of the long- standing breach between Gentiles and Jews, it seems the poetic rendering of the text which we heard this morning got it right: “has she not asked for more than can be expected?”   What hutzpah.  This bold request for freeing her daughter from being possessed by an unclean spirit ends up changing her daughter’s life, and I am sure, the life of the entire family. First Jesus refuses to respond to the Gentile woman’s request.  At the end of their conversation, however, he removes that evil spirit from the child who is not even present, but at home in her bed!  This is the only story in the gospels which shows this kind of about face on Jesus’ part.  It is also the only place where we find Jesus with a sharp insult toward a person who has come to him for help.  Seems out of character, we think.  Maybe he was tired.  Maybe someone had just yelled at him.  Or, you know what?  Maybe he was being a human like you and me.  Maybe when we see him answer so sharply, we can see that he truly lived the same human reality that we live. 

The woman is bold enough to argue with Jesus.  That was unusual from the get-go.  Some scholars point to the fact that her child was in a bed—a piece of furniture and not a straw pallet–and to her ability to speak Greek as signs that this woman was an educated, well-off woman of some status in her community.  Perhaps that social standing gave her a leg to stand on, removed her fear of speaking up for what she needed to the very one who she knew could deliver.  She won’t take no for an answer.  Whether she knew it or not, she fits right into the Old Testament pattern of lament.  Listen to the plea in Psalm 6: “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.”  And in Psalm 38:  My heart throbs, my strength fails me; as for the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me.”  And Psalm 102: “Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry come to you.  Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress.  Incline your ear to me; answer me speedily when I call.”  The people of Israel are very familiar with going to God for help in times of trouble, pain, harassment or distress. Basically, it is: “O Lord, come and do something about my terrible situation. Or, “Come and do what you have promised to do for your people, Lord.”  This Gentile woman calls on Jesus to really be Jesus and to do what she knows he is able to do, what he has done elsewhere, and what her daughter needs so badly.

Jesus’ words are sharp.  In Matthew’s version of this story (chapter 15), he gives her his job description: “I have come to save the lost sheep of Israel.”  –clearly excluding anyone outside of Israel.  When you stop and think more deeply about it, that WAS his primary mission.  Yes, he had interactions with Gentiles, and in all other cases in the gospels, he willingly met their specific needs, and sometimes, as we saw last week in the account of the woman at the well, he was the initiator.  But the intentional ministry to the Gentiles took place after Jesus’ resurrection, when the work had been left to the apostles, especially Peter, Paul, Timothy, and Barnabas.  Jesus had to bring his message to his own community first.  He had to build a base from which to launch this world changing message of good news—the news that the door to God’s kingdom was wide open.  The news that the crack in the relationship between God and humans could be repaired by following this brown skinned, itinerant preacher with a name that means: “Save”. 

Calling the woman a dog was an insult, and ethnic-religious insult.  There is no getting around that.  But she does not argue about that.  She accepts second class citizenship—not something I would ever recommend for anyone.  She does so in order to move on to the point she insists on making:  she (and her daughter) are deserving at least of the leftover crumbs from the master’s (or the lord’s) table.  And indeed, they are.  Jesus recognizes the truth in her conspicuously bold retort.  And Jesus changes his mind. Had she not been bold enough to push back, nothing would have changed for her.  She would have meekly gone back home to her daughter with the unclean spirit, tail between her legs.

You might say that the recipients of our denominations’ Self Development of People grants are conspicuously bold in their ask for grant monies to enable healing in their communities, the closing of opportunity gaps, and creating ways to repair the breach and be restorers of livable streets.  Self-Development of People is one of the three parts of our annual One Great Hour of Sharing offering.  With Presbyterian churches across the country, this offering ends up being the largest way that Presbyterians come together every year to change the world for the better.  We will collect that offering on Easter Sunday again this year, and the focus for this year is:  You shall be called repairers of the breach, taken from the prophet Isaiah.   

Any Self Development of People grant must be just that—self development.  It must be a request directly from the community which is experiencing oppression, poverty or injustice.  It can not be a request from some rich Presbyterian congregation on behalf of that community. Grants go to both national and international partners.   Last year’s grants went to grass roots organizations like Cultivate South Park in Seattle https://cultivatesouthpark.org/about: they are a low-income group of artists, community organizers, activists and youth who are creating a community space in South Park, a part of Seattle that is almost 1/3  Hispanic.  Cultivate South Park will use the funds to conduct classes and activities for youth needing connection and healing, to further develop a farmers’ market and neighborhood dinners in their food desert, and to work together on projects that pull them together as a neighborhood.  They are repairing the breach that our society has created for those who have few economic resources and little political power. They are using their conspicuously bold voices to bring about change in their own lives and for their community, like the Gentile woman who argued with Jesus.

Surely conspicuous boldness is needed on the part of those who are at the fringes in order to get the message across to those who hold the power.  But repair work can never been only one sided. Conspicuous boldness is needed on the part of those who already hold the power to speak out about injustice, to seek to level the playing field in education, in the work place, in the purchasing of homes, in the ability to build generational wealth. How conspicuously bold would it be for those in power to relinquish some of their power so that it could be shared?  How bold indeed.  Amen.

Breaking Barriers

John 4:7-26 Sunday, March 13, 2022

I cringe when I think about the ways the first intercontinental traveling Christians—by default Christian “missionaries” — inflicted their beliefs on native peoples  of any continent they intended to conquer, populate and turn into an income stream.  I also cringe when I recognize that those attitudes and practices are really not so far removed from our day.  Christians of all stripes assumed that their connection to God was the only connection to God, and insisted, no, forced, native peoples to adopt Christian practices, at least on the outside. In many cases those who believed there are other ways to connect with the divine Spirit were punished for participating in any faith practices seen as non-Christian.  A wall between the invaders and the existing people groups went up immediately, and we know that animosity, pain, and separation from one another has not completely ended.   Presbyterians are not exempt, by the way.  It is only within my lifetime that the PCUSA has shifted to refer to our global missionaries as mission co-workers, seeing our work in any part of the globe as a partnership. 

These practices are not unique to Christianity.  More than seven centuries before Jesus arrives on the scene, the lands he knew as Samaria were part of the northern kingdom of Israel, created when the people of God conquered multiple native people groups to inhabit what they understood to be the land promised them by God to Moses, bringing their faith practices with them.  There were tribes of Israel who inhabited the northern areas—like Zebulun and Manasseh, Ephraim and Issachar.  There was one tribe who inhabited the southern area—Judah.  The 12 tribes who had once traveled together through the wilderness for 40 years, sharing the experience of being freed by God from slavery to the Egyptians divided into two kingdoms, each overseen by different kings for centuries, kingdoms which at times fought against each other.  The wars were not exactly wars between brothers and sisters, but definitely wars between cousins.

Then in 721 B.C.E., the mighty Assyrian forces swept down from the north and conquered the northern kingdom, including Samaria.  As we watch what is currently happening to Ukraine, this is starting to sound sadly familiar.  Most of these Samaritan Jews were taken into exile, and their story really gets lost in our scriptures as the focus of the biblical narrative carries on only through the southern kingdom of Judah, that is, the Judean Jews.  However, some Samaritan Jews were left in Samaria, likely aghast as they watched their land be re-populated with five different groups of people, people who built their own homes and communities, people who intermarried with any Samaritan Jews who were left and, perhaps most importantly, people who infiltrated religious life with their beliefs.

Over time these invaders created faith practices that were historically connected to those of their southern neighbors, but clearly different in other ways.  For example, the Samaritan Jews only followed the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, as their sacred writings.  You see, there would have been no interest in including the ongoing saga of the Judean Jews in their sacred writings.  They built a temple on Mt. Gerazim, a mountain near the town of Shechem, which had already been a worship center for centuries.  There was a long held practice of worshiping the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob on Mt. Gerazim.  Mt. Gerazim is situated about half-way between Jerusalem and the Galilee, where Jesus first called his disciples and spent much of his ministry.  In Jesus’ day, the large area between Judea and Galilee was known as Samaria, having lost the names of the tribes some 700 years before. 

Over multiple generations, the wall gradually solidified between those of Jewish heritage living in Samaria and those of Jewish heritage living in Judea.  It became so solid that the people of Israel took longer routes in order to avoid passing through Samaria if at all possible.  It was so solid that people growing up on either side of the wall knew very well the relationship, or lack of relationship, between Samaritans and Jews. We all know that various New Testament writers do not hesitate to make it clear that Jews do not eat with or even associate with Samaritans. 

Our Lenten focus this year is repair work.  Each week we are looking at a different aspect of being involved in reparations between ourselves and others, or between ourselves and God.  In order to do any repair work between you and someone else, someone has to begin, to break through the barriers that have kept you from repairing the relationship.  When there is an argument between brothers or sisters, or between cousins, or with anyone, we counsel one another that one of you has to be “big enough” to initiate the reconciliation.  Breaking barriers is a key theme in the story we heard this morning—and actually it is just the first half of this story.  I commend you to pick up your Bible this week and read the rest of the story.  The primary broken relationship in this detailed conversation between Jesus and an unnamed woman of Samaria is the Judean-Samaritan relationship.  Jesus is “big enough” to cut through the barriers, and in the process, taking several steps toward repair.

Step number one:  Jesus and his disciples intentionally travel through Samaria.

Step number two:  Jesus insists on taking a rest from a hot, dusty trip at a well outside of Sychar, a centuries-old well that was known as Jacob’s well, located near land that had long ago been deeded to Jacob’s favored son, Joseph (of multicolored coat fame).

Step number three:  in the absence of anyone else at the well, Jesus the Jew reaches out to a Samaritan woman who has come to draw water. She is shocked. This is not supposed to happen. (When the disciples return with food, they are shocked too!)

Step number four:  Jesus and the woman have a deep theological conversation, actually the longest recorded conversation Jesus has in the gospels.  Unlike many of his recorded encounters with people during his ministry, this one does not end up with Jesus using it as a lecture or sermon, but it is a give and take conversation between a woman (imagine that!) and Jesus.   When you read the rest of the story, you find out that not only is she a deep thinker, but she is a very effective evangelist.

Jesus clearly identifies this woman as a child of God, valued and included in the family, despite what their communities have said for years.  Contrary to tradition, she and her neighbors are clearly invited into new life with Jesus.  Dr. Frances Taylor Gench, in her book, Back to the Well, explores the ideas of some commentators who wonder whether the conversation about the husbands is symbolic and not literal.  Could it be that Jesus is referring to the five people groups who invaded Samaria centuries before, and the Roman empire as the current power over Samaria?  The ancient invaders became “husbands” as the faith practices mingled.  The current empirical power is not a “husband”, for there is no mingling of Jewish faith and the Roman patterns of what would be called idol worship by both Samaritans and Judeans.

The woman’s question about worship location might seem unrelated at first.  Some people have thought she was trying to dodge a potential reprimand from Jesus about her sexual history and current habits.  But when you see the husbands as a symbolic way to characterize the historical wall between Samaritans and Judeans, you see that the woman (imagine that!) has her finger on the question that most deeply divides them:  where is it appropriate to worship God?  She asks him because she sees he is a prophet; she hears him offer her (imagine that!) a kind of spiritual wellspring of water that will change her life.   Samaritans and Judeans worship the same God but they disagree on the central place of worship.  Samaritans worship on the nearby Mt. Gerazim, and Judeans insist that God be worshiped in Jerusalem.

Step number five in breaking this long-held barrier, in taking steps to repair the broken relationship and moving toward reconciliation:  Jesus indicates that it does not matter where God is worshiped, but that what matters is the how and the why of worshiping God.  Jesus tells her: “God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth.” I get the message from him that it therefore does not matter who is worshiping God, but that God is worshiped from the heart, with commitment, with gratitude, with praise.” 

The woman is not an uneducated, simple woman who sticks only to her household chores.  She clearly has been taught about the hope of a coming Messiah as all Judean Jews expected.  She is the first person in this gospel who Jesus tells that he is the one she is waiting for.  He uses I AM, directly connecting himself with the God who spoke to Moses at the burning bush, the God who is worshiped by Samaritan Jews on Mt. Gerazim and by Judean Jews in Jerusalem, or by followers anywhere who worship in spirit and in truth.

And step number six:  because of the woman’s testimony and her neighbors’ direct interaction with Jesus, the people of the village break tradition and actually invite Jesus to stay with them for two days.  Of course, those days include eating together and conversing together, something that would never have happened before.  Jesus breaks that same tradition by accepting their invitation to stay with them.

The relationship is not immediately perfect.  You can’t erase long held animosity and superior attitudes (on the part of the Judean Jews) with one eye-opening conversation with a woman, or even with a two-day visit.  But barriers have been broken.  Steps have been taken to repair this Samaritan-Judean relationship.  There is hope that Samaritan Jews will be re-married with Judean Jews as together they enter into this new life of following Jesus, who is the bridegroom of the church.

Repairing any relationship has to start with someone.  Often there are barriers to repairing that must be broken first.  Jesus is a barrier breaker.  And so should we be.  Amen.