Appointment with a Stranger: part two

In my last post, we saw Jesus making a point to travel through Samaria (even though “good” Jews of the time went to great lengths to avoid doing so). Jesus stopped by a well to get a drink and met a woman who came to the well alone, at the hottest part of the day.

Jesus asked her for a drink of water.

The woman pointed out all of the cultural reasons why he should not be asking her for anything.

We left Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well, we saw that Jesus was going out of his way, going beyond cultural expectations and barriers, because he wanted to know this woman. Because he had a purpose for her.

Notice that Jesus is humbling himself in this situation. He is placing himself in a position of dependence: “Will you give me a drink?” he asks.

She answers by reminding him that he is not supposed to talk to her. He is supposed to be maintaining a distance from her, a Samaritan woman, since he is a Jewish religious teacher.

So Jesus offered to give her living water. He said, “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.”

She points out that he had nothing to draw from the well with, and it was deep. She brings up a well-known ethnic argument between their two people groups: Our ancestor, Jacob, built this well–are you greater than he?

He is offering spiritual life, she counters with an earthly reality: deep well, his lack of a bucket . . . and then follows with an ethnic /religious / personal jab.

Jesus persists: If you drink from this well, you will be thirsty again (you will have to keep coming back here, day after day), but I can give you living water–it will become a spring of living water that will well up into eternal life.

She bites: Give me this water so that I won’t have to keep coming here (alone, in the heat of the day) to draw water.

And now that she is beginning to reveal her need, Jesus digs a little deeper: “Go, call your husband and come back.”

The Scripture immediately gives us her reply, “I have no husband.” But I wonder, was there a pause? Did she drop her eyes?

At this point I imagine that Jesus lowers his voice, his goal is not to humiliate the woman, but to bring her to a place of honesty:

“You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you have now is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

And there it is. This is the reason she comes to the well alone. She has had five husbands, and the man she is with now is not her husband. The other women of her community want nothing to do with her. Jesus reveals her truth.

We’ll come back to her story, one last time. But I want you to see that Jesus comes with gentleness and humility–and that his goal is to help her identify her need. In the final section of this story, Jesus will radically transform her life.

Appointment with a Stranger: part one

One of my favorite stories in Scripture is that of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. I’ve heard it (and taught it) many times, and I never get tired of it.

It begins with Jesus deciding to return from Judea to Galilee. The text in John includes a simple, but stunning sentence: “Now he had to go through Samaria” (John 4:4). And here a little geography helps:

Jesus had to travel from Judea to Galilee. The most direct route would be through Samaria, but Jews avoided traveling through Samaria at all costs. They actually went out of their way by crossing over the River Jordan and traveling through the mountains in order to avoid the people of Samaria.

This brings us to a brief lesson on the religious culture of Jesus’ day. The Samaritans shared a lot of their history with the Jewish people, but their part of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BC, and their people were exiled. When these particular people returned to their land they found it inhabited by non-Jewish Canaanites. The Samaritans intermarried with the Canaanites and adopted their religious practices. This infuriated the rest of the Jewish nation. By the time we get to Jesus’ day, the Jewish people had already despised the Samaritans for generations. They considered them to be apostate. This was racism disguised as religious disapproval.

Jesus had to go through Samaria the Bible tells us.

He certainly didn’t have to go through Samaria, and most “good” Jews of the day would go to great lengths to avoid it, but Jesus had to go there. He had an appointment with a stranger.

Jesus was tired and he sat down by the well to rest around noon. The disciples went into the village to buy some food–I think about that sometimes–I have a feeling the disciples weren’t super excited about going to a Samaritan village to buy food. Would there be any Samaritan food they could eat? Is this stuff kosher?

Anyway, a woman arrives at the well–alone–to draw water.

A couple of warning bells here: first of all, in this culture, women usually came to get their water in the cool of the morning, before their day got going . . . and it was a group event. Women usually came together. This woman came alone . . . at the hottest part of the day. She is alone. And she is lonely.

Jesus asked her for a drink of water.

The Samaritan woman began pointing out all of the cultural reasons why he should not be asking her for anything. But Jesus wasn’t looking for water, he was looking for a connection.

We’ll come back to this story, but for now I want you to see Jesus going out of his way, going beyond cultural expectations and barriers, because he wanted to know this one Samaritan woman. He had a purpose for her.

A Tale of Two Appointments: Part Two

In my last post, I told you the story of an appointment I had with a mom that had recently encountered God for the first time. She was so full of joy and excitement–and I loved spending time with her because her enthusiasm was contagious.

 

Later that same day I had another appointment:

 

For lunch, I met another mom whose daughter had been coming to Young Life for several years. I didn’t know what she wanted to talk about, but I figured this would be an easy meeting because she was a believer. I started by telling her the story of my coffee date. I thought she would be encouraged and thrilled to hear this story of this baby believer. Instead, she seemed distracted.

 

The reason she wanted to meet me was to ask me to prevent another kid from coming to our meetings.

 

“His family situation isn’t the best,” she said. “I’m afraid he could be a bad influence on my daughter.”

 

I struggled with my desire to  go into Mama Bear mode.

 

I told her that Young Life exists for kids like the one she mentioned. Her daughter was a sweet girl that had grown up in church. Her daughter had more than enough positive influences in her life and every opportunity to learn about Jesus—the boy in question, did not. I was defensive. I was angry. I tried to remain calm and firmly explained that we would never turn any kid away. Period.

 

That lunch meeting ended a little awkwardly. Her daughter still came to camp with us—as did the boy I was asked to exclude. I wasn’t responsible for turning either them into believers (not really my job), but I did love them like Jesus, which was very much my job.

 

I remember thinking that she didn’t need to be afraid for her daughter. She didn’t need to try to protect her by preventing another kid from hearing about Jesus. It made me sad that her desire to protect her daughter could include the thought of excluding someone else.

 

I think about this story a lot too–particularly in contrast to the first mom I met with that day. Both moms were concerned about their children. But that concern played itself in very different ways.

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Appointments: Part One

Sometimes a series of events will stand in such sharp contrast that they will be forever paired in your memory.

The following set of stories is an example of that.

The summer I turned twenty-five I was nearing the end of my three-year staff internship with Young Life in Naperville, Illinois. One sunny, summer day I had two appointments scheduled with two different moms. The morning coffee meeting was with a mom I had never met; her freshman son was pretty new to our group and had expressed interest in coming to camp with us.

I showed up early because I was nervous. The mom had told me that she had a few questions about our organization before she was willing to sign her son up for camp. We got our coffee and chatted a bit about her son before we got down to business. I gave her my usual bit about Young Life being a great organization for kids that allowed for mentoring relationships, a positive and safe place for kids to be with their friends, and a chance to reinforce positive values based on Scripture. She looked at me across the table and asked: “But will you tell him about Jesus?”

“Yes,” I said, “we will.”

“Good,” she said, “because I’ve only just found out about him and I feel like I’ve lost a lot of time teaching my son about Jesus.” The rest of that coffee meeting was a joy. It was like finding out an acquaintance has been best friends with your best friend without you knowing it. She told me that they had moved to the area a year ago, and a friend had invited her to her first Bible study. She learned so much and was eager to learn more, so her friend suggested she read the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).

This is the best part of the story:

She told me that she went out and bought the Bible on c.d. so she could listen to it in her car while she ran errands. She listened to it for a while, starting with the gospels like her friend suggested, but after a few weeks, she took the c.d.s back to the store where she bought them. She told the salesperson, “Something is wrong with these c.d.s, it is the same story over and over.”

We laughed and laughed when she told me that story. The gospels are four different accounts of the life of Jesus. They’re all a little different, but they all share similar stories. When she listened to them in her car she though they were repeating.

I think about that lady and that story a lot. It signifies for me why I love sharing the story of Jesus with people who don’t know it.

In this first section, I want to leave you with that feeling of joy and excitement. I want you to try to imagine what fun we had sharing that moment together. Keep that in mind as you read the contrast of the next part of the story…

Epic Ministry Failure

This is a story of epic ministry failure . . . and the lessons God taught me through that failure.

Here’s the story:

It was my twenty-second birthday, and I was in a phone booth at Young Life camp, crying to my mother long distance.

I had graduated that spring from a prestigious college with a fancy degree. I told my parents that what I really wanted to do with my expensive education was to go on Young Life staff, make $12,000 a year, take on another part time job to pay my bills, and invest all of my time working with high school kids. To my shock, my parents told me they thought it was a great idea. I moved into an apartment with a couple of roommates, found a part time job, and jumped on a bus to Young Life camp with five high school girls I had never met before.

Young Life is built on the principle of relationships. The camp experience works as a sort of culmination for leaders that have spent months developing friendships with kids. My camp experience at Rockbridge had none of that. The five girls I met on the bus didn’t know me. They were tough girls to begin with—a couple of them were going because a grandparent saw it as the last best chance for them to find reform before graduation.

I spent that week trying to get to know those girls. They were not interested. I remember bouncing around in a golf cart in the woods trying to locate my girls who were skipping out on meetings. I felt like such a failure. What in the world was I doing with my life?

Which brings me to the moment where I was crying in the phone booth.

My mother reminded me of several things then and repeated them over the coming months as I struggled to find my way:

-Don’t confuse your job with that of the Holy Spirit. Your job is not to change hearts. Your job is to provide information that will allow people to make their own decision.

-Your call is to be faithful. Show up. Be consistent. Do your best. Be an example of a changed life.

-Be patient with the process.

-Trust in God’s call on your life and remember that his goal is to shape you into the person he wants you to be—anything he accomplishes through you is his business, not the result of your awesomeness.

 
That first year was a tough one. I recruited and trained leaders to serve alongside me. I went up to the high school every day, even though I hardly knew any kids. I prayed a lot. God went on to do amazing things. So many stories I could tell that hinged on things like overheard conversations and a gaggle of freshmen cheerleaders, but to get there I had to repeat those lessons I learned from that first failure.

Holy Courage

This morning I woke up with this thought: For Christians, our goal is God’s glory–not our own comfort.

God’s glory. Not comfort.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it this way in its first question and answer: 1. What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy him forever.

To put it another way: Our job as human beings is to enjoy God and give him glory; to remember that he is God and we are not. It is not God’s job to make us comfortable. His goal is to make us holy–and that’s usually an uncomfortable process. This process includes things like delayed gratification and making better (but tougher and less selfish) choices.

Glorifying God and enjoying him is a wonderful thing, and it can be pleasant, but it will be a challenge. It requires a reorienting of our priorities. Prize justice, love mercy, walk in humility with God (Micah 6:8). Love your enemies. Honor one another above yourselves. Bless those who persecute you. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not take revenge. Overcome evil with good (Romans 12:9-21). Identify with those who suffer. Examine areas where your privilege puts others at a disadvantage. Pray that your goals would align with God’s.

Take courage (holy courage), be brave, and pursue God’s glory.

Birthdays

Birthdays are great, right? It’s one day that is all about you. You get presents. You get to eat your favorite foods. You get to do fun stuff. And for what? People celebrate the fact that you made it through another year! That’s it!

I just turned forty last week. I threw myself a party, cause, c’mon, forty is kind of a big deal. But I thought about the fact that we were pretty much just celebrating my longevity. Forty years!

fire pit

We invited all of our favorite people to come and hang out in our backyard, eat grilled things, and just hang out. It was lovely. Jeff worked all summer to finish an outdoor patio and fire pit in anticipation of the celebration. He had the kids help make a giant Jenga set: cause if a game is fun regular size, it’ll be epic if you make it bigger.

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We’ve had a couple of family parties. Owen’s birthday is close to mine, so we covered all of our bases. Owen’s gifts were way more interesting than mine. He got a skateboard, laser guns, fishing gear, a Goonies dvd, and a multi-tool. I got books and a new Bible research software program (whoa, settle down there!).

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I think that birthdays are like God’s grace. You get celebrated just for being here. It’s a day of love, gifts, and special attention. Just for being you. For being here.

Nicodemus: A Study of Faith

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the story of Nicodemus. The three mentions we have of him in John’s gospel outline some of the steps in his journey of faith.

We first meet Nicodemus in John 3:1-21. Nicodemus is a Pharisee. He was a Jewish leader, charged with teaching and enforcing the religious law. But he came to talk to Jesus at night. He had questions. He had doubts. He was confused by this man who teaches with such authority. He believed that God was with Jesus. He saw the miracles that Jesus performed and he was curious to know more.

Jesus challenged Nicodemus’s categories. Nicodemus wanted to know God’s plan for the Jewish people. He wanted to know what God was going to do to end the oppression of the Roman occupation of their land. But Jesus started talking about rebirth; the need to be born of water and of the Spirit.

Nicodemus must have left this conversation a bit bewildered. What just happened there? God sent his Son into the world? What does this mean?

We meet Nicodemus again in John 7:45-52. The scene is the Temple and the Jewish leaders are in an uproar over Jesus. They had ordered the temple guards to arrest Jesus, but the guards were so impressed with Jesus’s teaching that they returned empty handed. The Pharisees were furious.

Nicodemus timidly points out that their law does not condemn anyone without first giving them a hearing. This added fuel to the fury of the other Pharisees who vent their anger on Nicodemus: “Are you siding with this man from Galilee?” (Remember Nathanael’s snide remarks about Jesus’s hometown?)

We get the sense that Nicodemus is taking a tiny step of faith toward Jesus. Maybe he is wondering why the Pharisees are in such an uproar about this man who teaches so differently from anything he’s ever heard. Why is the religious leadership so angry with Jesus?

John’s gospel gives us one more glimpse of Nicodemus in John 19:38-42. Jesus is dead. Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy Pharisee (and secret follower of Jesus), requests to bury the body of Jesus. Nicodemus comes along and brings seventy-five pounds of burial spices to anoint Jesus’s body. These two powerful men perform the lowly and ritually unclean task of preparing a criminal’s body for burial. Jesus, an enemy of the state, was buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s own grave. They buried him in haste because the sun was setting, which marked the beginning of Sabbath–when no work could be done.

In secret and in haste, these two religious leaders gave honor to Jesus’s body. They risked so much by being involved. Why did they do it? Jesus was dead. What thoughts were going through their minds as they worked? Sorrow? Hope? We don’t know. These three stories are all we know of Nicodemus.

I believe we are meant to see a progression of Nicodemus’s faith in these three stories from John’s gospel.

Faith is a journey, some of our steps are bold, some of them are timid. The point is to keep moving toward Jesus.

Come and See, Part Two: You’re From Where?

In my last post, I told you a story about a relative I didn’t know I had and talked about how pre-conceived ideas can get in the way of us forming valuable relationships.

At the end of the first chapter of the gospel of John, Jesus is gathering students who will travel with him and learn from him during his ministry.

In the Jewish culture of the day, it would be considered a high honor to be chosen by a famous rabbi for further biblical study. All Jewish boys went through extensive religious education classes until they achieved adulthood at the age of thirteen. Students that demonstrated particular promise (and whose parents could afford more education) might be chosen for more thorough teaching and would “apprentice” themselves to a rabbi. Those who were not honored with rabbinical training would learn a trade, usually taking on the family business.

When Jesus chose his first disciples, he chose religious school rejects. Jesus’s disciples were an interesting band of people: several fishermen, a tax collector, and a few nationalists with radical tendencies. Most of them were from small towns in rural regions. None of them were particularly notable.

In John 1:43-51, Philip, who has already decided to follow Jesus, finds his friend Nathanael and excitedly tells him:

“We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote–Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45).

Philip is using proper Jewish terminology to tell Nathanael that he believes this Jesus of Nazareth might be the Messiah! The long-awaited savior of his people.

Listen to Nathanael’s response:

“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46).

You can almost hear the sneer in Nathanael’s response. At the time, Nazareth was a bit of a backwater. It was a poor, rural town in a poor, rural region. Nothing ever happened in Nazareth. Why on earth would the Messiah come from there?

Listen to Philip’s response (I totally love this): “Come and see.”

Come and see.

He doesn’t try to argue with Nathanael. He doesn’t give him five points on why Jesus is the Messiah. He doesn’t attack Nathanael for his doubts or even his belittling demeanor. He just offers an invitation.

Come and see.

Within minutes of meeting Jesus, Nathanael realizes that his pre-conceived ideas were way off base. Something happens in their dialogue that convinces him that Jesus knows him better than anyone else ever could and he goes on to declare that Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah, the Son of God (see John 1:47-51).

We aren’t privileged to know just what it is that convinces Nathanael that Jesus knows him thru and thru. We are just told that Nathanael recognizes something in Jesus that he’s never seen before, but now he knows that he desperately needs it. And that is enough.

We don’t need to get all tangled up defending Jesus, explaining Jesus, or attacking people because they don’t value Jesus. We just need to live inviting lives that say: come and see.

Come and See, Part One: A Long Lost Relative

Meeting people can be awkward. In the early stages of getting to know someone there is an evaluation process that takes place. Maybe it’s subconscious, but we tend to measure people against other experiences we’ve had, our prejudices, our stereotypes, etc. Hopefully, we are also a bit open to the new person in front of us allowing them to chart their own new course.

I was a legacy student at my college, meaning I was a second generation student from the same family to attend. My dad was one of seven kids, most of whom attended Wheaton College. Most of my aunts and uncles met their spouses there. So it was not uncommon for there to be more than one of my cousins attending Wheaton at the same time. During my own time at Wheaton, my sister and I overlapped for a bit and then my cousin, Shannon, and I were there together for part of the time.

I worked at the snack shop in the student center while in college. One day, I was working with a buddy of mine that mentioned he’d had lunch with my cousin the day before.

“Oh,” I said, “you know Shannon!”

“No,” he said, “I had lunch with Joe.”

My brain began whirling. Did I have a cousin named Joe? Keep in mind that my dad was one of seven kids–I had a lot of cousins. I couldn’t think of anyone named Joe. I’m sure my work buddy thought I was nuts that I didn’t even know my own cousin.

My work buddy shrugged and said, “Well, he says he’s your cousin.”

It bothered me all day.

I remembered that my work buddy grew up in Maryland. That narrowed things down a bit. Then I remembered that I did have an aunt in Maryland. I didn’t know her very well. I’d only met her a few times because she had somewhat distanced herself from the rest of the family. I knew that she had several kids. She might have a Joe. I got out my student directory.

“Joe T.”

There it was. From Maryland. Huh. How about that.

I called his number and left a message on his voicemail that went something like this:

“Uh, Joe? This is your cousin, Laura. At least I think we’re cousins cause you’re telling people we are…um, maybe we should get lunch sometime and talk.”

Joe and I got together for lunch and talked. It was already pretty late in the semester, I asked him why he hadn’t contacted me earlier since he obviously knew I was on campus. He told me that he wasn’t sure I’d want to know him. He said that he knew there had been some sort of rift between his parents and all our aunts and uncles. I told him that I didn’t know any details and I didn’t know why we couldn’t be friends. He really wanted to reconnect with our side of the family and I’m happy to say that he did.

Prejudices, pre-judgments, and stereotypes can get in the way of forming relationships. They can prevent us from allowing people to show us who they really are.