3rd in Lent (3/19): “Lenten Disciplines: Encountering Strangers”

Romans 5:1-11 ; John 4:5-42

Today I’ll talk about how we encounter strangers, and the Lenten Disciplines card in your bulletin gives you some guidelines (you are free to depart from them) to practice intentional care in how you interact with strangers. I’m not interested today in talking about governmental policies toward strangers, although immigrants and refugees currently dominate our news and are a central and political issue worldwide. I certainly could talk about that. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that the Bible provides virtually no grounds for a tough and unyielding policy toward strangers (let me know if I’m missing something); the Bible consistently advocates for hospitality and justice for the stranger (variously translated as the sojourner, the alien, the foreigner). There may be good reasons for getting tough on immigrants and refugees, but the Bible provides none. (And indeed, no Christian advocacy groups I know of, including right-wing evangelical ones, advocate unwelcoming policies towards immigrants and refugees.)

I could say much more about all that, but I am not going to today. We’re focusing on personal, daily practices of repentance. So I want to talk about the quality of our encounters with strangers every day. It’s an amazing thing that we brush by so many total strangers every day—some of us at least. There is so much humanity swirling all around us. And yet we mostly tune it out; we mostly ignore their humanity.

In college I was greatly taken with the thought of Martin Buber, a famous Jewish writer about 100 years ago, who wrote about the importance of authentic encounters with others, which he put in terms of genuinely speaking as an I to a you. We have a terrible tendency to turn each other into an It, Buber feared. We protect ourselves from the uncanniness of encounter by trying to treat everything, even people, as objects that don’t touch my I. Really addressing and encountering someone is difficult; it requires speaking with one’s “whole being,” says Buber. He thought the realm of honest, unguarded encounter with others to be sacred, and it is where Buber felt God’s presence. Do you encounter strangers with your whole being? What percent of your whole being do you put at stake in your encounters? I think this question is important for practicing a Christian love toward the stranger, and for making sense of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman.

Buber’s call for authentic encounter stands in a modest contrast with our dominant, inoffensive secular model of treating strangers: we believe in generally being respectful, polite, “nice,” and kind. One can do much worse than the secular model, but it is not yet the fullness of Christian love. (And it doesn’t fit how Jesus treats the Samarian woman, but more on that later.) Our secular model starts from recognizing that everyone has rights, everyone is equal under the law, and moreover that no one can judge right and wrong for anyone but himself. Each of us is the author of her own life, each of us is sovereign over how we see the world. “Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion,” so “to each his own,” we say, quoting neither the Bible nor anything-in-particular. No one has any authority over anyone else. So what we have to do is respect each other’s privacy, and never judge. (Even Planet Fitness gets that!) “I’m ok, you’re ok,” we say, and so “Live and let live,” again quoting neither the Bible nor anything-in-particular. This is the secular contract we make with each other, so that we can get along and show a minimum of respect as we interact with strangers.

Now, built into this secular contract is a relativism, that is, a recognition that we cannot establish a single, shared sense of right and wrong. Those of us who are socially liberal (“live and let live” types) ought to be able to hear the concerns of our socially more conservative sisters and brothers on this. The relativism of “live and let live” is not what we find in Scripture nor what Jesus shows toward the Samaritan woman. True enough; but neither do we see grounds in the New Testament for an extreme socially conservative program of re-instituting moral absolutes and enforcing them with moralistic judgments and legal sanctions. Jesus did make judgments when he met others, although his judgments showed a god-like wisdom beyond what you and I are capable of. But contrary to the social conservative, who almost inevitably stigmatizes and deems inferior that which is unconventional, strange or foreign—that in short which is not white and not straight—Jesus usually reserves his strongest judgments for those who are the most powerful and respected—the “pillars of society” like the Pharisees and Sadducees and scribes of his day. On the other hand, Jesus reserved his greatest compassion and judgment-free welcome for those who were least respected: the tax collectors, women of dubious reputation, the morally or religiously compromised, and the country bumpkins and hicks of his day. (Remember how the Kingdom of God comes as a reversal of our present order?) Following Jesus may make us revise the way we treat strangers with a one-size-fits-all live-and-let-live attitude.

But again, that attitude is not bad. It can quote Scripture. Jesus said, “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” which, strangely enough, has been carried over into our conventional wisdom in its King James English. There is definitely something Christian about receiving people where they are, free of judgment. Paul recognizes the basis for this when he says, “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” But Jesus’ “judge not” is not a lazy and easy out from entering into a morally complex space when you meet a stranger. It is not “live and let live.” (Instead, Jesus’ word to “judge not” comes with an absolute judgment which is beyond our authority—“…lest you be judged.” It presupposes God, that is, and so cannot be marshaled to support our secular “live and let live” contract. But given the choice, I’ll take “live and let live” over the often violent and cruel imposition of standards on people who have trouble conforming, whether because of their personalities or race or tastes or their standing outside a male/female gender scheme.

“Live and let live” can become an excuse to ignore the stranger or just not take him seriously. It can be an excuse for us to not have to wrestle with being transformed by our encounters, or perhaps transforming others. But “live and let live” also can be carried out in a way that is really very loving and respectful. It can mean you just want to receive people as they are and come to understand them deeply. It can mean that you understand the complexities and difficulties surrounding any attempt to arrive at judgments about someone you don’t know well, and how often those judgments arise thoughtlessly from biases and small-mindedness. “Live and let live” can be ‘lived out’ in a genuinely Christian way. It almost depends on how you say it. [Blasé]: “Live and let live;” [with passion] “Live and let live.” It is with passion and love that God lets us live, even as that is bound up–mysteriously–with letting God’s son die.

So where does that leave us, so far? I’m saying that we can play it safe and do no harm by according strangers we meet with a friendly respectfulness. We certainly should not be judgmental to people just because they are not like us. That’s not Jesus way, generally. Rather, we should be prepared to stand up for those who are not like us, those who are socially vulnerable because they are different or strange. That is Jesus’ way, generally. But with everyone else—those roughly like us or those who are powerful and respected—we should be prepared to enter into a morally complex and uncomfortable space when we encounter a stranger. The best way I can put it is that we should take the stranger seriously. If saying “live and let live” means I am not taking this person seriously, then we easily fall into making the stranger into someone irrelevant to me and my plans, or into a tool and function of my plans. (And you’ll see on our Lenten Disciplines card that I will ask you to take seriously the humanity of people you meet in places of commerce—the check out person, the waiter, the bank teller, whomever.) Taking the stranger seriously means you expect the possibility of real transformation to happen. You might find yourself learning at the feet of someone who is wiser than you, often when you least expect it, as has happened to me several times when I have taken homeless people seriously. Or you may see in the stranger someone who needs you to break down the wall of politeness—someone who needs real love, real direction, guidance and wisdom—even someone who needs you to call him out, call him to repentance. It’s all possible, every time you really encounter a stranger. And more than likely, you’ll recognize both wisdom and the need for correction in both yourself and the stranger. That’s what I mean by a “morally complex space.” (But I won’t expect all of you to do that each time you meet a stranger this week!)

Jesus’ encounter with a stranger at a well, the Samaritan woman made famous in John’s gospel, takes place in precisely a morally complex space. The space around a well is, moreover, symbolically complex; John associates water with the grace brought by Jesus, but scholars differ on what exactly water means to John. And this is Jacob’s well, involving the complex matter of the true legacy of Israel. The person Jesus encounters is an outside and marginal person—a woman, first of all, and one with an ugly or shameful history of relationships, as we learn from Jesus. She is a Samaritan, an offshoot of the people Israel that they considered apostate and impure—the way we regard Mormons provides a very good analogy to how Israelites regarded the Samaritans. For all these reasons, it is shocking to the disciples when they find Jesus speaking with her. And we might even want to cheer as Jesus breaks down yet another unjust cultural barrier. We might want to say: “There he goes again, just like in the parable of the good Samaritan!”

But Jesus hardly treats her with compassionate grace. When she asserts the ancient Samaritan claim to legitimate worship on the mountain associated with Jacob’s well, Jesus responds by affirming right back at her the classic Jewish response: “You worship what you do not know; we [that is, we Jews] worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” Sounds like a cultural barrier left very much intact. And she does not come off as a heroic underdog. She shows no contrition of embarrassment about her adulterous relationship, not that Jesus seems to care. Throughout the complex interchange, she does show a progression in understanding, so that by the end she is considering whether Jesus could be the messiah. Still, throughout she, like many of Jesus’ interlocutors in John, keeps taking Jesus in a literal and material way, getting all hung up on literal thirst and ignoring Jesus’ amazing prediction of a worship in spirit and truth that is to come. It’s not clear that she ever comes to believe, although she is credited with instigating the faith in Jesus of some fellow Samaritans. (But then John has the new Samaritan converts deny her any real credit for their faith: “They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves.’” So there! No thanks to you, Samaritan woman.

Morally complex. That means we’re not sure what to make of this exchange—at least I am not. I admire the way Jesus reaches out to her, since he wouldn’t be expected to speak to her at all; but he doesn’t strike me as brimming over with kindness here: “Give me a drink,” he says without introductions. And then he proceeds to perplex and confuse her with opaque symbols.

We don’t like moral complexity; why would we—it makes everyone uncomfortable. That’s why we like the comfort of convention. Following manners and expected scripts alleviates us of the discomfort we feel around strangers. If Jesus had taken this easy way out, he never would have spoken with her in the first place. Likewise, we so often exchange only superficial or merely functional words with strangers we encounter. I know I do this.  I probably would have just watched the Samarian woman come and go.

On the other hand, if I had had the courage to break through all those barriers—religious, ethnic, gender—and speak with her, I think I would have been more sympathetic to her. But all this is a good reminder that following Jesus does not save us from moral complexity. We like to distill the gospel portrayal of Jesus down to some simple moral program: always show people welcome and compassion. Always show mercy and love. But Jesus defies our simplistic moral programs. He’s a complex character, especially when you consider the different portrayals of him in our four gospels. We want to resolve our moral complexity by asking (or just wearing as an emblem) “What would Jesus do?” Sometimes that question is helpful, but Jesus isn’t always there to be our role model; we’re not always supposed to imitate him. I wouldn’t be inclined or able to air that woman’s dirty relationship laundry in front of her, like Jesus did. In John’s Gospel especially, Jesus comes across as a godlike, otherworldly figure, a heavily symbolic character interacting with other characters more symbolic than real. It’s a strange book. (And I’m sorry, I just find it annoying when he says to the disciples, “I have food to eat that you don’t know about.” I picture him saying that with a Bill Clinton smirk.) But that’s fine, if Jesus is not always my role model. It’s not for me to die on a cross to reconcile all humanity to God—whatever that means. That’s where all this is going. Sometimes you just have to let Jesus do his thing.

And so I do not recommend that you imitate Jesus’ edgy conversation with the Samaritan woman when you encounter strangers this week. But at least we can say that he takes her seriously, speaks truth to her, and does not let convention and manners get in his way. I’ve given you some suggestions on the Lenten Disciplines card for trying to encounter strangers authentically both while we drive and while we shop and do commerce. Begin with what we learn from Paul: we are all reconciled to God by the gift of Christ; everyone deserves love, despite the fact that everyone has gone astray. But from there you must enter into your own morally complex space—you and the stranger.




2 thoughts on “3rd in Lent (3/19): “Lenten Disciplines: Encountering Strangers”

  1. I’m glad to have read this and sorry I missed it last Sunday. I drove my Mother to her home in Laconia NH and back that day unexpectedly. We don’t normally have this much one on one time together, but we had some interesting conversations. In particular we were discussing family members and friends and such and I specifically said to her that I find it hard sometimes not to judge before I listen. It’s truly a talent and something to really work on. In our business we encounter so many people that each interaction is an opportunity to consider their humanity first. I have had staff come to me and very upset with how a customer spoke to them in person or on the phone. It is a challenge to have us consider that someone is having a hard time in their lives and to consider that even though they conversation may seem unpleasant. Thanks for sharing this and having us consider this more.


    • Wow, Vicki, thanks for this wonderful comment. I was thinking yesterday about how to deal with unpleasant strangers. The nicest way would be, as you say, to consider what difficulties the unpleasant person might be going through. That is the compassionate, sympathetic approach. But it is possible that the person is just really nasty–a selfish misanthrope. That doesn’t change our response; we are still called to love. It might change how we pursue that love, if we find we are able to go farther in this relationship; I might be called to press this person on why he shows disregard for others, which surely is not making him any happier. Anyway, some people assume that being a Christian means you have to believe everyone deep down is good. Actually, we should assume everyone deep down is sinful, including ourselves–but also a graced creation of God and also a beloved part of God’s redemption in Christ. Rarely do we get to know someone well enough to see all these dimensions to our complex humanity. But you should not feel bad if you are not able to “just assume the best” about everyone. I’m not sure that’s what we are called to do.


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