History will recall 2020 as the year like no other. Its global pandemic, economic recession, and civil unrest over racial injustice are unlike anything seen in modern times.
This calls for pause and reflection, especially on the part of Christians. Because we are salt and light in the world, our actions should cause people to glorify our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:13-16), and how we respond to the current political and social upheavals will be a matter of curiosity to future generations.
Therefore, we continue our conversation about racial reconciliation, preceded by two previous articles. In them I used the story of the 1967 collapse of West Virginia’s Silver Bridge to highlight the critical need for “bridge persons.” We turn now to that classic story in John 4 in which the ultimate bridge person — the Lord Jesus — is mightily at work.
Here we see Him building a bridge across a racial and religious divide that had existed for centuries. In 722 bc, the Assyrians invaded Israel’s Northern Kingdom and took many Jews into Babylonian captivity. However, only the cream of the crop was taken, so Assyrians were imported to maintain control over who remained. This led to intermarriage, resulting in a mixed race known as Samaritans.
To make matters worse, the Samaritans instituted a separate system of worship, which intensified the Jews’ hatred of them and resulted in some eight hundred years of ethnic and religious tension. By the time Jesus arrived on the scene, things had degenerated to the point that Jews and Samaritans had nothing to do with one another. In fact, the Jews called the Samaritans dogs!
That’s why Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman is so remarkable. Not only does He initiate a conversation with her, He asks her for a drink (v. 7). This catches her off guard, revealed by her response (v. 9). In today’s language, she asks Jesus, “Don’t You know that we don’t drink from the same water fountain?”
Yet, with tenderness and love, Jesus cuts through her biases and stereotypes one layer at a time. The woman soon perceives that He is no ordinary Jewish person (v. 19). Eventually recognizing Him as the Messiah, she hurries back to her neighborhood to call family and friends to “Come, see a man” who has radically changed her life (vv. 28-30).
This didn’t immediately resolve the centuries-old conflict between Jews and Samaritans, but it created a new opportunity for healing and reconciliation. That’s what bridge persons do, and here Jesus shows us how.
Notice His bold intentionality. Jesus is on His way to Galilee (v. 3) but chooses to travel by way of Samaria (v. 4). He goes out of His way to meet this woman, which requires walking across a social and ethnic boundary line that had kept people apart for too long.
For us, this may mean a walk across the room or across the street to the neighbors’ house, or initiating a conversation at the grocery store, at school, or maybe at church. A helpful resource for starting such conversations is a book I highly recommend titled Be the Bridge: Pursuing God’s Heart for Racial Reconciliation, by Latasha Morrison.
A black woman, Morrison experienced growing uneasiness over the historical and cultural disconnection within the mostly white environments she worked in, both in corporate America and as staff member at a Christian church. She found that “few people understood the history of Black America, much less the full implications of our country’s discriminatory past.” She also found that many of her “non-White friends” had little or no appreciation for the ineptness of whites in this regard. This inspired Morrison to build a bridge between these two worlds, which evolved into a movement. Now reconciliation is being fostered as people come together in a posture of humility around Be the Bridge resources.
Not only is Jesus intentional, He also finds common ground: a mutually acceptable place to meet with the woman. Jacob’s well (v. 6), with historical ties going all the way back to Isaac and Abraham and a place to which both Jews and Samaritans lay claim, serves as the perfect spot!
Finding common ground on which to connect with people who are different than we are is critical in the work of reconciliation. This requires focusing on what we share in common — our similarities and mutual interests, not our differences and disagreements.
Finally, Jesus leans into one of the hottest socio-political issues of His day, daring to take His stand on the right side of that issue. This is no small matter. Undoing social and racial barriers never is, especially this one. The Samaritan woman is a social outcast. Some speculate that this is why she comes to the well at noon (v. 6) instead of early morning. Her checkered past, including five broken marriages, keeps her out of the “in group.”
Worse yet, she is a Samaritan, placing her on the wrong side of the railroad tracks. But Jesus has no regard for such a boundary line. He knows that the evil of racism only makes an already broken world more broken and flies in the face of the God who made all humankind of one blood (Acts 17:26).
Jesus enters the Samaritan woman’s space and affirms the beauty of God’s image in her, and He offers her salvation. This changes her life forever. Racism is more than a skin issue; it’s ultimately a sin issue, and the gospel is its best cure. What happens when the villagers come running to Jesus at the Samaritan woman’s behest, John leaves to our imagination. The impact of unconditional love and acceptance is often too powerful for words. Imagine the joy, the healing, the ripple effect.
Jesus invites us to do the same in our day, to join Him in His grand mission in the earth, captured in this beautiful sentence: “Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). Those who do will make the greatest difference in our nation’s current crisis.
And it’s not complicated. Just build a bridge. Better yet, be the bridge! After all, you’re a leader, and leaders are bridge persons!