God’s Image Not Our Image

Yesterday morning I attended Mass at St. John’s Episcopal in Minneapolis, as my dear friend Richard was preaching, and I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to hear him. He had a beautiful Gospel passage to preach on – Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.

This encounter was, as Richard observed, an encounter that, by the mores of the day, should not have taken place: men didn’t talk to unaccompanied women and Jews didn’t converse with Samaritans. But it did take place; two people separated by a chasm of difference met each other…and something happened when they did.

Near the end of his sermon, Richard quoted Rabbi Jonathan Sacks that “[t]he challenge to the religious imagination is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image.” I think Sacks is absolutely right.

There is no great challenge in seeing God’s image in those who are like us. The likeness may be physical – those of the same race or gender or sexual orientation. Or it may be philosphical – those who share our beliefs. When people look like us and sound like us, it is easier to affirm them, easier to remember their place with God, easier to recognize them as our sister and brother.

But, that confuses our image with God’s image. As an ancient Jewish teaching quoted by Sacks in The Dignity of Difference (from which the above quote was taken), “God makes every person in the same image – His image – and each is different.”

We are not called to see our image in the face of the other, but God’s image. And so it would be worthwhile to reflect on how well we encounter those who are to us as the Samaritans were to the Jews of Jesus’ day. For, as Sacks writes, “[w]e do not have to share a creed or code to be partners in the covenant of mankind. The prophets of Israel wrestle with an idea still counterintuitive to the Platonic mind: that moral and spiritual dignity extend far beyond the boundaries of any one civilization. They belong to the other, the outsider, the stranger, the one who does not fit our system, race or creed.”

Postscript: I am hopeful that Richard’s sermon will appear within the week on the St. Johns’ website here. And for another beautiful reflection on yesterday’s Gospel, check out my friend Aidan’s audio reflection here.