Expanding Our Baptismal Community

9 The Samaritan woman asked, “Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” (Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate with each other.) 10 Jesus responded, “If you recognized God’s gift and who is saying to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would be asking him and he would give you living water.” (John 4.9-10)

When reading this story, what often is surprising is that Jesus chooses to engage in conversation with a Samaritan woman – someone who by gender and race is a social outcast. This engagement takes the woman off guard. In response to her surprise, Jesus says, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again. The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life.” (John 4.13-14)

Recently, I keynoted at the National Association for Presbyterian Clergywomen (NAPC). The conference was on a cruise ship, which supported the conference theme, One Baptism, Many Waters. As a part of my keynote, I talked about what it means to be in a baptismal community – a community where you don’t have to explain yourself, where there are shared experiences of joy and struggle, and where it is comfortable to be oneself. It’s refreshing like living water to be a part of such communities. For many Presbyterian clergywomen, NAPC has been that baptismal community. As NAPC moves into the 21st century, they wonder how to share their community with younger clergy as well as clergywomen of color.

This is an interesting time to be a clergywoman. As clergywomen, we are more diversified than ever in demographic make up, pressing issues, ordination experiences, struggles, and advocacy concerns. We no longer rally or organize around one single issue or concern. When we gather, there are differences according to generation, race, life experience, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, and privilege. Within those differences are subtle, unintentional shifts of power that can undermine any baptismal community when gone unnoticed.

So how does one create, live, or exist in a baptismal community that embraces diversity?

Recognize

We must recognize that just because our baptismal community is a safe and welcoming place for us that it may not be for someone else. The very nature of how the community functions, makes decisions, and engages with one another may actually be foreign, unwelcoming, and uncomfortable to someone else. A part of being in a safe community is that who you are is the norm. I may be in a man’s world when I am working in the Church, but in my group of clergywoman, I as a woman am the norm. But I’ll be honest. When I am in a group of predominantly white clergywomen, I don’t feel the norm. We must be careful not to assume that our lived experience is someone else’s lived experience.

Whenever Jesus enters a community, he is very aware of the power and attention his actions and his mere presence brings. When approaching the Samaritan woman, he was very aware that as a Jewish man, he was drastically going against the norm by engaging in conversation with a Samaritan woman.

We also must recognize the different power plays and structures among us. I am a part of the Korean-American Presbyterian Clergywomen. Besides being Korean and women, there are a lot of nuances we have to contend with when we are together. We have to be aware that those who were born in the U.S. may have more opportunities than those who immigrated. We have to be aware that within our Korean community, those that are older have more voice than those who are younger.

Readjust

If one truly wants to make their community more welcoming to those that are different, then it’s about readjusting what is considered safe, comfortable, and normal in one’s community. It isn’t enough to invite those that are different into your community just so that the community will “look” different. I get asked often to join this group or that group because they need younger voices or more people of color. I always respond with “that is your need, not mine.” I as a woman of color do not feel the need to be a token person of diversity. I would rather be a part of something because of what I have to offer in experience, skills, and ideas rather than how I look. It’s interesting that Jesus except for a drink of water doesn’t ask the Samaritan woman for anything, but instead offers her something – something that is nourishing, life-giving, and eternal. Instead of thinking about what someone has to offer your community, think about what you can offer to them.

Many times, readjusting the norm in one’s community means that a significant number of one’s community leadership has to reflect the “other.” The challenge is that the community has changed so much that it is no longer the safe baptismal community that long-standing members have been a part of.

Remove

Sometimes being a part of a baptismal community is not about being comfortable or safe. In those moments when we are uncomfortable, we have an opportunity to learn ways to be truly inviting of the other. By removing ourselves from places of comfort and engaging in other diverse communities, we open ourselves to understanding ways we participate in understanding our own actions as well as understanding others. We also have to be aware of what our role is when we are guests in other’s baptismal communities. As guests, we should be observers and be aware of how our presence changes the dynamics of our environment. This awareness can only happen if we recognize how we fit in the current structures of power and if we are willing to readjust our perspective of what is the norm. Does my presence translate as dominance, welcoming, or unwanted? Notice that Jesus is not in his community, he has entered Samaria – the community of the woman at the well.

Reclaim

Sometimes we need to be reminded why we are members of a baptismal community. We need to reclaim the purpose of why this particular baptismal community exists. Especially if  an organization or community has been around for a long time, then members can get too comfortable with each other . . . so much so that it makes “newbies” feel left out. I am a part of two baptismal communities that have been living water for not only my ministry, but for me personally.

photo by Dwight Morita

One, I mentioned previously. My Korean-American clergy sisters have been through a lot together and with each other. We have loved, supported, argued, and cried together. Last year, we celebrated our 20th anniversary as a baptismal community. It was a time to not only reclaim our need and appreciation for each other, but also welcome and introduce new ones into this wonderful support group.

Another one has been this community of Asian-American pastors who have mentored me and shaped my theological lens. Last week, the Rev. Frank Yamada was installed as the new president of McCormick Theological Seminary, the Rev. Mary Paik, gave the charge and presented him with the gift of a Hebrew Bible that was passed down throughout the Asian Presbyterian community. Within that book are the stamps and signatures of those who used that book in seminary over the years. As a part of the gift, many of us were asked to stamp and sign our own name into the book. In her charge, Mary said, “When we heard that you were elected to be the President of McCormick Theological Seminary, thus becoming the first Asian American president of a PCUSA seminary, we were absolutely thrilled! and we decided to present this Bible to you –  not only because now it will belong to someone who can actually read it… but because this Bible represents the hopes and dreams of an Asian American Community that sojourns here.”

Baptismal communities are vital to our spiritual and personal growth. God calls us to be in community. When we baptize, we do not baptize in solitude but in the midst of a faith community. It is okay to have a baptismal community that affirms who we are and what we are about. We just need to be aware of how we invite or enter into other baptismal communities.

Let us be refreshed by the living water that Christ provides – a living water that is refreshing, renewing, and life-giving. I share this version of the story of the woman at the well that was written at a Racial Ethnic Pastors Conference in 1998.

Get the Sisters to the Well (John 4:6)

by Rev. Lonna Lee, Jeannie Yee, Rev. Dr. Arlene Gordon, Rev. Sarah Reyes-Gibbs, Rev. Mary Paik, Rev. Carrie Buckner, Rev. Dr. Clarice Martin, and Laurene Chan.

… and Jesus, tired from his Traveling Narrative , was sitting at the well.  It was about noon.

A racial/ethnic  woman associate pastor came to draw water from the well, even though it had been dry of water for many months.  It was out of hope, though, that she continued to come to this well.  And Jesus, who saw her, said to her, “Give me a sermon,”  The racial/ethnic woman associate pastor said to him, “How is it that you, a white man, ask a sermon of me, a racial/ethnic woman?”  Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a sermon,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you a Living Sermon.”

 And the racial/Ethnic woman associate pastor said to him, “Where would you get that Living Sermon?  Are you greater than our ancestor Calvin, who gave us our theology and with his students taught it?”  Jesus said to her, “Everyone who hears a sermon scraped together from dryness will never be filled.  But those who listen to the Living Sermon will always be filled.” The racial/ethnic woman associate pastor said to him, “Give me this living Sermon for my well is dry.”  And Jesus asked her, “Why is it that your well is dry?”  And she answered, “My well has been dry, because I am never given a well full of water.  I am only given wells that nobody else wants, wells that are infested with rats, wells that are crumbling, wells that are covered with mold and moss, wells that I am sent to clean up.  A well full of water is never mine.”

And Jesus said, “How is it then that your well shall be filled?”  And the racial/ethnic woman associate pastor said, “Get my sisters to the well.  Gather my sisters from east and west, and we shall crowd around the well.  And together we will cry tears of anger, tears of oppression, tears of frustration, tears of aloneness.  And we will mix with those tears of joy, tears of victory, tears of laughter, tears of faith.  And we will fill that well with our tears.  We will fill that well with our tears till it is dry no longer.  And then in the warmth of the sun and the glow of the moon, we will once again see our reflections in the fullness of the well.  We will gather around the well, and see our reflections, and smile.  For again, we will see our beauty.”

 And Jesus wept.

One response to “Expanding Our Baptismal Community

  1. Thank you, Theresa, for your personal, reflective, wise words shared that all of us might receive some refreshment for our souls. Blessings, friend, and take care of yourself.

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