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A More Excellent Way

Race and Gender Reconciliation Through Christ

This article is adapted from Brenda Salter McNeil’s plenary address at CBE’s 1999 International Conference.

I am from Chicago where a white supremacist shooter went on a rampage in July of 1999. He killed Ricky Birdsong, a friend and a member of my church, whom we called Coach. Coach was loving, jovial, very committed to reconciliation, and deeply devoted to his family. He lived in an affluent neighborhood and he was doing great work with his life. Coach was walking home from the playground with his two kids. The white supremacist had just shot at five Jewish people in the neighborhood where I used to live, and then drove to another Jewish neighborhood. My guess is he went looking for a Jewish person, just happened to see my friend Coach walking down the street with his kids, and decided a black man would do.

None of the other victims died, and I could not understand when I was told that Coach hadn’t made it. I knew I would have a hard time making sense of a senseless situation, but then I read the obituary written by Ricky’s wife:

The violent act that took my husband’s life is yet another clarion call to our nation. It is time to wake up America. God is crying out to us the words of Ephesians 5:14— “Wake up old sleeper and arise from your sleep and Christ will shine upon you and give you light.” God is giving us yet another wake-up call. Wake up America! It is time to turn back to God, to read and obey his word, to put prayer and the Bible back into our schools and daily family living. Listen, this is not a gun problem, this is a heart problem, and only God and reading his Word can change our hearts.

I agree that violence is a heart problem and that only God can change our hearts. I further believe that God has entrusted to his people the message of reconciliation. At Coach’s funeral I wanted to be bitter, but my church, which is called The Worship Center, has a reputation to uphold. I was having a hard time worshipping because I really wanted to go into the depth of my grief. Ye t as I watched Ricky’s wife and others worship God, I witnessed a testimony to the Gospel. When reporters asked what we thought and how we felt, one after another answered that we would not allow hatred and evil to overcome the love of Christ. Non-believers watched a grieving community exalt Jesus and left the funeral stunned, wondering what kind of God stands people up straight, keeps them from hate and causes evil to be overcome by good. I left the funeral and said, “God, recommit me again to the ministry of reconciliation and help me not just to talk about it but help me to help your people know what it looks like.”

Second Corinthians 5 says that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, so whenever we look at Jesus we are looking at the model of reconciliation. By looking at the life of Jesus, the one who came to reconcile the world to himself, we can extrapolate several principles and requirements for reconciliation. One of my favorite stories demonstrating these principles of reconciliation is that of Jesus and a Samaritan woman.

A God-Idea

Now he had to come through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. John 4:4-5

John says that Jesus had to go through Samaria. Is that geographically true? No, Jesus did not have to go through Samaria either politically, geographically, or socially. So why does the text say he had to go? No other self-respecting Jew had to go. In fact, every other Jew avoided Samaria, taking the long way around. It was a neighborhood through which one dared not travel. It was socially unacceptable for Samaritans and Jews to associate. In fact, even if a Samaritan’s shadow crossed a Jew’s shadow, the Jew was made unclean.

This racial hatred was deep, the same kind of racial hatred that possessed the man who shot my friend Coach. God had given a law in the Old Testament that Jews were not to intermarry. Samaritans were the result of intermarriage between the Israelites left behind when the northern kingdom was conquered and colonized, and Gentiles brought there by the Assyrians. Samaritans were a half-breed, bi-racial people. Just looking at them made the untainted Jews feel justified in their racism. As the years went by the divisions grew greater.

So why did Jesus have to go to Samaria? The first thing required for reconciliation across any line—gender, race, denomination, or political affiliation—is a divine mandate. Reconciliation begins not with a good idea but with a God idea. It begins with something inside of you that says you have to do what your peers and your contemporaries don’t have to do. Reconciliation starts with God and not with you. When we hear the truth, we must bear witness to it, for there will be a day when people will be hard pressed to find a witness. Today it takes courage to be involved in the ministries to which we are called, and it takes courage to stand up and bear witness.

Are We Thirsty?

“ You don’t have a bucket and the well is deep.” John 4:11

A second requirement of reconciliation is real need. John 4:6 says that Jesus sat down by a well, tired. The woman’s observation in verse 11 was sarcastic, though accurate: “You don’t have a bucket and the well is deep.” Jesus had walked a far distance and it was the sixth hour, twelve o’clock noon. The sun was hot and it was a desert climate. He sat down by a well and he really was thirsty. So when a woman came to the well and he asked her for a drink of water, he wasn’t just making idle conversation.

Sometimes when it comes to reconciliation we don’t really need the other person, so the best we can do is have conversations based on curiosity. When I go and speak in other places, folks will ask, “How can we get more Latino people to come to our group? How can we get more Filipinos in our group?” Generally, I’ll stop and say, “Tell me why you need them. What would make your group better because they are there?”

Part of what happens is that we believe that we ought to have folks, so we go out there to get us some! But I can tell when I am really needed because I change things. When I am just nice to have around, nothing is going to change as a result of my being there. To know that I am not only nice but also necessary means that my worldview is taken into account when decisions are made and things are done.

We don’t generally change our constructs—instead we try to make others fit into our constructs. We say, “It’s nice to have you, but you’ll have to accommodate, assimilate, become like us, because your ideas are nice but not necessary.” When something is necessary, I am willing to make whatever changes I have to make because I am thirsty. I don’t think we’re thirsty enough yet for reconciliation as a church.

I attended Fuller seminary and it was one of the best experiences of my life. But I know if all the black people had pulled out while I was there, Fuller would not have closed down. Not a thing would have changed in the curriculum, in the financial aid office, or with the faculty. I had some wonderful experiences and people liked me. But I also know that I was not needed in a way that would make the whole organization have to adjust to my presence or lack thereof. How much do we really need people who are different?

I am sensing a real need in CBE and I am praying that the need grows because when the thirst gets greater, we’ll do the things we have to do and make the adjustments we have to make. We are really thirsty, it is really hot and that person really does have the water we need to drink!

Going To Samaria

Jacob’s well was there and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour. John 4:6

Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman was quite intentional. Jesus sat down by a well in Samaria. Women drew the water. Chances were great that if he sat there long enough he would meet a Samaritan woman. So Jesus intentionally put himself in a situation where he would interact with someone different from himself.

The third requirement of reconciliation is intentionality. Often we desire reconciliation, but we want it on our turf. We will welcome folks if they come to our group, our conference, our party or our church. But Jesus stands that notion on its head. He didn’t invite the outsiders to his conference and he didn’t get them to come to his church or even his neighborhood. He went to Samaria. He went where nobody else would go, where it wasn’t politically correct to go. He intentionally placed himself in a neighborhood where he knew he would meet someone different. I suggest that if we really want to take reconciliation seriously, then we must find the Samaria near where we live and make a conscious decision to go there.

A Risky Business

This Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink, for Jews do not associate with Samaritans?” John 4:9

Risk-taking is the fourth requirement of reconciliation. It is a difficult thing to put yourself in a place where you are going to meet people who are different from you, where you don’t know the language, where you are not the head honcho, where your cultural norms are not those everyone else observes. It is risky business to pursue reconciliation. I wish I could tell you that everyone you met in Samaria was going to be happy to see you, that they were going to kiss you and smile and be so glad. I wish I could tell you that nobody is going to curse you in Samaria. I wish I could tell you it would be safe and comfortable every time you try to bridge a gap and cross over a void, but those of us who take it seriously understand that it’s a risk.

Jewish laws about Samaritans and about women caused their self-esteem to be extremely low. One of these laws was that Samaritan women menstruated perpetually and were therefore perpetually, ritually unclean.

Imagine living in a society where people thought of you as dirty and defiled every single day of your life, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year, from the time you were a child until you were an old gray-haired woman. Never could someone else drink from your cup. Never could someone else sit on something you had sat on. Never could your skirt brush against someone without defiling them. Can you imagine what that must do to a person’s sense of worth?

That is the situation of the woman in John 4, and Jesus represents the people who have made that decree about her. He is male, he is Jewish, he is all those things that have said to her: dirty, filthy, vile. And now he is in her neighborhood, sitting at her well, asking her for water. The Samaritan woman could have put her hand on her hip, noticed that nobody else was looking, spit in her little bucket and said to Jesus, “How dare you, Jew boy, come up in my neighborhood demanding something! You and your people always think you can get whatever you want.”

Today, somebody might not like you coming in their neighborhood and they might not rise up and call you blessed. It may not even be your fault because it might not have been something you did, but what the people you come from represent. Sometimes we get the hurt of hurt people. If you are a minority in a society that discriminates against you, you are a hurt person and sometimes you take that hurt out on people who don’t deserve to be hurt.

Perhaps you have gone someplace to volunteer and the kids didn’t treat you right, the people didn’t think you were wonderful, or called you “white,” or questioned your motives, or worse. I remember once I was in Londale, a community in Chicago. I was hanging out with college students and when I left, all four of my hubcaps had been stolen. I looked around and thought, “Now that ain’t right! I’m a sister—you’re not supposed to steal my hubcaps!” There are times that sin does not discriminate and just because you love Jesus doesn’t mean bad things won’t happen to you. Ask my friend Coach.

Just You And Me

His disciples had gone into the town to buy food. John 4:8

Fifth, reconciliation is best achieved one on one. John says Jesus’ disciples had gone into town to buy food. I think Jesus was strategic in waiting until they were gone, because when they came back they “were surprised to find him talking with the woman, but no one asked what do you want or why are you talking with her.”

The Pharisees had already heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John. They were already questioning whether Jesus was a real rabbi or not, and now he was sitting in Samaria, at a well, with a woman. The disciples were probably thinking, “Bad move. Not good for the theological circle, and you are not going to get respect. They are going to debunk you. They are not going to be pleased with this. Rabbis don’t talk to women. Jesus, you’re messing up here. Why are you talking to her?” Sometimes it is better not to try reconciliation in a big group or when you are with your church. Those events we do where the whole church goes over to fellowship with the First and Second Baptists are nice, but real reconciliation won’t happen that way. Don’t confuse fellowship with reconciliation. Reconciliation is when two people meet eye to eye when other folks are not around.

Something happens in a crowd—there is a certain censure that comes when you are with people you know even though you are trying to be yourself. Something happens when you feel the disapproving looks behind the back of your head. You can sense when people are saying, “That’s not good, my friend. It’s not a wise move for you to do that.” There are people in your church who would advise you against going into Samaria because they would want you to be safe.

My mother, bless her heart, was very upset when I accepted my call to ministry. Not because she didn’t believe in ministry—she wanted me to preach all over the place just so long as it was near Trenton, New Jersey. When I decided that a seminary 3,000 miles away was my next move, she was not a happy woman.

There will be some things that Jesus will call you to do in reconciliation that might take you away from people who are trying to protect you. You might have to decide that this is an individual decision that calls for an individual commitment. You might want to try reconciliation with one other person with whom you can make a covenant. Reconciliation is best achieved one on one. Try putting a person at ease in your presence where you can be honest and vulnerable and they won’t have to feel the stares of the people who come with you.

Relinquishing Power

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” John 4:7

A sixth requirement of reconciliation is a power exchange. I believe that this is the “standstill place” of the church.

Jesus approached the relationship with the Samaritan woman with all the cards on his side. He was male, he was Jewish, he was a Rabbi. He came with knowledge, a certain amount of affluence, friends, and the privilege afforded to him as a result of being part of the dominant culture.

The woman had been divorced from five different husbands. Keep in mind that women didn’t divorce men— men divorced women. So five times she had been rejected. Five times a man said to her, “I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you.” It is no wonder that she was living with someone—perhaps she didn’t believe that anybody would marry her again.

Jesus comes with power on his side. The Samaritan woman comes with no power except the right to refuse. Jesus asks her, “Will you give me a drink of water?” Helping seems to be such a humble thing to do, yet it is even more humbling to be the one who is helped. The helper has more power.

The number one question I am asked when I travel the country speaking on reconciliation is, “What can I do?” This question doesn’t come out of a sinful heart. It comes out of a heart that really wants to do something. But it is a powerful question because it assumes there is something you can do to help.

Jesus doesn’t start as the helper. He comes to the relationship with a woman who is clearly inferior to him, socially. He comes with the power on his side. But instead of saying right away, “I’m so glad you came to the well, I knew you were coming, you’ve been married five times,” Jesus waited. He held back the Messiah card and the prophet card and said to the woman, “All you know about me is that I’m a thirsty man without a bucket and I need your help.” In his one question he changed the power dynamic—he made her the helper and he became the recipient.

I don’t believe there are enough people willing to receive in the church. Most of us want to be the helper. Most of us assume we can help. Jesus decreased his own power and he empowered the woman, putting them on equal footing so they saw eye to eye. She could have said, “No, I will not give you water.” She was given the power to make a decision.

I believe reconciliation will not happen unless people who have power give some up. People who are powerless are empowered when they see themselves as mutual in a relationship. When is the last time you have been in a relationship with someone that society says is inferior to you and you have put yourself in their debt because they had something they could give you? There is somebody without a high school education that could teach you something. There is somebody who knows more about raising kids than you do. But we don’t sit ourselves under those we don’t respect.

A power exchange in the church would mean that when a brother from a different race comes to lead worship, we don’t just tolerate him. Instead, we let him take us into the very presence of God. We let go enough to say, “Teach us how to worship. There is something God is doing in your life. I don’t know how to do it and so you are not just entertaining me, you are not merely a prelude to the speaker. Those who worship God must do so in spirit and in truth. I don’t know how to fully engage God like that, but take me behind the veil. I am a baby, but would you slowly show me how to go into a deeper place with God? I will follow your instruction even if it makes me feel uncomfortable.”

Organizational structures would change because different people would be included in the group. We might even step back and say to someone unlike us, “You run it.” That is risky and scary and we don’t like it because we want to do it exactly the way we planned it. But if we truly need what someone else has to offer, then we are willing to let go and allow change to happen.

God’s Puzzle

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water. “John 4:10

After Jesus asks the Samaritan woman for help, he doesn’t go into the “I’m so sorry I am a Jewish man… Please forgive me for being Jewish… I wish I were born another race…” thing. Neither does he say, “I didn’t do anything to you, so just get over it.” Reconciliation is mutually affirming and empowering.

Jesus doesn’t apologize or defend. Instead, he says to the woman, “If you knew who this was and what I have to offer, you would ask me and I would give you living water.” I believe that every single person, male and female, because of our differences, has a unique piece of the puzzle of God. We do not do the conversation of reconciliation any justice by going into “Poor me, I am so sorry.” It is self-serving navel-gazing and it is not helpful.

We need enough courage to say, “If you would like, I have something I would love to offer you.” For example, I was helped through InterVarsity Christian fellowship. I am so glad they didn’t say to me, “We don’t have anything to offer you, Brenda. You’re just so gifted and so wonderful.” Instead they said to me, “We do a thing called manuscript study and we would love to show you how we do that.” In doing so, they enriched my study of Scripture.

Reconciliation brings all pieces of the puzzle to the table. You don’t do anyone a service if you take your piece away.

One son absolutely hated being there and every day he asked, “Why don’t you sell this place?” The other son, Vinnie, decided to get down with the people, so he started hanging out with Mookie, who delivered pizzas for Vinnie’s father.

One day Mookie and Vinnie were walking down the street when three black guys came toward them. “Yo, Mollie man, what you doin’ with this white boy?” Mookie said, “Man, don’t bother him, he’s down.” One guy’s name was Buggin Out, and he said, “No man! What you doin’ walking down our street? You don’t be with him, he needs to go back, man.” (When you don’t have much, even your street feels like your property, so you’re trying to claim your territory.) Mookie said, “Buggin Out, look man, don’t mess with Vinnie because he’s down.”

In that moment Mookie became a blesser. What Mookie was saying to Buggin Out was, “I can’t vouch for every white person but I can vouch for Vinnie. Don’t mess with him because this brother’s authentic. Don’t bug him because this man is who he says he is. Don’t bother him and lump him in with all white people because I have tested his heart, I’ve seen who he is. You can trust this guy and he’s worthy to be in our neighborhood.”

May it be that when someone says to me, “What are you doing over here talking about reconciliation?,” somebody would stand up to my defense and say, “Yo man, don’t bother her, she’s down!”

The Blessers

Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” John 4:28-29

Finally, reconciliation requires people who serve as bridge builders to their community. The Samaritan woman goes back to her people and says to them, “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did. Do you think this guy could be who he says he is?”

Reconciliation needs blessers, folks who say to the people they represent, “I think you should hear her out, even though she doesn’t do it our way.” We need a blesser who says, “I think God is using her and I think there is something you might need to hear her say.” And if you came to Samaria you might need a person to say, “He is really a nice guy. I know you’d never be able to tell by looking at him, but he has a heart of gold.”

The movie Do the Right Thing is about one of those changing communities in New York where everyone is black except for one Italian pizzeria owner and his two sons. The father wanted to move but couldn’t afford to.

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