In John 4, Jesus does something extraordinary. You remember the story of the Woman at the Well, right? A Jewish dude talking to a Samaritan woman. Jesus broke convention. He went somewhere people like him didn’t go, and he did some stuff people like him didn’t do. Back then the place was called Samaria. Sychar was the particular village. Today, Sychar–along with Shechem and other ancient sites–have been swallowed up, consolidated, and rebranded into a different town in modern Palestine.
The city is now known as Nablus.
Most Americans have never heard of it. I hadn’t before my recent trip to the Holy Land. It’s not a place we vacation. It’s not a place most can go. If they could, most wouldn’t. Kind of like back in Jesus’ day. This was a place good religious people didn’t visit. It was inhabited by people good religious people did not associate with. Jesus was a good religious person, but he did an extraordinary thing — he visited the place and he associated with the people. He did some other extraordinary things while he was there, but just showing up was pretty standout stuff all by itself.
On my recent trip to the Holy Land, first day out of the gate, we visited Nablus. Most Holy Land trips don’t start here. This is not Jerusalem. This is Nablus.
It’s in the West Bank, beyond the razor wire and the guard shacks. It’s Palestine, not Israel. This region was once ruled by the Canaanites. Then the Israelites. Then it fell under the jurisdiction of Assyria, Persia, Rome, the Ottomans, etc. Then it was just kind of there. Lots of people have laid claim to it. Palestine in general and Nablus in particular have a long, complicated, controversial past. Then came 1948, the civil wars, and all the razor wire. Since I grew up in America, and in particular because I grew up as a Christian in America, I was raised to think rather simplistically — Israel good, Palestine bad. Hence the razor wire and the guard shacks. People on the safe side didn’t venture in.
As I already said, this is not a new attitude.
If you read John 4 you’ll see. Everyone was shocked by Jesus’ behavior. The Samaritan woman who met him at the well was surprised that he even acknowledged her, let alone ask her for a drink. To have a deep, meaningful conversation — this was rare indeed. People just didn’t do it.
Jesus did it anyway.
And so did we. People don’t go to Nablus.
But we did. On the first day of our trip to the Holy Land, we did not go to Golgotha. We did not visit Mt. Carmel or the Sea of Galilee or the Jordan River. We went to Nablus.
Can anything good come out of Nablus? Out past the zone of what some might consider safe?
Past the razor wire?
Past the guard shacks?
Jesus thought so. It wasn’t called Nablus then, and there weren’t guard shacks or wire. What did exist were razor sharp attitudes and people who fenced in their heart with prejudice. There were a lot of people who would go out of their way to avoid people. They didn’t need guard shacks. Their whole lives were guarded.
Besides, aren’t our walls and our security checkpoints, just a physical manifestation of our fear and ignorance.
Do we really know the people we’re protecting ourselves from?
I think Jesus was always good about passing up the guard shacks and ignoring the razor wire. I think people are worth it to him. I want people to matter that much to me, too.
Our group got to eat with a sheik. He is a moderate muslim, an imam, and a bit of a public figure in Nablus. He desires deeply and works diligently for peace. He is educated, articulate, and humble. He gave us a tour of his mosque and was a delight to be around, even sharing a meal with us.
Speaking of the meal, it was prepared by a dear woman who started a nonprofit to bring people together around a meal and have community. She is empowering women in a culture where doing so is difficult. She is brilliant and brave with a wide smile and fierce eyes.
Even as we walked the streets, we were greeted by so many beautiful people. There was warmth and hospitality. Neighbors tried out their English on us. We were greeted with coffee and treats in shops. We visited a soap factory and marveled at their simple methods and exquisite product.
But more than soap and treats and food came out of Nablus.
I came out of Nablus, and I came out of Nablus different than I went in. I think that’s the key.
Very little good can come out of Nablus unless we pass the guard shacks, ignore the razor wire, engage with people we’d otherwise avoid and then leave different somehow.
Yes, much good can come out of Nablus. It took going there to see that.
And I’m so glad I went.
Two days after we visited, Israeli Defense Forces clashed with Palestinians in Nablus following a manhunt for a suspected murderer. It serves as a sober reminder that — even though everything I wrote above is still true — this is a tense and complicated region and culture. It also underscored the need for more people to go, listen, and bring peace in the midst of much unrest.