A couple weeks back, my church’s sermon and small group discussions centered on the (sadly unnamed) Samaritan woman at the well, and her conversation with Jesus as told in John 4:1-26.
At our small group meeting, I happened to pick up a version of the Bible that has Jesus’ words in red letters. The previous week we had talked about Nicodemus’ conversation with Jesus in John 3, and I was struck by a simple observation: the conversation with Nicodemus has a lot more red letters all together.
In other words, Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman is much more of a mutual, two-way conversation. With Nicodemus, Jesus has some things he wants to say, and he says them. The Samaritan woman, on the other hand, brings a lot more of herself into the conversation. And I think Jesus appreciates that.
Recently, my very awesome friend Christin, who’s training to be a Buddhist chaplain, invited me to record a conversation with her about Buddhism and Christianity and spiritual life in general. This was a very new thing for me—both the video-recorded aspect of it and the public interfaith conversation aspect of it. So feel free to check it out if you like, as long as you have low expectations and lots of grace!
Regardless of the self-consciousness induced by being on YouTube, I enjoyed talking with Christin, and I deeply appreciated her honest reflections and questions.
I was thinking about this conversation (and conversations like it) in conjunction with the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. And I was thinking about how much my own perspective has changed over time.
I used to see the woman’s conversation with Jesus as more of an evangelistic encounter. She has thoughts and questions, yes, but the main point is that he tells her what she needs to know to believe in him, and then she goes back home and tells her community.
Now I see it as more of a legitimately two-way dialogue. Not one person trying to convert the other, but both people bringing their full personalities, histories, and spiritual journeys to the table to challenge and encourage one another, to help each other learn and grow.
This is what I hope for, now, in interfaith dialogue. We don’t need to change someone else or make them see things the way we do. We do need to bring our full selves and speak honestly from our own background, perspective, and experiences. We need to respect one another, hear one another, honor one another as intelligent beings created in God’s image with all the wisdom and agency that entails.
I think of Jesus and the Samaritan woman’s conversation about worshiping God “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-4). Maybe this is what that means. Not necessarily that there is One Right and True Way to worship God—but more that it is crucial that we all worship in ways that are authentic for us. Ways that are true to our experience. Ways that resonate with our deepest spirits, that heal our spirits and do not do violence to them.
I used to think it was a bit of baloney to be “spiritual but not religious.” I toed the evangelical line that puts a high emphasis on actively being part of a church if you want to have an authentic, growing spiritual life.
Now I think differently. Personally, I’m still part of a church, because I see value in it. But I don’t necessarily think church is for everyone—or for everyone at this particular point in time—or for those who don’t currently have access to a church community that will do more good than harm in their lives.
Jesus said it’s not about worshiping in this place or that one (John 4:19-21). Not this mountain or that mountain. Not this cultural context or that one. Not this kind of church or that kind of church, or even this or that kind of religious tradition.
It’s about spirit and truth. What heals our spirits, drawing us to engage more fully with our experience in this world and with our communities’ gifts and needs? What rings deeply true to us, while also ringing deeply true for those most vulnerable among us?
This is what I want worship to look like. No conversion necessary. Mutual, two-sided, honest spiritual conversations always welcome.
As always (speaking of two-sided), I’d love to hear your thoughts.