Missional Encounters Sustain Jesus

Jesus cultivated relationships with all the wrong people, at least according to Jewish prejudices.  In John 4, he passes through the Samaritan town of Sychar and encounters a woman drawing water from the town well.

Everything about this episode is highly offensive to John’s first audiences.  He’s in Samaria (gasp!), speaking with a Samaritan (ugh!!), and this Samaritan happens to be a woman (seriously!?).  Later in the episode (v. 40), the townspeople ask Jesus to stay with them, and he obliges by staying for two days (what!?).

The disciples’ reaction gives all this away (v. 27): “Just then, Jesus’ disciples arrived and were shocked that he was talking with a woman. But no one asked, ‘What do you want?’ or ‘Why are you talking with her?’”

The Jews of Jesus’ day were not merely not interested in developing redemptive relationships with outsiders.  They made every effort to avoid such a possibility.

Engaging redemptively with outsiders, however, is precisely Jesus’ mission.

But that’s not the lesson here.  Jesus doesn’t say that his encounter with the woman is his mission.  He says it is his food.

Jesus isn’t there to assess, to recommend, to preach, or to pass judgment.  He asks her for water.  He’s there for sustenance.

As he says to his disciples, “I have food to eat that you don’t know about” (v. 32).  Again, “I am fed by doing the will of the one who sent me and by completing his work” (v. 34).

The life-giving sustenance of the Son of God is to encounter “the other” redemptively.

Israel, in cutting itself off from the nations, had actually cut itself off from its source of life.  When they gave up being agents of God’s love and life to the nations, they ceased to be the people of the God who made promises to Abraham to redeem the nations of the world.

Interestingly, in vv. 35-38, Jesus does not tell his disciples to get busy carrying out their mission.  He tells them to start harvesting their food.  Their sustenance is to carry out Israel’s mission among the nations they had formerly considered outside of God’s saving purposes.

So, Jesus is sustained through missional encounters.  Jesus’ disciples will be sustained in the same way.

I wrote yesterday that it may not be the case that evangelism is the task of the church.  But this in no way means that churches can become insular communities cut off from genuine encounters with others.  Doing so cuts churches off from God’s life-giving power.

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6 responses to “Missional Encounters Sustain Jesus

  • lamehousewife

    The woman at the well is one of my favorite episodes! Thank you for sharing…

  • S Wu

    Tim, given your post yesterday concerning evangelism, your post today about Jesus’ missional encounters is really helpful. I have been thinking about the Christian vocation of being salt and light, and being agents of God’s grace and love in the world. Just as Jesus came to the world as God’s agent of his grace and truth (John 1), we are to fulfil the same missional purpose in our world today. We are not all evangelists. But the alternative cross-centred community that we belong to is to reflect the glory of God so that we can be the light of the world.

    Does this make sense?

    • timgombis

      Yes, that’s well-put. Relating fruitfully with outsiders doesn’t have to mean “doing evangelism.” It can mean being blessed by outsiders, conducting relationships of mutuality, enjoying their company, meeting their needs, having needs met by them, etc. All these are possibilities that bring glory to God because that’s how God wants humanity to behave. We don’t have to insist that others become like us . . . , that’s a pattern of behavior that dishonors God, actually.

  • Yahnatan

    Dear Tim,

    I have been enjoying this series and think you have made some great points. This comment, however, jumped out at me: “The Jews of Jesus’ day were not merely not interested in developing redemptive relationships with outsiders. They made every effort to avoid such a possibility.”

    This strikes me as a very broad claim with a strongly negative ethical implications. John Dickson’s essay “Mission-Commitment in Second Temple Judaism and the New Testament” (Chapter 24 in Zondervan’s recent Introduction to Messianic Judaism offers a contrasting view. Co-editor Joel Willitts summarizes: “Dickson demonstrates that the scholarly consensus regarding the absence of a mission impulse in Second Temple Judaism is mistaken. The Jewish eschatalogical hope for Gentile conversion found tangible expression in the deliberate missionary activities of some Second Temple Jews. . . . Dickson surveys several examples within Second Temple Judaism that represent attempts by Jews to move Gentiles toward worshiping the God of Israel.” (311)

    Since this is your area of study you may have very solid scholarship to back up your claim contra Dickson; I am certainly open to hearing more. As a Messianic Jew, I am sensitized to how the ways Christians speak about Jews past and present can foster or undermine redemptive relationships in the here and now. Jewish NT scholar Amy-Jill Levine has challenged Christians not to exaggerate the failings of “the Jews” as a foil to make Jesus look better (in her essay in the back of the Jewish Annotated New Testament–she basically claims they were no worse or better as a group than any other culture in their day). I see the charges not to bear false witness and to treat others as we would want to be treated as being highly applicable here.

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