Sunday, March 08, 2009

Catalytic Conversations

John 4:7-10, 16-29

We’ve all had life-altering conversations. John has already told you his story about how he came into the church. I want to follow up with a couple of my own, even though I’ve essentially been in the church all my life. There have been moments, nonetheless, that have helped change the course of my life. I could mention Brent Smith’s invitation to join in a bible study while in high school, or Dennis Helsabeck’s invitation to go to Twin Oaks Christian Church, but of the many conversations that helped form the direction of my life, I’d like to mention two.

The first story takes place in the summer of 1981. It was the final week of my brief tenure as a youth minister. I spent that week serving as one of three teachers at a high school church camp. At that point I didn’t really know what I would do next. I’d thought about seminary, but I wasn’t sure that I was either called to ministry or something else. That week I met Gary Railsback, the new recruiter from Northwest Christian College. Gary had just graduated from Fuller Seminary, and as a result of those conversations I realized that my lack of “success” as a youth minister didn’t preclude a call to ministry. I also decided, based on those conversations, to continue my education at Fuller, rather than at the seminary I’d been considering – one that a number of my friends were attending. That choice had major ramifications, one of which affected Cheryl’s life as well. Had I gone somewhere else, she might be married to an attorney instead of a preacher! But, it’s also possible that I might not have become a Disciple either.

The second conversation is related. Having gone to Fuller, I had to figure out where I belonged. One day, I was talking to my friend Steve Knox – the same Steve Knox, whose wife set me up with Cheryl – about the future. Cheryl and I had been attending the Covenant Church, but I wasn’t sure that was where I belonged. In the course of our conversation one day – out in front the seminary – Steve suggested that maybe I should think about being a Disciple. He knew me pretty well and he thought that Disciples might be a good fit, considering my views and my background.

Two conversations influenced the direction of my life. What conversations have defined the direction of your life? And, what conversations have you had that helped define the direction of someone else’s life? Those are the questions for today.

1. A Water Cooler Conversation that Changed a Life

Jesus’ conversation at Jacob’s Well seems very similar to the kind of conversations that happen around the water cooler. You know, the kinds of conversations that begin when we go looking to quench our physical thirst, but end up quenching another thirst along with it. That thirst may have to do with our quest for knowledge – though often water cooler conversations have more to do with gossip than useful knowledge.

In this case Jesus was heading north, back to Galilee, through Samaria. Although it was a more direct route, it took him through “enemy territory.” As the group reached Sychar Jesus got a bit thirsty and asked this woman who had come to the well for a drink. That request ended up in a theological discussion. According to John, they talked about the proper forms and places for worship. You see the Jews and the Samaritans disagreed as to the proper place for worship. Sounds familiar – arguing about the proper worship forms, places, and times! Jesus’s answer was this: It really doesn’t matter where you worship – whether it’s a cathedral or a storefront – the important thing is that you worship God in “spirit and in truth.”

That conversation about worship, of course, was a diversion. The real issue had to do with this woman’s heart and place in society. We don’t know the whole story, but apparently she had some family troubles and was living on the margins of society. Simply going to get water at high noon suggests that she was probably an outcast. And yet, Jesus took her seriously and lifted her up, so that at the end of the conversation she was a new person. Not only that, she went back to the village with a sense of confidence and purpose that allowed her to tell everyone she could find, that the Messiah had come and that he knew her heart. That was a life changing conversation that led to more life-changing conversations.

2. Crossing the Borders with Jesus

Jesus’ conversation with this woman was what Gary Nelson might call a border crossing. In his book Borderland Churches Nelson talks about being invested in God’s work in the world, an investment that requires us to break through the borders that keep us from engaging in ministry that transforms lives and communities. In this story we see Jesus not only reaching out, but crossing a border. And so, the question is: What boundaries is God calling us to cross?

As we think on this question, perhaps we should return to the conversations we had at the retreat. At that retreat we discerned that God is calling us to be an “accepting” church. The question is: What does that mean? To push farther, what does it mean to welcome someone? To respect someone, especially someone who is different from me? The very fact that Jesus talked to this woman is significant. First men didn’t talk theology with women. Second, she probably didn’t have a good reputation. And finally, she was, after all, a Samaritan. She had three strikes against her, and yet Jesus embraced her as an equal partner in this conversation.

In the coming months we need to ask the question: What are the boundaries that exist in our lives? Are they generational? Cultural? Theological? I could go on, but the point is, when we cross the borders and begin living life with others, then God can use us to help others experience God’s transforming presence.

I believe that there are many people out there in our communities who are looking for a church that would take them seriously and welcome them and their questions and concerns. We may not have all the answers, but have we not had life-changing experiences with God? Might this not be a place where people can find a sense of peace and hope?

3. We Have a Story to Tell

I’m participating in an on-line discussion about theology, church, and transformation. In the course of this conversation, theologian Philip Clayton speaks of confidence in the truth of one’s position, while at the same time being open to the other. I think that we often lack confidence in our faith. We know it works for us, but we’re not sure it would work for others, so we keep quiet. But, is that necessary? Can we enter conversations, not knowing exactly where they’ll lead, but going into them with a sense of confidence that our faith in God has something to offer someone else? In another video clip Clayton speaks of having a passion for God. Is our passion such that we would risk embarrassment to share our faith?

The old song speaks of having a story to tell to the nations. I believe that we have a story that can change lives and communities, but we must be open to the conversation if the kind of transformation John experienced and I experienced is going to happen.

I know that for many mainline Protestants the word evangelism seems odd and off-putting. It’s why Gay Reese refers to it as the “E-Word.” But it’s really a great word. It comes from the Greek word for good news. To do evangelism is to share the good news of what God is doing in our lives and in our church and in our community. We have good news to share, and there is a world waiting anxiously to have a conversation about it.

The woman Jesus met at the well left that conversation a different person. She went away full of joy and carrying with her good news that she shared without embarrassment with everyone she encountered. If we have had a conversation with God that has changed our lives, can we do any less than share in equally transforming conversations with others?

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