I hear a lot about identity lately. Identity theft is a huge problem and an ever present threat. People seem to be always searching for their identity, trying to “find” themselves. I hear statements such as “I identify as male” or “I identify as Native American.” I also hear a lot about identity politics. Within that framework, I am not seen as an individual but as a member of a particular group or groups.
In this particular worldview, I am a demographic, not an individual. I hear much made of division these days. We are told how divided we are. We are being separated from each other, divided into groups and then pitted against one another.
It is impossible not to belong to some demographic or group, but if truth be told, we actually each belong to many “groups.” I am a female, so there’s one group right there. I am of a certain age (not to be disclosed here) so there’s another group, my age group. I am of a certain income level, so there’s another group, my economic group, which contains groups ranging from the impoverished to the extremely wealthy. My skin color puts me in a group or demographic. My religious beliefs or lack of them put me in a group and within the religious group there seem to be an infinite number of denominations dividing all those who gather to worship.
My marital status puts me in a group. My political views put me in a group. My education level or lack of it puts me in yet another group. My employment or lack of it puts me in a group, and if I am employed there are an infinite number of groups (jobs) that will further define and divide me from others. (ie. blue collar, white collar, working class, professional, skilled labor, academics, private sector, civil service, management and on and on) No wonder identity is confusing.
If my identity depends on all the categories I fall into which we talk about as the groups we belong to, then as my categories/groups change over time is my identity ever changing as well? I mean my income may change, my age will change, my employment status and type of job I hold will change many times, my marital status can change, my political views may change, my religious beliefs and therefore affiliations could change, my education could change (you can always get more education). People change their citizenship and even their sex.
No wonder we don’t know who we are. If we allow these ever changing demographics to define us, we will always be wondering who we really are, we will always be searching for our identity. If we seek our identity in group labels rather than in the One in whose image we are created, we will never experience the security that comes from knowing who we are because we know Whose we are.
If I find my identity in Jesus Christ, it will not be an ever changing entity that I must constantly re-evaluate, manipulate or update in order to fit in with whatever current trends might dictate. This is because of the truth that is revealed in Hebrews 13:8,
“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
James 1:17 also describes God as “the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”
I am grateful to belong to a God who does not change while all around me, the divisions that attempt to define and divide me from others, continue to multiply until there are too many to keep up with currently. There is rich vs. poor, female vs. male, generation vs. generation (that used to be a big one, even had a name – the generation gap) black vs. white, liberal vs. conservative, gay vs. straight, union vs. non-union, Jew vs. Muslim vs. Christian, socialism vs. capitalism, rural vs. urban, public vs. private – the list is endless because we continue to find ways to separate ourselves from each other.
I confess – apart from Christ I would be continuously searching for where and how I fit in this world in which I live. I want to belong somewhere, somehow – but where and how? Fortunately, my Heavenly Father, is a God of unity not of division, a God of inclusion not of exclusion, a God who sees me as the individual that I am and not as a member of any particular group or class of people.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
“Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3:11)
Jesus always saw the individual, not the group. He didn’t see a category of people – nameless, faceless, voiceless people – no Jesus saw each individual person, and He knew each one, every hair on their head, every dark deed in their past, every desire of their heart.
I love the story of Jesus and the woman at the well, which makes this so clear. Jesus was traveling from Judea to Galilee and we are told, “Now He (Jesus) had to go through Samaria.” This is significant because Jesus was a Jew, and the Jews had no contact with the Samaritans. In fact, Jews in that day went out of their way to avoid Samaritans. They usually traveled around Samaria, not through it.
So we see the presence and the practice of racism taking place in Jesus’s time. But Jesus didn’t participate in mankind’s prejudices nor was He bound by man-made rules. And so in John chapter 4, we find Jesus, tired from His journey, sitting by Jacob’s well, when a Samaritan woman comes to the well to draw water. Jesus asks her for some water and she replies,
” ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can You ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)” (John 4:9)
The woman was clearly surprised and for good reason. Another translation of the last line of John 4:9 reads Jews “do not use dishes Samaritans have used.” Jesus was clearly breaking some rules here. My bible commentary explains further saying that at this time in history there was “legislation that forbade a Jew to eat or drink with Samaritans, who were more lax in their understanding of ritual cleanness.”
Now Jesus had come to fulfill the law not to abolish it. (Matthew 5:17) But that would refer to God’s law, not man’s law. And so we find Jesus breaking down barriers that men had put into place. Jesus was not only having a conversation with a woman, (women had no status in Jesus’s day, they were the property of their husbands) but with a Samaritan woman and not only that but He was asking to drink from her cup of well water. This was shocking to His disciples.
But there is so much more to this story. Jesus didn’t see this woman as a demographic, as an unknown, un-unique member of a people group or groups. (she was also poor and unmarried and lacking in any social status) But Jesus knew her personally, He knew her story.
This was revealed later in their conversation when Jesus asked her to go get her husband and return to the well, prompting her to admit to Jesus that she had no husband. At this point,
“Jesus said to her, ‘You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.’ ” (John 4:17-18)
“Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?’ They came out of the town and made their way toward Him.” (John 4:28-30)
To me, as the reader of this story, she is the Samaritan woman at the well. But to Jesus she was an individual with a past, a present and a future, all of which He knew intimately. Jesus knew her true identity apart from any gender group, ethnic group or geographic or language or religious group in which she found herself living out her life. Jesus breaks down all those barriers and cuts right to the heart of the matter and to the heart of the individual.
Jesus did so that day at the well when He told her, “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and His worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:23-24)
Jesus was telling her that all our man made divisions and categories are not acknowledged by God because they don’t matter to Him. God doesn’t look at our demographics because that’s not where our identity lies. God looks at our hearts. He created them and He knows them. Peter said in Acts 10:34-36,
“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men (women) from every nation who fear Him and do what is right. . . . telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.”
This story of Jesus and His encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well is not over yet. What happens next is even more remarkable than what has already taken place.
“Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in Him (Jesus) because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I ever did.’ So when the Samaritans came to Him, they urged Him to stay with them, and He stayed two days. And because of His words many more became believers. They said to the woman, . . . ‘now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.’ ” (John 4:39-42)
Jesus abandoned His travel itinerary and took two days out of His schedule to stay with the Samaritans in the woman’s town. Unheard of for sure. The Samaritans were the despised people group at that time because they participated in pagan idol worship, mixed in with some Jewish practices. Jewish people wouldn’t even travel through there, let alone stay there! But God always shows us a better way to live with each other.
” ‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.’ ” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
Oh, that with my identity firmly established in Christ, I would see other people as God sees them – as an individual, not as a demographic. And furthermore that I would treat each person as their individual identity would compel me to do, rather than relate to a person solely on the basis of their demographic identity, which is no true identity at all.
When Jesus came He broke down all the barriers separating us from each other and most importantly, separating us from God. Why we keep building those barriers back up is beyond my understanding? I am thankful that to my Heavenly Father I am a unique individual, created in His image, not a number in a group demographic.
Jesus could always pick the person out of the crowd. Whether it was the Roman centurion, the woman who touched the hem of His garment, Zacchaeus up in the tree, Matthew/Levi sitting behind a tax collector’s booth, the thief hanging on the cross beside Him, Nathanael under the fig tree or countless others, – Jesus saw them, knew them, called them, healed them, ministered to their deepest needs and set them free to live the abundant life in Him that He came to give to anyone who would receive it.
maybe next time I’ll tell you one of their stories – until then –
“For He (Jesus) Himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, . . . He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through Him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.” (Ephesians 2:14-18)
sincerely, Grace Day