Submission as Mission: How Jesus Engaged “the Other”

Many of us avoid engaging the people society sees as dangerous. Why and how did Jesus do it? Using the example of the Samaritan woman at the well, the Rev. Matt Tebbe of Gravity Leadership explores Jesus’ counter-cultural practices of connection and submission. We recently partnered with Matt and his team at Gravity Leadership to offer coaching for Anglican leaders in all areas of mission, including missional hospitality to “the other.” 

by Matt Tebbe

Increasingly in our world, “the other”—foreigner, unbeliever, person of different race or creed or non-traditional sexuality—is seen to be a danger and a threat. What imagination do we possess for ministry with people who have the potential of being “unsafe” (i.e., Syrian refugees)? If mission will cost us our safety, security, and positional significance, how do we count the cost and engage wisely?

On Mission With Jesus

Jesus made it a practice to frequent dangerous places with unsafe people. His example, I suggest, can help us recover the postures and practices necessary for discerning God’s mission in our contemporary context.

The love of God in Jesus Christ didn’t faint at the threat of dangerous and unsafe people.

Jesus himself was considered an uneducated bastard and a refugee from ‘the projects’. Nobody saw him coming because he came from the place of “nobodies”. He was a dangerous, unsafe threat to the established order. A man with a sordid background, from a community of disrepute.

And so Jesus didn’t flinch to invite a Zealot and tax collector both into his inner circle (elder boards have always had personality conflicts), eat and drink with sinners, or interact with women one-on-one. His position as a person on the margins of his society contributed to his freedom to love because he wasn’t protecting his own safety, security and positional significance.

Let’s take a closer look at his missional hospitality in his interaction with the Samaritan woman in John 4.

Jesus Engages the Dangerous Foreigner: Connection and Submission

Jesus Connects with Her

Notice Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. Notice the safe, accepted boundaries he crossed to engage her in conversation:

  1. Jewish men did not initiate conversations with women. Period. Men spoke with men, women with women. (Gender boundaries)
  2. Samaritans and Jews weren’t exactly besties. In fact, there were open and active hostilities between them. This was centuries old; relations were cold, rigid, and full of resentment and mistrust. Jews spoke with Jews, Samaritans with Samaritans. (Geo-Political-Religious boundaries)
  3. Jesus—as a honorable and famous Jewish teacher—should not shame himself with talking to a woman with questionable character. Honorable spoke to honorable; shameful to shameful. (Social boundaries)
  4. This is high-level theology talk here; in context, the Samaritan woman has more Q&A around theology than the Pharisee Nicodemus from John 3. This is unheard of. Orthodox Jewish theology would normally be discussed with other educated orthodox Jewish theologians (like Nicodemus); uneducated heterodox Samaritans would talk with other uneducated heterodox Samaritans. (Theological boundaries)

In summary: Jesus, who was considered uneducated, with questionable bloodlines, and from the “wrong place,” transgresses and transcends the accepted gender, geo-political-religious, social, and theological barriers to initiate a conversation with the Samaritan woman.

And that’s just from a first-century Jewish perspective. Let’s look at this interaction from a 21st Century evangelical point of view. It doesn’t take “The Billy Graham Rule” to know this is a scandalous interaction. The Samaritan woman is a threat to Jesus’ integrity, unsafe for one who wouldn’t want “even a hint of sexual immorality” to be associated with him, dangerous to the reputation of a leader who should be “above reproach.” He’s alone, with a woman of questionable theology and character, who could be characterized as a hostile “enemy of the state.”

Does he “bounce his eyes” from this temptation?

Does he ignore her, occupying himself with a Bible scroll or fighter memory verse?

No: He sees her. He connects with her. He humanizes her.

Jesus doesn’t treat her as a threat, obstacle, stumbling block, enemy, or temptation.

Jesus connects with her, redeeming the integrity of her personhood.

The hospitable mission of God in Jesus sees the image of God where others see sin, danger, shame, and threat.

He engages a dangerous, unsafe foreigner by acknowledging her existence—not as an inferior, marginalized, threatening object of temptation or contempt—but as a human, created in the image of God, who has worth, dignity, and the capability to help God-in-the-flesh.

Jesus sees this woman not for the scapegoat his culture says she is, but for the image bearer he’s created her to be.

Jesus sees this woman not for the scapegoat his culture says she is, but for the image bearer he’s created her to be.

Jesus Submits to Her

According to biblical scholars, water wells in the Ancient Near East did not have buckets that remained at the well. 21st Century imaginations think of a stone well, with a small canopy over the opening and a wooden rod to which a bucket is tied on a rope. The bucket is lowered and raised by a hand crank.

But not so in Jesus’ day. Each person brought their own bucket, usually made of leather, that they unrolled. Two wooden rods would be inserted in an “X” shape across the top of the leather pouch to fashion a “bucket.” It would then be lowered down by rope, and after the water procured, rolled back up and stored for the journey home.

The text in John 4 tells us that Jesus was traveling from Judea to Galilee with his disciples, and the most direct route took one through Samaria. This was about a 2.5 day journey, 70 miles or so, and they stopped in the heat of the day at noon (v.6).

Here’s the piece of cultural information we often miss when reading this story: Jesus and his companions would have carried their own water bucket with them on their journey. You can’t travel 70 miles through hot, arid land without water. And we’re told, specifically, that Jesus’ disciples had gone into Sychar to buy lunch (v.8) right after Jesus asks for a drink of water. Why that piece of info after Jesus asks for water? It’s a masterful unfolding of the narrative: Jesus intentionally sent his only water bucket into town with his disciples even though he was tired from the journey (v.6) and even though he was sitting (without shade) at high noon. The woman herself recognizes Jesus had done this (v.11).  

This is how Jesus is missional: He voluntarily makes himself weak so that he has to rely on the one he came to save.

This is how Jesus is missional: He voluntarily makes himself weak so that he has to rely on the one he came to save.

His primary concern isn’t protecting himself from unsafe people, but submitting to them.

This woman wasn’t a threat to Jesus. She was an opportunity to show dignity, honor, and love.

Connecting and Submitting Today

What can this reveal to us about our contemporary situation? Some would be right to point out the dissimilarity between Jesus and our modern context here; we’re dealing with wisdom here, not knowledge. We simply can’t drag and drop timeless biblical solutions onto modern problems. That’s not how Jesus applied the Old Testament to his context, nor how the early church applied Jesus’ teaching to theirs.

Easy Bible answers to complex contemporary issues are often just a Google search away, but they seldom help us inhabit incarnational, wise ways of how to be, do, and become more like Jesus in our embodied witness. We can feel right about issues without being righteous in them. We can have answers to problems and have no idea how to actually love persons.

We can have answers to problems and have no idea how to actually love persons.

A wise, loving response to our contemporary questions of mission involves wrestling with the following questions:

  1. How do we see refugees, terrorists, etc as image bearers? How do we humanize the scapegoats? How do we not just “keep ourselves away from sin” but actually push all our chips to the center of the table and learn how to love? What narrative does Jesus give us about those who are homeless, violent, or harassed and helpless?
    —Who is the one who I see as a Samaritan? The one who is wrong, morally bereft, dangerous for me to connect with?
    —What am I afraid of if I choose to learn how to love that person?
  2. How do we submit to those the mainstream culture tells us to stay away from? This is perhaps the most pressing missional question I know of today. Mainstream Western Christians are much more comfortable going with power (“Here, let me help you/teach you/show you/build for you”), or outsourcing missional concerns to our military (“The drones/marines/air strikes will take care of it”) than we are going in weakness (“Will you give me a drink?”). To be on mission like Jesus involves a radical hospitality of submission to those we seek to save. What does submission look like today?
    —Because Jesus himself was considered an uneducated bastard and a refugee from ‘the projects;’ because he was a nobody that no one saw coming; because he was considered dangerous and unsafe to the prevailing Power in Judaism, he was able to extend missional hospitality in love. He wasn’t trying to protect/defend his rights or privileges because he didn’t have any to begin with.
    —In what ways is your position in society privileged? How does that hinder you to live on mission?

How do we see and submit like Jesus in our contemporary situation—as persons in our neighborhoods, churches who engage locally for the good of our city, and universally as the Body united?

Matt Tebbe has been a coach, communicator and consultant with churches in North America since 2011. We recently partnered with Matt and his team at Gravity Leadership to offer missional coaching for Anglican leaders. Matt has experience as a youth pastor, a bi-vocational church planter, and working on a team at a large church to transition it from a Sunday-centric worship service to a discipleship and mission paradigm. He co-founded Gravity Leadership, and is planting a church (The Table) in the northeast suburbs of Indianapolis, where he and his wife Sharon live with their children Deacon and Celeste.