The emerging generation ("Millenials") has a much more inclusive approach to friendships and doctrine than their elders in the typical evangelical church. The Barna Group's research has identified exclusivity as one of the top 6 reasons that young people leave evangelical churches. So last Wednesday Linda and I talked about acceptance and exclusivity with some of our church's college-age members in our weekly "What in the World is God Doing?" Bible study.
We studied Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman, found in the fourth chapter of John. First, some background: the Samaritans claimed to be the true followers of Abraham, but they also incorporated some elements of pagan practices into their monotheism. This syncretism angered the Jews, who rejected the Samaritans' truth claims on the basis of their own possession of and adherence to the unadulterated Scriptures. Jews would go out of their way to avoid having any personal encounters with Samaritans, even adjusting their travel plans to avoid meeting any.
How does this relate to us? The evangelical fervor for "traditional values" and "America's Christian roots" often mirrors the Jews' feelings about the Samaritan assault on the truth. We may not cross the street to avoid meeting an openly gay person, but we may harbor an inward hostility toward the gay community. So the way Jesus dealt with the Samaritan woman can guide us in our relationships with "outsiders." Let's take a look at our Lord's way.
Jesus Treated the Samaritan Woman as a Friend
The fact that he was chatting with a Samaritan woman astonished his disciples (v. 27), both as a result of her ethnicity and of her gender. Maybe we evangelicals should astonish the folks around us by hanging out with LGBT friends once in a while.
Jesus Did Not Denounce, He Asked Questions
Jesus did not agree with everything the woman said. However, he did not denounce her, her behavior, or her beliefs. Instead, he asked questions. He started by asking for a drink, which lowered the barrier of mistrust and, at the same time, allowed him to slip in an insight about spiritual life ("Whoever drinks the water I give ... will never thirst"). Then he posed an incisive question ("Where is your husband?") that helped her to see her need for God's help.
Jesus Set Aside the Minor Issues
Once the woman realized that she was talking to a teacher who could answer her questions, she wanted to find out where he stood on the number one issue Samaritans and Jews argued over:
"Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem."
But Jesus refused to get dragged into this controversy:
"Believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem."
In heaven, Jesus explained, we will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth, so where we worship now is not the critical issue. I believe Jesus would have a similar outlook on many of today's burning issues. In the perspective of heaven, your stance on gun control is peripheral (we won't own guns in heaven); likewise your view on how to interpret the Constitution (we will be in perfect submission to our heavenly King), on tax policy (we won't be paying taxes in heaven), etc.
Jesus Focused on Relationship and Hope
Once Jesus had developed a rapport with the woman, he didn't back down from speaking the truth ("salvation is from the Jews"). However, he emphasized that God earnestly desired a relationship in Spirit and in truth with her:
"A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks."
And he presented himself as the fulfillment of the hope of her religion:
The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
We should have the same focus as Jesus. We must help our friends--liberal or conservative, LGBT or straight, Muslim or Jew, Mormon or Hindu--know that the hopes they harbor are fulfilled in Christ. Let's help them feel our acceptance, sidestep the peripheral issues, and have a life-changing encounter with Jesus. If we are patient and accepting, they can begin the journey of faith; and we can trust that our Savior will not neglect to lead them and transform them in His time and in His way.