A Tale of Two Towns…
It was clearly the best of times and the worst of times.
In Jesus’ day the province of Samaria was the ethnic no-man’s-land between Galilee to the north and Judea to the south.
Many travelling Jews preferred to bypass Samaria completely, because of the Jew-Gentile amalgamation and mixed religious influences. Among the Jews, the word Samaritan was itself a curse and insult.
Jesus visited two Samaritan villages with his disciples-in-training. One was the village of Sychar where ancestor Jacob had once dug a well. Then later, Jesus approached another Samaritan town (unnamed in the narrative) as he made his final trip from Galilee to Jerusalem of Judea.
In Sychar Jesus was accepted and hosted for two days — clearly the best of times. The other case could hardly have been worse — the Samaritans refused to invite Jesus into their town, hastening his trip to Jerusalem.
The prevailing Samaritan-Jewish prejudices were clearly on display in both towns. “How are you a Jew talking to me a Samaritan?” asked the woman at the well outside of Sychar. The other town viewed Jesus as an uninvited trespasser.
Each account has a surprising outcome! In the case of Sychar, Jesus shocks his disciples by accepting an invitation to enter the city, apparently delaying by two days his journey north to Galilee .
In the case of the unnamed town of rejection, Jesus surprised his disciples-in-training by rebuking, not the town, but rather the disciples for their hateful attitudes.
The desire of James and John to “rain down fire” on the city was “Sodom and Gomorrah” language, and referenced the Old Testament account of the destruction of two wicked cities.
Jesus made clear that his mission was not to destroy, but to bring life. However, the two “sons of thunder” were slow learners. Paradoxically, Jesus rebuked them for their manner of loyalty to him. “You don’t know of what Spirit you are!” This challenge to his disciples is one which we might heed carefully today.
Consider the best and worst cases of evangelism. In first case, Jesus is in control. He asks for permission to drink from the same water vessel as the Samaritan woman. He shocks her with his respect for her, and by extension, the Samaritan people. She trusts him with painful details of her personal life, somehow finding a sense of safety in his presence.
He tells her of the Father’s love for her, and her community. He shares some of his most sublime insights about worship and a God who seeks to bless his worshipers, regardless of location, regardless of personal history. Unlike other Jews (his own disciples included) he was able to affirm the value of the Samaritan, just as they were and where they were.
When she leaves her water jar at the well and goes back into the city, she is clearly experiencing the “living water bubbling up to life eternal” that Jesus promised her. She openly shares her encounter with the Teacher who seemed to know everything she had ever done, yet could offer her such hope.
His disciples are still clueless, itching to leave this “God-forsaken land” for the people of greater value, people more like themselves.
Using the agricultural metaphor of impending harvest, Jesus basically said, “Not so fast, guys. Galilee can wait! Look toward the town you want to despise in the name of the Lord! Don’t you see them coming out to us? We’re not going anywhere. Just hold your questions and negative prejudices, and watch God work!”
We wonder about the manner in which they had entered the town earlier to purchase a little food. Did they take joy in some degrading evaluation of those they believed to be godless people? Did they make ethnic jokes about the moral shortcomings of “those people?” Did they self-congratulate as they quickly obtained something for Jesus to eat, ready to be free of this clearly unworthy people?
Can you imagine their amazement when the citizens of Sychar came out, eager to meet Jesus for themselves and to invite him into their town, those with whom Jesus would spend the next few days?
Clearly evangelism in its purest form.
And then there was that other village. It was near the end of Jesus’ ministry. Perhaps James and John were expecting a reception similar to Sychar. Disgusted at the citizens’ refusal to give Jesus a hearing, they asked Jesus to call down fire and destruction on the city.
The narrative says that the Samaritans had been offended when they saw Jesus on his way toward Jerusalem. Is it possible that they were tired of being nothing more than a shortcut between Jewish provinces? Were they tired of being abused by those folk who always claimed the religious high-ground? Did they feel that this party of Jewish travelers was violating their sanctuary?
Did James and John somehow think they could evangelize by imposing themselves and their Teacher upon them? Had they displayed any of the traits that the woman from Sychar had seen in Jesus?
Jesus’ answer seems to be: “You think they are the problem? Do you think I came here to destroy? Do you think your “scorched earth policy” is really going to bring the Kingdom of God to men? Have I taught you nothing these three years?”
To Jesus, these Samaritans were no threat to him or his ministry. That honor was reserved for the Jewish religionists waiting in Jerusalem to deliver him up to Pilate.
Much of the evangelical world in the United States is busy promoting its own scorched earth policy of evangelism.
After the terrible massacre of young Latino men in Orlando, Florida in June, 2016 came viral videos from white and Hispanic preachers expressing regret that more gay men were not killed.
The abortion debate seeks to impose its morality through legal means, with little concern about the women involved, nor for that matter about those carried to full-term.
Heads of so-called Christian universities and organizations have fully endorsed a presidential candidate well known for his vile and racist comments, in exchange for a chance to control the Supreme court. Many evangelical ministers throughout our country used their pulpits to justify the unthinkable, and are now invoking God’s name in their celebration of power.
Within our land is our own “spiritual Samaria”, in which men and women in crisis are needing the embrace of a loving Savior or one of his disciples. They are weary of being made the political shortcut to some sort of Christian Theocracy. What they often hear in the message of the evangelical is the destruction that comes from disciples who do not know of what spirit they themselves are.
Apparently James and John were unable to be Jesus to the unnamed Samaritan village. That would come later, after they stood at the foot of the cross, seeing clearly what Jerusalem’s theocracy had achieved — as they heard Jesus praying for the forgiveness of the ignorant religionists who put him there.
After the resurrection and according to Jesus’ plan, Jesus’ disciples would again enter Samaria, but with a message of love, understanding, forgiveness, hope and brotherhood.
Many Samaritans would welcome them as they had welcomed Jesus, and ironically would offer them refuge from the ongoing persecution that was driving Jewish Christians from the synagogues.
Back in Jerusalem, James would be martyred for his determination to present the message of “living water bubbling up to life eternal.” John would become the “disciple of love”, and would later return to embrace his new Samaritan family of believers.
For these disciples, their scorched-earth approach to evangelism ended at the cross.