To always be relevant, you have to say things that are eternal. –Simone Weil
Relevance was a trendy word in the church a few years ago. There was a stampede towards making churches hip and tech-savvy. Now the pendulum has swung the other way. Authenticity is ‘in’ and the more ‘traditional’ model is being heralded as the church of the future. Detailed statistics are used to explain whichever direction the millennials or Generation X, Y and Z are heading –in most cases, right out the church door. While cultural and demographic studies have their place, the church that chases relevance (or authenticity) will forever be chasing a constantly-shifting illusion.
Scripture offers us an alternative to chasing fads. In John 4 we catch a unique glimpse of Jesus’ methods of evangelism. Instead of relying on culture to define his mission or methods, Jesus taps into the timeless longings that spring from every human heart.
Now he had to go through Samaria… Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon when a Samaritan woman came to draw water. John 4:4,6-7
Awkward hardly begins to describe this scene. Wells were the nightclubs of the Middle East where men and women would meet. Jacob and Moses had both met their wives at wells. Here was a lone man and lone woman together without another person in sight. To add to the intrigue, Jesus and this woman could not have been more different. Jesus was a Jew, a man and a religious teacher.
She was Samaritan and a woman barely hanging on to the fringe of social respectability.
John mentions that it was the hottest time of day (noon). Jacob’s well sits a considerable distance from the town. Bible commentators say there were at least two closer wells. It did not take a genius to put two and two together. Here was a woman who was purposefully trying to avoid running into anyone she knew. Her goal was to get her water and get back home –back to being invisible.
Jesus notices her and asks: “Would you give me a drink?”
Jesus’ request is shocking on two levels. First, Jesus intentionally places himself in a position of need from this Samaritan woman. She holds the jug and the means of drawing water. She has the power to grant his request or walk away. Jesus surrenders any moral high-ground that might be associated with his birth or station in life (as a male, a Jew and a religious moral teacher) and puts her in control of the interaction.
Secondly, most Jews would have preferred to die of thirst than to beg water from a half-breed Samaritan. Jesus is violating a number of social taboos –a fact the woman is quick to point out (v. 9). Yet Jesus brushes aside the social conventions of status, racial prejudice and sexual inequality that separate them. Jesus talks to her as a valued person.
Jesus invites her into honest, open dialog on equal footing.
The Samaritan woman turns out to be a worthy opponent. She dodges, evades and parries like a pro. She attempts to bait Jesus into a theological standoff (v. 20). Interestingly, Jesus does not seem deterred by her skepticism. If anything, he seems to welcomes her intellectual engagement and religious objections.
Throughout their discourse, Jesus does not lose sight of what is ultimately at stake. He keeps bringing the conversation back to living water. For the Samaritan woman, the necessity of water -and her foray to retrieve it- was a daily reminder of her very public shame. Jesus turns the symbol of her shame –her need for water- into the source of her redemption.
In the end, it is not Jesus’ correct theological responses that win her over, but his value of her.
The change is remarkable and immediate. She rushes back to town. This woman, who only moments before had been so carefully to avoid public attention, is now proclaiming to the entire town: “Come and see the man who told me everything I ever did. Could this man be the Christ?” (v. 29) Jesus has not only transformed her perception of herself but also transformed her relationship to her community. The social conventions that designated her as an outsider, no longer seem significant. She is already accepted. She wastes no time in sharing the source of her joy.
Cultural trends and demographic studies have their value in today’s church. Yet, constantly changing cultural trends require ever-evolving strategies. It becomes a problem when cultural trends become the primary tool for church evangelism.
Jesus taps into the timeless universal longings that spring from every human heart.
Jesus was acutely perceptive to the cultural trends and complexities of his day. Yet at no point does he allow culture to define his mission or his methods. If anything, Jesus’ methods fly in the face of the status quo. Jesus intentionally seeks out those on the margins of society –the mentally ill, the socially ostracized and the morally compromised. His message does not rely on slick gospel presentations or cultural trends. Instead Jesus taps into the timeless universal longings that spring from every human heart –the need for love, forgiveness and belonging. Two thousand years later, those needs remain the same.