Loving Those on the Other Side: Part 2

Loving Those on the Other Side (Part 2)

John 4: 3-20

April 28, 2024

          In January I asked people to suggest sermon topics for me. Today I’m concluding a two-part series on Loving Those on the Other Side. This is something that Marilyn Poole has been pondering lately. She’s the one who suggested this subject.

How do we relate to those who are so different from us, especially those who are on the other side politically? This will be more acute as we are heading toward another Presidential election in November.

I believe there are many different ways we can respond depending on the person, the subject, the time, the place, and God’s leading. It calls for us to listen closely to the Spirit.

This is how I ended and summarized my sermon last Sunday.

Loving those on the Other Side sometimes means we are to keep our mouth shut and avoid those issues that divide us. I talked to Marilyn on Monday. She said this is the option she often chooses. But she said that she pairs it with kindness. Kindness and avoiding the controversial issues is often the best way we can love those on the Other Side.

Loving those on the Other Side sometimes means we are to avoid them altogether, especially if we are being harmed.

Loving those on the Other Side sometimes means we are to speak out for justice and God’s kindom of love.

Loving those on the Other Side sometimes means acting out or fighting to bring that kindom to earth as it is in heaven.

Finally, loving those on the Other Side sometimes means dialoguing, listening and respecting those on the Other Side.

That last option is what we’ll take a closer look at today. How do we have fearlessly curious conversations in dangerously divided times? That’s the subtitle of one of the books I found most helpful on this subject. The title of the book is I Never Thought of It That Way. It talks about how we can have bridging conversations with those on the Other Side. Another book I found helpful is entitled: I Know We’re All Welcome at the Table, But Do I Have to Sit Next to You???

At the end of the message, I’m going to ask you for your experiences in having bridging conversations with people on the Other Side of some issue. It might not be politics. It could be religion or theology or something else. What was your experience of that bridging conversation?

Our Scripture reading today includes a symbolic conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman. The author of the gospel of John highlights how ancient divisions in the human family can be overcome in this new Jesus movement. The conversation encourages us to find ways to bridge the divisions between people in our day. It can start with bridging conversations.

Five words are helpful in these conversations. The first is discernment.

Discernment is what is used by the author of John as he puts this story about healing divisions together. Discernment is what is used within the story by Jesus as he chooses whether to go through Samaria or as they typically do, go around Samaria. Discernment is what is used by Jesus as he decides whether to engage in a conversation with this woman, this Samaritan woman, this person from the Other Side.

It all starts with discernment.

As we think about having bridging conversations today, we need discernment to determine if it would be right and good to have this conversation.

As part of my sermon preparation for this message, I decided I needed to try out this whole idea of having a bridging conversation.

Discernment starts with the right person. I decided to ask someone who has been a friend of mine since college back in the late 70’s. His name is Jeff. 

Discernment continues with figuring out the best time and place to have the bridging conversation. My relationship with Jeff usually consists of a monthly phone call. I’ve only seen him in person a few times in the last thirty years. But since Lori was gone last week, I decided to make a point of seeing him in person. I discerned that a face-to-face conversation with plenty of time would be best. So I drove to his house north of Chicago.

Some other things to think about as we discern whether to have this bridging conversation are: Can we give our full attention to it right now? Can we have it without involving others? Can we do it on level ground as equals? Is now the right time or should we revisit this issue at a later time when we are calmer or when we have more time?

In our Scripture story, Jesus discerns that this is a good time to have a conversation with this person from the Other Side, a Samaritan woman. They sit by a well, reminiscent of those times when the Jewish patriarchs were looking for a wife. It’s like Jesus is the bridegroom looking to bring the Samaritans into his family of followers. Jesus has discerned that this woman is the right person to have this bridging conversation with.

The first word for bridging conversations is discernment. The second word is humility. Jesus humbly asks this Samaritan woman, “Would you please give me a drink of water?”

As we engage in our bridging conversations, we begin with humility. We take the idea of winning off the table. This is not about a high school debate contest where the goal is defeating the Other Side by our amazing arguments. It’s about coming with humility to learn. It helps to notice the assumptions we bring and have the humility to question our assumptions about people.

No doubt the assumptions that the traditional Jews like Jesus had about the Samaritans were not pretty. You can tell that the Samaritan woman has a lot of assumptions as well. She says, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink of water when Jews and Samaritans won’t have anything to do with each other.”

It starts with discernment. Then we come to the bridging conversation with humility.

This leads to the next key in bridging conversations: respect.

Jesus gives this Samaritan woman respect by having this conversation with her.

She eventually extends respect to Jesus as she realizes who he is. She comes to say, “Sir, I can see you are a prophet.” And after the conversation, she says to her friends and neighbors: “Come and see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done. Could he be the Messiah?”

          Not only do we notice and question our assumptions, we also notice and question our stereotypes. This woman had stereotyped the typical Jewish man, but found those stereotypes were invalid in the case of Jesus. She came to respect him.

          We bring respect for the other person as we set aside stereotypes and avoid elitism. We don’t look down our noses at them.  

We also bring respect for ourselves and for those we love. When the conversation turns in a direction that leads away from respect, we set up boundaries. Sometimes we have to say, “Please do not say…” “Please, do not talk about … in that manner.”

          Discernment, humility, respect are the foundations of a bridging conversation.

          The structure of bridging conversations is all about the word: curiosity. We seek to understand rather than persuade.

          I read this: “Curiosity requires uncertainty and uncertainty requires flexibility. If truth matters more than our beliefs, then we can choose to enter bridging conversations holding those beliefs more loosely, just for now, just to see what happens.”

          We come to the conversation with an open mind, open hands, open heart.

I picture moving from a clenched fist holding tightly to what’s in our hand and what we believe to opening our hand and holding what’s inside it loosely. We come with openness and curiosity.

          I came to my conversation with my friend Jeff with curiosity about what he believed about healing. We had talked about the subject the evening before. Lori and I have had many conversations about the subject. I was curious to know what Jeff thought about healing today. I assumed that he had some different views than I did. He attends an Independent Bible Church and has been associated with the Church of the Nazarene most of his life.

I started with a simple question: Jeff, what do you think about healing and the work of God today?

That’s how we start. We ask questions and then we listen – intently and carefully. We listen without giving advice, solving problems, interrupting or judging.

Since most of what we believe is based on the experiences we’ve had in life, we explore the stories and experiences that others have had to better understand the Other Side. We ask the questions: “How did you come to that perspective? What experiences did you have that led you to come out on that side of the issue?” “What paths have you walked to get where you are now?”

In my conversation with Jeff, he talked about a few miraculous healing stories that he’s been connected with over the years. The conversation moved to other questions like what do you think of God’s omnipotence and what about the miracle stories in the Bible.

          We keep thinking as we ask these questions: What am I missing? What have I not noticed before about this issue?” Sometimes we summarize what they said and ask, “Did I get that right?” or “Am I missing anything?” We paraphrase and clarify.

          We follow that up with “Tell me more about…” and “Let me see if I have this right, you said….” And “It seems like you feel …. About …..”  We ask clarifying questions, not evaluative ones. We’re looking for details and stories and examples.

It’s like we’re a journalist. We want to get a good story.

We’re curious about their story. We’re also curious about the values and concerns that lie underneath their opinions. What is important to them? What do they worry about?

We ask questions and stay curious and listen…

Bridging conversations start with discernment, humility and respect. That’s the foundation.

Then we build bridging conversations with curiosity and stories and listening.

The roof over all this is the word: honesty. After listening to their perspectives, we share our perspectives. After listening to their stories, we share our stories. After listening to their values and concerns, we share our values and concerns. We speak our truth.

I did this with Jeff. I shared some of my beliefs and thoughts and stories related to healing, God, the Bible and how God works today. I talked about how I’ve been deconstructing and reconstructing my faith. We didn’t see eye to eye on many things. But we engaged in the conversation in a respectful way. We asked questions and we listened.  

          As we got close to the end of our discussion, Jeff and I looked for places where we might find common ground. We might not agree on…, but it seems we can agree on…”

          We could both agree on a God of love. We could also agree that it was good to have conversations about issues over which we don’t agree. We hadn’t talked that honestly with each other for most of the time we’ve known each other. I think it deepened our friendship.

Sometimes conversations can even lead to changed lives. That’s what happened in our Scripture story. The end of that section it says, “A lot of Samaritans in that town put their faith in Jesus because the woman had said, “This man told me everything that I’ve ever done.” They came and asked him to stay in their town and he stayed on for two days.”

          The author of this story includes it to describe how Samaritans came to be a part of the Jesus movement. The Jesus followers were able to bridge the huge divide that existed between the traditional Jews and the Samaritans. It started with a bridging conversation, but it ended with a uniting of peoples. 

          We love those on the Other Side until that day we realize that we are all on the Same Side.

          I’m curious to know about your experiences having bridging conversations. How did it go when you tried to have a bridging conversation? What did you do to have that conversation? What did you learn?

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