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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
One of the highest migrant death rates in the nation is in rural Brooks County, Texas, 70 miles north of the border. All Texas Christians should listen to this story and pray about how Christ would have us respond to this catastrophe.
I moved to El Paso, Texas, about a week ago to start an internship at two churches, a requirement for graduation from San Francisco Theological Seminary but also a fulfillment of a dream of mine to return to the Southwest and minister to bilingual/multicultural populations. So far I am not disappointed. Nearly every conversation I have had here, no matter which part of town I am in, has happened in English and Spanish. I am serving two tiny Presbyterian churches, one English-speaking and one mostly Spanish-speaking. And I am living in an apartment building where the manager doesn’t speak English and where most of the tenants seem to be recent immigrants.
Which brings me to the conversation that has been most thought-provoking for me in the past two weeks. It happened with my 9-year-old neighbor, who has adopted me as his amiga. His father is gringo and is attempting to move his wife and other children to El Paso from Ciudad Juárez across the border. For the moment my friend is not in school, so he has a lot of time on his hands and waits for me to arrive home from work so we can play board games or ride our bikes to the library. Oh, and he doesn’t speak English.
So here is the conversation, translated:
Him: “How long have you been a gringa?”
Me: “What do you mean how long? For my whole life. I was born a gringa, I will die a gringa. I can’t change.”
“Yes, you can change.”
“How could I change? I can’t become morena (brown-skinned).”
“Well gringos have jobs, they have money, they have lots of things, they don’t rob you. Morenos don’t work, they are poor.”
“Some gringos are poor. Some morenos are rich.”
“Yes, some morenos have become gringos. Haven’t you ever seen morenos-gringos?”
This is from a kid my dad paid $10 to help tote up three flights of stairs the contents of my 14-foot UHaul trailer, all that stuff for one person and a cat, when the kid and his father and sister live in the same size apartment without a single chair to sit on. (They now possess one of mine that I confess actually did not fit into my tiny new living room. I burn with shame as I type this.)
The thing about this conversation is that I have no good response. I have witnessed morenos-gringos, and I have watched in two short weeks as people in both churches where I work distinguish themselves with logical gymnastics from recent immigrants and attempt to fit in to a whiter and whiter world. I was advised, sometimes subtly and sometimes not, to look for an apartment north of Interstate 10 because those neighborhoods closer to the border were more dangerous, less desirable, more slummy. One north-of-10 apartment manager, who was trying to sell me on her own place, advised me and dad to drive through neighborhoods at 10 p.m. and imagine whether I would feel safe, and whether my dad would feel I was safe, coming home from work late at night.
My dad and I marveled at this advice as we drove through a neighborhood surrounding one of my churches, the Spanish-speaking one. We saw grandmas gardening in yards, brightly painted and cared-for houses, cars parked on streets, kids walking home from schools. I didn’t feel unsafe, and my danger radar usually pretty accurate. The only substantive difference, really, between this neighborhood and one north of I-10 was that we heard a lot of Spanish being spoken and saw a lot of moreno faces. It’s possible that the crime rate is different here than it is in points north, but when it’s all said and done, El Paso claims to be one of the safest cities in the country, though that claim is questionable.
So when we get down to it, what is really the difference between gringos and morenos and how we meet the world? And can we change, as my 9-year-old friend says we can? This week I have also turned to Luke 16:19-30, the lectionary Gospel reading for next week. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is a tough one to consider for two tiny churches, neither of which is rolling in dough, and neither of which has members who are rolling in dough. Where is the grace here, as the rich man, after death, begs Abraham to give him comfort when he didn’t bother to see poor Lazarus in life? This is a message directed at the rich, not at the poor, or in the parlance of my friend, at gringos, not morenos.
Or is it? Where is our hope in this world? Where do we long to be? Did Lazarus in life possibly long to be at the table of the rich man, with no longer a care for the material needs of the world, able to become blind to the poor? My young neighbor friend seems to think so, as he defines people in categories of those who will steal to get ahead or are too lazy to work, and those who are not criminal, who want to work, and who may be poor materially but are not poor in spirit. This is a far more complex distinction than one of skin color. But it is not complex enough. We cannot divide people so simply into the categories of the parable. It is fiction meant to illustrate a truth; it isn’t mestizo like real life. None of us is all moreno or all gringo. None of us is all the rich man or all Lazarus.
Perhaps the key word in this story is comfort. We gringos might tell ourselves that we see the poor, that we give to causes, that we understand injustice. But how far are we willing to go? Are we willing to move into a neighborhood full of people who are different from us and learn that different doesn’t mean dangerous? Are we willing to give up certain comforts, such as the proximity of a full grocery store, and the absence of roaches and mice, in order to learn how to live in solidarity? Are we willing to turn away from ourselves and towards Christ, and realize that Christ is, in fact, Lazarus, or a 9-year-old who lives across the hall?