Listening to hear: the big importance of small voices

Editor’s Note: This post was originally created by Grace Gibney as a sermon for Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church. Grace is one of 9 young adults currently participating in a PiE initiative called “Preach It!” that matches passionate young preachers with local congregations. The text Grace is referring to is John 4:1-30.

I am a kindergarten teacher, and in kindergarten, we do a lot of learning to listen.  We read books about it, do partnered activities promoting it, have charts up around the rooms modelling how to do it, and praise students when they successfully manage to follow through.  Despite all of these efforts, on some days, it just remains an elusive oasis across the far-off dessert of “I’m telllllling!” There are times we just shake our heads and wonder if the importance of truly hearing what is being said will ever fully go in.  We wonder if these classmates with different experiences and perspectives will ever be able to bridge the gap of their opinions and realize the benefits of sharing ideas.  Though these are expectations of my students, I often try to sit back and consider, am I doing a good job of listening to them, too? Or of listening to the other people in my life that need me to hear their messages?

In our world, there are an ever-increasing number of voices to listen to.  Politicians, popular media, teachers, advertisers, writers, doctors…on a simpler level, partners, parents, siblings, friends.  Where do we direct our attention, to whom are our ears attuned?  For a moment, think about why you listen to the people that you listen to. 

Many times, it may be because we feel that there is something at stake.  Compensation, time, freedom, relationships.  How often do we really, deeply listen because it is what our soul needs?  Because the person speaking has something to offer our spiritual growth?  How often do the voices that may feed your spiritual wellbeing go unnoticed?  Why do they go unnoticed?

Our lives are busier than they have ever been, and from the moment we are born we are trained to listen to particular kinds of voices.  Certain voices are afforded the power of a platform; we learn to give our attention to those privileged enough to have been given one.  Think back to how you learned to listen, who you learned to listen to, and what that looked like.  Children learn to listen to adults; first and foremost, their parents.  They begin to listen to adults so that their basic needs may be met.  We learn, early on, to listen to authority figures, who hopefully meet our needs for love, communication, sustenance. 

However, we also learn to listen to people because they have more power than we do, regardless of how they use it.  If you see and hear a message from a person on a platform long enough, it rattles around in your head until you most likely absorb it.  The problem can be that power does not necessarily equate to a valuable and needed message, one that feeds your mind and soul, that asks you to grow and reach for truth.  Power and platform without a message of truth and compassion can breed divisive categorization, or attitudes of “us” and “them.”  So how do we listen for spiritual growth and wellbeing?  How do we know whom to listen to?  The story of the woman at the well gives us a good example.

GraceGibneyWaterfall

Jews and Samaritans didn’t associate.  They didn’t have ears to hear one another’s perspectives.  At the well at noon, both Jesus and the Samaritan woman were outside of their traditionally comfortable spaces.  When Jesus asks the Samaritan woman for a drink, she responds defensively, off-put by the suggestion that they should speak and interact in such a way.  “Are you greater than our ancestor, Jacob?” she asks with a challenge, wondering who this boundary-breaching stranger is.  Her first inclination, hot, tired, and having to make a trip alone under the midday sun, is to second guess this odd person who is interfering with her ability to accomplish this wearying daily task.  She doesn’t have time for another bit of criticism, another demand, another emotionally draining exchange. 

This challenge does not phase Jesus.  He does not respond with a quick quip, when he could have said something along the lines of “Do you have any idea who you are talking to?”  Instead, he chooses to respond with humility and patience.  He nudges the dialogue along with kindness, opening the floor for the deep truth he knows will so thoroughly change her life.  Much more of a “you get more flies with honey” approach.  Jesus patiently prepared the woman for a space where she was ready and able to listen with her heart and receive the living water.

Jesus’ intentional, particular choices at the well demonstrated a willingness to deeply listen that paves a path beneficial to us seeking his example in our faith journeys.  I found that there were four components to his interaction with the woman at the well that demonstrated deep listening, and in turn, opened her ears and heart to a radical and unexpected message.

1. Providing presence

Jesus made an effort to be in that emotional, mental and physical space.  He joined her in the lonely, painful, exhausting place of isolation and shame that her community abandoned her to.  It would have been especially painful, needing to avoid the well during the cooler parts of the day and make use of it at the most undesirable time, because it was a social place for many other women. Welcome time that I’m sure the Samaritan woman would have longed to be a part of, and instead she likely had to endure the frustration of being a conversation topic.

People’s wounds are hard to see, they hold them carefully within the walls of their body, and the gift of presence in the space that someone truly occupies builds trust.  A lot of the time when people listen they are not truly present. Distraction sets in, takes hold, and the person who needs you there doesn’t feel valued or heard.  Jesus knew each part of the Samaritan woman’s identity and still offered her the gift of intentional presence, and perhaps she felt more open to listening in return. 

Jesus’ presence didn’t have to be earned.  He made space for someone different from himself because they had inherent value to him in all their beautiful, painful, growing glory. I know this experience all too well as a woman, and as a person who identifies as queer, which have both been factors that at times mean space is not afforded me because of the body and history that I happen to occupy. The Samaritan woman had a somewhat different experience, but as a person experiencing marginalization, knew all too well the tiring lack of space afforded someone who is part of the socio-political minority. Genuine presence is hard to come by when you are marginalized because people aim to take up your space rather than meet you equitably in it. Jesus afforded her the respect of meeting her where she was, not where he wanted her to be.

2. Gaining trust

Building trust requires listening, and encourages a platform where others are willing to hear your message in the future.  In order to cultivate trust, one needs to be willing to engage in vulnerability, meet someone in the space that they occupy, and forget the need to “win.” Jesus’ ethic of care, as well as interest and investment in people who were “othered,” intentionally built mutual respect along lines of difference. The Samaritan woman registers a certain amount of suspicion when Jesus initially approaches her; an extra dose of doubt sets the two up for what would at first seem a short and slightly uncomfortable exchange.  I’m sure fear entered into the equation, her wondering what such a nonconformist could possibly be after.

Fear enters into most exchanges with people different from ourselves, and in order to move past fear to develop trust we must persevere through the uncomfortable position of allowing space for someone else’s unique perspective, one that might challenge or question our own.  The Samaritan woman took the risk of hearing, listening to, and allowing Jesus’ words to permeate and change her own assumptions, whereas Jesus took the risk of immersing himself socially in an unfamiliar cultural space. Working through the fear of difference and bringing a spirit of genuine interest and concern to the exchange built an environment of trust, one where new information could be welcomed because openness was palpable.

Jesus could have avoided Samaria, and those different from himself, but instead he chose to embrace them and befriend them. In order to build trust there is some personal risk that one must take, letting down walls of defense and sharing elements of themselves. The Samaritan woman does not bristle as if Jesus has attacked her when she realizes that he knows everything she has ever done; she doesn’t assume he is out to further criticize her.  Instead, she makes room for his living water and accepts it into her life, carrying it to others and allowing space for it to heal her. She lets down her guard and removes the need to be “right” at all costs. In a similar pattern, Jesus doesn’t punish and chastise, he builds her trust by offering living water to even one such as she: a person worthy of compassion and empathy, a person worthy of carrying the most important message of all to her community.

3. Offering humility

As mentioned, in order to build a trusting relationship, one needs to let go of the desire to “win” and thus willingly meet a differing perspective with humility. Jesus did not approach his dialogue with the Samaritan woman from a place of arrogance, even though he possessed the truth that she so desperately needed. While he had an obvious and particular purpose, he respected her intellect and reasoning, as a child of God given the capacity to make choices. Jesus demonstrated humility by asking her for a drink, suggesting that she draw water and share it with him using her jar. This established a level of equity in the human experience of needing and sharing water from the well. He made himself relatable to her, joining her in her need. Instead of demanding her attention, he asked for her time. A simple effort such as this was a white flag, demonstrating not a desire to “win” but a desire to share, provide space to flourish, and give a message that is lifegiving, rather than penalizing.

Jesus’ humbly extended his ideas and presence, and as a result, the Samaritan woman responded with similar willingness to listen with an openness to really hear. She let her initial hesitations go and abandoned her preconceptions when she realized the value of the message she was given. This humility was the difference between a decision to discard Jesus’ words and a decision to leave her heavy jar behind and muster the courage to share the living water with a community of people who had rejected her. An effort towards communicating with humility can be the factor that draws people to a perspective, or without humility, drives them away. It is responsible for what we teachers often refer to as a “growth mindset,” or a willingness to push your own boundaries and ideas further.

4. Demonstrating patience

Patience is a fourth essential factor in encouraging relationships where deep listening is possible. Jesus didn’t get frustrated by the woman’s initial discomfort or resistance to his information.  He realized he was bringing new and possibly uncomfortable information and gave her the time to digest, ask questions, and respond.  Our time is precious, and it is hard to give someone the empathy that is required to allow them time to come around to a new idea, or a radically different concept from what they are used to.

Sometimes it is easier to throw up your hands and abandon ship. Jesus did neither, he afforded the Samaritan woman the time it took to develop trust, showing patience and an understanding that she brought a lifetime of experiences to the discussion that shaped her knowledge. His efforts to engage her in dialogue were calmly persistent. He didn’t respond with aggression when challenged, frustrated by a lack of immediate behaviour change. Jesus knew that the lifegiving message he brought was worth the time it took to share it in a way that someone could truly digest. He had confidence that the value of what he has to share was not going to diminish if it took someone a bit of time to understand. He had a superior knowledge and lifesaving message; yet, he didn’t emphasize the higher value of his viewpoints with a self-important air. He knew that in order to encourage someone to have the ears to hear, he needed to approach the woman with gentle encouragement and time.  This effort meant that when Jesus was ready to reveal that he knew everything she ever did, the Samaritan woman felt respected instead of shamed and embarrassed.  She was able to hear the words realizing Jesus’ genuine concern and love for her and wanted to share this with others.

Through his presence, efforts to build trust, humility, and patience, Jesus bridged a space of difference, creating a conversation that could flourish with the richness of living water. Jesus knew everything the Samaritan woman had ever done, yet he still took the time to open himself up to her, sharing his vulnerability and the humanness of thirst, in order that he might gain her trust and feel fully listened to. Even though he had the living water, he took the time to establish a space where she felt safe to receive it, which in turn motivated her to bridge the gaps of difference within her own community and share this most important gift. Through Jesus’ gentle efforts, God opened the Samaritan woman’s heart to hear the message that she needed. Her willingness to engage in dialogue with a person different from herself brought her the grace that her soul craved, grace which she couldn’t access through her own decisions.

We too, may miss the value of rich viewpoints around us if we never risk vulnerability by choosing to engage others who seem different from ourselves. By letting arbitrary boundaries supported by fear get in our way, what invaluable messages may we be ignoring and from whom? What judgments do we let cloud our willingness to listen? We have been gifted the ears to hear and the intellect to wrestle with complex ideas, as well as the voice to carry it forward. God frequently emphasized the value of his children that had been cast aside; the Samaritan woman was chosen with the divine purpose of bringing the living water to a community that didn’t show her respect or realize her value. We grow from hearing the diverse perspectives of people around us; it is important to slow down, listen with open ears, and let God speak to us through the people that he knows we need to hear from.

GraceGibneyGrace is an elementary school teacher for the Waterloo Region District School Board. She recently graduated from her Master of Education, and has a deep love for learning that colours ever part of her life. She has enjoyed being involved in Queerly Christian through PiE, a space where diverse lives are deeply valued as each member experiences personal spiritual growth. In her spare time she loves to do almost every kind of visual art, and enjoys volunteering on a social justice and equity committee advocating for diverse elementary school students and teachers.

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