Racially-motivated shootings. The legalization of same-sex marriages. The fear of Islam encroaching on our religious and personal freedoms. A sixteen-month-long presidential election cycle that will divide the nation into two broad camps.
We have many reasons to distance ourselves from other people, reasons which have had a lot of air time in recent days.
But from a Christian perspective – and from my inherited perspective of white, male privilege – I wonder what our response to these things should be. If you are involved in social media at all, you have likely seen more than enough responses to any or all of these topics in the past week or so. Many of these have been so angry and dismissive that it grieves my heart.
Let me offer an alternative response: the example of Jesus in John 4.
This story, in which Jesus meets a Samaritan woman, powerfully displays a relationship crossing racial, social, and gender lines. Jesus takes the initiative to speak to this unnamed woman and to call her to greater faithfulness and righteousness. Many people in her community come to believe in Jesus as the Messiah as a result of their interaction. It’s a story of overcoming boundaries that divide us, and it’s a story of the universal love Jesus has for all people.
But something happens at the beginning of the story that we might easily miss. It’s so subtle that the author of the gospel doesn’t even include the detail. Can you see it?
Jesus is alone and tired from his journey. He sits down beside a famous well in the heat of the day. And he has no way to get a drink of water for himself. What happens?
The Samaritan woman has everything going against her. Her ethnicity puts her at a disadvantage in broader Jewish society. Her gender puts her in a lower station than those who hold power in her world. Her marital status – divorced five times, living with a sixth man – causes her to seem to be of rather questionable character. Her name is even lost to the sands of time; such was her value in the memory of the early church. Yet she gives Jesus a drink of water.
Sure, that detail isn’t explicitly in the text of John 4. But I can imagine Jesus swallowing his first drink of water in hours just before speaking the words in verse 13. This unnamed, immoral Samaritan woman provided something for Jesus which he was unable to provide for himself.
If anyone in history has had the ability to claim a position of privilege and power in relationships, it’s Jesus. Yet he relies on – he needs – this woman to help him with something as simple as getting a drink of water.
We have plenty of reasons to distance ourselves from those with whom we disagree, those “Samaritans” of our day. Again, writing from a position of white, male, Christian privilege, modern categories of “Samaritans” might include African Americans, Hispanics, homosexuals, Muslims, atheists, teachers of evolution – all sorts of people who (some believe) are threatening our way of life and our power in society.
The reality of the situation is that I, as a white, male, Christian American, do not have to face any of the social obstacles that an immoral Samaritan woman would have faced in the first century – let alone those obstacles faced by people in less privileged positions today.
Jesus was exhausted and alone, and he depended on a Samaritan woman to meet a most basic need.
What if we learned to respond differently to people who are unlike us? What if we realized our need for what “those people” can contribute? What if we actually need “them”? What if the entry point for our expression of Jesus’s love is asking one of “them” for a drink of water and receiving it with grace and gratitude?
How would such an experience change our interpretation of racially-motivated shootings in our cities, same-sex marriages in our nation, or Muslims moving into our neighborhood?
Could it make us more like Jesus?