A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”(John 4:7-10, NRSV)
Throughout our life together, our societies develop practices, ideologies and beliefs that are rooted in myth and rumor. These beliefs developed most strongly at times when “otherness” and difference were highlighted in identity formation. Exaggerated stories about African-Americans and their brute strength or sexual prowess were born at the height of the slave trade. Warped portrayals of the work ethic of the Polish and alcoholic tendencies of the Irish were born during the mass immigration of the early and mid 19th centuries.
These dysfunctional and detrimental portrayals of various groups of people have defined many societies, (and most strongly the United States). Many of these ideologies have been with us so long that we inculcate them and identify with traits that have no basis in fact or reality. A lot of these stereotypes are furthered by marketing and media that uses preconceived notions to sell products and materials. Images of African-Americans with ‘kinky’ hair and big lips or Asian persons with slanted eyes and short statures were used to sell everything from toothpaste to wax.
Early 20th Century:
Despite the evolution of political correctness and racial sensitivity, much of those early images still are ingrained in the people (both persons of color whose images were warped and distorted, as well as the people who have never seen a person of color a part from the images of they have digested in media. The most disconcerting to me is the carefree are careless attitude that some of the exploited groups carry when viewing countervailing images (which are true depictions) of themselves in media. Many times the image is a true reflection of real life scenarios that are not well known. In other instances, the media is coverage of real events happening in real time. In both of these situations, many reactions of persons of color and/or the society at large is a rejection or critiquing of the image that breaks the mold……..mostly in a negative perspective.
Case in point is the wonderful success of gymnast and London 2012 Gold Medal winner Gabby Douglas. She is the first African-American woman (African-American PERIOD!!!) to be awarded the gold medal in all-around competition. That means that she is the best female gymnast in the world when it comes to all of the major gymnastic events. No African-American (woman or otherwise) has ever won this title or this prominence (Dominique Dawes won Gold as a part of team USA in the 1996 games). Gabby also won Gold as a part of the team competition and was part of the hype, celebration and success of the United States’s record Gold haul in the London 2012 games.
Yet, what seem to be all the rage in this country was not her athletic abilities or the historic triumph in the Olympics at the age of 16. What many of the bloggers, radio talks shows and other non-traditional media outlets discussed was her hair. Clipped back and in a ponytail, kinky and knotted up, Gabby’s hair was of particular pre-occupation to some in the African-American community. Comments ranged from “she need to get hair done”, to “her mama let her compete on the world stage looking like that”, to “she did a wonderful thing…..but that hair!” Give me a break!!!!
In this very familiar passage of scripture, Jesus encounters a woman at a well at noon (read the entire encounter for further insight). This woman is a Samaritan and by Jewish custom, she is unclean and forbidden to speak to a Jewish man. Likewise, tradition says that rabbi Jesus has no business approaching any woman alone, but especially a woman of Samaritan and unclean ancestry. It was said that Samaritans were liars, backstabbers, condemned to death and had no part in the kingdom of God. Most of those beliefs were formed through a propagandistic view of Jewish history that distorted (or omitted) history of the exile and the Davidic Kingdom of Ancient Israel.
In the heat of the sun, Jesus and this Samaritan have an exchange that is tense and ripe with all sort of preconceived ideas and ideologies. In this simple encounter, Jesus (and this woman) are confronting centuries of tradition, racism and discrimination. They decide to engage with each other to see and experience one another in the fullness of their being (both of them must engage in this, he because he is Jesus, and she because she is curious about this man). Jesus and this woman see beyond the cultural condition to see the truth of each other. He recognizes her by her humanity and not by her stigma, while she recognizes him as the Christ who sets captives free. It isn’t romance, its revolution. It isn’t flirtation, its restoration….
The text calls for us to move beyond superficial judgements and stereotypes. It calls us to celebrate the humanness of one another in the places and spaces of greatest expectation. See one another as simply that…..the other, with all images and ideologies aside. Gabby’s hair is not the issue, it is the preoccupation of some in the African-American community to be stylish and not historic. Many would focus on their on dysfunction about ‘looks’ and ‘home training’ instead of acknowledging that self-worth and identity are internally nurtured and are lasting beyond the two weeks it takes for a ‘perm’ to stay fresh! Some of y’all will get that later…..
The bottom line is this: We all have been shaped by the images we have consumed in our society. Instead of blaming Gabby Douglass, or The Cosby Show (some said it was too fictional to be absorbed by the African-American Community) for widening our scope and mindset about what it means to be Black in America, why not deal with your own misgivings and shortcoming about Black image. Instead of demeaning the people who break the normative expectations of the images we consume, why don’t we acknowledge our insecurities about letting go of the norms in our society? Instead of chastising the people who break the stereotypes and marketing ideologies, why not celebrate them as truth reflections of the other in our experiences? Each time someone shatters our negative image of them, each time an individual expresses their individuality and takes great strides, each time we leave “the wells of Christ encounter” with a new revelation of the other; we are treated to a vision of truth that helps us all be better Christians Humans……..