Election shapes the identity and mission of the people of God. God set his love upon a particular people in eternity past to save them so that through them he might draw others into his redemptive love.
God’s people pervert their identity as God’s elect when they fail to embrace election’s missional aspect. Israel was called to be a light to the nations. They were to develop redemptive relationships with the nations, seeking their good, teaching them to be the nations of the world under the reign of the God of Israel.
They failed to do this, however, imagining that their election meant that God loved them and not the nations. They stood in judgment of the nations, cutting themselves off from them and cultivating deeply-held prejudices. In doing so, they inadvertently cut themselves off from the life of God—the God who made promises to Abraham to redeem the nations of the world and who called Israel for this purpose.
In his earthly ministry, Jesus embodied the pattern of life to which God called his people. He did this by cultivating relationships with all the wrong people, at least according to Jewish prejudices.
In John 4, Jesus passes through the Samaritan town of Sychar and encounters a woman drawing water from the town well. As Lynn Cohick notes in Women in the World of the Earliest Christians, we must not over-read shameful connotations onto this woman’s character (pp. 122-128).
But Jesus’ behavior certainly offends Jewish prejudices at a number of points. He’s in Samaria, speaking with a Samaritan who is a woman. Later in the episode, the townspeople ask Jesus to stay with them, and he obliges by staying for two days (v. 40). This would positively shock a Jewish audience.
The narrative highlights the offensive character of this encounter by describing his disciples’ return in 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 were actually offended by the notion.
But Jesus is the Son of God, embodying the very identity and mission of the God of Israel. As such, he engages redemptively with outsiders.
And he isn’t there to preach or pass judgment. He asks for sustenance. Like many other encounters with sinners or shameful characters in the Gospels, Jesus encounters a marginalized character as an equal. Here, he makes a request for water. The narrative is striking in its casting of Jesus and the woman in a relationship of mutuality.
Even more shocking is Jesus’ description of what he is doing. The Son of God is encountering this woman in order to sustain himself. His encounter with her is his very food.
He does not say that his encounter with her is his mission. It is his food.
The disciples tell Jesus to eat, but he responds by saying “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 saw that mission as not worth engaging, they had 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 through encountering the marginalized.
What are the implications for how we configure our corporate patterns of life as God’s people? It seems to me that they’re quite profound.