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Jesus’s Radical Inclusivity

On the third Sunday of each month, I will be a hosting an hour-long conversation about Values at Pilgrim Church shortly after the regular service (i.e., from 11:30am–12:30pm). This past week, we had our first such conversation: an in-depth look at John 4:1–30. The following post is a recap of that conversation. I suggest you take a minute or two to read the passage before reading the post below.

What do we mean when we use the word “values” or (perhaps even more complicated) “Christian Values”? Rather than thinking of Christian Values as a body of moral precepts that separates Christians from other groups, we should understand that moral values are more or less universal and that different traditions have different ways of teaching these values. Upon close inspection, we might find that Christian Values and Islamic Values and Hindu Values are actually the same thing. All three, for example, value justice, honesty, truth, and hospitality. When we use the phrase “Christian Values,” we should understand that we are expressing universal—i.e., common to all—values through a particularly Christian lens; we are using the stories of the Bible to help us to explain and illustrate these values.

For our first foray into this field, let’s look at John 4:1–30, the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. In this story, Jesus is left to his own devices near a well in Samaria. Eventually, a Samaritan woman approaches and Jesus strikes up a conversation with her in which we learn that Jesus is the Messiah, the woman has a disreputable sexual and marital history, and Jesus ultimately gives her exactly what she needs.

An examination of Jesus’s character in this passage, depending upon your reading, can lead to all sorts of questions that any good feminist (like me!) should be asking: What exactly does Jesus mean by calling her “woman”? Why does he command her to give him some water? Why does he call out the fact that she’s had five husbands?

These are good questions, but they may be red herrings in this values conversation. The bigger concern really is Jesus’s radical inclusivity. A close reading of the Gospels reveals a Jesus who constantly breaks down barriers; he is unafraid to spend time with and minister to anyone. When the disciples return to him at the end of this passage, they are “astonished” (v. 27) because Jesus has been interacting with this woman. Jesus crosses three important barriers in this episode in order to minister to this Samaritan woman—

  1. Race. Jesus, a Jew, is interacting with a Samaritan. This is not encouraged amongst many 1st century Jews because Samaritans are from the wrong side of the Jewish family and they don’t worship God “correctly.”
  2. Gender. Jesus, a man, is having a private conversation with a woman. This also is discouraged according to gender and sexual mores of the 1st century.
  3. Reputation. The woman’s questionable history—the fact that she’s had five husbands—makes her unfit for conversation with a man.

Jesus doesn’t seem to care about any of this. Routinely, throughout the Gospels, Jesus breaks these barriers: race, gender, reputation, class, religion, etc. In this passage, Jesus opens up the worship of God, taking it from the business of a small group who consider themselves to be in Abraham’s family’s (i.e., the Jews) to all people who are willing to worship God in spirit.

Jesus breaks barriers because he is radically inclusive, because he sees the other as just another, a human being worthy of love and respect.

As followers of Christ—or partisans of Christ, as I often say—we are called to break those same social barriers. These are not God-given boundaries, but boundaries imposed by the fear that humans experience when they encounter someone who is radically other.

We must overcome that fear and learn to be radically inclusive just as Jesus.

• • •

What can you do this week to break down social barriers?
How can you be radically inclusive?
What might you learn from someone different than yourself?