Spirit Alive: Special Edition-- What 9/11 Still Has to Teach Us


September 11, 2018

With Heart, Soul, and Mind:

Traveling Through Samaria in Order to Find Our Common Ground

"...Jesus left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria."
Jesus' travel route as described in John 4: 3-4
For me, this summer has been filled with powerful images from the Gospel of John, Chapter 4. I preached on this chapter in Kenya. I heard Dr. Leroy Barber preach on it at Portland First UMC. And...Rev. Grace Imathiu, the Senior Pastor at First UMC in Evanston, IL and our Bible Study leader at the global "Listening with Open Hearts" event we hosted in August, taught from John 4:1-42 as well.
There is something profoundly important going on in this Gospel story that we need to understand in order to come to terms fully with what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. The fact is that Jesus doesn't eventually arrive in Jerusalem (eight chapters later), until he first travels through Samaria and encounters the people and realities of that land. In the process, and as a result of this expedition through the land of the "other," Jesus teaches us that the Kin-dom of God is about the entire journey and that God's spirit is unexpectedly present along with way.
In a similar manner, 9/11 is a powerful reminder that the unexpected, troubling, and deeply spiritual dimensions of life often happen as inner dissonance...even in the form tragedy...but that it is possible to come together as a people and an entire world, while traveling through the heart of darkness and despair.
Indeed, when the tragedy of 9/11 occurred in 2001, the shock waves that it sent out across the globe somehow helped us re-discover our common humanity through the loss and sorrow of a single event. In fact, it changed everything. And it has the power to still do so, if we are open to journeying through the deep pain and the spiritual insights that are involved.

I would contend that this journey is at the heart of what it means for us to claim that our mission as a church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ...follow his Way...and transform the world.
This is not be an easy road to walk, because it takes us to places that we would prefer not to go. It's like Jesus taking his disciples through Samaria rather than avoiding the place altogether. It is a journey that forces us into the essence of his teachings by asking us to leave behind our desire to put loyalty to tribe before commitment to God. But in order to do this, we have to set aside our assumptions about others, so that we become open to strangers, many of whom we would prefer not to keep company with... and some whom we hold deep prejudices about.

 9/11 gave us a glimpse into what it means to see and experience our common humanity...and refuse to separate ourselves into us and them. When 9/11 happened, suddenly all of us were touched by the brutality of hatred and the reality of pain.
Yes, we fairly quickly moved from sorrow-filled hearts to becoming a people who wanted revenge, but for a moment we were one, as people around the world proclaimed: "We are all Americans!"
We came together as a nation, and we learned that we were not alone. It is hard to believe, especially in light of all that has happened since, that this great tragedy forged us into a global community through our sudden sense that as humans we are one...and that we have to figure out how to share our precious planet as brothers and sisters who stand against hatred and violence.
This is why the Good Samaritan story carries so much power as well. It is a reminder that when confronted by suffering, even across racial and cultural divides, our hearts can be touched and it is possible to discover our "better angels" and render assistance. At the same time, this story reminds us that when people...even deeply religious people...stay in their heads and maintain their prejudicial views of the world, it is possible to simply walk on by, refusing to make connections with those we do not know.
This past week, I thought a lot about this as we witnessed the funerals of Sen. John McCain and Aretha Franklin...two very different and unique people, whose deaths reminded us of the breadth and beauty of the human race in all its diversity, giftedness, resilience, and expression. The celebrations of their lives taught us that there is much we share through our common humanity.
One of the age-old truths of the spiritual life is that we often find ourselves transformed when confronted by grief and loss. Somehow these things remind us about what it means to be alive...what it means to be human...what it means to be connected with others. But we have to stay in our hearts long enough to let this happen.
By now it should be evident that we are not feeling this same sense of unity any longer...not as a world, not as a nation, not as a church. And as we divide ourselves over issues, we cease to be able to sense our common humanity. Something has to change in order for this to happen. Either we will discover this reality through the experience of suffering, as 9/11 demonstrated, or we will decide that we want to reach out and connect with others, even Samaritans...even with those who don't see the world the same way we do.
Let me share something that Susan and I recently received from a career military family that we know. But it needs to be read through the lens of Abraham Lincoln's memorable Second Inaugural Address in order to be appreciated.

Lincoln said: "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan-- to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."
The short writing we received from our friends is simply stated, but very powerful. It is worldview altering. It is hard to grapple with, because it places two groups of people together in a way that forces us to look at what each contributes to our common humanity.

I stand to honor the promise the flag represents.
You kneel because that promise has been broken.
I stand to affirm my belief that all are created equal, and to fight alongside you for that promise.
You kneel because too few stand with you.
I stand because we can do better.
You kneel to remind us to be better.
I stand to honor all that have fought and died so that we may be free.
You kneel because not all of us are.
I stand because I can.
You kneel for those who can't.
I stand to defend your right to kneel.
You kneel to defend my right to stand.
I stand because I love this country.
You kneel because you love it too.
Had we not received this email from our friends, I would not have seen it, because it came from within a Samaritan part of my world. In fact, interestingly, it was written by Andrew Freborg, who is a Libertarian and once ran for the Oregon House of Representatives. But Freborg's words speak about the dilemma and struggle we all face in finding the common humanity we share with others who are different from us in opinion, class, or culture...How do we find and move to common ground as people who love our country in different ways...and who want to follow Jesus' Way? This remains an on-going challenge for us as a people.
But this was not an easy walk for Jesus' own disciples who traveled with him through Samaria. They too had trouble talking and walking across racial, cultural, gender, and political boundaries, even as Jesus continued to show them his  Way of doing precisely that.

As the Gospel of John says, after the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman occurs: "Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, 'What do you want?' or, 'Why are you speaking with her?'"
Eventually their discomfort with traveling through Samaria and encountering people they would have rather avoided, gave way to Jesus' message, which was open, loving...and found common humanity in those who were different. Jesus' disciples were constantly trying to figure out how to follow his lead through Samaria, not knowing that by believing in him they would eventually be called upon to sacrifice everything as well.

We are all called by Jesus to travel through Samaria, which isn't where we want or planned to go. I'd contend that 9/11 took us to such a place as well. But it is also the place where we ultimately find our souls along the way.
In fact, in remembering 9/11 we may be capable of seeing the spark of the divine in each other, even while remembering a time of great tragedy and pain. But in order for this to happen it means moving from our heads, which are full of opinions and arguments and distinctions between us...to our hearts, where Jesus reminds us that it is within each person that God lives and dwells.
Crisis is not easy to navigate. Suffering is never welcome. Disagreement and argument are uncomfortable and unpleasant. But at some point, if we are to make our way to the Promised Land and experience the Kin-dom of God, we must travel through Samaria. It will take us to places not of our own choosing. It will require us to open our hearts. It will not be a comfortable thing to do.

We will have to travel through the heart of darkness in order to enter the light of God's love. But in the end, we will either find the better angels in ourselves and discover them in each other...or realize that those angels will eventually fly away leaving us to find our own way back home.

Let us walk in the light of God's love,
Spirit Alive is a twice a month blog and email by Rev. Lowell Greathouse, Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Conference. It seeks to identify where the spirit is alive in our congregations and communities. Check out past editions, or subscribe to the email list.


Lowell Greathouse
Lowell Greathouse is the Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Conference of the United Methodist Church. He looks for places to find where the spirit is alive and help them grow in vitality and fruitfulness. Share with him at lowell@umoi.org