I read an interesting article this week by a woman from India who said that it took her ten years of living in the United States before she learned to make the kind of small talk in which we commonly engage with cashiers, baristas, wait staff, and others with whom we are having brief business transactions. The author, Karan Mahajan, noted that, “In Delhi, where I grew up, commerce is brusque. You don’t ask each other how your day has been. You might not even smile. I’m not saying this is ideal—it’s how it is. You’re tied together by a transaction. The customer doesn’t tremble before complaining about how cold his food is. Each side believes the other will cheat him, and each remains alert. Tips are not required.”

You might jump to the conclusion that our Western customs make us friendlier, more interested in each other, but that is not the point that Mahajan makes. She believes that, while we in the United States engage in the kinds of conversation that imply an interest, we are not looking for true intimacy. She thinks Indians ask more probing questions, often without any real connection with the other person, whereas we appear to be interested but seldom get beneath the surface. She says, “In the East, I’ve heard it said, there’s intimacy without friendship; in the West, there’s friendship without intimacy.”

I’m not qualified to speak about whether her distinction is accurate on the Eastern side of the divide, but I think she is spot-on when it comes to those of us in the West. We’re on friendly terms with lots of people; we are honest and real with very few. We are willing to engage complete strangers in pleasant and extensive conversations, but we are often reticent to talk about deep feelings with our closest friends.

I once saw a friend of mine and, in typical Western fashion, I asked, “How’s it going?” He proceeded to give me a lengthy litany of the small difficulties he was having at the time. I knew him well enough that, when he had finished, I could say, “Yeah, I didn’t really want to know all that. I was just making polite conversation.” I was kidding, of course, but it’s often true that we act interested in someone when we really aren’t.

This brings me around to what we can glean from the Gospels about how Jesus related to people. Though he was probably as adept as anyone at small talk, he seems to have moved quickly beyond the superficial to the very real.

Jesus’ observations were not always pleasant to hear, but they always dealt with the deep needs of people’s lives, and they were always given in love. Keeping in mind that these conversations took place while Jesus was rapidly moving from town to town, teaching and healing, they represent engagement in the lives of people that he had just met at a deeper level than we often reach with people we have known all our lives. And because of his willingness to probe deeply and to engage intimately, he changed lives.

If we are going to reach that level of intimacy with others, it will require an openness, a vulnerability that most of us have little interest in attaining. In the West, vulnerability is equated with weakness.

If there is a place where we should be able to move beyond this level of superficial relating, it should be the church. We come together beginning with the premise that we are all flawed and failing human beings in need of the grace of God. We could develop a greater intimacy with one another simply by being a little more specific about what we are facing.

We often ask others to pray for us, but have you noticed what those requests often entail? They are usually about some illness, some struggle not of our making, some loss that wasn’t our fault. Wouldn’t it be more honest to say, “I’m struggling with a sin that is robbing my life of all joy. Would you pray that I’ll be able to overcome it?”? Or “We’re having a hard time with our marriage (or with our kids, or with the neighbors). Could you talk this out with me and see if, guided by the Holy Spirit, we can find a way out of this mess?”

I’m not suggesting that, in our everyday conversations, we move beyond our friendly banter. Your StarBucks barista doesn’t have time to hear all you’re going through, and the people in line behind you aren’t going to be happy if you listen to all his troubles either. But, with our fellow members of the family of faith — or anyone else who needs us — we could cultivate an attitude of “unhurriedness” that could elicit genuine conversation. Ultimately, this could lead to a conversation about the deepest need that any of us have, the need for a relationship with God. That’s a conversation that’s always worth having.