Christian Faith and Witness in a Pluralistic Society
Life and Ministry of Jesus in a Pluralistic Context- The Samaritan Woman
The Samaritans occupied the country formerly belonging to the tribe of Ephraim and the half-tribe of Manasseh. The capital of the country was Samaria, formerly a large and splendid city. When the ten tribes were carried away into captivity to Assyria, the king of Assyria sent people from Cutha, Ava, Hamath, and Sepharvaim to inhabit Samaria (2 Kings 17:24; Ezra 4:2-11). These foreigners intermarried with the Israelite population that was still in and around Samaria. These “Samaritans” at first worshipped the idols of their own nations, but being troubled with lions, they supposed it was because they had not honored the God of that territory. A Jewish priest was therefore sent to them from Assyria to instruct them in the Jewish religion. They were instructed from the books of Moses, but still retained many of their idolatrous customs. The Samaritans embraced a religion that was a mixture of Judaism and idolatry (2 Kings 17:26-28). Because the Israelite inhabitants of Samaria had intermarried with the foreigners and adopted their idolatrous religion, Samaritans were generally considered “half-breeds” and were universally despised by the Jews. The Jews regarded the Samaritans as the worst of the human race (John 8:48) and had no dealings with them (John 4:9). In spite of the hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans, Jesus broke down the barriers between them, preaching the gospel of peace to the Samaritans (John 4:6-26), and the apostles later followed His example (Acts 8:25).
Samaritan woman at the well: It is an episode in the life of Jesus from the Gospel of John, in John 4:4–26. In Eastern Orthodox Church tradition, she is known as Photine (from φως, the luminous one). There is an extensive extra-biblical tradition related to her, in which she is known as Saint Photine or Photini/Photina (of Samaria), and regarded as a Christian martyr.
Jesus had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
The Gospel of John, like the Gospel of Luke, is favorable to the Samaritans, unlike the Matthew Gospel which quotes Jesus as telling his followers not to enter any of the cities of the Samaritans. Scholars differ as to whether the Samaritan references in the New Testament are historical. One view is that the historical Jesus had no contact with Samaritans; another is that the accounts go back to Jesus himself.
This reflection focuses on an encounter between the Samaritan woman and Jesus and on developing an alternative model for religious educators in a multi-faith/-cultural/-ethnic society. John 4:1-42 was written in the context of rejection and hostility as is illustrated in its setting. (Jn 4:1-3). Jesus moves away from Judea, a place of political and religious problems, to Galilee via Samaria, a place where Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman, a dynamic experience.
This situation is very similar to the plight of many people who have left their home-land because of political, economical, religious problems in different parts of the world, a new adventure, to encounter many different cultures and religions.
Breaking a cultural and religious barrier to establish a new relationship: Jesus, as a male Jew, the Samaritan, as a female, did not mix because of their religious beliefs and cultural law. (v.9). However, Jesus breaks this ritual taboo and communicates with her on an equal basis by respecting who she is and her territory. In asking her “give me a drink” (v.6), Jesus acknowledges her as a necessity for his well being and even for his survival. Jesus and the woman break down the wall of division for their own benefit and in fact for the benefit of the entire world. This is a real challenge to our modern view of the person as an extreme form of individualism and competition. This view is still transmitted as we often hear in our education language with phrases such as “personal fulfilment, self-esteem, doing one’s own thing or the development of human excellence”.
In John 4:1-42, Jesus and the Samaritan woman set an intercultural/-racial/-religious/-political/-gender challenge. Like Jesus and the woman, we must break this extreme form of individualism, racialism and competition. We must have the courage to deal with our historical mistakes of the past and learn how to relate to each other as Jesus did in John 4:1-42.
In this quest, the water-hole becomes a meeting place of mutual understanding for diverse cultures, races and religions, and Jesus becomes the example of “God-In-Mutual Relationship”.
Respecting others as equal human beings: In a dialogue about the water, there is a real recognition and respect: Jesus and the Samaritan woman are equal in power. She has one kind of water; He has another. He is recognised as a male Jew, she as a female Samaritan. After establishing a minimal level of equality of gender and respect for who they are and what they have to offer, the dialogue proceeds with fruitful results: She asks for the “Water welling up to eternal life” (v.14).
Their encounter is developed gradually in many different stages: There is a gradual revelation of Jesus in John 4:1-42: A Jew, a giver of Living water, a prophet, a Messiah. There is another secular and divine stage in the story. After establishing a human relationship, (vv. 5-19), Jesus invited the woman to establish a divine relationship in worshipping the Father through Jesus himself. (vv. 20-26). Then, she was transformed with her new mission: “She put down her water jar and hurried back to the town to tell the people” (v.28). Truly, this is a multicultural/-political/-racial/-religious/-genders encounter in action.
Relational approach: Instead of competitive, individualistic and self-centred approaches, a relational approach is very useful as Jesus did. That is, whether White, or Black, Christian or Buddhist, Male or Female, if we are true to ourselves, we must not go to one extreme and we must realise that we need others to be fully developed, and without our contributions, others cannot be fully developed: “No man is an island”.
Counseling techniques: Jesus uses different counselling techniques in John 4:1-42. Jesus helps the Samaritan woman to discover for herself who He is by initiating a dialogue with her and this helps her gradually to respond to Him in faith. The woman’s recognition of Jesus as a prophet (v.19) leads her to raise the most burning religious issue between Samaritans and Jews, namely the place where God should be worshipped. Using different counselling techniques again, Jesus leads her into a deeper and more spiritual dialogue. She gradually responds in faith to Jesus as the Messiah (vv. 25, 29)
This gradual and skilful counselling technique is an important aspect of on-going multicultural religious education today. These techniques are the foundation-stone to encountering productively. Only as a Saviour of the world can Jesus offer to us an alternative direction in this pluralistic context.
This is hard for some educators who are self-centred in education. They are like the disciples of Jesus in John’s gospel. They don’t understand what Jesus did with the Samaritan woman. Sometimes, they are too dogmatic and self-centred in their approach to life and to education. They tend to quickly criticize those who are different from themselves, who teach religion with multicultural and transcendental emphasis.
Pastoral Implication of Dialogue in the light of John 4:5-29: Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman broke down the boundary or the wall that separated Jews and Samaritans. He penetrated the frontier of the “other” and entered into an intimate relationship by which he stayed and dined with the Samaritans. He therefore established a permanent relationship with the people considered unclean and despised. Jesus’ open attitude, humility, love, tolerance, acceptance, respect, trust, gentleness, under-standing, gradually helped the woman to see in him more than a Jew, prophet, (may be) Messiah, Tareb one who will reveal or tell them everything. In an encounter with the “other,” Jesus’ attitude should be adopted to win people over. Stepping out of the shores to enter into the world of the ‘others’ is necessary so as to think, feel and see what they experience. Similarly, like the woman, the “other” should be open to dialogue and be ready to learn and trust one who engages in the encounter. The woman dared to enter into Christ’s situation posing challenging questions. Both risked their dignity and were prepared to compromise and to reach out to the “other.” In dialogue taking risk despite status, dignity and lives is necessary for an effective change.
In a situation where certain issues might heighten tension or create division among people or groups, these should be properly addressed. These should be swept under the carpet but carefully, respectfully, and wisely be handled to enhance harmony among the communities. People should be encouraged to engage in dialogue on age-old issues to resolve them. Lack of dialogue on such issues will create tension, conflict/war among people. Like Jesus’ encounter with the woman, conversation/ dialogue can help break the long enmity and hostility among ethnic groups and enhance mutual relationship. Like Jesus, in the socio-cultural, economic and political situations, what is necessary is to keep on looking for the third alternative—the one that is better than what we have, the one that will endure and will unite all people than the one that separates/excludes, an alternative that will enhance mutual understanding, acceptance, tolerance, trust and will break down barriers and walls of hostilities and division.
No one is an island. In a pluralistic context, influencing the lives of others is very easy, directly or indirectly and vice versa. Consequently, it is in emerging in mutual dialogue (as Jesus and the Samaritan woman) with people of other cultures, distinct as they may be from us, that we can truly come to appreciate others and ourselves. We should make an effort to change our attitudes and self-understanding and understanding of “others.”
In other words, dialogue should lead us to a new knowledge and a change of attitude and behavior towards “others.” Accepting and preparing to cross over to the “other’s” side, accepting “others” as they are should be the approach of whatever kind: religious, ethnic, traditional, ideological, socio-cultural, political, economic, etc., and followed by a dialogue in humility, sincerity, openness, love, acceptance, tolerance, empathy and trust on the part of all those involved. This is not an easy task. It needs emphatic understanding, listening intently to the “other,” openness, perseverance, patience, trust, confidence building among the wounded and love of the “other” in spite of the differences.
Results of the dialogue: A study of this thrilling account would be incomplete if the success of the gospel among the Samaritans is un-noticed which follows the establishment of the Christian system. After the death of Stephen, the Jerusalem church was scattered abroad. In this connection, Philip the evangelist went to Samaria and proclaimed Christ (Acts 8:5). The multitude “gave heed with one accord” to his message, which was, incidentally, buttressed with supernatural signs.
In this connection one recalls the conversion of Simon the sorcerer (8:9ff). When the report of Philip’s success came to the attention of the apostles up in Jerusalem, they sent Peter and John to Samaria, and the new converts were supplied with spiritual gifts to supplement their ministry (8:14ff). Subsequently, the gospel was proclaimed in “many villages” of the Samaritans (8:25). Clearly, much of this success is traceable to the visit of Jesus to that region, as recorded in John 4:5ff.
Conclusion: While we are living on earth, we should learn about and from each other as Jesus did with the Samaritan woman. Only in Jesus (as a Jew and the Saviour of the world), can our multicultural religious education be transformed and fully developed. We can only hope for this multicultural Christian religious education, if each one of us learns from Jesus, who is the model of religious educator, by always putting the other first. “He comes to serve, not to be served”. This is a true personal, relational and transcendental model in life and in education.
Jesus came to save people from the punishment of their sin. This salvation was offered to the Jews, and then God freely offered it to the non-Jews (gentiles). We can apply this to our lives by remembering that Jesus came to give new life to all people who put their trust in Him. Pray for the opportunity to share the Good News of Jesus with everyone – those who look shiny on the outside, and those who don’t. Everyone needs to know Him.
In a pluralistic society like in India, where Christian witness and witnessing plays a significant role, the barriers which is created among the Christians should be demolished because this creates a slow progress in evangelization and mission. If the Christians cannot live in harmony with another Christian, then the message from the Samaritan women of ‘breaking barriers’, will never be lived out in reality. Being a Christian means to follow the footsteps of Jesus Christ that includes all of God’s creation irrespective of caste, class, gender, race or beliefs. The Samaritan woman also portrays ‘reconciliation’ not only between God and human, but mainly between human and his/her fellow human.