This past week I was invited to attend a conversation and action meeting with local clergy. I was not looking forward to the meeting. In fact, I almost did not go to the meeting. We were going to be talking about a controversial topic, and based on the invitation, I knew I would be on the opposing side. What I did not know was whether I would be the only voice of opposition, which made the meeting all the more scary. The thing is, I have been in those types of conversations before – where two interpretations of Holy Scripture seem diametrically opposed, and one or both parties feel so passionate about their understanding that they say really nasty, awful things to one another. The very validity of one’s faith can even be questioned.
So I began to do what we always do in those situations. First, I thought I could just send an email. Then I thought that maybe I could just not attend the meeting, and engage in oppositional advocacy instead. I even thought not going might be a valid form of protest. But the Holy Spirit, and a few good friends, had other things to say. They were not going to let me skip this meeting. And so I went, rehearsing in my head the biblical roots and theology behind my positions. I put on my New York tough exterior, bracing myself for whatever was thrown at me. And just in case, I made sure to wear my best outfit and a smile so as to throw people off their game. But my stomach was still in knots as I opened the door – full of what-ifs, worrying about consequences, and feeling extremely vulnerable.
A little over two thousand years ago, a woman – an outcast among her own people, getting water alone at midday, encounters a man at Jacob’s well. He, a Jew with sociopolitical power, asks her for water. She has a choice. She can walk away. But she engages in a conversation between unequals. At first, Jesus tells her some extraordinary things – about thirst and living water, about his own powers, about his identity. But then the conversation shifts. Jesus exposes her vulnerability to its core. Not only is this a woman with power differential, this woman is an outcast in her culture. She is a double outsider, having had five husbands and living with a man who is not her husband. Now, Jesus does not point out this reality as a way of telling her she is sinful – in fact, Jesus says nothing about sin.[i] Scholars seem to think her marital history would have nothing to do with her sinfulness either. It could have been that she was a multiple-time widow, passed down through levirate marriage, or it could be that she was barren, and multiple husbands abandoned her.[ii] We do not know. But we do know how we feel when someone exposes our deepest places of insecurity and self-doubt. And this is the woman’s second opportunity to walk away.
But she stays. I imagine she squares her shoulders, swallows a hard gulp, takes in a deep breath, and keeps talking. And so does Jesus. Ever so gently, they engage in a pretty hefty conversation, about prophesy, proper worship, the Messiah, and identity. Not bad for a Jewish male and a Samaritan woman in broad daylight, for everyone to see.
At my meeting this week, a curious thing happened. We read scripture together. We prayed together. And we talked – sharing openly about our own theologies and biblical interpretations. But also, we listened – listened for commonality, listened for God’s guidance, and listened in respectful disagreement. The conversation did not go at all how I expected. The responses were not what I expected. My own spirit was not at all in the place I expected my spirit to be in the end.
There is a lot going on in the story between Jesus and the Samaritan woman – probably enough for multiple sermons. But today, in light of my experience this week, and in light of our country’s currently political climate, I am mostly drawn to the power of conversation. Biblical scholar Karoline Lewis argues, “…frequently overlooked is that this interaction is a conversation. Jesus suggests that conversation matters for theology. That conversation is essential for faith.” She goes on to say, “The church can be the place that shows society what theological conversation can sound like. The church can be the place that demonstrates how dialogue about faith and the Bible might result in religious respect and tolerance.”[iii]
So how do we do that? Lewis proposes a method based on the interaction between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. She gleans five key elements of holy conversation. First, holy conversations begin with mutual vulnerability. Jesus is thirsty, and the Samaritan woman needs the living water he provides. Truthful conversations begin with reciprocal vulnerability because that is at the heart of God. Second, questions are critical to holy conversations. Of course, these cannot be questions for which we already have answers – these are true, curious questions. The woman’s questions lead Jesus to reveal his identity. God wants us to ask questions because they strengthen relationship. Third, holy conversations involving intentional, genuine interest in the other take time. The sheer length of the gospel text today tells you that this was not a quick conversation on the way to coffee hour. But over the course of the long conversation, misunderstandings are clarified, lives reformed, and God’s abundant love is revealed. Fourth, when we are talking about conversations with Jesus, be prepared to be surprised. The woman at the well receives the first I AM statement in John’s gospel – Jesus reveals himself not to an insider, but to an outsider! Finally, expect to be changed in holy conversations. As Lewis says, “The woman at the well goes from shamed to witness. From dismissed to disciple. From alone to being a sheep of Jesus’ own fold.”[iv] So holy conversations involve mutual vulnerability, questions, time, surprise, and change.
This week, no one gathered changed their minds on the presenting issue. I doubt we ever will. But something else did happen. Through our conversation, something holy emerged. Two groups, opposed to each other, were able to stay in the room, were able to articulate their own theologies, and were able to see Christ in the other. What I took from that meeting was that maybe, just maybe, there is hope for us after all. Maybe the church can do what the church has needed to do for some time – model what holy, Christ-like conversations look like for the good of the community. Now, that does not mean holy conversations are easy. Though I stayed in my seat, there were certainly times I wanted to get up and leave. Though they were subtle, there were several clear digs at my ability to interpret scripture and the will of God. There were several arguments that I disagreed with and had to bite my tongue to maintain the openness of the conversation. But as I left the meeting, I knew something holy had happened. Glimpses of the kingdom of God were breaking into that room.
Our invitation this week is to look around our own lives and examine where we have been avoiding holy conversations: those times when we have run when someone pointed out the brokenness of our lives; when we have made quick judgments and assumptions about others without ever taking the time to ask the curious questions; when we have cut off opportunities for connection without remembering the surprise and change at the end. The promises are tremendous. Look at the healing the woman at the well receives – not just the lifting of societal shaming, but a position of power as a witness and disciple of Christ. Look at the affirmation the woman receives – not only does Jesus validate her through an engaging, respectful conversation, the whole town responds to her without question. Look at how the commitment to stay in the conversation leads the woman to a place of deep transformation and change. But also look at how Jesus is changed too – he finds a surprisingly worthy partner in ministry, to whom he can confess his deepest identity. I am not saying holy conversations will ever be easy. In fact, sometimes the rejection we experience from attempts at those conversations will linger for a long time. But when we keep putting ourselves out there, keep listening for those opportunities for holy conversation, the rewards are tremendously life giving. The well is waiting for you! Amen.
[i] Karoline Lewis, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 95.
[ii] Osvaldo Vena, “Commentary on John 4:5-42” March 19, 2017, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3189 on March 16, 2017.
[iii] Karoline Lewis, “Holy Conversations,” March 12, 2017, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4839#comments on March 15, 2017.
[iv]Lewis, “Holy Conversations.”