Maybe you’ve seen something wrong with the system and tried to make it right. Like the fact that there are never enough stalls in the ladies room, while stalls go unused in the men’s room because they have a whole row of urinals. We went to the theater last night, and it was the same old story. Intermission is never long enough for the women to make it through the long line outside the rest room and winding all across the lobby (making it nearly impossible to get to the concession stand).
Or maybe you’ve gotten so frustrated, you decided to ignore the system and do it your way. One woman at a ball game got so frustrated by the long lines at the women’s rest room, that she walked into the men’s room, used an empty stall, and walked out. She would have gotten away with it, too, except she couldn’t resist opening her mouth.
As she passed by the guys at the urinals, she said, "I left the seat up for ya, just the way you like it." That got her arrested. But her arrest was not in vain. It brought public attention to the whole issue of potty parity, and (who knows) someday something might actually be done about it.
Or maybe your quest was something more serious, like eliminating inequities in the tax system or improving health care. Why is it insurance companies will pay enormous amounts of money to take care of you when you’re hospitalized, but they won’t pay anything for simple preventive measures to keep you well? The alternative is to join an HMO. They will pay for preventive medicine, but if you do get sick, they try to convince you you’re not. Why can’t we have a true national health program that does both parts right?
One of our quests is campaign finance reform — the attempt to separate money and power. The problem is that those who have to fix the system are the people on the take.
Whatever your quest, if you’re up against seemingly insurmountable odds, people say you’re "tilting at windmills." Or they call your venture "Quixotic," a way of saying you’re crazy for even trying. These colorful expressions come, of course, from Cervantes’ novel "Don Quixote" and its musical counterpart, "Man of La Mancha." They have become part of our language.
Two days ago, Richard Kiley, the quintessential and original "Man of La Mancha" passed away. Maggie and I saw him play the part in Hollywood many years ago. He played a great crazy man, and he will be missed.
One of the "crazy" things Don Quixote did was to fall in love with a local prostitute, Aldonza. He treats her like a lady, and calls her Dulcinea ("Sweet One"). Her reaction is, "Are you crazy? I’m a whore!" Everyone laughs at foolish Don Quixote.
Personally, when someone calls me a Don Quixote, I take it as a compliment. You see, Don Quixote has a lot in common with Jesus of Nazareth, who tilted at quite a few windmills in His time, too.
Nowhere in the Gospels is this better illustrated than in today’s story of Jesus and the Woman at the Well.
This meeting took place when Jesus left Judea and the region around Jerusalem to go once more back to his native Galilee in the North of Israel. Between Judea and Galilee lies Samaria, a region of about 1600 square miles, stretching between the Jordan River on the east and the Mediterranean Sea on the West.
The Samaritans who inhabited this region were the descendants of Jews who intermarried with the Assyrians who occupied the area from 726 to 721 B.C., during one of the many times Israel was conquered. Their intermarriage with the Gentiles enabled them to survive the occupation and fare better than the Jews who resisted.
While the Samaritans did not give up their belief in the God of Abraham, nor accept the religion of their conquerors, small changes in the practice of their faith developed. Over the years, a great animosity grew up between the Samaritans and the Judeans. The Jews considered the Samaritans traitors, half-breeds, and heretics.
Jews who had to travel back and forth between Judea in the south and Galilee in the north avoided Samaria. Instead of taking the direct route through Samaria, they would go down to Jericho, cross the Jordan River into Perea (which is now the Kingdom of Jordan) and then turn north through Decapolis, not crossing back over the river until they were well north of Samaria and due east of Nazareth. This turned a sixty mile trip into a journey of a hundred miles, but it was worth it to avoid the feared and hated Samaritans.
Not Jesus, though. He would not follow a trail that fear and hatred had blazed. When he left Jerusalem, he went due north, through the heart of Samaria and within about a mile of Mt. Gerizim, the center of Samaritan worship. It was at this point, near the village of Sychar or Shechem, that Jesus sat and rested at Jacob’s Well while his disciples went into town for food. (I bet they were thrilled at that! I can imagine they were terrified.)
When they returned (probably thankful that they had escaped unharmed), they found Jesus chatting with the Samaritan woman. This was a shocking defiance of Jewish convention on at least three counts: (1) she was a Samaritan, (2) she was a woman, and (3) she was a notorious sinner.
By engaging the Samaritan woman in conversation, Jesus broke through several of the major barriers that divide the human family to this very day.
The first of these windmills he tilted at was racism. Because the Samaritans had intermarried, the Jews considered them half-breeds and mongrels. They were not to be associated with, but feared and despised. I’m sure you can think of at least a few places in the world where racism still exists — in spite of Jesus’ efforts. Time after time, he told parables where Samaritans were the good guys. But some people still don’t get it.
Another barrier Jesus broke was that of fundamentalism. The Samaritans worshipped God at Mt. Gerizim, not at Jerusalem, and they only used the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) in their worship, so the Jews pronounced them heretics and excommunicated them. They would not eat or drink with them. They would not even use a cup or bowl that had been used by a Samaritan. But Jesus asked her for a drink or water from her cup. He shared a cup with the heretic.
We desperately need that example to be followed today by the Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, the Catholics and Orthodox in Bosnia, the Roman Catholics and the "Roamin’ Catholics" in Rochester, the Southern Baptists and the American Baptists in North Carolina, and by all the other folks who practice a religion of exclusion. Jesus practiced a religion of inclusion.The whole concept of excommunication is foreign to Jesus. He told the Samaritan woman that the time was coming when it wouldn’t matter where you worshipped God or in what words. What matters, he said, is to worship God "in Spirit and in truth." Now when Christ said that , he was not implying that unless you have "all the truth" you can’t worship God. "All the truth" is defined differently by every denomination. For some, it’s the inerrancy of the Bible.
For others, it’s a long list of dogmas. For still others, it’s "tradition," which can be taken to mean every word that comes out of the mouth of some religious leader. When will we learn that our salvation doesn’t depend even the tiniest bit on whether we believe in pre- or post-tribulation millenialism!? Or whether we believe in it at all. It does not depend on our acceptance or rejection of the deutero-canonical books of the Old Testament, or even on our position on the ordination of women.
No, what Jesus was talking about was sincerity. To worship in truth means that ours is not a sham religion, that we’re not just putting on a show of religiosity, we’re not just filling a square. We truly love and worship God, and we worship Him in Spirit and in truth.
Jesus made believers of many of the Samaritans in the town of Shechem. And He accepted them. He did not ask them to change their worship practice. He did not ask them to "convert" to orthodox Judaism. He did not ask them to travel to Jerusalem to do their worship. He did not ask them to include later books in their Bible. He accepted them as they were, where they were, for who they were. And they accepted him as the Messiah they had been looking for — a Messiah for Samaritans as well as for Jews.
Jesus was a Messiah for everyone ... and He still is.
Another barrier transcended by Jesus that day was that of nationalism and tribalism. The Jews hated the Samaritans not only because they were half-breeds and heretics, but also because they were traitors. They had, after all, accommodated an enemy some seven and a half centuries earlier, and such transgressions are not easily forgotten.
And, of course, these "isms" are with us still. If race or religion doesn’t provide a reason for hatred, often real estate does. These are the deadly three Rs of warfare: race, religion, and real estate. Whether it’s the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda or the Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, tribalism is still one of the death-dealing sins Jesus tried so hard to rid us of by His example.
Yes, the Jews hated the Samaritans. By the same token, the Samaritans were not overly fond of the Jews. When the Samaritans built a temple to God on Mt. Gerizim in 400 B.C., Jews came and destroyed it. Is it any wonder that the Samaritan woman was astounded when Jesus, a Jewish man, asked her for a drink of water? John explained her reaction to his readers by saying "For Jews do not associate with Samaritans."
But Jesus walked through this barrier as if it did not exist ... because in his mind it did not exist. When he looked at the woman, he did not see a member of an inferior race. He saw a person made in the image of God. She was a Samaritan; he was a Jew. But to him all that mattered was the human race. All people matter supremely to him. And you and I must follow him. We can be bigots or Christians; but we cannot be both. God inspired his apostle Paul to write, "In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. They are all one in Christ Jesus."
Another barrier Jesus broke through was sexism or gender bias. When the disciples returned to the well and saw Jesus talking to the woman, their reaction was surprise bordering on shock. They could hardly believe it. That kind of thing was simply not done. They belonged to a male-dominated society in which women were second-class citizens. No man would be seen talking to a woman in public — especially a strange woman. But all this meant nothing to Jesus.
He did everything He could to keep the sexism of first century Palestine from infecting His Church. He openly conversed in public with women. He welcomed them into His inner circle of followers. (In spite of DaVinci’s all-male portrayal, we believe women were present at the Last Supper.) After His resurrection, Jesus first appeared to a woman, Mary Magdalene, known as the Apostle to the Apostles.
Still, sadly, sexism is today alive and well in many parts of Christ’s church. After about two hundred years of church leadership and presiding at the Eucharist, women in the third century were suddenly excluded from ordination and full participation in the life of the Church. Some denominations have yet to follow the example of Jesus (Who commissioned the Samaritan woman as his missionary to Shechem); they have yet to right this wrong. Those of us who are pressing for all churches to accept women fully are told we are "tilting at windmills." So be it. So did Jesus.
Yet another windmill Jesus tilted at that day (as on many others) was judgmentalism, an arrogant rejection of "sinners."
Most women came to draw water early in the morning or late in the evening when it was cool. It was a social occasion when they visited with neighbors and friends. But this woman came at around noon, in the heat of the day, a time when she was sure to be alone. She may have done this because of her sordid reputation. Behind her was a trail of five failed marriages, and at present she was living with a man who was not her husband. Everyone knew about her and treated her accordingly.
So she learned to avoid rejection by avoiding the presence of other women. But moral barriers meant nothing to Jesus. He treated this woman with the same respect that he would his own mother, the same dignity with which Don Quixote treated Aldonza. It wasn’t that Jesus was unaware of her reputation. He simply refused to single her out from the rest of humanity for condemnation. (Indeed, he singled her out to be his evangelist to all in her village.)
If there was any one thing for which Jesus was continually getting in trouble with the Pharisees, it was consorting with sinners. He ate and drank with prostitutes and tax collectors. He let whores anoint His feet with oil. He dined with Zaccheus. He called Matthew to be an Apostle. And here He was again, sharing a cup and discussing religion with a woman whose reputation as a tramp was so bad the other women wouldn’t associate with her. What’s more, it’s to her that He first reveals Himself as the Messiah. This is the only instance in Scripture where Jesus openly says Who He is before His trial in Jerusalem. And He knew what she was.
In light of this, how dare we be judgmental toward anyone? We should hold high moral standards for ourselves and try to live by them, but we should never lose sight of the fact that we too are sinners in need of God’s love and mercy and forgiveness. And we should never ever feel superior to someone else.
Unfortunately, racism, fundamentalism, nationalism, tribalism, sexism, and judgmentalism still exist today, even among Christians. But because of the example of Jesus with the woman at the well, we can say with certainty that they are not in accord with the mind of Christ. They therefore must be viewed as faults to be rooted out — not from others (for that would be self-righteous moralism again), but at least from ourselves. And inasmuch as it is in our power, we should attempt to root them out from our family, our society, and our church.
An impossible dream? Tilting at windmills? A Quixotic quest? Perhaps. But let us remember Don Quixote. His love for Aldonza was an impossible fantasy of a foolish old man, wasted on an unworthy woman. But he loved Aldonza with a pure unselfish love, seeking nothing from her but to serve her. And when he died, Aldonza was at his side, weeping. She stood up for him, having at last accepted his love for her. And after his death, she serenely announced, "My name is Dulcinea." She had been redeemed and made pure by his love. Just as we are redeemed and made pure by the unselfish, unmerited love of Christ.
[Not by His death, but by His love. I am convinced that Jesus did not die to satisfy some lust for revenge or "justice" on the part of God the Father. It is rather, our acceptance of God’s love that saves us. Christ’s death on the cross was God’s plan to show us the depth of His love (just as the resurrection was God’s plan to show us the truth of the Gospel message He proclaimed and the Messiahship He claimed.)
Just as through his death, Don Quixote was victorious in his quest to save the fair Dulcinea, in that through it she understood and accepted his love, so through His death, Jesus triumphs in His quest to save us, in that through it we see and accept His love.
Jesus didn’t die because of a vengeful God ... or because of the Jews, or because of the Romans.]
Jesus died because of His love for us — all of us. And through His meeting with the Woman at the Well, Jesus shows us just how wide that love is, encompassing traitors, mongrels, heretics, women, homosexuals, lawyers, tax collectors, single mothers, you name it ... and sinners, especially sinners. Now, go break down some barriers of your own today. Take on the system. Tilt at some windmills. Dream the impossible dream. And hope. God is at your side, and with God, all things are possible. Amen.
Sermon for 3rd Sunday in Lent, Cycle A, March 7, 1999
by Most Rev. Dr. Robert M. Bowman
Presiding Bishop, United Catholic Church
Exodus 17: 3-7
Psalm 95: 1-2, 6-9
Romans 5: 1-2, 5-8
John 4: 5-42