Some years ago, Britain's Prince Harry caused a furor when a British tabloid published a picture of him on his way to a friend's costume party wearing a Nazi uniform.  Two generations removed from World War II, the young prince might perhaps be forgiven his insensitivity.  I suspect he gave no more thought to his choice of costume than had he decided to dress up as Dracula or as Frankenstein's monster.  Prince Harry was not around during the Blitz, when people wearing Nazi uniforms dropped bombs and rockets on civilians in London, killing more than 40,000 and destroying a million homes.  His handlers immediately recognized that it wouldn't do for a member of the British royal family to be seen prancing around in Nazi regalia, and Harry apologized. 

Long ago, on a business trip to Hamburg, I was with an older German colleague outside one of the few buildings in the center of the city that had survived the Allied bombing in World War II.  He had been a teenager when Hamburg was firebombed by British warplanes.  He told me that within a one-mile radius of where we were standing, 40,000 people, mostly civilians, had been incinerated in a single night, and one million had been left homeless.  He said this without reproach, yet in that moment I was acutely conscious of being the citizen of one of the countries that had devastated his homeland.

I was too polite ever to ask my colleague whether he had been a member of the Hitler Youth when he was a boy.  Since membership was compulsory during the war years, I think I know what the answer would have been.  Did the Hitler Youth don their Nazi uniforms with any more understanding of what they were doing than Prince William?  When they mouthed anti-Semitic slogans and pledged loyalty to the Fuhrer, did they realize they had become complicit in the mass extermination of millions of people? 

Our involvement with evil is often unconscious or inadvertent.  When the town well is polluted, the entire community is sickened.  The child that dies during a U.S. bombing raid in Afghanistan or Iraq is killed with our tax dollars.  We never intended for that child to die, and we may tell ourselves that this small tragedy is an unfortunate by-product of war.  Perhaps we think war is justified to get rid of a Saddam Hussein or an Osama bin Laden, and maybe it is.  If, by some historical accident, we had grown up in pre-war Germany, we might also have served in the Hitler Youth.  Would we have objected if we knew that our tax dollars had built the crematoria at Auschwitz?  If, by another historical accident, we had been at Jonestown when the Kool-Aid was dispensed, would we have had the presence of mind not to drink?

There is a story in the New Testament about an encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman who is drawing water from the town well.  Jesus asks her for a drink.  The woman is surprised that he has made such a request.  A Jewish rabbi would normally never speak to a woman in public, much less a Samaritan, believing that any contact between them would be a source of contamination.  Furthermore, Jesus somehow knows that this woman has consorted with men who are not her husband, which would make her a sinner.  Yet he fears no defilement.  Far from turning her away, he offers her water that will cause her never to thirst again.  She does not immediately grasp that he is talking about water that does not have to be drawn from the ground.  Jesus tells her that the water he gives "will become in [her] a spring of water welling up to eternal life."  This is water that washes away the enmity between Jews and Samaritans, washes away her sinfulness, washes away any sense of defilement.  Its source is beyond any worldly contamination, since it arises from the wellsprings of God.  

John 4:1-26

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