Going to Samaria

“Oh, they won’t come to East Palo Alto.”, replied Stephanie, a student at Palo Alto High School. Palo Alto High is on the other side of the freeway from East Palo Alto. Recently, we asked local high school students who were on Spring break to come to Cesar Chavez School in East Palo Alto to help with recess (See our blog at characterthroughsports.wordpress.com). This was in response to a request from the principal of the school, asking the community to help give the students a special treat after the students were released from testing. Our director had asked Stephanie why she was not able to get some of her friends who live in Palo Alto to join us, and that was her response. 

It’s easy to ignore East Palo Alto. There’s not really any entertainment or museum-like attractions here, in fact besides the need to cross the Dumbarton Bridge or experience IKEA, many people could live their entire lives in the Bay Area without ever stepping a foot in the city.

People from outside East Palo Alto avoid coming here. Most of this may be because of the crime rate or the reputation of the crime rate, although economics and race are most likely two larger unspoken factors. As someone from a white middle-class background I’ve known quite a few individuals, Christians, from various parts of the Peninsula, who have expressed worry, concern or even downright disbelief at the thought of living here, let alone visiting during dark hours. As is true for many areas of life the power of self-preservation and fear is strong, and for people outside of East Palo Alto that power can translate into the dismissal of the 30,000 souls who make a life for themselves working, playing, learning, sleeping and worshiping here.

Today many people from the Silicon Valley treat East Palo Alto similarly to how the Jews used to treat Samaria. At the time of Jesus, Jews and Samaritans were divided along cultural, religious and racial lines that went back hundreds of years. This tension and division was ongoing since Samaria was located between Galilee in the north and Judea in the south. Brenda Salter McNeil touches upon this in her excellent book A Credible Witness (you should read it!),

“…most Jews avoided Samaria like the plague. They steered clear of it by taking a dangerous road full of hairpin turns where thieves could ambush, beat and rob them….But some Jews preferred to risk the perils of this treacherous and circuitous road rather than be caught dead in Samaria.” (pg. 40)

We catch a glimpse of the resentment between the two groups at the end of Luke 9, when the Samaritans refuse to welcome Jesus once they find out he is going to Jerusalem, and the disciples then ask permission to call down fire from heaven to wipe them out. It was in the midst of that climate, that Jesus fiercely shared the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) in answer to the question “Who’s my neighbor?” Jesus seemed to be saying: “Your neighbor includes those you would risk life and limb to avoid.”

Despite the expectations of his day, Jesus deliberately walked through Samaria and stopped at a well in a Samaritan town (John 4:1-45), to have a conversation with a woman there. Jesus was deliberately violating the strong expectations, rules and taboos of the status quo on three different levels (socio-cultural, gender and religious) by both initiating a conversation and asking for a drink of water. What were these taboos? The division of Jews and Samaritan was one, the division between men and women who weren’t married was a second, and the fact that the woman was an adulterer who had five husbands in the past, was a third. Breaking just one of these lines of division by interacting with “the other” might make a Jewish man “unclean” and could seriously throw his reputation perhaps even his life, into jeopardy. To do what Jesus did and break all three at the same time would have been dumb, hence his disciples’ anxiety when they return to find their Lord talking in earnest with some woman at the well. Jesus knew what he was doing though and more importantly, he knew God. Turns out that by the conclusion of John 4 Jesus brings greater glory to God by transforming many of the lives of the Samaritan town’s inhabitants, including the woman.

In Acts 1:8, Jesus makes a point of telling us that we will be God’s witnesses to Samaria. Why do you think he spelled that out? Why was that important? What does that mean for you?

Which neighbor do you keep your distance from? Which lines of division are you following? Which fears keep you from physically and geographically following Jesus? Where is your Samaria?