By Fr. Joseph F. Mali
After the killing of George Floyd in 2020, and the violent insurrection that rocked the Capitol on Jan. 6, there is a growing concern over America’s political divide. In politics, religion, and families, the tensions are running high. However, we can heal with the right approach – the way Jesus did with the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42). Even today, Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well and her compatriots is replete with lessons for uniting people.
The Samaritan-Jewish enmity dated to the religious schism that followed Israel’s split, with the Jews worshiping God in Jerusalem, and the Samaritans on Mount Gerizim, each condemning the other as heretics. This is the awful past the woman revisits in her reaction to Jesus’ plea for water: “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” Our polarization is something similar. It is the byproduct of historical racism, inequality, social injustice, and religious bigotry.
An essential step in addressing tensions is a painful admission of our history, and then rising above it. Jesus, perhaps more than anyone in his day, saw that it was time for a change. This realization is central to his reforms, including promoting a culture of inclusion, and building bridges between factions. Notably, in this story, Jesus abandoned the custom that a Jewish religious teacher should not talk to women in public.
Similarly, to improve the Catholic Church’s relations with other religions, the Second Vatican Council toned down the traditional Catholic teaching that “Outside the church there is no salvation,” paving way for today’s interreligious dialogue that is unifying people with different beliefs. The same is true of mixed marriages, which in bygone days were discouraged, but now allowed in Catholic circles.
We also cannot be too proud to take the first step. Jesus does not wait for the Samaritans to initiate peace. He crosses frontiers to talk with them. He places the woman’s interest above his own, promising her “living water,” which for her means no more trips to the well in the heat of the sun. When we treasure other people’s perspectives, we stand a better chance of getting along with them. We have seen this in interreligious dialogues with world religions, and this is a path forward for both Republicans and Democrats. Don’t just see the world solely through your own lenses or make your interest the supreme good. Step into other people’s shoes and see as they see; feel as they feel and get a better outcome.
As the discussion progresses, Jesus earns the woman’s trust with a deep, compassionate consideration of her complicated marital status. Without passing judgment on her, he applauds her honesty. Empathy and understanding are fundamental. When Amy Biehl, an American student in South Africa, was murdered by angry militants in 1993, her parents felt “a void.” After they saw the miserable conditions in the murderers’ hometown, they understood how the youth could be violent, and invested a substantial amount of money in the community to improve their lives. If only we know the sorrows of other souls, our empathy can be ignited, and we can bond with them.
For her part, the woman divests herself of negativity and acquires a new knowledge of Jesus as a prophet. Resentment of others is easy if we have an erroneous view of them. When we get to know a stranger, our bias may give way to friendship.
As soon as Jesus mentions her marriage, possibly to avoid embarrassment, the woman changes the subject to an age-old theological question — the right place to worship, in Jerusalem (for Jews), or in Samaria (for Samaritans). According to Jesus, in the future, both places will be irrelevant, for true worshipers of God will adore God in “Spirit and in truth.” Jesus’ interest is in what binds them together, the “Spirit and truth” of their devotion, not their houses of prayers, which separate them.
During the last bitter U.S. presidential election, we were more in the likeness of the woman than Jesus, stressing party loyalty at the expense of our union and the American spirit. However, during the first wave of Covid-19 pandemic, it was the American spirit that triumphed. At my workplace, Albany Medical Center, we witnessed an outpouring of support from diverse groups for our healthcare workers, irrespective of creed, color, ethnicity, or political affiliation.
When Jesus’ disciples find their master in an open talk with a woman, which is a taboo to them, they are scandalized. Supporters of racism, discrimination, and inequality today stand in the same old tradition. It is not beneficial to shut our doors to such people, as many have done after the last U.S. presidential election results. With a strategic approach like that of Jesus, they can become kinder, friendlier like the Samarian woman.
The way you transform society is one life at a time. Through the courage of one Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, and the transformation of one Samaritan, the woman at the well, former rivals became allies. At the end of the narrative, the Samaritans flock to Jesus, urging him to stay with them, and he socializes with them for two days. What an amazing reversal of that long, painful history! If only we take a cue from Jesus and the Samaritans, our own riven society may one day be restored.
Fr. Joseph F. Mali is an interfaith chaplain at Albany Medical Center, Albany, NY.