I attribute some of my resiliency in conversation to my days as a high school teacher. There’s nothing quite like the mental effort it takes to sustain a conversation with a reticent and slightly surly teenager. Now, many teenagers are lovely to converse with, but I’ve encountered a few who will really make you earn it. The thing about teens is that they don’t generally care a ton about (or are unaware of) social norms that govern conversation exchange between acquaintances.
For example, one of these norms is that, if a silence ensues, you should ask that person something about themselves to reinvigorate the conversation. Many teens have not yet mastered this strategy. Another norm is that, rather than just offering one-word responses, it’s polite to expand a little to give your conversation further fodder. Again, apparently not in the skill set of many 14-year-olds.
But when we encounter a potential friend who’s like this, someone who just seems like a really tough nut to crack, it can feel discouraging. And though I tease about teenagers’ conversation skills, the reality is that people can appear closed off for any number of totally valid reasons. Maybe they are in a hard spot and don’t have the emotional energy to open up. Maybe they simply have a more shy personality. Or maybe trauma from their past makes vulnerability a really scary prospect. So how do we handle it when the Lord puts someone in our lives and on our hearts who is very closed?
How do we love them well when they won’t tell us anything?
How do I balance sharing too much about my own life because they won’t open up?
And how do I honor their privacy without pushing and prying?
At the beginning of this Sticky People series, I said we would be looking to Jesus’ example as the ultimate sticky person. After all, if anyone was community-minded, it was Jesus, and a well-known story from his life, found in John 4, holds some help for us when it comes to loving a friend who is very guarded.
Jesus’ seeming divine appointment with the rejected “woman at the well,” is rich with gospel implications. She was from a society in conflict with Jesus’ people, yet he entrusted her to evangelize an entire city and beyond. She came across Jesus in a frustrated and defensive frame of mind, yet left the conversation utterly changed.
And while Jesus alone can change hearts like that, we can allow him to work though us by noticing how he approached and communicated with someone who was, understandably, very guarded.
1. Look for the unseen.
Jesus’ whole life demonstrates that he noticed and was intentional with the unseen of society. Scholars agree that this woman was likely drawing water in the middle of the day for a reason. Under the midday sun, no one would want to make the trek to the well. Likely, her choice to complete this arduous chore at the worst time of day was due to her status as a social outcast and a desire to avoid the judgment of her peers. Jesus acknowledges that she has had many marriages and that she is currently living with her boyfriend. While those things may be the norm in our secular world today, they would have resulted in heavy social stigma in hers. As a woman at this time she had no legal rights and was entirely dependent on the men in her life to provide for her needs, her protection, and her honor. Yet, it seemed, they had failed her, she them, or both. And to top it off, as a Samaritan she was used to being socially snubbed by Jews, due to prejudice that went back centuries. At the end of the story, the disciples come back from getting groceries to find Jesus talking with a woman, and they’re completely shocked (v. 27). Really, everything about the situation was contrary to social norms.
And yet, Jesus saw her, engaged with her, and gave her new vision for her life.
And I wonder who I miss when I look at people the way the disciples looked at this Samaritan woman? Do I miss the girl who’s not like me? The girl whose life story is so different than mine? The girl who’s a bit rough around the edges? The girl who feels hard to love? The girl who comes with a lot of baggage?
Those are the kind of girls Jesus saw, loved, and called to a higher purpose in life, and if those are the girls Jesus noticed, I think I need to adjust my vision.
2. Meet her where she’s at.
When we feel called to befriend someone who’s guarded and unseen, we have an opportunity to meet her where she’s at, like Jesus did with the Samaritan woman. I see three ways he does this that can be helpful tools for us, as well.
First, he literally meets her where she is already spending time. He doesn’t ask her to come out and listen to his teaching or immediately follow him before he opens up. No, he enters into her life in a really practical moment. We can do this too. This closed friend may not be ready to spill her guts while making direct eye-contact in a coffee shop, but she might be up for a walk to get some fresh air. She might be into wasting time and money in Target, too. She might be up for letting the minions burn some energy on the playground while you guys chill in solidarity on that rickety park bench. Jesus didn’t start with the heart-to-heart. He asked her for a drink of water. And we can start here, too, by meeting this friend where she’s at in life with normal, real-life talk. There may be time for the deeply vulnerable moments down the road. But for now, be content to start easy and go slow.
Second, he meets her where she’s at emotionally. Reading John’s account, you can tell homegirl isn’t happy to see someone else at the well. Honestly, I’ve been there before! You just need a minute alone, and then there’s someone else, demanding something from you, be it a drink of water or mere social engagement. When you’re emotionally on the edge, it can all feel like an imposition. But Jesus had a bigger vision; he didn’t need to be received well to know he belonged there, that she needed him. So, rather than let her curt replies and frustrated accusations scare him off, he met her where she was at emotionally and stayed. It feels easier to remove ourselves from our relationships when conversations feel tense and accusations start to bubble under the surface. Sometimes as Christians who put such emphasis on joy and gratitude, we can struggle to be comfortable with authentic emotions like anger, frustration, disappointment, or hurt. We let it scare us off from our relationships, precisely when those in that emotional spot most need someone to stick with them through it.
Third, he meets her where she’s at spiritually. Jesus invites her questions; he doesn’t snuff or ignore them. He responds honestly, and, although this wasn’t relevant for Jesus, I imagine this is where we have an opportunity to also say, “I don’t know” if we’re not sure of an answer. And then, he hints at more to be discovered and piques her interest by offering the possibility of life in the Kingdom of God, even for her. He didn’t come at her with recited sections of the Torah. He didn’t pressure her about synagogue attendance. He didn’t chastise her about her past. By inviting her questions, responding honestly, and proposing hope, he met her where she was spiritually – a bit wounded, but hungry for hope.
3. Lead the way.
And when God brings that opportunity to love on that guarded friend by meeting her where she’s at, we get to lead the way in vulnerability and openness by sharing bravely ourselves. With that guarded friend, it’s great to keep things light until you notice she is getting more comfortable. But don’t let that lightness lull you into a false sense of purposelessness. Watch for those opportunities to inject your conversations with some vulnerability. Look for a chance to share some of your junk or be honest about what you’re struggling with. Give opportunity for reciprocation, but don’t expect it or stress if she doesn’t share back right away.
When we really feel called to a relationship like this, where our friend is not ready to be vulnerable from the get-go, we have a beautiful opportunity to remember that our friendships are not all about us. It’s so easy to slip into a mindset that expects reciprocity in friendship, where I listen to you and then you listen to me, where I share something vulnerable and then you share back, where I offer some help and then you help me in return. And while it’s lovely when friendship works like that, if we’re living on-mission, they certainly won’t all be like that.
Some of our friendships may be more about serving a person than they are about getting our needs met. Some relationships may be more one-sided, because the Lord has called you to meet some of her friendship needs in this season. For all you know, this might be her very first taste of vulnerability in friendship, and she just needs to watch and learn how you do it, because that learning curve is steep.
She may not be the one who fills your cup or carries your burdens, and that’s okay. I pray the Lord gives you other friendships to play those roles in your life. But don’t let the enemy convince you that a relationship that doesn’t meet your needs is a worthless one. If the Lord has put her on your heart, then you’re in her life for a reason. Even when it feels slow-going, pain-staking, and tedious to coax the layers off the onion, I hope you’ll remember the change Jesus brought on that anxious and guarded woman at the well. As he works through you, in time, the same might be possible for your friend.
Love ya, friend.
Your Sister, Kimber
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