So much of the Bible, and thus so much of the Bible’s theology, takes place through conversations. Three unknown visitors show up one day at the tent of Abraham. Sarah makes tea and listens in on the talk around the table and hears about a child of promise to be born in her old age, prompting laughter born of faith. Or a decorated military officer in the army of Syria, a man called Naaman, hears about a conversation between a prison girl from Israel and his wife. Mrs. Naaman relays the conversation that leads to her husband’s miraculous healing from leprosy.
A discussion is a conversation with an agenda. Often in the Scriptures, such discussions are carried on with God himself. The psalms are full of this kind of stuff: “O God, why do you cast us off forever?” “O God, do not keep silent, do not hold your peace or be still, O God!” “Has the Lord’s steadfast love ceased forever?” “Has God forgotten to be gracious?” “Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” Conversations flow into the New Testament as well. Paul describes his conversion to King Agrippa in a conversation. Jesus has an all-night conversation with Rabbi Nicodemus. We don’t know what Jesus and Zacchaeus talked about at the dinner they shared after the sycamore tree encounter, but whatever it was, it led to repentance and a different kind of life for the little man everybody had hated before.
Conversations can be deep or shallow, casual or serious, but they invariably take place as an encounter between an “I” and a “thou.” They happen at a level of verbal engagement when we have moved beyond the formal courtesies of cordiality—Good morning! Have a nice day! How’s the weather looking?—and reached the point of listening and responding to another person. One-way monologues are not conversations. They are soliloquies. I once had a conversation with a person about a job I was being offered. He talked nonstop about himself, the institution he ran, the ideas he thought I would be interested in, talk, talk, talk . . . but no listening, no dialogue, no conversation. I took another job. Having a conversation means that we have to shut up long enough to hear what someone else is saying. Real conversations require a measure of vulnerability; they are born out of mutual humility.
Such conversations can lead to faith. Jesus once had a conversation with a disreputable woman at Jacob’s Well. Jesus began that conversation, not by telling the woman of Samaria everything he knew about her past, nor by reminding her of the law of God, nor even by revealing his true identity as the promised Messiah. Rather, Jesus began with a simple question: “May I have a drink of water?” From that simple sip of home-poured H2O flowed “streams of living water.” That friendless woman was transformed by her encounter with Jesus, and a great revival broke out in her hometown. For as John tells us, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:39).
Jacob’s Well, where Jesus and this woman shared a simple drink of water, still stands today. I have been there. Today it is more of a tourist trap than a genuine place to meet and talk, but it is not hard to imagine what a watering hole it would have been in Jesus’s day. Jacob’s Well was what Floyd’s barber shop was for the men of Mayberry on The Andy Griffith Show and what the Boston bar in Cheers or Central Perk in Friends was for a later generation. Coffee shops fulfill this role today.
The ancient Romans had their tabernaria, and Parisiennes their salons, but coffee shop culture as such began in London in the seventeenth century. Pasqua Rosée, who had been to Turkey on business, developed a taste for coffee and began importing it to England. In 1652, he opened the first London coffee house near St. Michael’s churchyard in Cornhill. Soon there were hundreds of such establishments offering the “newfangled, abominable, heathenish liquor called coffee.” Rosée published a handbill titled The Virtue of the Coffee Drink, promoting coffee as a miracle cure for disorders of all kinds, from dropsy, scurvy, and gout to even “mis-carryings in childbearing women.”
Coffee houses brought together ideas and people from all walks of life—poets, playwrights, diplomats, laborers, and dissenters both political and religious. The conversations were often edgy and sometimes turned radical. Daniel Webster described The Green Dragon, a famous coffeehouse in Boston, as the “headquarters of the American Revolution.” From England and North America, coffee houses spread all around the world.
Not all conversations in such places are about politics and ideology. If you listen around the edges of conversations, you will hear people talking about all kinds of things: current events, sports, the weather, missed opportunities, broken hearts, new romances, what’s happening at work, issues of the day, and God. In fact, God is often just beneath the surface in conversations about the issues of the day and all the other stuff that comes out over a cup of java.
Pope Francis has recently identified dialogue and listening as two essential components in breaking down walls of misunderstanding:
Problems grow, misunderstandings and divisions grow, when there is no dialogue. A condition of dialogue is the capacity to listen, which, unfortunately, is not very common. … The attitude of listening, of which God is the model, spurs us to pull down walls of misunderstandings, and to create bridges of communication, overcoming isolation and closure in one’s small world.
Jesus told his disciples to go into the world and to make disciples among all the nations. That means that we have a covenant of dialogue and listening with all persons everywhere, none of whom is beyond the reach of God’s redeeming grace.
Timothy George is founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.