In the story of Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman at the Well of Sychar, we see a man and a woman from two different tribes that hate each other. The hatred between Jews and Samaritans was deep. It was racial, historical, and religious. It was fraternal hatred. The Samaritans descended from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. Early on, they believed that the Jews had abandoned the correct location where God ought to be worshiped. They believed the blessed mountain was Mt. Gerizim (Deuteronomy 11:29). Later, they intermarried with Assyrians that came to the Northern Kingdom. They were the remnant that did not go into Babylonian exile.
When the exiles returned, the Samaritans wanted to help rebuild the Temple, but they were denied the privilege (Ezra 4: 1-3). So, they built a temple at the foot of Mt. Gerizim. Extra-biblical history says they cooperated with the Greeks religiously in ways that further alienated them from their Jewish brothers and sisters. So when Jesus meets the Samaritan woman, it is a meeting of two people from two communities with great enmity between them.
Jesus asks the woman for water. He is breaking all kinds of traditions -- talking to a woman, and talking to a Samaritan woman. She is also a woman with a past. She has had five husbands and is now living with a man who is not her husband. Lest we leap to the usual conclusion that she is some kind of ancient vixen, there may be any number of reasons why she had five husbands. However, that she lives with a man who is not her husband is evidence that she lives beyond social conventions. Yet, we see from the questions she asks Jesus that she is a thoughtful woman. It is in this conversation that we see Jesus engaging in interreligious dialogue. When she asks the theological question about the correct location for worship, Jesus says: "But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship [God] in spirit and truth, for [God] 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).
Spirit is the animating breath. God is love, and we love God through our love for God's creation, through our love for the Other, even and especially the despised Other. God is the inhalations and exhalations of Divine Love breathing through us. In this conversation, Jesus is telling the woman that God seeks human beings willing to worship God in spirit and in truth, in word and in deed.
The Samaritan woman recognized Jesus as Messiah because his love allowed him to know her history and still offer her the living water of salvation. She recognized in him the Messianic vision of universal peace. As those who follow Jesus, our role in the world is to be Jesus in the world. It is to be the logos, the subject and verb, the entity and the act, to be Love loving in spirit and in truth. It is to participate in interreligious dialogue and to understand that God seeks those who worship God beyond the confines of this or that religious doctrine. The proposed mosque and community center near Ground Zero will be a location for such a dialogue. Our Muslim brothers and sisters are now subject to the enmity of too many Americans. We ought to stand with them because, in so doing, we worship God in spirit and in truth.
Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at JustPeaceTheory.com . She received her Ph.D. in religion and society from Temple University and taught Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School.