Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) (1591-1666)
In my last Reflection, Commend the Faith that is In us, I shared thoughts about how, as people of faith, we often think our faith is not sufficient or strong enough. We think we need more faith to live the lives God would have us live. But as I pointed out, even though our faith may not be as much or as great as we'd like, we need to use the faith that is already in us.
While thinking and writing about this faith that is already in us topic, I wondered about many people "out there," outside our churches who might not think of themselves as people of faith. Most of us might also consider them as not having faith.
I wonder, though. Might many of those folks have faith — maybe just a mustard seed bit — and don't even realize it? Perhaps faith was there at one time, but is now dormant. Maybe, just every so often, they think God-stuff thoughts; but they don't allow it opportunity to break out. They don't just fail to commend the faith in themselves; they don't even realize (or admit) they have faith. (How often do we find ourselves in the same boat — we do not realize our own faith.)
It disturbs me to think this, but I fear that sometimes it can be our churches and we Christians that keep folks from recognizing the faith that may be in them. We have our rules, "right" beliefs, expectations of behavior, and even downright snobbery that suggests to others that their potential seed of faith is not enough or not the right kind. Rather than being people and institutions that nurture those perhaps small seeds of faith and allow them to flourish, we judge, label, and limit because they don't fit into the boxes we have defined as true faith. In doing so we not only prevent faith from flourishing, we may also keep those others from seeing God.
The biggest barriers between God and ourselves are often the ones we have internalized from what other people might see in us. The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well is a powerful one. (See John 4:1-42.) She was probably a person others would view as without faith. Perhaps she, too, did not sense any faith she might have. But Jesus — whether because he was God or because he took the time to take her seriously and talk to her — DID see a seed of faith in her. And he worked with that seed.
In simply talking about the "living water" he could tell she was searching for, he helped that seed of faith flourish. It flourished such that not only did she believe, but she spread the news and brought many Samaritans to believe in Jesus. That seed of faith flourished so much that, even though we don't know her name, when and wherever the gospel story is told, The Woman at the Well has a section all her own!
While we might not realize the opportunities, probably all of us have chances to help non—or hesitant-believers recognize that they do have a seed of faith … and that we can perhaps nurture that seed so it might flourish. Perhaps some comments by a coworker hints that she may be thinking something deeper than the superficial conversation of the group. Maybe you sense that the guy next door doesn't think himself worthy of even thinking about God, let alone consider going to a church. These perceptions just might be—similar to the priest's story in the previous Reflection—a crack in the door that can allow the small seed of faith to grow.
A caution, though: If we recognize the situation and see opportunity, I think we need to realize that we are approaching a delicate situation. How we approach the opportunity, the words we use, the actions we take can perhaps nurture … or they can harden the shell of any sense of faith that might be there. A key action at this time is prayer. Not prayer with the other person but our own prayer for guidance, sensitivity, an understanding of our intention … and patience. I can't think of many situations where our own commitment of prayer may be more important than this one.
Along with prayer, I'd like to suggest a few possible guiding thoughts to help. In doing so, looking at how Jesus interacted with the woman at the well can help. Can't get a better model than Jesus himself! From the story's outcome, he must have been doing something right.
The fact that Jesus had the conversation at all is actually stunning … an encounter that many religious people would more than frown on. The woman was a Samaritan, people despised by the Jews. Jesus shouldn't be talking with a Samaritan. She appeared sexually immoral. What's Jesus doing talking with someone "like that"? And, she was … well … just a woman. Why would Jesus even speak to a woman, let alone have a deep, heart-to-heart conversation? But, he did. Guercino's painting above portrays so well what the story suggests: This was not just some idle, meaningless chat to get a drink of water. A key here is that Jesus, by breaking many boundaries, was able to establish a relationship with her, one of mutual respect. Are we able to hold our perceptions and biases aside to have meaningful, mutually respectful conversation?
Perhaps the relationship was spurred by the fact that Jesus caught the woman off guard. For all the reasons above, she would not have expected the man to even acknowledge her, let along want to talk. Her reaction: "You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?" shows her surprise. (John 4:9) He already upsets her sense of reality. I can imagine her thoughts: "This guy might be different. Maybe he values me. And, I do have much to talk about."
Having a background in science, I was often in the company of many who tuned out Christianity because they saw the faith as built on foundations, such as the seven-day-creation, that can fly in the face of scientific evidence. Many viewed Christians as people whose faith was a series of beliefs considered as certain and unquestionable. Not a religion for inquisitive or skeptic minds … No room for doubt. One day when such a colleague was saying he could never see himself considering Christianity, I interrupted saying, "You know, I wrestled with this same stuff you're questioning; still do." His head perked up, "Really?" he sounded shocked. "Yes," I replied. "I probably have more questions than answers … especially answers I'm certain of." A bit like Jesus with the woman, I caught him off guard. "And you're even moderator or something at your church!" A door was ajar. We talked. We talked often, and I could sense a seed starting to flourish.
And, I think we need to have a sense of our goal. Is it to help mold the other person into what we are as a Christian? … perhaps our picture of what it takes to be a Christian? Or is it to help the other establish a relationship with God … To help faith grow through a walk with Christ? If the latter (my right answer!), then we have to take the difficult attitude of not setting a path, but let God work in that person.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (in Life Together) says, "God does not want me to model others into the image that seems good to me, that is, into my own image. … I can never know in advance how God's image should appear in others. … To me that form may seem strange, even ungodly. But God creates every person in the image of God's Son." I wonder whether we actually trust God. We pray that God will work inside our friend's life, but, when that work seems to be producing unexpected fruit (which we might think a wrong fruit), how do we react? Maybe there is need for some intervening questions; help the person clarify. But, we should also wonder whether we really trust God to work in God's way and to His ends. I fear that too often, for myself at least, I think my plans are better.
As I said earlier, working with another to help identify that mustard seed of faith and help it flourish is a delicate task. It demands that we enter into relationship … even a relationship that may force us to bite our tongues and not chastise, or not defend God and point out errors in the other's thinking … or have pat answers. Maybe our goal should just be to nurture an honest human relationship based on mutual caring and interest; not a relationship based on our goal of changing the other. In doing so, the opportunities to nurture the seed of faith may become obvious and natural, finding fertile ground. Invariably, when Christians talk about their own growth of faith, many stories involve a relationship with someone who cared. We hope our friend develops a personal relationship with Christ. Maybe that journey starts as a simple human relationship with us.
A few times in these Reflections, I've mentioned a church group: Beer Missionship. It's not a formal church group, but an informal, monthly gathering of a few men from my church who meet around the bar area at TJs, a local pub. Conversation is usually the typical men stuff: sports, tough work day, vacation plans, and arguments about important topics like which rock group of the 80's was most influential. Every so often some sharing of personal trials such as a strained marriage bubble up, and even a bit of discussion and questioning about our church, faith, and religion.
A couple years ago, a stranger happened to be at the bar near us. Hearing some of the conversation, he chimed in a bit as folks sometimes do in that type of setting. For a few months, this man just happened to show up on our scheduled nights. I really didn't know him more than the usual handshake, but he developed a warm relationship with a couple of our regulars.
A recent Sunday—Pentecost Sunday—the bulletin listed people for the special day's baptisms. Included was our once-tangential friend from TJs. Both he and his son were baptized that day. Connections around the bar, honest and welcoming conversation, nurturing even small seeds of faith, letting God do the heavy lifting … and now baptism … he and his family.
The Lord often works in mysterious ways! Can we trust God enough to allow ourselves to be part of those divine mysterious ways? And, I pray our response is the same as the in the words of our Baptismal Covenant: The people's response to the individual recitations of our responsibilities: "I will, with God's help." Amen.