Jesus at the Crossroads: The Temptation to Avoid Hard Conversations,
March 26, 2017
A few years ago, in another congregation, there was a time when I supported a member of our church through a couple of challenging years at his place of work. He and his closest colleague were not only business partners, but, over the years they had become very, very close friends as well. They had worked together for a long time, they had traveled together countless times and they had negotiated some excellent business contracts as a team. Life and work had drawn them together and they had come to mean a great deal to one another.
Then, over the course of back to back years, this long cultivated relationship began to show cracks and signs of fragility. First, my friend and fellow church member went through a difficult time in his marriage which naturally affected his performance in the office. He wasn’t very focused, spent a lot of time each week focused on things that had nothing to do with work and struggled with his mood. Eventually, there came a day when his business partner invited him into his office and honestly shared his concerns. His partner was in no way unsympathetic to where my parishioner found himself but he wanted to make sure that he understood how his home life was effecting them as a company.
The next year, the tables turned. My friend’s marriage had stabilized and restrengthened but now his partner was walking through his own difficult moment. His colleague had long struggled with drinking heavily and now this had begun to show clear signs of marring his own effectiveness in the office. This time, my friend had to initiate the hard conversation, invite his colleague into his office and show sympathy but at the same time concern over what was happening.
I have often thought of those two years for the two of them. They survived it all and I think they did so for one reason. They both refused to give into the temptation of avoiding two terribly difficult and hard conversations. My friend’s colleague was willing to help him to see how his marriage struggles were profoundly affecting other areas of his life. And, my friend was willing to help the same colleague understand how his alcohol addiction was causing similar albeit somewhat different problems of its own.
Both could have easily avoided the conversations that they themselves initiated. After all, I am sure that both were uncomfortable. Both required saying things that the other did not want to hear. Both involved a good deal of uncertainly as to how the other would respond. And, both involved a great amount of risk to their relationships and to their work. Yet, again, both were conversations that had to happen and they did. Life was better for both of them as a result.
Jesus, himself, was no stranger to hard conversations. In fact, we could list a number of times when Jesus offered to others words or advice that they likely did not want to hear. You will remember that he told the Rich Young Ruler to sell all that he had. You may also recall his words to Peter to forgive seventy times seven or an infinite number of times. You may remember Jesus in his honest words to his followers in Luke 12 when he said that following him might cause division in their families. And, this time of year, we recall his words to James and John who wanted to be second in command with Jesus’ reminder that the Kingdom of God is about service. None of these were easy words for Jesus to say or easy words for others to hear.
Perhaps, however, the hardest conversation that Jesus ever had was with the woman in John 4 who is at the heart of our text for today. We know several things about the situation that made Jesus’ time with her quite challenging and thus an easy conversation for him to avoid. First, we know that since she was a female, there existed at that time a stigma in the Biblical society related to men talking to women who were not their spouses in public. It simply wasn’t the appropriate thing to do from a etiquette standpoint. It just wasn’t proper and thus right out of the gate in engaging her in conversation, Jesus was taking an unnecessary risk.
Second, we know that she was a Samaritan. This is to say that she was of a racially mixed origin. As you know, the Samaritans were part Jewish and part Gentile. They had come to be when the Assyrians overtook Israel in the 700s and began to marry those Jewish people who remained in the land and were not taken into exile. Since the Samaritans were not pure blooded Jews and since they had mixed Jewish religious ideas with other thoughts and practices and thus corrupted the true faith, they were very much despised and loathed by most of Jesus’ contemporaries. In turn, most Jewish folks would go out of their way to avoid going through Samaritan territory almost like avoiding the wrong side of town or the other side of the tracks.
Third, we know that the Samaritan woman had a checkered past. She had been through a number of failed marriages and was now living with someone to whom she was not married. In fact, the reason that we think that she was at the public well in the middle of the day and thus there in the heat of the day is likely because it was an unpopular and uncrowded time to be there which is to say it was the perfect time for her to avoid others, their questions, stares and snide comments.
In essence, talking to the Samaritan woman was a public relations nightmare for Jesus. She was the wrong sex, she was the wrong race, she had the wrong religion and she had the wrong reputation. It was a conversation to avoid at all costs. Yet, Jesus knew that he had something to offer her that made the hard conversation necessary. She may have come to draw water but he had living water to offer and because he refused to cave to the temptation to ignore the moment, she found a new lease on life that would have never come her way otherwise.
Let me be very direct this morning. Often, there is a lot to risk in hard conversations. But, at the same time, there is often a lot to gain for us and for others. Sometimes we know that the Spirit is calling us to share with someone something that we don’t want to say and that we are sure they don’t want to hear but the benefits may far away all of the reasons to avoid the moment at all costs.
Jennifer Abrams is a Education Consultant. A number of years ago she made the transition from being in the classroom as a teacher to being someone who worked with teachers and school administrators. As she made this significant work shift, she discovered two things. She discovered that neither she nor most of the school administrators with which she worked had significant experience with appropriate ways of talking to teachers about poor teaching styles or less than stellar performance. And, since they didn’t know what to say or how to say it, they often said nothing at all. This led Abrams to do lots of research, to think long and hard about the subject and to ultimately write the book Having Hard Conversations. Still today, Abrams writes, talks and consults on this very topic on a regular basis.
What Abrams emphasizes is that it is one thing to recognize that we need to have a hard conversation and it is something altogether different to know exactly how to go about saying what we already don’t want to say. In turn, she writes not only about the need to have the conversation but she writes about how to have it. She reminds us not to speak out of only our anger or frustration, she gives advice about thinking through and writing down what we are going to say ahead of time and she gives instruction as to best places and times for such encounters. (Jennifer Abrams, Having Hard Conversations, Corwin, 2009)
Abrams offers a good word to us. I have spoken broadly about the need for such conversations but it is deeper than that. Once we know that such an honest talk is needed the other half of the battle involves preparing to have it in the right and appropriate way.
Jesus provides a model example. He didn’t speak to the Samaritan woman out of anger, he spoke out of compassion. He obviously had clearly thought about what he would say to her, it was not off the cuff or condescending. And, he choose a good time, when no one else was around or watching and at a time and place that protected her dignity and honored her privacy.
In other words, Jesus had a tough conversation but he had it in the most compassionate of ways.
The is much for us to emulate. We must find the courage to have such conversations but we must find a way to have them in the right ways. Likewise, when others find the bravery to have such conversations with us and when they do so with love and compassion we must find the courage to listen too. In life, the ability through God’s grace to say the right thing at the right time in love and the ability to hear the right thing offered in the right way will carry us in this life a long, long, long way. Amen.