Home > Week of Prayer for Christian Unity > Prayer and Worship: Homily Notes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day

JANUARY 18–25, 2015

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Memorial Homily
“Please Give Me a Drink”

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

By The Rev. Raymond VandeGiessen

            On June 29, 2009, 65 campers from Creative Steps Day Camp in northwest Philadelphia arrived to swim at the Valley Swim Club in Huntington Valley, PA.  The Day Camp had contracted with the swim club, and it seemed like a win-win.  The Swim Club got $1,900 and the kids got to swim one day each week during the summer.  By all accounts, the day campers were well-behaved, well-mannered, and well supervised.

But then it all went wrong.  Camper Dymire Baylor told NBC, “I heard this lady, she was like, ‘Uh, what are all these black kids doing here?’ She’s like, ‘I’m scared they might do something to my child.’ ” 

Horace Gibson, a parent of a camper told NBC that “The pool attendants came and told the black children that they did not allow minorities in the club and needed the children to leave immediately.” And on Tuesday, the swim club’s president issued a statement saying, “There was concern that a lot of kids would change the complexion … and the atmosphere of the club.” (Washington Post, July 10, 2009).

The swim club cancelled the contract and asked the children not to return.  This wasn’t the 1940s.  This wasn’t in the deep south of the U. S.  This was 2009, in Philadelphia!  Segregated drinking fountains were outlawed in 1964, but segregation, and the desire for segregation continues.    It isn’t something new.  It seems to be a part of our broken condition that can only be changed by the transformative power of God.

John’s gospel records an encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in the Samaritan village of Sychar (John 4).  There weren’t any signs that said, “No Jews Allowed”.  They weren’t needed.  Everybody understood that Jews and Samaritans did not intermingle.  Everybody, it seems, except Jesus.

Jesus is parched and dusty after a day on the road.  The disciples have gone into the city to buy some food and Jesus is left alone by the well.  He has no rope, no bucket, no way to access the water.  And then a woman arrives.  Jesus does the unthinkable.  He asks for a drink.  Unthinkable because she is a Samaritan and he is a Jew.  Unthinkable because men and women did not intermingle.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that water, so essential for life, is so often at the center of our controversies.  Segregated drinking fountains and segregated public washrooms fill the stories of the fight for civil rights in the U. S.  In author Kathryn Stockett’s, “The Help,” one of the central issues is the drive to build and have the “colored” help use separate washrooms in the homes where they clean, cook, and raise the children of the “white” employers.  One of the arguments for keeping gay football player Michael Sam from joining the NFL was the “worry” about his sharing water in the shower room with the straight players.

Martin Luther King, Jr. helped point out the absurdities of such laws and the deeper absurdities of such fears.  His foundational belief in the dignity and equality of all people comes from his deep walk with Jesus.

The encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John 4 invites us to try water from a different well and also to offer a little of our own. In diversity, we enrich each other. When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman and asks, “please give me a drink”, he knocks at one of the walls that we human beings have built to separate us from one another. 

Jesus challenges us to change our attitude and to commit ourselves to seek unity in the midst of our diversity through our openness to a variety of forms of prayer and Christian spirituality. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is a privileged moment for prayer, encounter, and dialogue. It is an opportunity to recognize the richness and value that are present in the other, the different, and to ask God for the gift of unity.  How appropriate it is that it comes at the same time that we celebrate God’s gift of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the powerful message he brought that continues to resonate so clearly.

The Samaritan woman and Jesus looked at each other from across wide chasms.  He was a Jew.  She was a Samaritan.  He was a man.  She was a woman.  He was a beloved rabbi.  She was an outcast.  But they did not remain in their prejudices or see each other as stereotypes.  They saw each other as human beings that deserved honor as beloved children of God. They each thirsted.  Jesus needed a drink of water from Jacob’s well after a long and dusty day on the road.  She thirsted for the love and acceptance of God and for a renewal of her parched spirit.

Those who control the water fountains may have had the water.  But they need the spiritual refreshment that comes from relinquishing power and risking the change that might truly help destroy unnecessary and irrational boundaries.  The living water that Jesus promises comes from the heart of God’s love and God’s mercy and God’s welcome.  It is the gift of grace.

Both the Samaritan woman and Jesus have water to share.  With all of their racial, cultural, historical and theological differences, they each bring something to the table.  Grace happens when all of us freely share the gifts of God that we have received.  Grace happens when we treat each other as equals, offering respect, listening, and learning.

In an interview with Italian daily La Stampa, defending his criticism of the “trickle-down” theory of economics, Pope Francis said: “There was the promise that once the glass had become full it would overflow and the poor would benefit. But what happens is that when it’s full to the brim, the glass magically grows, and thus nothing ever comes out for the poor ...”  The powerless and the power have so many needs that are the same.  And the Good News that the church proclaims is that God has more than enough for everyone.  So whether we are talking about the power of water, the need for oil, food, housing, clothing, or dignity, God has provided more than we need.  And God calls us to work in partnership with God to make sure that what has been given is shared and celebrated together.

Dr. King says that, “when machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic exploitation are incapable of being conquered” (Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam).  But when we sit at the feet of Jesus and listen, when we stand and follow where Jesus leads, the power of God’s Spirit fills us and gives us everything we need to overcome everything that seeks to oppress and destroy us.

The Rev. Raymond VandeGiessen is an ordained teaching elder of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  He has served as the Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Passaic, New Jersey for the past ten years, where he has led that multi-cultural congregation in its mission  welcome the outcast and marginalized into the gracious presence of Jesus Christ.  He has also served as pastor for PC(USA) congregations and Reformed Church in America congregations in New York, New Jersey, and Michigan.  He earned his BA in religion at Hope College in Holland, MI, and an M. Div. from New Brunswick (NJ) Theological Seminary.