We drove this morning to Sychar in Samaria, the site of Jacob’s Well where Jesus had the colloquy with the Samaritan woman in John’s Gospel. You can never be confident of the historicity of events in John and this story has a good deal of symbolism woven into it, but if it happened, this would be the spot and the spot makes the point.
Yes, the well is there. And this would be the very well. It’s the only well around. It is deep. You have to lower the bucket a long way and it isn’t easy to hoist it back up. It’s a good picture of spiritual practice. Praying is like dipping into the well of our soul to draw up God’s grace. Drinking the water from that well felt like a connection to something old and deep – as the well is old and deep.
Of course a church has been built around the well --- a Greek Orthodox Church served by an elderly priest who paints icons. I bought his Samaritan woman icon. Again, violence haunts this site. A few years ago, a Jewish settler in the nearby Palestinian city of Nablus hacked the Orthodox priest of this Church to death. The settler was deemed insane.
Then we went up Mt. Gerazim to a Samaritan synagogue. Who knew there are still practitioners of the Samaritan faith? There are! 750 of them. Their text is the Pentateuch. They reject the rest of Hebrew Scriptures. Their holy place is Mt. Gerazim. They believe Mt. Gerazim, not Jerusalem, is the site of Mt. Moriah, where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac. They also believe that Mt. Gerazim was the site of the central shrine of the 12 Tribes of Israel, the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, during the centuries after the conquest of Canaan until David moved the Ark to Jerusalem. The First Book of Samuel says the central shrine was further south at Shiloh. But the books of Samuel are not in the Samaritan Bible. The Samaritans are also said to be sorcerers. We received an engaging catechesis in Samaritanism from their old priest.
There are several connections between Jesus and the Samaritans. First, there is the story of Jesus’ friendly encounter with the Samaritan woman and the general acceptance of his message in Sychar. Second, there is his use of the Good Samaritan in a parable about neighborliness, a zinger of a story since Jews held Samaritans in contempt on both racial and religious grounds.
Third, Jesus’ critics spoke of him disparagingly by calling him a Samaritan. John 8: 48. Once his accusers said his ability to cast out demons came from Beelzebub. Matthew 12: 22-37. There are two major mountains in this part of Samaria – Twin Peaks, if you will. Gerazim is the holy mountain. Mt. Abel is the unholy mountain. Its name means flies. The demon that reigns at Mt. Abel is Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies. So Jesus’ accusers were saying his power came from the Samaritan demon of Mt. Abel. And the non-Biblical references to the crucifixion of Jesus call him a “sorcerer.” So those accusations too associated Jesus with the Samaritans.
I don’t know what to make of any of that but as a Bible nerd, I find it interesting.
Our next visit was to Bethany where we visited a Tomb of Lazarus. I say “a” tomb of Lazarus because he actually has two tombs in Bethany – one with an Orthodox Church on it, the other with a Franciscan Church on it. We visited the Franciscan tomb. The Church was lovely and the caves below were tomb-like. But what I found more interesting was being in Bethany, the home of Mary and Martha, and (according to the 4th Gospel) Lazarus. This family was close to Jesus and he probably stayed with them when visiting Jerusalem. It is on the Mount of Olives in walking distance of Jerusalem, with Gethsemane on the way from the city to the village.
A couple of side points of my own – not what I have learned here: First, there is a credible minority opinion that Lazarus is the author of the 4th Gospel. Second, the tradition that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute is based on a conflation of several different Gospel texts, including three set in Bethany. In Mark and Matthew an unnamed woman (probably a prophet) anoints Jesus head with expensive perfume at the house of Simon the Leper in Bethany. In Luke, Mary of Bethany (not Magdala) sat devotedly at Jesus’ feet listening to him. Elsewhere in Luke, an unnamed sinner (prostitute) washed Jesus feet with her tears, anointed them with myrrh, and dried them with her hair. This happened in Galilee. John combined these stories to have Mary of Bethany (not Magdala) anoint Jesus’ feet with nard and dry them with her hair. Then misogynist translator, St. Jerome, got all this mixed up with poor Mary of Magdala who had nothing to do with any of it, and called her a prostitute. Actually all we know of Mary Magdalene is that she was once possessed by seven demons, she was a devout follower of Jesus, and she may have been a major leader in the first generation of Christianity.
Tonight we spent some time in shared reflections guided by Brother Mark, an able spiritual director, then finished the day with a good lecture on Islam by Dr. Mustafa.