We visited the Church of Nativity this week. It was an old building under construction, full of middle aged European-American tourists snapping photos left and right. It was crowded and gated and memorialized with lovely ceramic tiles and spotlights. And we held it in high esteem, the birthplace of our dear savior. But as I wormed and waded my way through the crowds, edging my lens around the dozens of others to get a clear shot of an empty relic, I couldn't help but want to get out, to be among the people, which is where I believe Jesus is. Similarly, we saw the shepherds' fields, which were again clearly significant, yet scarred by the pain of the present, visibly cut by the wall of annexation and expansion that divides neighbor from neighbor and sister from sister. It could be so easy to come here and think of this place as if it were a 2000 year old relic preserved for our religious contextualization, stilled in a 2000 year old framework, and fail to even be cognoscente that there are people living here now, still in conflict, still under occupation; a freakish, achy time warp where we are painfully estranged from our present neighbors, honoring the rocks and sites instead of the breathing brothers and sisters. "He is not here," the angels said, "He is risen!" And risen you are indeed, dear Lord, not mummified in your museums and monuments, but out among the people, your people, who are still living under the iron fist of occupation, still clinging to your words of blessed are the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted because of righteousness.
The director of the organization with which we are working outlined for us a brief rendition of the history and nature of this conflict. He claims it is first and foremost not political or religious, but psychological, and deeply spiritual, a question of identity. The enemy is not the settler nor the politician, but the mistaken identity we believe about ourselves, and from that about how we need to treat each other. Too often we are motivated by fear, pulled from the past, instead of hope for a future of peace, and we must liberate ourselves from this fear and trauma that bind us. He claims that the solution is rooted not in politics but in people; peace means for communities to honor the sacredness and holiness of the land and the rights for its people to live in dignity and peace - let the politicians figure it out after that.
Today we visited Jacob's well in Nablus. It was a quiet, radiant, holy place, a simple stone room, no pictures allowed, no other people besides our group and the caretaker. And there was the well, dug millennia ago to water the nations, the very place Jesus talked with the Samaritan woman and knew her and loved her the same. She came alone at high noon, marginalized by her community, heavy with shame. She was devalued, socially for what she had done, ethnically as a Samaritan, presumed to have lesser doctrine and lesser law. She bore her shame and her fear like a scar, ostracizing her from her people and her neighbors. And it was her that Jesus saw, really saw, in all her sin and shine, and her that he respected, dignified, and extended hope of new life and living water. She was living in old shame, an old spirit, and an old tired way, but Jesus offers a new covenant, washed in his blood, drenched in his spirit. The old has gone, the new has come, and it is for all of us.
The entrance to Jacob's well is situated literally right across the street from Balata Refugee Camp, the largest and one of the most densely populated camps in all of Palestine, where conditions are dismal and hope is dim. The irony of that juxtaposition is sickening, thinking of all the people who get off the tour bus to pilgrim to the well yet completely miss the camp across the street. Again this breach between ancient relics and living stones, a gospel stilled in time or the one that continues to be manifest today, in ways we do not have ears to hear. And yet the juxtaposition is fitting, for it is a reminder that our God is a God who saves, who cares about the oppressed, who seeks healing for the ones we have forgotten to see and fight for. Jesus is already there, extending the same living water he offers us all, that has quenched saints for centuries and washes over and underneath and all around us. It is a reminder that Jesus cares not about the dead stones but the living ones, we who are weary and heavy laden with shame and fear and systemic oppression - he is setting us free. Free from our old spirits, free to claim and lean into our new identity and story.
Jesus's words have never resounded more true to me than here in this holy, mourning, blessed land. And not because I know now to picture a cave instead of a barn when I think of the nativity scene, or because I have visited the shepherds fields where they saw the angels, but because I understand now what it means for people to live under occupation, to have their comings and goings and all of life regulated and restricted by strangers who have taken over their land, people who suffer without warrant or justice, who have waited patiently for your deliverance only to see the fist close more tightly, people who are treated as less than human, stripped of their dignity and liberty. I understand more now why Jesus loved so well the leper, the adulteress, the Samaritan, the oppressed, the poor, and the marginalized, why he claimed their new identities caught up in the wellspring of his mercy, why he tore down walls that divide us from our neighbor, why he said time and again to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, why he is in the business of cultivating hope in a subsoil of yearning, crying out against the reign of death and making all things new.