Ubuntu: Christ’s Challenge for Breaking Dividing walls

Text: John 4: 5- 26 (Jesus and the Samaritan Woman)

The Message

The Philosophy Of Ubuntu is a very beautiful  one. To demonstrate this point there is a very popular story that I read in one of my mails.

An anthropologist studying the habits and customs of an African tribe found himself surrounded by children most days. So he decided to play a little game with them. He managed to get candy from the nearest town and put it all in a decorated basket at the foot of a tree. Then he called the children and suggested they play the game. When the anthropologist said “now”, the children had to run to the tree and the first one to get there could have all the candy to him/herself. So the children all lined up waiting for the signal. When the anthropologist said “now”, all of the children took each other by the hand ran together towards the tree. They all arrived at the same time divided up the candy, sat down and began to happily munch away. The anthropologist went over to them and asked why they had all run together when any one of them could have had the candy all to themselves. The children responded: “Ubuntu. How could any one of us be happy if all the others were sad?” Ubuntu is a philosophy of African tribes that can be summed up as “I am what I am because of who we all are.


In the passage in front of us Jesus does what he does best. He breaks down the barriers prevalent in his time. In the beginning of Chapter 4 we see that Jesus left Judea and was travelling back to Galilee. He passed through Sychar which is a Samaritan City. Normally when people travelled from Judea to Galilee, they avoided the Samaritan territory. To find that out let us look into a little bit of history.

Back in 722 BCE the Northern Kingdom of Israel was overrun by the Assyrians. To avoid rebellion the Assyrians moved some people out and moved others in. The area became known as Samaria. A couple of centuries later when the leaders of the Southern Kingdom of Judah returned to Jerusalem after some 50 years of exile, they regarded the people of Samaria as having

fallen away from true religion and so rejected their offer of help in rebuilding the Temple of Jerusalem. In pique the Samaritans did their best to sabotage the building efforts. Relationships deteriorated further and the Judeans came to regard Samaritans in a negative way on both racial and religious grounds. The situation was not helped by the Samaritans building a rival Temple on Mount Gerizim. Nor were things made easier when a Judean army destroyed that Temple in 110 BCE. Meanwhile Samaritans tried to disrupt festivals in Jerusalem. So by the time of Jesus the two peoples tried to avoid each other. Most Judeans travelling between Galilee and Jerusalem would take a diversion to the other side of the Jordan River in order to avoid setting foot in Samaria. That Jesus goes through Samaria and finds time to talk with this Samaritan woman shows him to be confronting a wall of prejudice. So when Jesus sitting near a well, asking a Samaritan woman water to drink was a huge scandal. Therefore the question of the woman makes sense . “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” John 4: 9.

But Jesus engagement with a Samaritan shows His vision of the Kingdom of God that is inclusive. In his conversation of Water, that is also the need of the Samaritan woman, He offers her water that is eternal. Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4: 14) Jesus definitely was drawing on the image of Psalm 42: 1 “As The deer pants for water, so my soul longs after you.” As in this life we long for many things, many philosophies and material possessions but nothing satisfies us. It is only the Eternal water offered by God that can satisfy the thirst of our soul which will then become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. This joy of intimacy with God Jesus was offering a Samaritan Woman, who as a Samaritan was cursed in Jewish temples and who as a woman was not considered even part of the worship. Today our witness has been tarnished by our divisions. The more we have ethnic, class, caste and religious divisions we will be like what Jeremiah said “For two evils hath My people done, Me they have forsaken, a fountain of living waters, To hew out for themselves wells — broken wells, That contain not the waters.” (Jeremiah 2: 13). In division that we have fostered, we have forsaken God who unites all of us. The question we need to ask ourselves is the Church with all its division a broken well that has run dry?

In my seminary days my first assignment was at Vengazha Mar Thoma Church which is a Dalit Church. The idea of a Dalit Church in the fold of the larger Mar Thoma Church is long debated. But when will we learn to overcome these artificial barriers rather than just justifying it? The Division between a Church in the urban set up and the church in the Mission Field is also very glaring. The same liturgy is used with everything similar but if one asks the question “Are they integrated in the larger circle of Mar Thoma Church”, the answer is a strict no. Let me give an example of my own experience. Guwahati mar Thoma Church now has only 5 families of the Mar Thoma. The nearby C.N.I church has 56 families and more. They have people from various tribes and class. As a Parish Priest I find it a big failure on my part where we have kept the ethnic Malyalee Mar Thoma Identity intact instead of turning more inclusive where there are good examples of inclusion in a Church with whom we have full communion.

The second prejudice that Jesus broke was evident with the reaction of disciples who returned with food

‘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?”’ (John 4: 27). A Jewish man speaking in public to a woman who also was a Samaritan was another scandal. This reaching out of Jesus to their mind was not appropriate.  30 kms away from Pune, there is a place called Mukti Mission which was founded by Pandita Ramabai for the upliftment of women and child widows. Pandita Ramabai was a Sanskrit scholar who was given the title Pandita for her command over the Hindu Scriptures. Ramabai experienced a spiri­tual crisis as she realized that “all texts were agreed that women of high and low caste, as a class, were bad, very bad, worse than demons, as unholy as untruth; and that they could not get moksha (salvation) as men.” This deeply disturbed her. For further studies in 1883 she decided to travel to London for studies and stayed with the Anglican Sisters at Wantage. One day she heard the bible reading of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman. This was her point of enlightenment. The approach of Jesus to a woman was enough for her to make her choice. In her fight for empowerment of women she knew the faith in Jesus and his gospel is the only answer. She was baptized in the Church of England.  Through Mukti Mission she rehabilitated more than 3000 women and girls. As her love for scripture grew she became the first person to translate the Bible into the language of Marathi.

Pandita Ramabai saw a Jesus who had place for women and was concerned about their salvation and worship. But the same church that follows Christ even in the 21st century is divided over the role of women in the Church. Patriarchal mindsets still find justification for keeping women in their places. According to the BEM Document which was adopted by the faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches in Lima, Peru in 1982 agrees that women have a role in the ministry of the Church. It simply meant women are fit for ordained ministry. The Mar Thoma Church officially responded to the BEM document as follows

“The document calls for ‘a deeper understanding of the comprehensiveness of ministry which reflects the interdependence of men and women’. We wholeheartedly support this concern. The male-dominated social order which one encounters in many parts of the world is partly a reflection of technologies used by these societies which are dependent more on muscle power than brain power. The modern developments in science and technology liberate women partly because human mastery over nature is now dependent more on brain power than muscle power. Women now are able to share responsibilities which were formerly exclusively male. This change in society must be seen as an act of God. This must be reflected in increased sharing by women in the priestly ministry of the Church. However, the Mar Thoma Church presently has barriers due to custom, culture, tradition on allowing women to share in the ordained ministry of the church. It is earnestly hoped that these will break down as men develop greater consciousness of the change of times and women become willing and open to new challenges that God is opening before them. At the same time we also earnestly hope that ways will be found so that the ordination of women does not create new barriers on the way to mutual recognition of ministry and sacraments.”

So the gist of this statement is that the Mar Thoma Church is theologically fine with women ordination but it is our culture and customs that stand as barrier. How long will we be satisfied with such answers is a question we need to ask ourselves.

As I began the meditation on the concept of Ubuntu which is very connected to the imagery of Body of Christ which is beautifully explained by Paul in 1 Cor 12: 12, 13 ‘ For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.’  Let us realize that there are many divisions that are taken for granted. As a Body of Christ we are called to break dividing walls and be participants in the inclusive Kingdom of God.

P.S. As a Priest of the Mar Thoma Church, the above criticisms are written with deep awareness that I am deeply responsible for the division and inequality in the Church that I conveniently criticize about.

Also Pls check this Video by the Youths of St. Peter’s Mar Thoma Church, Delhi

Rev Merin Mathew

Mar Thoma Syrian Church


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