The Reconciliation Initiative
Whenever a believer has a public and yet intimate conversation with a neighbor about Jesus who may have a posture of suspicion and skepticism toward Christian faith, there is often very little that can be said that they have not heard before. I have had countless conversations with friends in all sorts of different contexts about Jesus, and all the usual talking points a Christian seeks to normally hit are tired cliches to them:
“Jesus is the son of God” / “Yes, I am aware.”
“Jesus is the only way to a loving relationship with God” / “So I’ve heard”
“Jesus loves you so much he gave himself on the cross” / “ Yes, I know”
These are fundamental to Christian trust, but we must understand that our neighbors themselves already understand this better than we want to believe and are not as moved by them as we might hope. Our culture is very familiar with who they assume Jesus is because the local church has attempted to represent Jesus in very specific ways, and it is in these either successful or misguided attempts at representation that molds our neighbors perception of Jesus and the bible. All of this, therefore, has consequential effects on our neighbors’ posture toward the local church and on the posture of believers toward our culture as well.
When our neighbors learn that we are believers, they usually understand how the game is to be played and automatically become suspicious and skeptical (for good reason) at any attempt to either persuade them or change them. They assume (rightfully so at times) that the local church is only here to take and teach and not to invest and learn. But, what if the local church shifted the paradigm to compassionately confront our neighbors perceptions? What if we entered into relationships with our neighbors based not only on what we could invest into them, but also based on how they could invest into us? Well, how are we compelled by the bible to reflect Jesus lovingly and patiently into our contexts without compromising our faith? Partly, by being willing to invest our time into knowing our neighbors intimately in public spaces that might perhaps be very uncomfortable for some yet is integral to our posture as compassionate friends and believers, and it is this challenge that pushes many local churches away from communities on the “outside.”
Our neighbors’ perception of Jesus will continue to largely depend on how we invest our time.
Many believers enter into relationships with others assuming a change in character, and when that change never comes, we become uncomfortable and tend to pull away because we have
never received the sort of validation we seek that we believe ‘proves’ that our time invested has not gone to waste, and has therefore truly made a difference. This is a normal form of relational economy within many local churches that have been influenced by our cultures’ relational applications and therefore pushes against what the bible teaches us.
The relational economy that is most prevalent and influential within our culture is what I call the relational economy of reception & investment. We can invest time and resources into our neighbors for a short period of time if they are not investing their time and resources back into us. However, after a time, the one doing all the relational investment grows tired, frustrated, and uncertain about how invested the other is in the relationship, and this (as some might assume) gives us a justification to pull away. However, from a Christian perspective we have no warrant to view our relationships this way, because the cross proves to us that we should never invest with a motivation that we receive anything in return.
If we picture relational currency the same way we understand a bank account and monetary currency, that a deficiency in funds contrasts a deficiency in relational funds for us to invest into our neighbors, we miss sight of what the core of Jesus’ gospel is and how Christian application of that gospel looks like. The Christian is never emotionally or relationally deficient because we will always have and therefore never stop receiving an over-abundance of grace in place of grace to invest into others (John 1:16). Therefore, regardless of any sort of investment in return from our neighbors we never run dry nor do we become deficient on relational funds, because the grace of God is an over-abundant daily investment into our hearts that allows us in return an over-abundant overflow as our daily posture and application within our contexts toward our neighbors regardless of their disposition toward God, or us.
Never grow weary.
We can find many assumptions within this sort of posture and disposition that many believers take: one being that believers are the only ones investing purposefully, intentionally, and deliberately into relationships with our non-believing neighbors. Will the difficult and challenging topics of conversation come up? Of course; we must welcome them and prepare to thrive and flourish within the tension. Should they be reasons why we avoid establishing intimate and public relationships with our neighbors? By no means. It is the extension of our purpose as believers for friendship that invites those challenging conversations and welcomes them into our most intimate and public spheres of influence. Opening up our hearts and communities to be
extensions of compassion and mercy in friendship helps us deliberately focus less on what we want and more on what our neighbors need.
This is what it looks like to cultivate relationships purposefully and truthfully.
The patient, intentional, deliberate, purposeful and culturally sensitive Jesus is little understood by our neighbors outside of the local church community because of how difficult it is for believers to reflect these characteristics faithfully. Reflecting Jesus will not only shed light on our neighbors’ spiritual insufficiency and therefore show their need of God’s grace, but it will also make more public our need for the same grace as well. Our preaching and friendships will strip us of every pre-conceived notion that we have as it becomes our persistent desire to make Jesus visible, with the hopes that our neighbors see less of us in the process.
It must also be understood that the more we feel compelled to make Jesus visible, all the more transparent and vulnerable we must be. The more intimate our relationship with Jesus becomes the more public our perception of our own weaknesses and sins will be, making it all the more difficult to hide our frailties from those around us. But, it is within this place of humility where the strength of Jesus becomes all the more evident to us and our neighbors (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).
It is this sort of intimate and public investment in relationships that sets the stage for Jesus and his deliberate, yet unexpected encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.
Middle Eastern wells do not have buckets attached to them. So, whoever wanted to draw from them needed their own bucket to do so. Jesus, by purposefully sitting on the well alone without any means of getting a drink of water, was deliberately placing his physical need in the hands of whatever ‘foreign stranger’ would meet him. This unexpected, yet deliberate encounter would not only begin the conversation with Jesus seeking someone else’ help, but it would be this simple request that would elevate the dignity and self worth of the individual who would approach him as well.
A Samaritan woman approached…
What does it look like then, to purposefully seek out a relationship that will impact a community other than our own, by uplifting our neighbors integrity and perception of themselves without belittling or suppressing the religious and cultural expressions that have molded them, while at the same time making our own vulnerabilities and weaknesses transparent and evident? Even if we assume we are right about a contentious topic of conversation, winning the debate does not come above winning the hearts of our neighbors. Jesus begins this conversation by uplifting and elevating the Samaritan woman’s dignity and validating her community by making evident his dependence on her. This relationship was not solely on what he himself could offer and therefore invest into her life, but in all the ways she could invest in the life of Jesus too.
Within this sensitive context and specifically this encounter, a Jew and a Samaritan would not normally speak. Moreover, the chances of a Jew drinking from a container in the possession of a Samaritan was even less so. Once Jesus would drink from the Samaritan woman’s vessel, he would automatically (within the cultural, political, and religious eyes of his community) become unclean and religiously impure, and would have seemingly validated the authenticity of her identity and as a consequence the possibility of reconciling her entire community back to God; which was a possibility no one wanted to believe possible.
This wasn’t just a drink of water, it was the possibility through an unexpected, yet deliberate encounter between two radically different worlds and identities of being pursued by a mercy that is for all people no matter past or present affiliations and associations. But, in order for us today within our modern context to have these sorts of deliberate, yet unexpected encounters, the local church must be willing to admit that these sorts of relationships will stretch us and confront us just as much as it does those outside of the local church, and it is within these moments of tense stretching that we grow in the best of ways.
Jesus and the Samaritan woman’s communities identified themselves and their self worth through ideas that segregated and created new categories of outsiders, where self worth and dignity was given by contrasting and elevating differences and hostilities as badges of “self belonging,” making seeking any sort of commonalities and similarities impossible straight from the jump. Jesus however, was able to see past these presumed hostilities, and see the Samaritan woman’s dignity and sacredness in deeper wells than their communities beliefs and definitions of identity. His association with such a ‘foreigner’ wouldn’t be dictated by what made them different, but in what made all of us similar.
But, seeking deep similarities does not happened without the hard work of sitting at the feet of other communities that we truthfully attempt to understand well; well enough that they see we are respecting and therefore recognizing the image they bear no matter what they may believe concerning the biblical doctrine; well enough that whatever preconceived beliefs we as the local church may have about our neighbors that are false and subsequently form harmful caricatures are admitted in their presence and dismantled with their assistance. This is fundamentally crucial. There was up to this very meeting between Jesus and this woman hundreds of years of hostile indifference between Jews and Samaritans, and because of this history between the two communities cultural association between the two groups was something that never happened, and if it did, it would have never been patient and deliberate cultivation like we see here as Jesus primary motivation. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us why the Samaritan woman was so shocked as to the reasons why this strange Jewish man would be speaking directly to her.
“Why are you, a Jewish male talking to me a woman, a Samaritan woman? Why would you ever want to drink from my defiled vessel? For the Jews did not use vessels in common with Samaritans.” John 4:7-9 / Kenneth E. Bailey’s translation
Her shock is assumed in her responses toward Jesus as the conversation progresses:
“Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?’
John 4:10-12 (NIV)
What phrases stand out in her responses? Are you, our, us.
Phrases that assumed a chasm of unbridgeable hostile difference that this foreign Jewish man could not possibly cross. She had no idea however, that it would be the very body of Jesus that would serve as the cross to her heart.
She is, nonetheless, still extremely guarded and suspicious of Jesus’ motivations. This is why she begins to extend the gulf between her and Jesus by accentuating what makes them distinct, and because of this distinctness, she is asserting the fact that she believes Jesus would not be able to understand what makes her, within the beliefs of her community, sacred. She therefore fears that this man would not assume her community’s dignity and continue to hold to his contextualized definition of dignity that by consequence would openly and publicly belittle her own.
This is why she is allowing their religious, cultural, and political assumptions and distinctives to dictate the course of the conversation, guarding the religious and cultural structures that have given her meaning and public recognition. But, she would soon come to realize: Jesus was far more concerned with rehabilitating her hope that she was loved, received, sacred, and would never again be overlooked, even at the expense of Jesus’ own public reputation before his disciples and others.
“Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, ‘What do you want?’ or ‘Why are you talking with her?”
Jesus understood that his disciples were so culturally conditioned by their religious and political context that they would continue to create and be a part of communities of wilful exclusion. They would only include those who thought as they did and would exclude everyone who was a bit different from them; those considered on the ‘outside.’ However, how can we as the local church, like Jesus, elevate our neighbors’ perception of themselves even if our most fundamental beliefs are never fully reconciled? Our ‘point of contact’ (Emile Brunner) is vital. We must never enter into a context foreign to us assuming those we have encountered must assimilate to some other way of doing things before we can make any sort of progress. This does not mean that our differences do not matter or that they are not important, for they most certainly are, but reconciling persons comes before minds can be reconciled, and if we seek to reconcile minds before we reconcile persons we are looking at this the wrong way.
Our ideas and worldviews must be negotiated through honest, transparent, intimate and yet public community as we avoid the urge to isolate ourselves from one another because of them. Whatever preconceived assumptions we have of why we cannot thrive within friendships with others outside of our context must be left at the door as we learn, like the disciples, to seek a deeper association; deeper reasons to love and serve our neighbors no matter how uncomfortable and difficult the process might be, because the process to love and invest into us was uncomfortable and difficult for Jesus as well. We must therefore allow the cross of Jesus to function as our daily application of our identities as followers of Jesus.