Six flags over Samaria

Meditation on John 4:1-22

I’ve been in El Paso now six months, serving two eastside churches, one of which is about six blocks from the U.S.-Mexico border. I live downtown, about eight blocks from the border, in a building where every apartment includes people who are bilingual, people who regularly cross the border to visit family, to work, to worship, to play. I drive down Delta Drive past so many reminders of the border. Patrol agents sitting in Jeeps, a steel mesh fence along the riverbed. Chamizal National Memorial, which commemorates the supposedly peaceful settlement of a border dispute caused by the movement of the Rio Grande riverbed between Mexico and the United States.

Imagine Jesus crossing the border into El Paso, sitting near the Rio Grande at Chamizal, a man with different skin, different clothes, a different accent. He’s a close approximation, but not quite at home here. He meets a woman going about her daily work, perhaps on her way to preach at a nearby church. Jesus has lived in the area a long time, he’s a Chihuahua desert native. He knows this place. But he knows that he is in a country that does not claim him. A nation of people that conveniently forgets how many times this very spot of earth has changed names, changed ownership, been surrounded by different fences and barriers. The man knows that his ancestors, too, walked this land, claimed this water.

The woman knows immediately that the man has crossed the border. She is wary. Does he have legitimate business here? Can she cross the street to avoid contact with him? How far away is that border patrol car? Is he going to speak to her? Doesn’t he know that this is her home? She is supposed to feel safe here. The confidence of a person who knows she belongs inside these borders, shaken by the presence of a person who clearly doesn’t belong.

We know when we have crossed borders. How then should we be transformed by them?

Since moving here, I have encountered many many unexpected mixes of cultures and faith traditions. My whitebread upbringing is not enough to understand all I’m seeing: Protestants with Virgin of Guadalupe candles in their home shrines. Catholics who speak in tongues during prayers. None of this is technically Presbyterian. And my initial reaction was one of discomfort. If I’m a pastor of a Presbyterian church, what am I supposed to know or believe about the Virgin of Guadalupe?

I have found that many U.S.-siders don’t know Guadalupe’s story. It varies, but generally follows this line: In the 1530s, around the time the Protestant reformation was starting in Europe, a peasant, an Indian, an indigenous person in what is now Mexico City, saw a vision of a young woman, a virgin with brown skin, who told him that the church should build a cathedral on the hill above the city. Juan Diego went to the local Catholic bishop and told him of the vision. The bishop asked him for proof. So Juan Diego returned to the site, and the virgin reappeared, transforming Juan Diego’s plain poncho into a brightly colored mantle, and giving him an armful of flowers, roses, out of season, to return to the bishop. One hundred years later, in the 1600s, this was recognized as a miracle, and the Virgin of Guadalupe, a cognate of the Virgin Mary, eventually became the most beloved saint in Mexico, venerated among Catholics and non-Catholics.

What I find most beautiful about this story, and most relevant the story of John 4, is that the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe probably didn’t originate in the Catholic church. Many scholars equate her with Tonantzin, or a goddess of the mountain on which the Catholic cathedral in Mexico City was built. She was a goddess of the land, the earth, fertility, of providence. Tonantzin was and still is venerated among indigenous people there. She was transformed by the borders that were colonized and reformed around her.

Even our gods know when we have crossed borders. How then are our gods transformed?

Our woman meeting the man near Chamizal; the Samaritan woman meeting Jesus: No one knows the meaning and transforming power of crossing borders more than they. The Samaritan woman has held tightly to her beliefs, her indigenous identity, despite centuries of occupation and religious co-opting by foreign powers, her “husbands,” Assyrian and Roman resettlements. Shrines to Yahweh had been forcibly replaced by shrines to Greek gods, and then later to a Roman Christian church.

The woman meeting the migrant at Chamizal has forgotten this history. She thinks she owns this land, that the U.S. passport card she carries gives her right of occupation, gives her right of truth, right to pass freely. In a way, she is right. But the man she meets at Chamizal will remind her: You are not the rightful owner. You don’t belong here in the way you think you do. This alliance, this marriage, this spouse of yours, this homeland, it is not truly your husband.

“But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24)

To be on the side of the empire, the northern side of the border, affords me a particular blindness, blindness to truth, to love, to justice. I don’t have to worry about immigration reform because it doesn’t have to affect me. I often forget that I am lucky to be able to cross the border freely. I can claim a Christian sisterhood with Christians across the border, who in all possibility once were “Americans” or “Texans,” or “Spaniards,” or indigenous pre-national peoples. But I have the luxury of being able to forget that many of them may not legally cross into my home; I cannot or do not welcome them here, although I am welcomed there with all hospitality.

If my Samaritan woman had been traveling to Jerusalem, would she have been afforded the same courtesy that our migrant Jewish rabbi was afforded? Would she have been given a drink, or would she have been shunned?

Our migrant Jesus, sitting near Chamizal, with the northern woman, what hospitality will he be afforded?

We Christians know the power or borders. We El Pasoans know even better. Will we open our eyes and hearts to be transformed by their crossing?

P.S. These musings originated as a sermon I gave at First Presbyterian Church of El Paso


2 thoughts on “Six flags over Samaria

  1. Thoughtfully written, Dori. One point: both the El Paso woman and the Chihuahuan man come from the side of empires. You clearly conceive of the later as an “indigenous” person; that is a term that is nearly as ambiguous as “person of color.” Unless he is also a Juarez native (Juarezeño?), he, like the El Paso woman, is likely an immigrant to the border region. The difference between his empire and hers is that hers is the latest and, having taken land and people from his, puts more effort into identifying and maintaining the boundary.
    Border regions, frontier zones, are the locations of a great deal of culture change. They represent attenuated ownership and control, often from both sides, and are, therefore, notoriously porous not just to people but to ideas, to culture. That means that they are zones of transformation–your point made sociologically and anthropologically as well as theologically. No one lives in frontier settings without being transformed, even if that transformation results in increased determination not to be transformed, to hold more tightly to the canons of one’s own culture lest they be altered (found to be indexical, to borrow a concept from the anthropologist Roy Rappaport) or lost.
    It’s interesting, in light of your insights, to note that Jesus made the statement about the time coming, “and now is,” when God would call true worshippers and those true worshippers would worship in spirit and truth. Pointedly, of course, that referred to the mountain and the shrines in Samaria that were considered the real places of worship–by the Samaritans–in contrast to the false places like Jerusalem. But we can see Jesus’s statement, too, as a prophecy of transformation on both sides of the border. Both communities of faith, Samaritan and Jewish, would be changed by worship of God in spirit and truth. We see that fulfilled as the Gospel began to leak out of Judea into the surrounding, Gentile cities, towns, and countries, including Samaria. Neither the Jews nor the Gentiles would ever be the same again. When the Jerusalem council was asked whether new Christians had to be circumcised–made into Jews–as an act of belonging, the council realized that the transformation of Christian faith was not focused back to its Jewish roots. Indeed, the entire point of the Gospel was and still is that everyone was to be transformed, is to be transformed, not from Gentile to Jew but from death to life. In that transformation, Gentiles are grafted to the vine of God’s choice, his Jewish people, so that His life bears fruit through every branch. Both the vine and the branches are transformed.
    As Christians, regardless of the side of a national border on which we live, we have been transformed, or we are not Christians at all. How, then, do we realize that? How, to use a word that gets a lot of use in current anthropology, do we operationalize that? It seems obvious, and yet hardly is, that people who live in physical frontier settings should be more attuned to their own spiritual frontiers.

    1. Jeff, thanks for commenting! Yes, you get it, that we are all colonizers in one sense and colonized in another sense. No one is all one or all the other, and there is never quite an absolute parallel between one border dynamic and another.

      “It seems obvious, and yet hardly is, that people who live in physical frontier settings should be more attuned to their own spiritual frontiers.” Exactly! This is the primary lesson I have learned so far in my time on a border. The in-your-face physicality of a national border has exploded my internal and spiritual borders in ways I did not expect. And I am still processing.

      Thanks for reading and engaging.

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