How Jesus Engages Missionally with a Dangerous Foreigner

Recent events in Bagdad, Beruit, Sinai, Bamako, Yola and Kano (Nigeria), Paris and other locations have challenged the ambiguous agreement Christians have with the word “missional.” How do we engage others missionally if the other is seen to be a danger and a threat? What imagination do we possess for ministry with people who have the potential of being “unsafe” (i.e. Syrian refugees)? If mission will cost us our safety, security, and comfort, how do we count the cost and engage wisely?

“Being on mission with God” in the 2010’s is what seeker sensitive was in the 1980’s, contemporary praise and worship was in the 1990’s and emergent church was to the early 2000’s. Every church today wants to be associated with the word “missional.”

But like the word “natural” on almost every food item at the grocery store (“Natural Beef” and “Natural Cheetos” prompt more questions than answers for me), the word “missional” means everything and nothing all at once. It’s become a vacuous brand; an emblem that signifies biblical Christianity without much substance. 

Unless we have the wisdom and imagination for what missional lives like we are left sitting around bobbing our heads up and down at the idea of mission without any actual engagement or practice.

Our appetite for missional outpaces our imagination for how to actually live on mission.  Our appetite for missional outpaces our imagination for how to actually live on mission. Click To Tweet

On Mission With Jesus

Jesus made it a practice to frequent dangerous places with unsafe people. I suggest he may help us recover the postures and practices necessary for discerning God’s mission in our contemporary context.

The love of God in Jesus Christ didn’t faint at the threat of dangerous and unsafe people. Jesus himself was considered an uneducated bastard and a refugee from ‘the projects’. Nobody saw him coming because he came from the place of “nobodies”. He was a dangerous, unsafe threat to the established order.

 And so Jesus didn’t flinch to invite a Zealot and tax collector both into his inner circle (elder boards have always had personality conflicts), eat and drink with sinners, or interact with women publicly one-on-one. His position as a person on the margins of his society contributed to his freedom to love because he wasn’t protecting his own safety, security and  comfort. 

Let’s take a closer look at his missional hospitality in his interaction with the Samaritan woman in John 4.

The Hospitality of Jesus Sees and Submits to the One His Culture Considers Dangerous

Jesus Sees Her

Notice Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. Look at the safe, accepted boundaries he crossed to engage her in conversation:

  1. Jewish men did not initiate conversations with women. Period. Men spoke with men, women with women. (Gender)
  2. Samaritans and Jews weren’t exactly besties. In fact, there were open and active hostilities between them. Jews spoke with Jews, Samaritans with Samaritans. (Geo-Political-Religious)
  3. Jesus- as a honorable and famous Jewish teacher- should not shame himself with talking to a woman with questionable character. Honorable spoke to honorable; shameful to shameful. (Social)
  4. This is high level theology talk here; in context, the Samaritan woman has more Q&A around theology than the Pharisee, Nicodemus, from John 3. This is unheard of: Orthodox Jewish theology would would be discussed with other educated orthodox Jewish theologians (like Nicodemus); uneducated heterodox Samaritans would talk with other uneducated heterodox Samaritans. (Theological)

Jesus, who was considered uneducated, with questionable bloodlines, and from the “wrong place,” transgresses and transcends the accepted gender, geo-political-religious, social, and theological barriers to initiate a conversation with the Samaritan woman.

And that’s just from a first-century Jewish perspective. Let’s look at this interaction from a 21st Century Evangelical point of view. It doesn’t take The Billy Graham Rule to know this is a scandalous interaction. The Samaritan woman is a threat to Jesus’ integrity, unsafe for one who wouldn’t want “even a hint of sexual immorality” to be associated with him, dangerous to the reputation of a leader who should be “above reproach.” He’s alone, with a woman of questionable theology and character, who could be characterized as a hostile “enemy of the state.”

Does he “bounce his eyes” from this temptation?

Does he ignore her, occupying himself with a Bible scroll or fighter memory verse?

No: He sees her. Not as a threat, obstacle, stumbling block, enemy, or temptation. But as a person.

The hospitable mission of God in Jesus sees the image of God where others see sin, danger, shame, and threat.

He engages a dangerous, unsafe foreigner by acknowledging her existence- not as an inferior, marginalized, threatening object of temptation or contempt- but as a human, created in the image of God, who has worth, dignity, and the capability to help God-in-the-flesh.

Jesus sees this woman not for the scapegoat his culture says she is, but for the image bearer he’s created her to be.

Jesus Submits to Her

According to biblical scholars, water wells in the Ancient Near East did not have buckets that remained at the well. 21st Century imaginations think of a stone well, with a small canopy over the opening and a wooden rod to which a bucket is tied on a rope. The bucket is lowered and raised by a hand crank.

But not so in Jesus’ day. Each person brought their own bucket, usually made of leather, that they unrolled. Two wooden rods would be inserted in an “X” shape across the top of the leather pouch to  fashion a “bucket.” It would then be lowered down by rope, and after the water procured, rolled back up and stored for the journey home.

The text in John 4 tells us that Jesus was traveling from Judea to Galilee with his disciples, and the most direct route took one through Samaria. This was about a 2.5 day journey, 70 miles or so, and they stopped in the heat of the day at noon (v.6).

Here’s the piece of cultural information we often miss when reading this story: Jesus and his companions would have carried their own water bucket with them on their journey. You can’t travel 70 miles through hot, arid land without water. And we’re told, specifically, that Jesus’ disciples had gone into Sychar to buy lunch (v.8) right after Jesus asks for a drink of water. Why that piece of info after Jesus asks for water? It’s a masterful unfolding of the narrative: Jesus intentionally sent his only water bucket into town with his disciples even though he was tired from the journey (v.6) and even though he was sitting (without shade) at high noon. The woman herself recognizes Jesus had done this (v.11).  

This is how Jesus is missional: In his weakness he submits himself to unsafe people.

This is how Jesus is missional: He sees beneath the cultural narrative to humanize “the other”. This is how Jesus is missional: He sees beneath the cultural narrative to humanize “the other”. Click To Tweet

Because Jesus himself was considered an uneducated bastard and a refugee from ‘the projects;’ because he was a nobody that no one saw coming; because he was considered dangerous and unsafe to the prevailing Power in Judaism, he was able to extend missional hospitality in love. This woman wasn’t a threat to Jesus. She was an opportunity to show dignity, honor, and love.

Seeing and Submitting Today

What can this reveal to us about our contemporary situation? Some would be right to point out the dissimilarity between Jesus and our modern context here: Jesus suffered danger to his reputation when he engaged this woman but the prevailing concern is that Christians face a much more physical danger responding to refugee’s today.

We’re dealing with wisdom here, not knowledge. We simply can’t drag and drop timeless biblical solutions onto modern problems. That’s not how Jesus applied the Old Testament to his context, nor how the early church applied Jesus’ teaching to theirs.

Easy Bible answers to complex contemporary issues are just a Google search away, but they seldom help us inhabit incarnational, wise ways of how to be, do, and become more like Jesus in our embodied witness. We can feel right about issues without being righteous in them. We can have answers to problems and have no idea how to actually love persons.

A wise, loving response to the contemporary situation of refugees and terrorists would involve wrestling with the following questions…How do we:

  1. See refugees, terrorists, etc as image bearers? How do we humanize the scapegoats? How do we not just “keep ourselves away from sin” but actually push all our chips to the center of the table and learn how to love? What narrative does Jesus give us about those who are homeless, violent, or harassed and helpless?
  2. Submit to those the mainstream culture tells us to stay away from? This is perhaps the most pressing missional question I know of today. Mainstream Western Christians are much more comfortable going with power (“Here, let me help you/teach you/show you/build for you”), or outsourcing missional concerns to our military (“The drones/marines/air strikes will take care of it”) than we are going in weakness (“Will you give me a drink?”). To be on mission like Jesus involves a radical hospitality of submission to those we seek to save. What does submission look like today?

How do we see and submit like Jesus in our contemporary situation? As persons in our neighborhoods, churches who engage locally for the good of our city, and universally as the Body united?