In 2000 Ben Johnson was a youth delegate representing the Salvation Army on a journey of Reconciliation from Canberra to Uluru.
Stop for a moment and think about the way Jesus met people.
There was the woman at the well, who was from a different culture (John 4). What did Jesus do? He asked for a cuppa and a chat. There was some kerfuffle about whose cups they would use. And Jesus didn’t even have a kitchen to host the hospitality, let alone a bucket to get water from a deep well. Wells were places of spirituality, the place, where God “sees” you (Genesis 16:14). The well was in Joseph’s country (John 4:5). The woman didn’t know she was talking to Jesus, but Jesus knew her.
There was another encounter. It took place two hundred and fifty years ago today on the shores of Kurnell. For the Aboriginal people, this was their well. A man came, looking for a drink of water. He brought his boat and his crew. But he also brought a gun. According to his own journal, he didn’t act like Jesus at the well.  This is how the story of encounter between Aboriginal peoples and the colonisers in the city now called Sydney starts.
As I sit, in my kitchen today, with a cuppa, I wonder, if we have learned anything in the last two hundred and fifty years? Do we still go out seeking to encounter our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander neighbours with fear rather than with a cuppa and some biscuits in hand? Would we even be willing, like Jesus, to turn up at someone’s door with nothing but empty hands, a welcoming smile, a kind word, a gentle heart?
There is often a fear barrier when we encounter someone from another group. I found this out when I worked in a church. Some people, non-Indigenous, were terrified they would say the wrong thing. Would they call the “Reverend” by the wrong name? Will they still baptise my baby if I get the request protocol wrong? Some people were embarrassed by things they or their family had done in the distant past, that we had no knowledge of. Some people were afraid we would ask where they had been the last twenty years. When, as a church, all we wanted was for people to come through our doors.
Jesus, when he comes promising water to the woman at the well has a different kind of kingdom in mind. It’s a kingdom that has everything we want when we think of land or country. It’s the kingdom of God for all peoples and all creation. It is hard to ‘see’. It requires that we slow down, sit down.
It can be like this when we attempt to encounter our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters. We have heard that their culture and customs are different, we may be aware that we need to be welcomed to country. We carry with us two hundred and fifty years of cultural ignorance, which doesn’t leave room in our hands for the cuppa and the biscuits. It can be hard to say more than just hello, because what will that mean? For both you and me? Where will that take us out of our comfort zone?
And what kind of a welcome will we get when we get there? Wherever “there” is? Will we be welcomed, when we may have heard others have tried and been met with indifference? It Is time for us to feel what it is like, to knock on doors, that perhaps will not yet open.
So where do we start after 250 years? Perhaps by just acknowledging there is now a front door to knock upon. A well to “meet” at. It’s time for us to see, hear, and act upon, what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christian Leaders are saying – Following Common Grace is a great place to be able to do just that. We can sign up on Common Grace’s website for a regular email, and open a dialogue, even if it is one way at first. If we are brave, we can take up that phone, and call, just to say hello to Brooke, the new CEO of Common Grace, and see if Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Christian Leaders need anything. To go “next door” without the fear and authority in our hands, empty-handed but open-hearted, armed with just a cuppa and some biscuits to start a yarn.
Maybe we will even hear someone say enthusiastically: “Where have you been all these years? We have been looking for you.”
Take it Further: Devotional on Living Water
Thirst is a basic human condition. It unites all people, regardless of background, cultural grouping, age, gender, or any other distinction. But the way we quench this thirst depends on culture and upbringing.
Think about the way you quench your thirst.
If you were a stranger to an area, and you were thirsty, what would be some culturally acceptable ways to go about meeting your thirst? If you were a guest at someone’s house, how would you handle your thirst (note: this behaviour is culturally dependent)? How would your host handle your thirst (this behaviour is also culturally dependent)?
Water is a basic human need. We have seen this in the recent drought, and no doubt some are very aware of just how precious each drop of water is.
Think about how the Bible uses water, and thirst.
- Jesus on the cross: “I am thirsty” (John 19 :28) (link to Common Grace’s Lenten series)
- Matthew 10:42 “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”
- Mark 9:41 “Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.”
- Jesus and The Samaritan woman (John 4)
- John 37 “On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink”.”
Pour yourself a drink of water. Drink some. Think about how you could give the land a drink of water. Think about how you could have a cuppa and a chat with your Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters. Think about Jesus as the living water.
In the words I heard from a very wise woman, we will not overcome 250 years of history with a hello and a cuppa. But we do have to start somewhere. Where will you start today in engaging, building, and deepening relationship with our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as you drink the living water of Jesus?
Want to consider other ways to respond? See here for reading, video, craft and other suggestions.
Rachel is a beginning writer on Australian theological issues. She has a Master of Arts (Theological Studies) and is placed in Sydney. At present she is interested in listening to the stories of older people, including her mum.