My son and I sat overlooking the waterfall with our friend, also a follower of Jesus, reveling in the beauty of this hidden Oregon gem of a place. Young people sunbathed around us, the aroma of marijuana mixing with the smell of pine and earth.
A twenty-one year old girl sat with us after showing us the safest routes to traverse the edge of the cliff and jump into the pool of water below the falls.
“Have you had any personal experiences with Jesus or spirituality?”
A deep conversation followed as she progressively opened up with her life story, including some painful experiences with religion.
We shared our stories of how Jesus had affected our lives in a personal way.
“You know, as we’re talking, I think God wants you to know that he deeply loves you and cares for you. Would it be ok if I prayed for you right now?”
A smile spread across her face as she nodded her head and closed her eyes.
As we prayed for this young lady, tears began streaming down her face.
“I felt so much love and peace as you were praying for me. This is amazing. I can’t believe I met you guys. This is exactly what I needed.”
“You know, what you’re experiencing right now is an awareness of the closeness of Jesus and how God feels about you. Would you like to become a follower of Jesus and learn to do life with Him?”
She was enthused to learn more about what that meant. Just as we were approaching a point in the conversation where it seemed good to welcome her to personally receive Jesus for herself, she asked,
“But what do you guys think about LGBTQ+ people? Because I’ve met a lot of mean religious people who have really hurt some of my LGBTQ+ friends. I believe ‘Love is love’, you know what I mean?”
I was about to respond when my friend began explaining what the Bible says about same sex relationships and God’s design for marriage between a man and a woman. The conversation was taking a detour. He was kind in his tone, but I knew the damage was done.
“Oh no,” I thought.
From her body language, I see her tense up. An invisible wall goes up and she appears anxious. The moment of openness to Christ was fading.
This is a tough one for many Christ-followers in America to grasp, but follow along with me.
We cannot argue someone into following Christ by engaging in debates and conversations that need to happen over time, in the context of a loving, ongoing relationship, AFTER someone personally experiences Jesus. I hear the rebuttals – “But what about truth? Aren’t we compromising and presenting a false gospel if we don’t stand up for truth?”
Think about it:
Does Jesus require us to have perfect theology and correct all our sinful behavior BEFORE receiving Jesus or does he change us AFTER we receive Jesus?
If each of us was required to have everything figured out and clean up our lifestyle in order to become worthy of receiving Jesus, then the cross of Jesus was for nothing – and none of us could ever be saved.
Recently, my teenage daughter asked me, “Dad, can someone be a Christian and a homosexual?”
After carefully pondering the question, I responded. “Yes, Olivia. Someone can be a homosexual and receive Jesus. Anyone can receive Jesus and begin following him. But anyone who continues following Jesus will experience a change in how they identify themselves over time. And that change in identity from God will create significant transformation. Jesus will guide them a different way than they lived before they started following Jesus.”
Before I was following Jesus, I was involved in various debate activities as a student. I loved logic, reasoning, argument, and persuasive speeches. I loved convincing people of my position and “winning arguments.” However, after I became a follower of Christ, I realized there was a risk in “winning arguments” but losing people.
You can “win” an argument and lose a friendship. The way of Jesus is not the way of arguing.
In the decades I’ve followed Jesus, I’ve walked with many people to begin their journey of believing in, receiving, and following Jesus. Yet I have never once – not one time – argued with or reasoned someone into following Jesus by focusing on tangential debates about politics, gender, sexuality, or any myriad of issues that aren’t explicitly focused on the love of God and the implications of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Every single time someone comes to repent and believe in Jesus, it is a miraculous decision of their own faith and will. AFTER someone receives Jesus is when the miraculous transformation of the mind occurs, NOT before. I’m not saying there is not an appropriate place for disciplined thought, classical apologetics, etc. But those avenues will never be the “clincher” that causes someone to turn to Christ – and many times they are slow and cumbersome routes to guide someone to Christ.
The Apostle Paul speaks about this issue in his letters to the believers in Rome and Corinth – both audiences who were part of a Hellenistic civilization immersed in a rich cultural tradition of polytheism, debate, philosophy, and logic. I love how the New King James translates his words:
Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be.” (Romans 8:7)
Enmity: the state or feeling of being actively opposed or hostile to someone or something
If a person’s carnal mind is already predisposed to resist the logic of God, why would we engage in arguments or explanations about tangential issues before they have the opportunity to experience Christ for themselves?
Paul further explains this phenomenon regarding a person’s mind and what happens AFTER someone turns to Christ:
If the Good News we preach is hidden behind a veil, it is hidden only from people who are perishing. 4 Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. (2 Corinthians 4:3-4)
In this same letter to the Corinthians, Paul explains what happens the moment someone willfully turns to Christ:
But whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. (2 Corinthians 3:16)
In other words, when someone receives Christ, they begin to experience an ability to see and understand things they could not previously.
For the evangelist, there is little point to being lured down “rabbit trails” of argument and rationalizing with pre-believers that detour away from the simplicity and beauty and love and truth of JESUS.
Jesus knew this. I love how he engaged in conversation with the Samaritan woman at a well of water.
Jesus knew the Pharisees had heard that he was baptizing and making more disciples than John 2 (though Jesus himself didn’t baptize them—his disciples did). 3 So he left Judea and returned to Galilee.
4 He had to go through Samaria on the way. 5 Eventually he came to the Samaritan village of Sychar, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there; and Jesus, tired from the long walk, sat wearily beside the well about noontime. 7 Soon a Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Please give me a drink.” 8 He was alone at the time because his disciples had gone into the village to buy some food.
9 The woman was surprised, for Jews refuse to have anything to do with Samaritans. She said to Jesus, “You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan woman. Why are you asking me for a drink?”
10 Jesus replied, “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.”
11 “But sir, you don’t have a rope or a bucket,” she said, “and this well is very deep. Where would you get this living water? 12 And besides, do you think you’re greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us this well? How can you offer better water than he and his sons and his animals enjoyed?”
13 Jesus replied, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. 14 But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.”
15 “Please, sir,” the woman said, “give me this water! Then I’ll never be thirsty again, and I won’t have to come here to get water.”
16 “Go and get your husband,” Jesus told her.
17 “I don’t have a husband,” the woman replied.
Jesus said, “You’re right! You don’t have a husband— 18 for you have had five husbands, and you aren’t even married to the man you’re living with now. You certainly spoke the truth!”
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “you must be a prophet. 20 So tell me, why is it that you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place of worship, while we Samaritans claim it is here at Mount Gerizim, where our ancestors worshiped?”
We usually read the scriptures through the lens of our cultural understanding and worldview. Most American Christians tend to think Jesus was speaking to a sexually promiscuous woman. But the same story viewed through the lens of ancient Near Eastern culture suggests an alternate interpretation. Having experienced multiple broken marriage relationships, it’s likely that the woman was barren, unable to have children – she’d been passed around from man to man until she finally resorted to living under the roof of a man for protection and provision, the man not willing to agree to her legitimate rights of marriage. Other possibilities include that the woman had a string of extraordinary bad luck and tragedy. With each of her previous husbands dying young, perhaps she had been labeled as “cursed”, her current partner unwilling to marry her, yet willing to let her live with him. Regardless of what had happened in her life, the fact that she visited the well in the heat of the midday sun, and not in the cool of the morning when others typically filled their heavy vessels of water, suggests that perhaps the woman was full of shame, avoiding the stares and criticisms of the other women in the village who would typically gather in the mornings.
But notice what happens in the flow of the conversation at this point. At a critical moment of the conversation, the woman throws out a controversial question, a topic of heated debate for generations between Jews and Samaritans (and this wasn’t even the first controversial question the woman posed to Jesus).
“So tell me, why is it that you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place of worship, while we Samaritans claim it is here at Mount Gerizim, where our ancestors worshiped?”
Jesus evades the question!
Instead of arguing the position of the Jews in that specific ongoing cultural/historical/religious debate, Jesus gets to the heart of the matter in such a way that leads the conversation back to a discussion about the Messiah (Jesus):
21 Jesus replied, “Believe me, dear woman, the time is coming when it will no longer matter whether you worship the Father on this mountain or in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans know very little about the one you worship, while we Jews know all about him, for salvation comes through the Jews. 23 But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way. 24 For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.”
25 The woman said, “I know the Messiah is coming—the one who is called Christ. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
26 Then Jesus told her, “I am the Messiah!”
I find it absolutely remarkable that the first person recorded in Scripture to whom who Jesus directly reveals himself as the Messiah was a despised Samaritan woman, an ethnic minority denigrated by Jews, who had experienced a series of disappointing and broken relationships.
And the results were stunning.
27 Just then his disciples came back. They were shocked to find him talking to a woman, but none of them had the nerve to ask, “What do you want with her?” or “Why are you talking to her?” 28 The woman left her water jar beside the well and ran back to the village, telling everyone, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did! Could he possibly be the Messiah?” 30 So the people came streaming from the village to see him…
34 Then Jesus explained [to his disciples] …35 You know the saying, ‘Four months between planting and harvest.’ But I say, wake up and look around. The fields are already ripe for harvest. 36 The harvesters are paid good wages, and the fruit they harvest is people brought to eternal life. What joy awaits both the planter and the harvester alike! 37 You know the saying, ‘One plants and another harvests.’ And it’s true. 38 I sent you to harvest where you didn’t plant; others had already done the work, and now you will get to gather the harvest.”
39 Many Samaritans from the village believed in Jesus because the woman had said, “He told me everything I ever did!” 40 When they came out to see him, they begged him to stay in their village. So he stayed for two days, 41 long enough for many more to hear his message and believe. 42 Then they said to the woman, “Now we believe, not just because of what you told us, but because we have heard him ourselves. Now we know that he is indeed the Savior of the world.” (John 4)
This story reminds me of my old friend April, a former atheist, who remarked, “Before I met Jesus, you didn’t answer any of my questions or arguments. But now that I met Jesus, those questions don’t really matter so much to me anymore.”
And never forget when conversing with pre-believers, it is “the kindness of God [that] leads you to repentance.” (Romans 2:4) If you’re not kind, you cannot join God in his effort to bring others to repentance. (changing how one thinks that results in a change of life.)
“There is one who speaks rashly, like the thrusts of a sword. But the tongue of the wise brings healing.” (Proverbs 12:18)
What about the story of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman sticks out to you? What insights can you apply to your interactions and conversations with people about the Messiah?