Dear Discipleship-first Friends,
We are asking a few disciple making leaders to describe how they disciple people on race.
Ben Barnett is a lead pastor of Bridge Pointe Church in Atlanta.
I just completed my doctoral thesis entitled “Breaking the Silence: Courageous Conversations about Race and Reconciliation in the Local Church.” A primary part of my research entailed a series of conversations with a group of adult black and white disciples, of varying ages, that sat down for a series of conversations on race.
These conversations, and others, which focus on racial concerns bring many to this simple question: What do I do? For a disciple of Jesus, this is the perfect question.
Lately, I have found myself responding with appropriate biblical texts about Early Church practices (Acts 6:1–7), reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:16–22), diversity in the body of Christ (Col. 3:11), heavenly vision (Rev. 7:9), and being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry (James 1:19).
These are all great texts, but they do not teach Jesus’ worldview on race. For this we must look at the Gospels, and in particular, we must look at the conversation that Jesus had with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). This entire discourse is helpful for our current racial climate.
Race, Racism, and Reconciliation in Ancient History
Let’s begin our exploration of John 4 with some background. Historically, the Jewish people and the Samaritans hated one another. The nation of Israel was divided into two nations, ten tribes in the north known as Israel and two tribes in the south, known as Judah. In 722 B.C., Assyria conquered Israel and took the northern tribes into captivity. Gentiles from other areas intermingled in that same region and intermarried with the Jews who had been left behind.
Over time, the mixture of Jew and Gentile persons became known as the Samaritans, or as the Jews would refer to them, “dogs” or “half-breeds.” Later, the southern kingdom of Judah fell to Babylon in 600 B.C. These exiles were carried off into captivity. Seventy years later, a remnant of over 40,000 exiles was permitted to return and rebuild Jerusalem. The Samaritans, who inhabited the former northern kingdom, relentlessly opposed the repatriation of the returning exiles and worked diligently to undermine their attempts to reestablish the nation. Full-blooded Jews detested the mixed marriages and worship of the Samaritans. As a result, a dividing wall of hatred and bitterness were erected on both sides and would endure for the next 500 years. As Americans, we share a similar racial history.
The divide between black and white people goes back well over 400 years for us. Alongside our study of the Bible, we must also become students of history, especially from the Pilgrims to the Civil War, from Civil War to Civil Rights, and Civil Rights to Post-Racial America. Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well was a conversation guided by historical facts and geographical location.
Geographical context is important to this story. The region of this time consisted of three distinct locations. Judea was located in southern Israel, and Galilee was located in the north. In between Judea and Galilee was Samaria, home to the Samaritans. Most Jews of Jesus’ day would deliberately walk around Samaria to avoid encountering Samaritans. Jews and Samaritans did not live in the same areas, eat together, nor would they have taken time to have a conversation with one another. Can you imagine one group of people going out of their way to avoid crossing paths with another group of people?
Now that you have some background, let me offer three ways Jesus intersected and reshaped the worldviews of the Jew-Samaritan relationship, which offers a model for our current context.
1. Jesus initiated cross-racial relationships
John 4:1–4 (NRSV)
1 Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John” 2 —although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized— 3 he left Judea and started back to Galilee. 4 But he had to go through Samaria.
The text says that Jesus had to go through Samaria. Why? The simple answer is that Jesus sought to intentionally engage in a courageous conversation with the Samaritan woman. He had to go through Samaria because this was the right thing to do. It just made sense. Travel through Samaria, albeit uncomfortable as a Jewish man, was the shortest and most effective route.
Too often, racism in America persists simply because too many people go out of their way to avoid engaging people that do not look and think like them. While the Church may critique the world, it still resembles archaic racial separation. According to Emerson and Smith, Dr. King once said, “It’s appalling that the most segregated Christian America is 11 a.m. on Sunday morning.”
Jesus had no intention of doing what all other Jews were doing. As disciples of Jesus, we must follow his example by having a courageous conversation with our neighbors and coworkers of another race. Perhaps, this is an opportune time to visit the black church or a white church around the corner.
2. Jesus engaged in courageous conversations
John 4:8–9 (NRSV)
8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)
Courageous conversations require a reckoning of truth by taking a deep dive into the beliefs that shape our behaviors. The Samaritan woman was trying to keep the conversation about water while Jesus was trying to redeem the family narrative that had been shaping her life. In this courageous conversation, Jesus confronted the truth about her relationships:
16Jesus said to her,“Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” John 4:16–18 (NRSV)
The Samaritan woman then attempted to shift the conversation to places of worship by stating that her ancestors worshipped on one mountain and Jews worship somewhere else. Jesus immediately pushes back by informing her that the Samaritans got it wrong, and the Jews got it right.
A simple reading of this text demonstrates that this conversation was not the shallow conversations we often have when talking about racial issues. Again, Jesus offers us, his disciples, a model for courageously talking with others about the complex, emotionally-laden discourse on race. Paul calls this kind of dialogue speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).
My research revealed that courageous conversations are best encountered on the smallest level if possible. For example, Jesus is having a one-on-one conversation with the Samaritan woman. Her people are not around, and his followers are off buying food. Find a friend, coworker, neighbor, or even a stranger and try to have an honest conversation about what is going in our country. Simply begin the conversation like Jesus: “Can we grab a cup of coffee?” Bear in mind that the beginning conversation is just the tip of the iceberg or what we might call small talk.
We witness behaviors. This is the stuff we usually talk about. But where do these behaviors come from? All are undergirded with structures, beliefs, values, traditions, and worldviews. The Scriptures teach, “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but a person of understanding can draw them out” (Proverbs 20:5). Like Jesus with the Samaritan woman, we should make it our goal to take a deep dive with others, asking questions, being curious, listening to people’s life experiences, thoughts, reflections, interactions, and family of origin histories. Only then can real talk take place.
3. Jesus shows us the way to reconciliation
John 4:34–35 (NRSV)
34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35 Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.”
This story begins with two persons who are not supposed to be talking to one another and ends with a town of Samaritans becoming believers and confessing Jesus as Savior of the world (John 4:42). When the disciples return from finding food, Jesus is talking with the Samaritan woman as the town is walking towards them. Can you imagine the look on the disciple’s faces? Jesus tells his disciples (my paraphrase): “Stop making excuses and start making disciples of all nations. Get to work, just like I have been doing while you were gone finding food.”
Recent events like the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, along with the weaponization of whiteness by Amanda Cooper have served as a tipping point for racial discourse in America. The country has been reminded that the stronghold of race in America is yet to be transformed. Consider that our nation’s racial discourse is compounded by the fact people are getting sick and dying as we navigate our way through a global pandemic. These alone are reason enough for despair and apathy. Yet, there is good news. Silence is being broken, and people are having courageous conversations about race and reconciliation on all levels. However, Jesus demonstrates that reconciliation is most effective on an individual level. This is where I am trying to follow Jesus.
The global pandemic has forced me into my home, which has inadvertently revealed an opportunity. One day during my social distancing, I walked out of my front door and stood on the porch. This is something I do every morning. However, this day was different. I had just meditated on Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman and his disciples. I heard Jesus’ words, “Open your eyes and look at the fields, they are ripe for harvest.” Suddenly, I saw my neighbors standing on their front porches and taking walks through our neighborhood. It hit me. God wanted me to begin changing the world right where I lived by intentionally engaging in conversations with my neighbors.
What if we begin to look at this global pandemic and racial discourse with eyes of faith? At a minimum, we are likely to see that Jesus is hard at work, and we simply get to enjoy being beneficiaries as his disciples. The call to open our eyes may just reveal opportunities for miracles.