One of the challenges that ministry workers face is maintaining spiritual vitality over years of service. There is a similar challenge for those not in full-time ministry of how to stay connected to Jesus and find refreshment in the midst of an overwhelming number of responsibilities and tasks. We often look to retreats and quiet times to recharge our spirits, but these can be insufficient. In the piece below, InnerCHANGE staff member Jim Bloom describes a different way of finding sustenance, one modeled by Jesus, which Jim calls “contemplation in the streets.” This is a way of connecting with Jesus in the midst of the challenges of daily life rather than depending on quiet times alone.
If You Knew the Gift of God
The woman travels daily from her village to the village well in the midday heat. She usually comes alone. After arriving, she fills what vessels she is able to carry and then brings them back to her home where she eventually empties out the water as it is needed in her daily activities of living. She then heads back to the well the next day to repeat this cycle again.
One day as she carries out her routine, she encounters a man sitting by the well, resting. It is a bit unsettling as it is not part of her regular routine. Her past experience with men makes her somewhat wary at the presence of this stranger. Not only is he a stranger but he is a Jew. She knows that she and her people are despised by the Jews. They despise them in return.
She tries to refrain from eye contact as she begins to draw water from the well. The man asks her to give him a drink. She looks up and asks, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?”
He answers her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman is puzzled by this statement and further conversation ensues. The man then says, “Everyone who drinks of this water (meaning the water from the well) will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” She is intrigued, she does not want to make this journey every day, it’s wearying. She wants the water he has. She asks him for it. Eventually Jesus reveals himself as the Messiah who will satisfy her thirst for real life.
She makes the journey back home again, but this time with a great deal more joy and energy. She empties out this new water she received at the well upon her fellow villagers, which is now springing up within her. They receive a taste and want some for themselves. They rush to the well to meet the Messiah who is giving out living water.
He Is an Inexhaustible Fountain
There is insight to be gleaned here. Our spiritual lives are often conceived to be somewhat like the woman journeying every day to the well to draw out the water that is needed for daily living. The time of our personal worship, our solitude, silence, and prayer is our time of contemplation. It’s our time at the well, of refilling. Our engagement in the world, our interaction with others, serving in the name of Jesus, pouring ourselves out, this is where we empty our vessels. Sometimes we run dry before the day is finished, so the next day we seek to spend a longer time at the well in hopes of filling up our water-carrying vessels to greater capacity.
Is it possible that this way of viewing our spiritual lives contributes to the difficulty in being sustained or building resilience as Christian workers in difficult and challenging contexts? Could this be a reason why workers in problem-plagued communities, on an average, only last approximately four years? If this cycle of filling and emptying is our practice of contemplation, I’m afraid we will find it difficult to catch up.
Jesus promised that the water he would give would become a spring of water welling up to eternal life. Shortly after his encounter with the woman at the well, Jesus is in Jerusalem and exclaims, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37–38). The spring supplying the well is always with us and he is an inexhaustible fountain.
I Have Food to Eat That You Do Not Know About
Let’s look at this scene from another angle. Jesus had been resting by the well because he was physically tired from the journey. The disciples had gone to another nearby town to get some food. When they returned, Jesus was finishing his conversation with the woman and then she ran off to her village. The disciples urged Jesus to eat some food (they knew he was hungry), but Jesus responded saying, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” The disciples were as puzzled at Jesus’s response to them as the woman was to his response to her.
Jesus then says to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” He has hidden springs of water and hidden stores of food. His food is actually to obey the father by giving himself away to others. As the woman returns with her fellow villagers Jesus tells his disciples, “Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.” The real food was coming in the form of people to love and with whom to share good news. Jesus’s food consisted in obeying his father and accomplishing his work. The spiritual food that we long for is in the hearing and doing of the word of God. The spiritual drink we thirst for is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
My wife and I were recently listening to a talk by Jackie Pullinger, who has ministered in the Walled City of Hong Kong for many years. She remarked how people ask her where she goes to get filled up. Her response was, “That’s all backwards. You don’t get filled up and go out, you go out to get filled up.” She said it’s like a water wheel, filling up with water, emptying out, but while it empties it is getting full, it is never really empty. This hearkens back to Jesus’s statement that his “food,” his “filling up,” was in doing the will of the father by creating worshipers for him.
The Hour Has Come for the Son of Man To Be Glorified
Contemplation is most often associated, I think, with a cloistered life, a life of silence and solitude, undistracted devotion to God in prayer. This image of contemplation is to some extent like the experience of the Mount of Transfiguration: Peter, James, and John are taken by Jesus to a high mountain. There they see him transfigured with dazzling glory. It is breathtaking. Alone with Jesus, beholding infinite beauty and holiness. This is what I imagine contemplation to be.
In contrast to this awe-inspiring experience of glorification, contemplation in the streets is meant to jolt us a bit. It’s learning to gaze on Jesus, to make him the highest end of all our desires, and to do so in the midst of what is often the crushing pain of life.
Not long after descending from the mountain Jesus tells his disciples “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him.” On the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter, James and John were privileged with a rare foretaste of what was to come, the glory of the coming age. But Jesus tries to make it clear to his disciples that that glory is seen first through the glory of the cross. Not long before being crucified Jesus tells them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23-24), and goes on to describe the fruitfulness of the kernel of wheat that falls to the ground and dies. He then calls his disciples to lose their lives and follow him, concluding with: “If anyone serves me, he must follow me ... [and] the Father will honor him” (John 12:26).
The one who serves Jesus must follow him, and his way is through the cross—that is where his presence is. Paul says the same when he declares that we will be “…heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17). This is at the heart of contemplation in the streets.
How to Behold His Beauty in the Streets
Contemplative solitude and contemplation in the streets are flip sides of the same coin, both revealing the glory of God for our deepest satisfaction and joy. As God leads us in the way of the cross into the difficult and challenging contexts of our world, we are to look and look to behold his glory there.
Here are a few suggestions for how to behold the beauty of God right in the midst of difficult and challenging contexts by practicing contemplation in the streets.
1. Immerse yourself in the word of God and commit to obedience.
Jesus make it very clear that we live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Immersion in the reality of God as revealed in his word is non-negotiable. It is the lens through which we learn to see the world around us differently. Our engagement with the world can help us understand the scripture with more clarity, but it can also deceive us. Hearing, looking deeply, and obeying the word, reveals the glory that can transform everything.
2. Expect God to fill you through your labor and the people to whom you’ve been sent.
Jesus pointed out to his disciples that the fields were filled with a ripe harvest. Like him, their food would be to obey the Father in seeking worshipers for him. Or, as in feeding the 5000, if they would step out to feed the people, there would be a basket full of food for them as well. Roland Allen said this in his book, Missionary Methods: Paul’s or Ours?:
“...we have preached the Gospel from the point of view of the wealthy man who casts a mite into the lap of a beggar, rather than from the point of view of the husbandman who casts his seed into the earth, knowing that his own life and the lives of all connected with him depend upon the crop which will result from his labor.”
Let God change your paradigm of ministry from one of depletion to one of continual filling.
3. Remember that God is always present and able to provide spiritual sustenance.
We can be tempted to believe that some places are desolate and lacking spiritual food. But Paul says,
“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth...he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.” (Acts 17:24–27)
God is Lord of heaven and earth and fills it all. He has determined the places that humans inhabit, and we can trust that the places he has chosen (no matter how challenging) are instruments to lead people to himself. As desperate as a place might be, God has set a table there and he is able to feed his people. In Psalm 23 David acknowledges this truth: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” God can surely sustain us no matter what. He is sufficient.
These are a few of the key areas that I have sought (and continue to seek) to live a life of contemplation in the streets, beholding the glory of Jesus in difficult contexts, and learning to be filled up by going out.
I want to learn to live by this promise, “It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed” (Deuteronomy 31:8). Living Water and the Bread of Life are always present for my sustenance, but do I have eyes to see?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jim Bloom has served with Innerchange for the past 25 years as the Minneapolis Team Director and as the U.S. Regional Director from 2011–2018. He is married to Raquel and they have two children.