A recent opinion piece was entitled “America Has a Scorn Problem.” The commentator highlighted the internal rivalries among the American people that, as the piece claimed, sap the creative energy and diminish the sense of collective well-being of our nation.
The critical issue according to Tish Harrison Warren is not that we differ on many important issues about politics, health, the environment, and the like, but that we disdain and scorn those with whom we disagree, viewing them as “immoral and bad.” Because too many Americans deny the good faith and dignity of their rivals, America has developed a serious “scorn problem,” a toxic form of partisanship which is “destroying us as a people,” as the journalist said.
The Gospel reading for the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman (John 4:5-42) provides lessons for dealing with the “scorn problem” of our nation. This sacred text tells us how Jesus met the Samaritan woman at a well, overcame her contempt of Him as a Jew, and helped her find not only liberation from prejudice but also to become an instrument of liberation for many others in her village.
Jesus stopped at the well tired and thirsty, having nothing to draw water with. “Give me a drink,” he pleaded. Instead of giving Him a drink the woman was offended by His presence, recognizing Him to be a Jew. “How is it that you, a Jew, asks a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” she retorted.
The exchange between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is truly astonishing. Jesus, the Son of God, having become fully and completely human, was a Jew, looked like a Jew and spoke like a Jew. His Incarnation, namely the taking up of human nature for our salvation, was so deep and so complete that He bore exactly the specific particularities of the Jewish people, which made Him offensive and contemptible to the Samaritan woman.
Something even more astonishing about the Incarnation is true. The eternal Christ embraced human nature so entirely and thoroughly that He accepted all our weaknesses apart from sin. He became vulnerable to the heat of the day, to exhaustion, hunger, thirst, and He needed refreshment with the help of other human beings. Further, the Son of God, out of His great love and humility, working our salvation on earth, suffered the indignity of being refused the curtesy of a drink of water from one of His own creations! And, of course, later He patiently endured the worse humiliation of the crucifixion and of a drink of vinegar while on the Cross.
Jesus did not answer scorn with scorn. Just as He prayed for those who crucified Him, He treated the Samaritan woman with patience and kindness. He did not think less of the woman as a woman, nor scorn her on account of her multiple marriages, nor disdain her for her presumed sinfulness. He practiced one of the most essential teachings of the Bible, namely that all people are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with patience, respect and dignity.
That biblical teaching of our creation is the source from which journalist Harrison Warren draws the remedies to cure the scorn problem in America. She challenges us to act according to our belief that all of us are children of God, all of us are created in the image of God which gives us a common “core identity” and an “indelible dignity and worth.” All of us, including those with whom we disagree, ought to be treated not with contempt or scorn but with respect and curtesy recognizing our mutual God-given freedom and dignity to advocate our respective views on vital issues in good faith.
The journalist also reminds us of our common vulnerabilities. We are all fallen, limited, weak and sinful human beings. We cannot presume that we are always right, nor that we know things perfectly. Just as Christ shared our fallen humanity, although not its sinfulness, and just as He acted humbly and patiently, we also ought to do the same, neither stereotyping nor disdaining others. We ought to listen and help one another in good faith and to thus foster a social climate of compassion, learning, growth and joy in our nation.
Christ said to the Samaritan woman, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” (John 4:10). (The metaphor of living water refers to fresh water as in a running brook in contrast to stagnant water in a pond).
To her scorn toward Jesus and to her refusal to give Him a drink, Jesus not only showed patience and kindness but He also offered a priceless gift to the Samaritan woman: “the gift of God.”
What is the gift of God? The woman was initially confused and unable to comprehend the meaning of divine revelation. She thought Jesus was speaking of literal water. Jesus then added, “Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give will never thirst; the water that I shall give will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)
In the Scriptures living water, that is, as I said, running water in a stream jumping and bubbling with energy and freshness, signifies the grace of the Holy Spirit. This is the spiritual water which in Christ’s words becomes like “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Christ came to the world not only to redeem and forgive but also to grant us the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of God, the personal presence and power of God in our hearts for the renewal and sanctification of all life.
What is this gift of God, this living water, leaping and bubbling up to eternal life? St. Paul calls it the fruit of the Spirit, meaning the many graces of the Holy Spirit. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Gal. 5:22-23).
St. Paul adds that “there is no law” (Gal. 5:23) to constrain the cleansing and refreshing effects of the Holy Spirit. The grace of the Holy Spirit in our hearts purges our evil “passions and desires,” and all manner of negative dispositions, feelings of hostility, or attitudes of contempt and scorn toward our fellow human beings. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another.” (Gal. 5:25-26)
Later in the Gospel of John Jesus states, “If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:38)
Do you thirst for the gift of God? Come to the spiritual well which is Christ. Learn to “drink” from the wisdom of His words which are words of truth and life. Believe in Him as your Lord and Savior. Learn to feed on the bread of His love. Lift up your soul to Him in sincere prayer and worship. Abide in Him in love and honor Him with your words and actions.
“If you knew the gift of God . . . the living water.” Dear Lord, give us to drink from the gift of God! Give us to be refreshed from the living water which leaps and bubbles up to eternal life! Amen.