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


Who Defines Us?

Text: Luke 6: 27- 31

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.  Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  Do to others as you would have them do to you.


Before we go into the message let me share a story narrated by a gentleman David J. Pollay that will set the tone for the message.

“. I hopped in a taxi, and we took off for Grand Central Station.  We were driving in the right lane when, all of a sudden, a black car jumped out of a parking space right in front of us. My taxi driver slammed on his brakes, skidded, and missed the other car by mere inches! The driver of the other car, the guy who almost caused a big accident, whipped his head around and started yelling bad words at us.  My taxi driver just smiled and waved at the guy.  And I mean, he was actually friendly! So, I asked him, “Why did you just do that? This guy almost ruined your car and could’ve sent us to the hospital!” And this is when my taxi driver told me about what I now call, “The Law of Garbage Trucks.” “Many people are like Garbage Trucks. They run around full of garbage, full of frustration, full of anger, and full of disappointment. As their garbage piles up, they need a place to dump it, and if you let them, they’ll dump it on you.  When someone wants to dump on you, don’t take it personally. Instead, just smile, wave, wish them well, and move on. You’ll be happier because you did.” Wow.  That really got me thinking about how often do I let Garbage Trucks run right over me? AND, how often do I then take their garbage and spread it onto other people: at work, at home, on the streets?  It was that day I resolved, “I’m not going to do it anymore.” Since then, I have started to see Garbage Trucks everywhere.  Just as the kid in the Sixth Sense movie said, “I see dead people,” I can now say, “I see Garbage Trucks.” 🙂 I see the load they’re carrying … I see them coming to drop it off.  And like my Taxi Driver, I don’t make it a personal thing; I just smile, wave, wish them well, and I move on.”

Now this story is a very inspiring one and is in sync with the Bible passage set before us. But before we go any further let us imagine that we are sitting in Church and announcement is going on. One of your friends is sitting just behind you and kicks you for fun. What would be your first reaction and the first word on your tongue? I know my answer and I do not want to reveal too much here. What Jesus is saying in the passage has been a huge stumbling block for many believers. Having faith is abstract but practicing the above said is very very difficult. So how is this ever going to be possible? For that we need to look at Jesus himself. Jesus loved his enemies and blessed those who cursed him. He prayed for his oppressors on the Cross. Reading the Bible one thing stands out when you study the life of Jesus. Jesus was deeply aware of who he was. “I Know who I am. I testify for myself.” (John 8: 18) If I ask myself ‘Who am I?’ on a plain surface it is easy to answer but I seriously do not know the answer yet. Therefore people and circumstances define me. If somebody is rude to me I just react and get back being ruder. But the other person has defined me and my behavior. If the circumstance is favorable I am in a good mood but if it is hostile I change accordingly. So the power to define my behavior and attitude does not rest with me but other people and circumstances define me.

Jesus was deeply aware of His identity and his mission in life. Therefore what people told about him did not define his behavior. “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ (Luke 7: 24). If I had such an accusation against me I would have tried my best to prove otherwise and get my reputation on track. “Loving your enemies” is a choice that we have as people of faith to set ourselves free from hatred of people that defines us. I have a choice to love. But it is a tougher choice. Growing with God is a practice that we will perfect. With all our blemishes and shines, by the grace of God we will be comfortable in our own skin. Experience of the deep love of God and the knowledge of being “His Beloved” will enable us to say along with Soren Kierkegaard  “ Now with God’s help, I shall become myself.” I still remember that when I did my first session of counseling in Navjeevan way back in 2005, the children started to run at the very sight of me. They did not like this dude who thought he knew what their problem was. These children just avoided me and hardly tried to talk. This was deeply upsetting. I felt very angry and thought “I have come all the way to understand their problem and they are not even ready to talk to me?” One day when I was all upset Moni Achen, the then  director of Navjeevan understood my predicament and told me “You cannot compel anyone to love you. You as a counselor, remind them of their past that they would love to forget. Therefore they do not like you. You have to give them that freedom. All you can do is, you can choose to love them.” That made complete sense.

These days I am reading the book “ The Long Walk to Freedom” by Nelson Mandela. His life is a complete inspiration. As a man of faith who truly believed in Biblical justice he sacrificed his life for the people of South Africa. The Apartheid Government of South Africa made all the possible inhuman laws to deprive the Africans of the basic human dignity. In pursuit of the freedom of his people to live like humans, Mandela was imprisoned in Robben Island for 27 long years of his life. The best part of his youth was snuffed out by the Afrikaaner government. In his release in 1990 he strove for a multi-racial platform and was elected the President of South Africa in 1994. There were many in the African National Congress who wanted to eliminate the opponents who oppressed them on the basis of color. There was a worldwide fear of a Civil strife. But once he came to power he formed a Government of National Unity. He set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission where the white oppressors confessed of their wrongs in court and the black oppressed hugged them and reconciled. This move of “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” was hugely a success because of the life and message of Mandela. After losing the best part of his life he had every right to be bitter with his opponents. He was in a position to settle scores and take revenge. But his example of reconciliation and forgiveness became the foundation for a South Africa that was just being born. Nelson Mandela stands out as a shining example of practicing Jesus commands where hatred did not define his actions. He defined the situation with love and forgiveness. These days where he is struggling with life and death, I sincerely pray that Nelson Mandela’s life inspires us to make a choice between liberating power of love and the imprisoning trap of hatred. I pray like him we choose the former. Amen


Rev Merin Mathew

Mar Thoma Syrian Church