With only a few notable exceptions, I expect each of us is a bit of a snob. I know I am a snob when it comes to literature and music. I have been known to not listen to particular types of music, knowing they were just a bit beneath me. Deb and I went to see Steve Goodman in Richmond many years ago. I was a huge Goodman fan so it hardly mattered that I did not know anything about the headlining artist. After Goodman finished his set, the feature attraction took the stage. She sang two songs and I said to Deb, “I’ve heard enough. Let’s get out of here.” I am probably the only person in the world to walk out on Emmy Lou Harris. A decade listening to music in Texas helped me see my sinful ways. Today I am not only a huge fan of Emmy Lou, I learned personal taste does not excuse the snobbery that is often exposed by one’s ignorance.
I am a biblical snob. Anyone who has been to one of my Sunday School classes knows this. I introduce the class to only the “right-thinking” biblical scholars, or to be more exact, the ones with whom I happen to agree. The funny thing is when I look back on my biblical and theological journey, it has undergone some radical turns. I guess that is why I keep my old books. They remind me where I have come from and more importantly they suggest that God is hardly finished with my biblical development.
I am a Presbyterian Snob. I don’t christen children, I Baptize them. I don’t come to the altar, I stand behind the Communion Table. I certainly don’t throw my hands up the air and speak unintelligent mumbo-jumbo. I am a blueblood Presbyterian. I am proud to be one of God’s “Frozen Chosen”, although I wonder if God gets much joy out of my muted celebrations.
My being a makes me a huge fan of Nicodemus. I think he would have made a great Presbyterian. You might remember Nicodemus was brought up in a respectable family, attended all the right schools and became a leading scholar at the local synagogue. Nicodemus knew the Torah from right to left. He was a good man and was beloved in the community. Like any good Jewish Scholar he had an immense curiosity about the text and was open to hearing other voices. As you remember, under the protection of darkness, Nicodemus sought out Jesus. He wanted to first hand hear what this young Rabbi had to say. Nicodemus had no idea who Jesus really was, but Jesus was more than aware of the reputation of the Rabbi. Jesus treated Nicodemus with the respect he deserved and their conversation concluded with John 3:16, a verse that celebrates the very essence of our faith. This encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus makes me believe both would feel right at home in a Presbyterian Church. Though we rarely venture out after 9 in the evening, we are educated, we are leaders in this community and we are nice people with good reputations. The problem is once we open the door to Jesus, there’s no telling who might be next.
Jesus met Nicodemus in Jerusalem during the Passover. When the festivities ended, Jesus and the disciples headed back to Galilee. The trip from Jerusalem to Nazareth was over 100 miles and took the better part of a week. The worst part was there was almost no direct way to make the trip without going through Samaria.
John writes, “The Jews and the Samaritans did not share many things in common.” That was an incredibly understated. The ancestors of the Samaritans rebelled against Jerusalem at the death of Solomon. This led to a bloody history as an independent nation which was terminated 200 years later at the hands of the Assyrians. The Jews considered the Samaritans a pagan race of mixed blood. They fought endlessly and remained mortal enemies even though Rome tried to unite them into one province. No self respecting Jew had any contact with a Samaritan. Just the simple act of drinking from the cup of a Samaritan was considered a sinful act.
Jesus, fresh from the Feast of the Passover, fresh from stimulating conversation with a leader of the religious elite, finds himself in the Samaritan city of Sychar. It was midday and Jesus was tired and thirsty. He approached a well to have a drink only to discover there was no apparatus available to draw water. A woman appeared and Jesus inquired, “Could you please give me a drink of water?” Ever asked a favor of someone you never considered your equal?
I was born in Georgia, and raised in North Carolina and Virginia. I went to college in Tennessee. For the first 22 years of my life the farthest north I ever went was Washington DC. I was inducted into the US Army in Richmond, Virginia and given a bus ticket to Ft. Lee, New Jersey via Philadelphia. It was after 9 p.m. when the bus pulled into Philly. I got off the bus, looked at the schedule board and did not see a bus going to Ft. Lee. The ticket person told I was at the wrong terminal and shut the window. I was in a strange city where everyone spoke a strange language and for some unknown reason I started to quietly sing, “I wish I was in the land of cotton.”
A black guy, who smelled like he had been on the street for more than a day interrupted my singing. “Hey kid, you looking for the bus to Ft. Lee? Ten bucks and I’ll show you the way.” Naively, I gave him the money and he said, “Follow me through this tunnel”.
What do you do if you when are thirsty? What cultural fears and personal snobbery must be overcome to trust a stranger? Jesus didn’t just ask another person for a drink of water. He asked a woman who represented everything he had been taught to hate. As a good upstanding Jew, when the woman approached him Jesus should have moved away without saying a word. But he didn’t. So the woman challenged him. “In your eyes I am nobody. Why are you talking to me? No Jew can be that thirsty.”
Here is the amazing thing about Jesus we should never miss. Be it Nicodemus, a fine upstanding member of the community, or a nameless Samaritan woman who was an outcast in her own community, Jesus always had a word of grace. For Nicodemus it was, “God so loved the world”. For this unnamed woman of the world, the word was, “Let me give you a drink of eternal life.” (pause)
The Reverend Fred Waldron Phelps, the minister of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas died on Wednesday. I am not sure if that name rings a bell. Let me freshen you memory. Reverend Phelps and his church publicly stated, “God hates America because America loved gays and lesbians”. The good reverend and his flock travel to military funerals and disrupt those solemn occasions declaring the death of our soldiers was God’s punishment on America. Reverend Phelps stands for everything I hate and I am ashamed we share the same profession. What will Jesus, who spoke of God’s love for the world and the living waters of eternal life, say to Reverend Phelps? Reverend Phelps was not the only person to die Wednesday. We also lost Vernita Gray, a renowned social worker and gay rights activist from Chicago. Imagine Rev. Phelps and Ms. Gray standing side by side just outside the Pearly Gates. I am certain they looked at each other and wondered if they were in heaven or hell. Then they looked to Jesus, much like Nicodemus looked to Jesus, much like the woman at the well looked to Jesus, much like we snobs look to Jesus, and we are amazed, shocked and perhaps even curious as to why Jesus would offer each of us a drink of his living water.
Imagine America giving up hate for Lent. Imagine taking all our divisions, all our distrust, all our past histories, all our fears, all our ignorance, everything that so fouls our social and political attempts at unity, and just letting them go.
Imagine a Jewish man drinking water from the cup of a Samaritan woman? Imagine the same man saying, “I know who you are and I love you anyway.” Imagine drinking of that water and believing that with God, all things are possible.