The biggest story around just now is the refugee crisis. I am sure there is a lot of fear and uncertainty around just now as a result of this massive movement of people. I am convinced there is more fear on the part of the refugees than there needs to be on our part.
Tucked away in a cupboard in my garage at the manse are a few plates with a little insignia on them: the symbol of the Church of Scotland. And, underneath, are the words, “Church of Scotland Huts and Canteens”. I found these plates in an old store I was asked to clear out whilst I was an assistant minister and I saved them from the skip!
I don’t know much about this, but I understand that in a very short space of time at the beginning of World War II when a huge number of British and Commonwealth service men were stranded at Dunkirk and then subsequently rescued and brought back to the UK, the Church of Scotland quickly mobilized and set up canteens and huts to offer emergency aid for those caught up in this mass migration.
Couldn’t we do something similar today? Find a way of offering practical help to people in need? If every congregation of the Church of Scotland took one refugee family under its wing, it would make a huge impact and probably we’d find a great deal of unexpected good would come to us a result of being open and hospitable.
Below is a part of a sermon I preached on August 23rd. I’d be keen to get some feedback from people about what you think we could practically do to help.
“Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” John 4:9
That’s the mood that is in the air when the woman of Samaria meets Jesus who asks her for a drink of water.
That’s the tradition in which Jesus was raised; Samaritans women were “other”, not like us, different, unclean, to be avoided and probably feared. That’s the tradition in which the Samaritan woman has probably lived all her life too, an expectation of rejection, a feeling of being “other” around the Jews, alien and not accepted.
And probably there was fear at the beginning of this encounter too. In her mind the Samaritan woman might have been saying, “What is this man saying, give me a drink? Why is he asking this of me? Surely he knows he’s over stepping the mark. He’s going to get us both into trouble!”
Fear is a remarkably powerful force. Fear of those who are different, fear of having our equilibrium unsettled, fear of being somehow polluted by the other. The Samaritan woman is shocked by Jesus’ question. Her expectation is that he’ll think he has been contaminated by sharing a drinking vessel with a foreigner and she will get the blame. It’s one of the things that religion as ideology can do; it can “other” people, incite prejudice and inculcate fear. When people are not seen as people and are demonized, categorized and stigmatized, it is a ready breeding ground for fear and so often that is dissipated by one to one contact. I am sure that in terms of the current refugee crisis the use of terms like “swarms” and the threat of “being swamped” by refugees doesn’t help, but instead plays into our fears. We probably haven’t seen anything yet.
When it comes to the refugee crisis I think we have to overcome our fears for this is only going to multiply and it’s not going to ease any time soon. And the sooner we can get beyond the rhetoric and fear and begin to discern the root causes of this tragedy and begin to hear the personal stories that every human life caught up in this contains the better.
In the meantime let’s look at what Jesus does as he faces down fear, prejudice and destructive habits that have alienated Jew from Samaritan as he engages with this woman.
It’s important to notice what Jesus does, he asks her to help him. This foreigner, this unclean woman, this outsider, it would be so easy to think of Jesus helping her, but instead he asks her for a drink. Sometimes people in vulnerable positions don’t need as much help as we might imagine, rather they need to be asked ‘how can you help us?’ It’s hugely empowering to be given some useful task to undertake, that’s what changed everything for this woman. That’s what we have found in developing our work in the Grassmarket Project. It was Iris Murdoch who said of the victims of people’s over-zealous kindness that you could tell their victims by their haunted look.
Secondly, Jesus seems to know a good deal about this woman. You could think of that as nosy and meddlesome, but it’s really about seeing the person rather than the problem. The best way of overcoming fear is to meet people face to face. Imagine if every congregation of the Church of Scotland were to offer a home for a migrant family and we all really got to know these people not as a category, but as people with stories to tell and emotions to share!
In the Epistle to the Hebrews the writer says ‘be careful to entertain strangers for thereby many have entertained angels by unawares.’ I believe that to be the case but sadly we live in fear of the stranger much of the time. But in offering hospitality to the “other” it just might be that we meet Christ and receive a blessing. There is an old Celtic rune “often, often, often, Christ comes in the stranger’s guise.”
One of the great pillars of the ancient world was understood to be hospitality to the stranger, (it goes all the way back to Abraham and his wife Sarah at the Oaks Mamre, where through offering hospitality to a group of strangers, they are blessed with a child, Isaac, the father of many nations (Genesis 18). Think of the story of the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24) and you see that open, friendly hospitality to unlikely people turns out to bring about blessing. Without hospitality the world begins to crumble and blessing is withdrawn and fear prevails. Jesus shares hospitality with this woman, he breaks down barriers, he undoes limits, he overcomes fear and he welcomes the stranger. And in the midst of it all, the refreshment of his presence becomes “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4: 14).
Ridding ourselves of fear is probably one of the most urgent works we can perform for ourselves and for our world. Open hospitality to the stranger might fill us with dread and fear, we might be tempted to use the rhetoric of swarms and deluges, but it opens up the promise of blessing too, the promise of living water, and unanticipated gifts. Those who overcome their fears and drink of this water of life will never be thirsty.