For a wee while I have been talking about relationships. I have talked about the quality of our relationships within the church when we considered the community that we see in the early church in the book of Acts. We have talked about some of the more difficult aspects of relationships: the conversations that we would rather not have but have to have if our relationships are going to be more than superficial.
We also need to talk about our relationships with people outside the church. Pretty obviously, it is essential to our mission that we have contacts with people who are not Christians and yet many Christians only mix with other Christians. By-and-large, I spend my time with other Christians. How do I develop relationships with people outside the church?
Of course, it is inevitable that when people become Christians more and more of their time is spent with Christians. In fact, that is important so that they have mentors who can help them grow in their faith and so on. However, mission requires that that fellowship with Christians is balanced by relationships with non-Christians. Jesus did say “Come” but He also said “Go”. Our natural tendency is to look inwards and enjoy the relative safety of fellowship with Christians. That is easy. It takes more discipline and effort to go and start new relationships with non-Christians.
One of the things Jesus did was walk around a lot. Why did He do that? To meet more and more people. Matthew 9:35 says that Jesus went through all the towns and villages of Galilee. Why did He have a strategy so focused on getting around all of the towns and villages?
In Mark 1, the disciples found Jesus praying one morning out on His own and they urged Him to come back into the town because so many people were looking for Him. But Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so I can preach there. That is why I have come.” Then we are told that He travelled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons. Why did Jesus have this mission of keeping on moving, getting around the villages? To preach and to heal and deliver. But He could do those things by staying in one place. He moved around because He wanted to be where people were. He wanted to make contact with many people. A huge part of His strategy was going to where people were.
If we want to follow the example of Jesus, there is a principle here: mix with people. Go to where people are. Have lots of contacts.
Some of us are introverted and find the idea of mixing with lots of new contacts terrifying. Maybe introverts do it differently but there is still a principle about mixing with people. How can we do that?
Let’s look at the incident in John 4. The Pharisees heard that Jesus (and His team) we gaining and baptising more disciples than John (John the Baptist). The implication is that they weren’t happy about that and Jesus, as a consequence, left Judea to return to Galilee. John had been phenomenally popular. People came from all over the region to be baptised by him. Jesus, apparently, was baptising even more people than John. He had been in Galilee; He had gone up to Jerusalem for the Passover; then He went out into the Judean countryside. Some of John’s followers had complained that Jesus was baptising, and “everyone” was going to Him. Whether He was going to them or they were coming to Him, Jesus had this ministry of making contact with lots of people.
Then we get a contrast. Jesus has an encounter with just one. There were the crowds but Jesus also encountered people individually or in small groups. He went to synagogues. He went to market places. He ate in people’s homes. He went to weddings. He went to parties. He said, “This is why I have come.” For Jesus, it was about meeting people wherever He could.
On this occasion, He was compelled (v.4) to go through Samaria. What compelled Him? He could have gone around Samaria. Is it also possible that He was compelled by the prompting of the Holy Spirit? Is it possible that God wanted this encounter with this woman to happen and it was Jesus’ obedience to His Father that compelled Him? It is possible that, every day when He got up, Jesus had people He had to meet – had to meet because His Father wanted Him to meet them?
Maybe that is something we should note. Every day God has encounters He wants us to have with people. Whether it is many or it is few, God still has those encounters and every day we should want to hear the nudging of the Holy Spirit so that we are in the right place at the right time to meet those people. Do we have that same sense of compulsion to engage with the people God wants us to meet?
Jesus came to a well outside a Samaritan town. It seems that Jesus was so tired, in the midday heat, that He had to stop there while the disciples went on into the town to buy food.
Then a woman approached. Jewish law forbad a man to speak to a woman in public. A Jew would not even speak to his wife in public. To make matters worse, the woman was a Samaritan, one of a race of people despised by the Jews. Jews did not associate with Samaritans. Middle Eastern custom required that as a woman approached a man should withdraw to a distance of at least twenty feet (6m). But Jesus didn’t. He stayed at the well. And He asked her for a drink.
What do we learn from that? The first and most obvious point is that Jesus ignored social conventions and met with people whom society said He shouldn’t. Most people mix most easily with their own kind and might be very reluctant to mix with people who are different. Jesus crossed a cultural division, and a social division. He talked with a Samaritan woman.
More than that, He undoubtedly risked being labelled “immoral” because He talked with a woman alone. In fact, we know that Jesus was criticised for mixing with sinners and prostitutes. There were huge risks for Jesus so why did He do that? In this instance, undoubtedly because He spotted an opportunity – again, probably at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. This woman was more important than His reputation. This woman needed the gospel. She needed salvation.
You have probably heard many times that her coming to the well in the heat of the day probably indicates that she wasn’t welcome to come with the other women who came in the cooler hours of the morning and evening. She had to come on her own, in the heat, because she was an outcast. She was an immoral woman. We learn later something of the reason why the townspeople had rejected her.
And yet, Jesus spoke to her. He didn’t chide her. He didn’t look down on her. Both as a man and a Jew he could have treated her with some contempt. But He actually came as one needing her help. He asked her for a drink. On many occasions, Jesus offered help to people. On this occasion He asked for help.
Missionaries follow Jesus’ example. They cross into other cultures. They mix with people who are different. They may mix with people whom others consider unworthy. Often they will offer people help –medicine, teaching, farming techniques. Sometimes, they may go needing help. For example, they might need help with the language and find someone who can teach them – that someone being a contact, perhaps potentially a friend, maybe a convert. Missionaries approach people, start conversations, seek people who might become friends. They use the same strategy as Jesus.
We are missionaries. Our society is becoming less and less Christian and less and less familiar with Christianity. Increasingly, we are God’s missionaries amongst people who know nothing of Jesus. We are God’s sent ones. So, let’s be students of Jesus’ strategy.
- Focused on meeting people
- Looking each day for those encounters
- Willing to go to people who are different and whom others might reject.
- Starting conversations
So far, Jesus has done nothing evangelistic and I don’t want, at this stage, to emphasise the evangelism but simply to explore how we can meet people; how we can start relationships.
I thought it would be valuable to see what others have said about how we can meet people as part of our service of Jesus so I googled “meeting people Christian”. That wasn’t a good idea. All I got were Christian dating sites – which I wasn’t really interested in, although it shows something. People in all walks of life want to know how they can meet people; how they can begin relationships. There are lots of websites about how to make friends. Many of the ideas there are valuable to us.
I looked at one that had 24 steps for making friends. The first was “spend time around people”. If we want to make friends, whether that is as an individual or as a follower of Jesus, we have to go to where people are. That is exactly what Jesus did. It then listed several ways to do that: join an organisation or a club; join a sports team or a band or choir; volunteer. If we want to meet people outside the church, all of those are relevant to us. It seems to me that one of the ways to initiate a relationship is to serve (as Jesus often did), to be served (as He was on this occasion) or to serve together (as Jesus and the disciples did.)
Contact might be initiated by offering to keep an eye on a neighbour’s house while she is away, asking someone to keep an eye on your house, or joining the neighbourhood watch group; by inviting someone for a meal, by accepting an invitation or by working with some neighbours to organise a street barbecue.
The next step on this website about making friends was “talk to people”. We can join a club or volunteer alongside some others but we won’t make friends until we talk to people. Jesus started a conversation.
The woman might have been frightened and turned away. She might have simply ignored Him. She might have been rude to Him. We don’t know how people are going to react. They might not want to converse but, on the other hand, they might. If we don’t take the risk of starting a conversation we could miss that opportunity.
Recently I was in Nelson for a fortnight helping lead a Caleb Leadership Course. In 2009 when I did that course myself, we were required to go out on the streets and have find strangers and start conversations. I am strongly introverted. I was right out of my comfort zone. I have to force myself to talk to strangers. In social setting where people are standing around talking, I often feel like a fish out of water. But, being forced to do that was really freeing because I discovered I could do it. It became not as fearsome as it had been. I still have some trouble starting a conversation but once that hurdle has been crossed, I am much better at conversing than I used to be.
When I told the prayer and fellowship group that we were in at the time that I felt that God was calling me into ministry, one dear friend said, “But you can’t talk to people.” She was right. I have had to push myself and I still have to but God is good and He has enabled me for all sorts of things since then.
Maybe some of you can identify with that. For others it is possibly very easy. But even those who are good at it have to resist the temptation to talk only to those they know well. It is easy talking to Christians but Jesus’ model was to go out to the world that needs to hear the gospel. We are called to mix with people and to build relationships.
When Jesus left, the disciples were also terrified until the Holy Spirit gave them boldness. After they experienced the first persecution, they prayed again, “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” (Acts 4:29-30)
Just in case you are getting the wrong impression, I am not talking about preaching on street corners. I am talking about relationships. I am talking about getting to know people just like Jesus did when, despite His own exhaustion, He took the risk of lovingly, respectfully starting a conversation with someone whom others had rejected. I am talking about being intentional about mixing with people, meeting people, starting relationships just like Jesus did, because in amongst our communities are people who are wide open and ready to receive the gospel. How will we find them? By being intentional about mixing with people and by following the Holy Spirit’s promptings and allowing Him to enable us.