Remarks from Interfaith Prayer Service for Respect and Solidarity

November 14, 2016

The most remarkable thing about this conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman—which is depicted in Ivan Mestrovic’s sculpture behind me--is that it ever happened at all.  As the woman says, she is a Samaritan and he a Jew, so different religiously and culturally, and Jews “do not share things in common with Samaritans.”  Moreover, as recorded later in this chapter, when the disciples return, they are surprised that Jesus is talking to a woman, for it was unacceptable in the time for a man to address in public a woman who was a stranger.  Despite these barriers, Jesus simply asks her for a drink of water, and that opens a conversation about something much more profound.

Though Jesus initially asks her for drink, he suggests she should ask him and he will give water that will take away thirst forever.  In this reading, Jesus crosses chasms of culture, religion and gender, and in the encounter there is a transformation in who gives and who receives, what is given and what is received, and what thirst is quenched. In this exchange, wondrous new possibilities are revealed.

“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again,” says Jesus, “but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.  The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”  In Mestrovic’s sculpture before us, the Samaritan woman and Jesus speak over the well’s pool of water.  It is perhaps in the very exchange, in reaching with compassion and understanding across what divides a Jew and a Samaritan, a woman and a man, that the ordinary water becomes something else—a spring of water gushing up to new possibilities, new hope and to quenching a deeper thirst.  Indeed, welling up to eternal life.

We have come through an election cycle that has revealed and perhaps deepened divisions in our country and in this community as well.  In recent days I have received letters and emails from people on both sides in this election that express anger, uncertainty, bitterness and fear.  It is a troubling time.

We would do well to reflect on this reading and this sculpture in these days.  If we allow our differences to rend the fabric of this community, our University will become an arid, thirsty place.  But if we reach across to engage one another, to give or receive some water, healthy plants can grow.

We now have elected leaders and we should pray for them and, as far as we can in accord with our principles, cooperate with them to serve the common good.  We also pray for those holding opposing positions that they might continue to be engaged and that their voices continue to be heard.  I do not want to minimize the very real differences in perspectives and principles that divide us.  Yet I believe there is no peaceful, fruitful future for us except through the respectful, constructive dialogue that is so critical for a democracy.  Dialogue, one can argue, is the central activity of any university community.  We can disagree passionately, but we should not demean our opponents.  We should state our convictions, but we should listen to all, and most attentively to those who do not share our views.  It is the responsibility of each of us to foster a conversation that engages and enlightens, rather than descends to mutual recrimination. 

At Notre Dame, we must never allow any election cycle, law or policy to make us forget what we stand for.  As I said in my Address to the Faculty last September, three pivotal principles guide us as a Catholic university.

First, we are committed to respecting the dignity and worth of every human person, from conception to natural death, regardless of national or ethnic group, religious tradition, gender, race, socio-economic class, immigration status, sexual orientation or anything else. 

Second, we are committed to work together to realize what is called the common good—the conditions that allow each member of this community to flourish and contribute to the flourishing of others.

Third, we are committed to solidarity with all people, recognizing that the well-being of each person—and particularly the most vulnerable and marginalized—is a concern for every one of us.  On this point, I want to mention the undocumented students at Notre Dame.  I assure you of our special concern for you at this time.  The University will spare no effort to support you, just as we will for every student at Notre Dame.  You accepted our invitation to come to Notre Dame, you are now part of our family, and we will do everything we can to ensure that you complete your education at Notre Dame.

These principles are at the very heart of our mission and should define the kind of community we strive to be.  But perhaps what expresses the sort of community we aspire to be best is a simple story.

Fr. Hesburgh, longtime president of Notre Dame, once faced a sad disciplinary case.  It seems two Notre Dame students had harassed a fellow student who was Jewish for his religious and cultural background.  They did this to an extent that the Jewish student had enough, and left Notre Dame to seek his education elsewhere.  Fr. Hesburgh called those students into his office and told them they had a choice.  They were to leave campus, go to their Jewish classmate’s home, apologize and ask him to return to Notre Dame.  If they could convince their Jewish classmate that he would be welcomed and supported on campus and that he should return, they too could return to Notre Dame.  If they could not, then they should not bother coming back, because they would be permanently dismissed from the University.  The two students went and were able to convince their Jewish classmate to come back.  The three young men graduated together.

That is Notre Dame.  Either we walk together in mutual support, or we do not walk at all.  Either we are all Notre Dame, or none of us are. 

Let us respond to the challenges of this time to recommit ourselves to respect for each member of this community, mutual support and conversation that engage and enlighten, and do not tear one another down.  Let us be people of justice, and people who care in a special way for the most vulnerable.  Let us never do anything to make another member of our community feel unwelcome, and let us not stand by if we see others doing so.  Let us commit to being Notre Dame together.

And let us, people of different faiths, pray for God’s help to realize His justice and love in our community and in our world.  For, as the verses from the Qur’an, which Professor Ebrahim read, remind us,

Good and evil are not equal

Repel evil with what is better

and then one between you

and who there was enmity

will become a loyal, protecting friend.

In repelling evil and reaching out to another, let us allow the living water gush up to eternal life.