For Christians, Jesus is our common ground. We may disagree on any number of things, but there had better be agreement on Jesus Christ as Savior, Lord, and Head of His church. Is this enough to resolve every conflict we may have? No – but it is always the correct starting point. We may disagree on strategy, tactics, or issues of the day, but our shared unity in Christ ought to compel us to love one another regardless of our disagreement.
But when we interact with people who are unchurched, or dechurched, we are wise to find some other source of common ground, which oftentimes paves the way for a relationship of trust to develop, and may well open doors to sharing the Gospel, and eventually finding common ground in Christ.
An illustration that comes to mind is from an article published in USA TODAY some fifteen years ago. The article was titled “Enemies Play in Peace,” and it was centered on a group of Israeli and Palestinian men brought together for one week to play basketball at the University of Vermont. Here are a few excerpts from the article:
At first, the chill in the air at that meeting – not helped by an Arabic-Hebrew language barrier – worried organizers as the two groups sat separately. Then a warmth spread as basketball dominated the talk. Israelis and Palestinians agreed to speak English.
“Sports is a language everyone understands,” said Galily. “Now it is not us and them here, it is just us. It is just a small step, but it in the journey it is an important one.”
“This trip has let me see such wonderful guys here,” Kotto, 25, said, sweeping his hand around the lunch table. “I encourage everyone to understand the other side of things. They are guys just like me.”
Even sworn enemies can find common ground, and when that happens, the possibility of deeper, more meaningful discussion is greatly enhanced.
The story above is a good one, but there is a story in Scripture that is far better. It’s in John 4:1-42 – the story of Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well. You’ve probably read and heard this story many times, but I encourage you to pause for a few minutes to read it afresh, and to let the story wash over you.
What an amazing impact one encounter had! The woman at the well was changed forever, and so too were many in her village. And, of course, this story has impacted countless others, too. After all, we’re still talking about it, and learning from it, all these years later.
The lessons in the story are many, but for today, let’s focus on the importance of Jesus gradually – and progressively – establishing common ground. Think about this …
- The woman was part of a mixed race, with Samaritans considered to be impure by Jews. And yet Jesus stops to converse with her, which in itself is an extraordinary act of grace, given the cultural norms of the day. The initial common ground Jesus established was simply acknowledging her, rather than ignoring her. And so Jesus fills a basic human need – to be acknowledged, and valued, as a person.
- Going for water in that culture was hard work. Wells were typically located outside the city on the main road, and women would go for water twice each day – morning and evening. But this woman, because of her reputation, came to the well at noon in order to avoid being seen by others. In other words, she was ostracized from others in her community. Yet Jesus acknowledges her, and more than that, offers her “living water” that would remove a person’s thirst forever. For a person who had to work so hard to get water in the first place, including needing to make the walk in isolation at odd hours, Jesus’ offer was eminently appealing. She didn’t understand what Jesus meant by “living water,” but she understood full well how difficult getting water was. Again, Jesus’ words met her where she was at, addressing a significant need.
- Having established common ground, Jesus is ready to steer the discussion to a deeper place. He instructs the woman to go to her husband, knowing full well that she had already had five husbands and was currently living with a man she wasn’t married to. The woman assumes Jesus to be a prophet. Gradually, by degrees, she is being drawn deeper and deeper into the truth of who Jesus is. Jesus then speaks to her about true worshipers – spirit and truth worshipers – which prompts the woman to state, “I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming…”
Talk about progressively unfolding common ground! She anticipated the coming Messiah, but still didn’t realize that she was talking to Him.
- By the time Jesus tells the woman, “I who speak to you am He,” there was already a bond of trust built. It started when Jesus addressed the woman, which in itself represented a break from the tradition and custom of the day. It continued when Jesus offered the woman a gift (“living water”) she didn’t fully grasp, but in her mind would remove the physical and emotional burdens she carried in having to go for water alone, and at odd hours. Once common ground was established, Jesus ministered to her powerfully and concisely: “I who speak to you am He.”
Take time to think about the differences you may have with people around you, and ways in which you can establish common ground as a starting point that may well lead to healthier relationships, or even organic opportunities to share the Gospel.
And as you do so, be sure to heed these words from 1 Corinthians 10:31: “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”