Rev Dr Terry Wall
One of the very positive things about life at St. Paul’s, Orakei Methodist Parish, is the mix of cultures. It is something that has happened in Auckland over the last thirty years. Here at St. Paul’s every Sunday people from Britain and Europe, Asia and the Pacific worship together. We meet and come to know each other. We learn to value the cultures and traditions that we represent. When the Jayasena and Fernando families shared their experience of being in Sri Lanka during the tsunami, we were learning more about another culture.
But we all know that the meeting of cultures is difficult and complex. Often there is no shared understanding of how the encounter should take place. Certainly we know from accounts from Maori and Cook’s party, how delicate the first exchanges were between Maori and European. Anne Salmond, in her book Between Worlds, records the words of Horeta Te Taniwha, who was a child when Cook and his party stepped ashore in 1769.
We lived at Whitianga, and a vessel came there, and when our old men saw the ship they said it was an atua, and the people on board were tupua, strange beings or goblins... As our old men looked at the manner in which they came on shore, the rowers pulling with their backs to the bows of the boat, the old people said ‘yes, it is so: these people are goblins, their eyes are at the back of their heads; they pull on shore with their backs to the land to which they are going.
It was only gradually that Maori and pakeha alike, after some confusing and unfortunate encounters, came to know and respect one another. The process of cultural encounter, from the first meeting, is fraught with possibilities for misunderstanding.
Because we live within a culture which seems to be the norm, we have difficulty in recognising that there are other cultures with other norms. So close are we to our culture - it functions like the air we breath - that we hardly notice it, until we move to the edges of our culture and bump up against another.
Our culture prescribes the form relationships take, the manner we greet each other, the language we speak and the clothes we wear, the protocols for formal occasions. It provides us with customs about the food we produce, how it is prepared and even how to eat our food - with our hands, chop sticks or knives, forks and spoons. Culture has embedded within it attitudes as to what is to be valued: a world view and indications as to how we relate to ancestors. Our culture is pervasive and we hand it on to our children more often than not, without thinking about its structure or form.
In this amazing account in John’s Gospel, of Jesus meeting a women at the well, we have all the ingredients of cross cultural encounter. Not only that, we have an encounter between a Jewish man and a Samaritan woman. In the cultures of the time you just did not strike up a casual conversation with a woman outside of the family circle. Men and women lived separate lives within cultures. So the dynamics in this encounter across cultures is complex, unexpected and filled with possibilities for misunderstanding.
It seems that Jesus and the woman could converse in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the ancient Near East. But there was animosity and hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans which reached back over the generations. Culturally and religiously they were cousins, both coming from the same stock, the same gene pool and recognising Yahweh as God. But it had been a tortured relationship and the wounds were deep.
The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas claims that many of our difficulties come about because we bring to our meeting with others, expectations. These expectations, he says, influence the way we relate to the other - they shape and determine the outcome. The expectations can give us a distorted apprehension of who the other is. So in the end we fail in the encounter to genuinely meet the other - what we meet is simply our expectations of who the other is.
I remember at the university hosting a visiting speaker. He was a young man from Israel who, like all the others, had been conscripted into the army for a year or two. When asked to go on a hostile raid in Palestinian territory, he could not obey the orders and became a refusnik. After he was released from prison, he went on speaking tours sharing his experience.
After he spoke, a young Arab woman, a student at the university, said that she had never heard such a story before. She confessed that she had been brought up assuming that all Israelis were aggressive and violent, ruthless and brutal. Now she had heard from one who appeared to her to not fit the stereotype. He was moral and compassionate, with an evident concern for the well being of Palestinians. She said that her whole world of attitudes was collapsing, and she acknowledged that she would have to construct another view of the world.
Levinas says that the challenge that we face not only as people relate across cultures, but even for people of the same culture, is to allow the person before us to be themselves. We are required to lay aside our expectations, to behold them and recognise their difference, their uniqueness and their distinctiveness. This then opens the situation to the element of surprise, so that the other might reveal to me who they truly are.
It is in an authentic encounter that we meet. Levinas says, “Go and learn from the other. Do not assume that he will want the same as you want”. This is a form of meeting beyond the desire to control the other, beyond the assumption that I know what is best for the other. Only as I remain open in a radical way do I allow for genuine encounter. “All my certainties are shaken by the incomprehensibility of the other’s gaze: my sameness is broken by his difference.”
But in that moment of authentic encounter I come to recognise that I am obligated to the other, the neighbour. There is an ethical dimension to the meeting. I recognise their humanity, and I find that I have a responsibility for their well being. The other has something to offer me that I cannot expect or determine in advance. The real meeting ‘takes place’ beyond political and cultural and social structures. It sweeps away those things that obstruct and distort face to face encounter.
It seems that something very much like this happened when Jesus, tired from his day’s travel, stopped at the well to rest. The conversation is stilted and there is much room for misunderstanding. “How is it that you a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” Both Jesus and the Samaritan woman bring their own cultural backgrounds to the encounter, and at first these backgrounds seem to be getting in the way. The woman speaks about water, and Jesus uses a metaphor to speak of water as quenching spiritual thirst. But beyond the confusions there seems to be a movement toward true meeting. First she comes to recognise that Jesus is a prophet. Then she moves to see him as the Messiah. Gradually the woman comes to see that she is speaking with one who appears to know her, not in a superficial way, but in the deepest possible way: She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have done! He cannot be the Messiah, can He?” (John 4:29.) They seem to overcome the impediments to meeting.
Jesus comes to see that she is not simply the representative of her gender and culture. She has a personal story and that involves pain and rejection. She in turn finds a way to see beyond the influences and expectations of her culture in her meeting with Jesus. She comes to see that Jesus is more than what he first appeared to be, a representative of the Jews, one to be suspected and distrusted. She became a witness to the Samaritans announcing that Jesus was the Messiah.
Out of a meeting from which little might have been expected, the two subjects transcended themselves. There was a genuine reaching out and the structures that often prevent encounter were overcome, dismantled. The miracle took place- each was free to see who the other truly was. Jesus saw all that the Samaritan woman was - and the Samaritan woman came to see that Jesus was the Messiah. When they first met, could either have anticipated that this might have been the outcome?
Within each of us there are needs so deep that we describe them as spiritual. We ask who we are, what is it that makes us human? The Scriptures return time and again to claim that we are those who have a deep thirst - a thirst for the knowledge of God: a thirst that cannot be satisfied in any way other than our being open to the grace of God.
Sometimes the thirst is so gentle in our lives that it cannot be detected. At other times it rages so intensely, it is as if we have an addiction, and cry out for the thirst to be satisfied. The thirst, which is our longing for God, if we attend to it, can become all consuming. The thirst reminds us who we are - and what will ultimately satisfy us. The thirst that we are aware of is the way that God speaks to us.
What wells do you visit to satisfy the thirst that you are aware of within ? Where are the wells that provide water that quenches your spiritual thirst? In this amazing narrative, John points to the one who is capable of meeting these deepest needs of the human spirit. He has Jesus say, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water I give them will never be thirsty. The water that I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:14.)