Tod Bolsinger tells the story of Lewis and Clark in his book Canoeing the Mountains. Their expedition took them off the map as they abandoned the canoes and headed into uncharted territory. Their commitment to the expedition led them to an unlikely partnership with Sacagawea. Three things made her an unlikely partner: she was a woman, a native American, and a nursing mother to a two month old baby.
William Clark wrote, “The Indian woman has been of great service to me as a pilot through this country” (p189). Sacagawea served as an interpreter, brokered deals with tribesmen, and rescued the captain’s journals when they were sinking to the bottom of the river. Her very identity confirmed the friendly intentions of the Corps of Discovery when confronted with aggressive war parties.
The story is an inspiring one but it’s not the first story of its kind. Jesus formed an unlikely partnership with someone while he journeyed from Judea to Galilee early in his ministry. The partnership with the woman at the well made the disciples uncomfortable because she was a woman and a Samaritan with a complicated sexual history.
The woman Jesus encountered at Jacob’s Well in Samaria was his unlikely ministry partner. Her conversation with Jesus at the well is the longest in scripture with an individual. They discussed theology–a rare topic of conversation for women in the first century! They pondered both physical and spiritual needs. He knew who she was and yet he didn’t hesitate. Her broken, battered past became the gateway to wholeness, healing, and freedom from shame.
It is to this unlikely partner that Jesus first revealed his identity as the Messiah. He gave her the privilege of sharing the good news with her entire village. The woman’s testimony opened the way for her neighbors to listen to Jesus. She invited Jesus into the city, introduced him around, offered him hospitality, and many believed in him because of her. Together Jesus and the woman collaborated in the mission of bringing the redemption of God to the village of Sychar.
Bolsinger makes the point that the experiences of women and persons of color are as critical to the transitioning Western church in a post-Christendom world as Sacagawea was to Lewis and Clark (p193). And I would add, as critical as the woman at the well was to Jesus in preaching the gospel in Samaria.
While pastoring a local congregation through transition, I too found an unlikely partner. His name was Mukanda: a member of the opposite gender, a recent Congolese refugee, and a father of seven children. But he loved Jesus and had the gift of evangelism. Over the next few years, more and more Congolese faces looked back at me on Sunday mornings. Mukanda had invited them. To communicate our joy in their presence with us, I learned a couple of Swahili phrases: “I’m so glad you are here. We love you so much.”
Like Lewis and Clark, we are off the map as we navigate post-Christendom and post-pandemic ministry in the church. One of the lessons from Bolsinger’s book is that when you go off the map the rules change. How committed are you to the mission? Are you willing to change the rules and do things differently? Jesus left social convention behind. The disciples left their nets. The woman at the well left her water jar. What are you willing to leave behind? We’re in an environment we’ve never encountered before. We need help. Who are you listening to? With whom are you collaborating? Who are your partners? Do they look any different than the ones you had 3 years ago?
Let’s commit to seeking and strengthening mixed gender and ethnically diverse partnerships for the sake of a world that desperately needs Jesus and the good news he has to offer. Jesus engaged the woman at the well in his mission, as well as Mary, Martha, the Centurion’s servant, Joanna, Susanna, Mary Magdalene and countless others. Who will you engage?
By Elaine May, CRCNA Women’s Leadership Developer.