Breaking Down Barriers

A lot of times Jesus is depicted as being fairly passive.

He’s shown patting kids on the heads or wistfully walking among the masses.

Now, Jesus did carry himself with an air of kindness, gentleness and self-control.

But Jesus could also do a really great job of making a bold, courageous point for the purpose of upsetting unhealthy cultural thinking.

Case in point: the time Jesus talked to the Samaritan woman next to a well (John 4).

By daring to converse with this woman, Jesus took on both hateful racism and female inequality.

See, in Jewish culture the Samaritan people were despised.

They we of mixed ethnicity; part Jewish, part Gentile.

On top of that, the Samaritans had taken aspects of religion of the Jews and blended it with other religions. They established as their center of worship a temple on Mount Gerizim, claiming it was where Moses had originally intended for the Israelites to worship.

The Samaritans had their own unique version of the five books written by Moses, the Pentateuch, but rejected the writings of the prophets and Jewish traditions. The Samaritans saw themselves as the true descendants of Israel and preservers of the true religion, while considering the Jerusalem temple and Levitical priesthood illegitimate.

It wasn’t uncommon for a Pharisee to pray that no Samaritan would be raised in the resurrection.

To the Jews, a Samaritan was more revolting than a Gentile (pagan); Samaritans were half-breeds who defiled the true religion.

The hate for the Samaritans was so strong that if a Jewish person needed to travel north from Jerusalem, they would often make a point of going around Samaria, even though it added a lot of time to their travels.

Being a Samaritan was really tough…but being a woman in Jewish culture was harsh as well.

Women were often treated as property, just one step above slaves, to serve the needs of their father, and later, their husband. A woman had to get permission from her father or if married her husband to leave her home. A wife could never divorce her husband, but the husband could divorce his wife by simply handing her a bill of divorce.

In Jesus’ time, women were excluded from much of public life. In fact, for a rabbi to speak with a woman on the street (even it was his own wife!) was considered a disgrace.

So, for the Samaritan woman of John 4, she didn’t have one strike against her, but two. A Samaritan AND a woman!

Yet, Jesus did not allow either of these social barriers to stop him from engaging the woman beside the well.

Jesus’ actions were so bold that John 4:27 tells us how the disciples reacted when they came upon the scene:

Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” (NIV)

The disciples knew Jesus was doing something that wasn’t normally done.

Simply put, Jesus dared to knock down a pair of social constructs that had stood for centuries.

And he did it simply by having a conversation.

Now that’s the Jesus style!

People are really good at putting up walls and barriers.

But Jesus is even better at knocking them down.

Paul wrote these words of Galatians to remind us of the oneness we share as human beings in Christ:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith,  for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:26-29 NIV)

If we identify as followers of Jesus, we will likely have some pre-conceived walls about people that need tearing down.

Something we were taught.

Or something we came up with our own.

Which people group are you afraid of?

Which people group are you holding a grudge against?

What barrier within your sphere of influence needs to be broken down?

It might come a-tumblin’ down with a simple conversation.









Fences and Bridges

Living life as a Christian can sometimes be difficult to navigate.

That’s because Christianity comes with its own set of challenges and tensions.

For example, as Jesus’ followers we are called to be doggedly committed to truth, yet at the same time be extremely gracious and generous in our interactions with people.

Our model for this kind of “truth and grace” living is none other than Jesus himself, who John described as “full of grace and truth” in John 1:14.

Yet, I find that most of us will lean heavily on either one side or the other of the truth/grace equation.

Either we will tend to be harshly truthful because we lack grace, or we will tip toward being danderously permissive because we lack truth.

But here’s what I think: we are called to build both fences and bridges.

Allow me to break this down a bit.

First, Christians have a serious responsibility to protect true Christian doctrine from being tainted.

The apostle Paul exhorted his protégé, Timothy, with these words:

Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have departed from the faith. (1 Timothy 6:20-21 NIV)

Similarly, the entire book of Jude is devoted to the idea of guarding God’s people from false teaching.

These verses are all about fence building. There are some Christian doctrines that are so important, they must be protected by some sort of barricade.

Some might say that these are, regarding Christianity, the hills we are willing to die on.

One thing about doctrinal fence building: we typically only have to do it once. Once we know which doctrines deserve such protection, we simply establish our fences around these truths in order to keep them from being infiltrated and contaminated.

But fence building isn’t our only spiritual construction project. We are also to be about the business of bridge building.

This is the idea that, relationally speaking, we are to make great effort in connecting with others for the purpose of sharing and modeling the Gospel.

And our bridge building projects ought to be drenched in attitudes of love, grace, patience and mercy.

Paul was a wise and skilled bridge builder. He was extremely mindful of ways to help people draw close to God through his relationships. Consider what Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians:

Although I am free from all and not anyone’s slave, I have made myself a slave to everyone, in order to win more people. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews; to those under the law, like one under the law—though I myself am not under the law[d]—to win those under the law. To those who are without the law, like one without the law—though I am not without God’s law but under the law of Christ—to win those without the law. To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some. Now I do all this because of the gospel, so that I may share in the blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23 CSB)

What I gather from this passage is that Paul was interested in building as many bridges as he could! And to do so, he was willing to do a lot of flexing and adapting to make connections.

Unlike fence building, which only needs to happen once, bridge building is a lifetime pursuit. Meaning, we ought to always be looking for the next bridge we can construct.

Another occasion where Paul sought to build a bridge was in the account of found in Acts 17 where Paul at first found little traction in sharing the Gospel:

He also had a debate with some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. When he told them about Jesus and his resurrection, they said, “What’s this babbler trying to say with these strange ideas he’s picked up?” Others said, “He seems to be preaching about some foreign gods.” Then they took him to the high council of the city. “Come and tell us about this new teaching,” they said. “You are saying some rather strange things, and we want to know what it’s all about.”  (It should be explained that all the Athenians as well as the foreigners in Athens seemed to spend all their time discussing the latest ideas.) So Paul, standing before the council, addressed them as follows: “Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about. (Acts 17:18-23 NLT)

Here Paul was trying to speak to a group of people who had no context regarding Jesus and the Gospel. That’s why the referred to Paul as “a babbler.”

So what did Paul do? He thought about how the city of Athens was filled with monuments to various Gods and remembered seeing one shrine dedicated to an Unknown God. Paul decided to use that unclaimed altar to springboard into a discussion about Jesus!

Once again, Paul found away to build a bridge in order to make Gospel connections.

A final thought:

I believe that some of us are more wired for fence building. We are good at defending, guarding, protecting.

And some of us have a bent towards connecting, engaging and developing relationships. These are our bridge builders.

But I believe we are most balanced and successful when we realize we are called to both.

We are to establish protective enclosures around sacred truths, but at the same time we are to lovingly and graciously extend relationship to those who don’t know Jesus.

Put simply, we are challenged to both defend and extend when it comes to our faith.

If we only defend and never extend, we can become rigid and insular.

And if we only extend, but never defend, we can become sloppy and foundationless.

But if we are willing to both defend and extend, we protect the truth as well as bring the truth to the people who desperately need it.

Fences and bridges. May we be faithful in building both.