“Therefore welcome one another,” Paul says, “as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7).
We have been welcomed into the kingdom of God by Jesus. No pretension is necessary with Jesus. He knows our sin and still welcomes us. As a matter of fact, it is through being vulnerable with Jesus that our relationship with him grows and our sense of belonging deepens. In our congregations, we should strive for everyone to receive a warm welcome and place to belong.
That probably sounds good to all of us. Most church members likely want their church to be welcoming. But what does it really look like for a church to cultivate a sense that all people can belong? In the Sunday school at my congregation, the children have been learning a true story from John 4:1-45 about Jesus meeting a woman at a well. There are a few details in this story that can help us more effectively welcome others into our family of faith in the same way we’ve been welcomed.
First, notice the location. Jesus and His disciples are not waiting in a worship center with anticipation that strangers will come through their doors and ask some deep thoughtful questions. People are not seeking a worshipping community, they are seeking a way to make sense of life. The woman’s skepticism and timing of her arrival indicate that she had no expectations of a warm welcome or help from Jesus. She was just trying to make her life work. So that’s where Jesus meets her. And that’s what we’re called to do. We are sent to people in the contexts of their lives instead of waiting until they enter our lives.
Second, witness the cross-cultural conversation. Jesus sees a woman arriving to draw water. He asks for her to give him a drink. Jesus breaks two cultural taboos by talking to a woman from a different ethnic group. He didn’t have a cup and they would have to share one. That may not seem like as big a deal today, but in the first century these things simply weren’t done. Jesus reaches across the aisle, so to speak. And as nice as that sounds in theory, it brings all kinds of challenges! The woman questions His motives. Others would be confused by Jesus’ actions. Jesus did not pretend that it’s easy or deny differences. He simply bridges the gap. Jesus reveals something very important through this interaction. Our nation is growing increasingly divided. But the church is not at war with culture, nor are we the same as culture. We find whatever is true and noble and we make a connection. Look for ways to have conversations with people like the ones Jesus had, speaking words of both truth and grace with a sincere desire to make real connections.
Third, Jesus empowers the woman to be a part of His ministry. The woman becomes the first evangelist in the gospel of John. She went and told her people about Jesus. She brought her people to meet Jesus so they could see and hear Him for themselves. The disciples were confused by the woman because they could not imagine God working through her to share the good news. But that’s exactly what happens. This is how Jesus continues to work, and so we have the responsibility to welcome and develop new leaders, even if that means they have different gifts or might do things a little differently than we would.
This is a beautiful story of transformation. Jesus welcomes the woman at the well and she comes to see that she belongs in the kingdom of God. It informs and inspires our work. But just like was true with Jesus, this is a messy call. The people Jesus sends us to may be confused by the concept of grace. They are likely to misunderstand certain words and ideas in our conversations, and the same will certainly be true for how we hear them at times. By some, words of welcome and grace that invite people to belong will be confused with the affirmation of sin. On the other hand, when we don’t affirm and celebrate what modern culture has redefined as noble, we will be called intolerant and judgmental. At times like these, there will be temptation to hunker down with people like us – people who are easier to welcome or who seem like they really belong. That’s when we’ll remember together how Jesus has come to us and spoken words of convicting truth and amazing grace into our lives. He opens our eyes and patiently leads us to greater understanding of His will for our lives. He forgives us. He welcomes us. We belong to him. And now He uses us to go and tell others that He can do the same for them.