Evangelism & Human Longing

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.  

Beauty Before Consumption

Four majestic oak trees frame the front yard of my Ohio home.  The largest – nearly five feet across – is subject to endless speculation.  Locals have dropped by to admire and give their best reckoning of its age.  They all agree that the massive tree predates my house, and the log cabin before it.

It is easy to see why trees held a special place in the mythological stories of antiquity. Trees are larger than us.  Like the mountains and hills, they endure the passing of time. Yet for all their grandeur, we have power over them, to cut them down and shape them to our purposes.  (In antiquity, this was mostly only true of trees. In our modern technological age, it is also true of hills and mountains as well.)  Left unchecked, our ability to shape our natural world can give way to the singular perception that the natural world exists solely as a utility of our convenience and consumption.

In Greek Mythology, the god Zeus withholds the knowledge of fire from humans in order to keep them weak and subservient to nature.  His plans are thwarted when the hero Prometheus steals fire from Mount Olympus and teaches humans the secret of civilization. Thus armed, humans become masters over the natural world and their destiny. The natural world becomes the raw building blocks from which to forge their growing self-reliance.

With the rise of our modern age, self-reliance over nature has become the dominant worldview. C.S Lewis, in his Abolition of Man, notes that this shift towards technology has reshaped the way we perceive the natural world:

“There is something which unites magic and applied science (technology) while separating them from the “wisdom” of earlier ages. For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality, and the solution was wisdom, self-discipline, and virtue. For the modern, the cardinal problem is how to conform reality to the wishes of man, and the solution is a technique.”  C.S. Lewis

The major difference, according to Lewis, between ancient and modern society is who is conforming to whom.  In ancient times, roads and trade routes followed the natural terrain and curvature of the landscape.  With the advance of technology, we now see nature as an obstacle to be overcome and shaped to our liking.  We build tunnels, bridges, and canals to bypass geographical inconveniences.  We harness the power of the wind, water and waves.  We engineer molecules to work for us in the form of biological weapons, genetically modified food and nuclear energy.  This shift is more than just how we interact with the natural world.  It has reshaped our entire perception of the natural world into an object to be manipulated, dominated and reduced to the utilitarian sum of its parts.

Is this what God intends?  Has God designed the natural world to be molded to humans’ will and whim, or is it the other way around?  The author of Genesis writes:  The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it”  (Ge 2:15.) “He brought (animals) to the man to see what he would name them.  (v. 19). Unlike Zeus, who withheld fire from humans, here God places humans in the role as care-taker and name-giver of all creation.  With this elevated role comes its own particular set of rules.

“Out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.”  Genesis 2:9 

Notice the order.  First, trees were pleasant to the eyes -beautiful. Second, they were good for food. God also creates a tree of knowledge -that also has fruit- but which God commands the humans not to eat of it (v. 17).  The plan has been set.  Then temptation arrives.

“The woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise.” Genesis 3:6

Notice the subtle reversing of the order.  Eve prioritizes food first, beauty second. God had given them every tree in the garden for food, save one. They were instructed not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That tree, apparently, was to be appreciated only for its beauty, not for its utilitarian use. When Eve reverses God’s perfect order, and eats from the tree reserved solely for beauty, sin and chaos enter the world. The same is true for us when we prioritize consumption over adoration.

Human beings consume. That is what we do. Turning back the technological clock to some prehistoric state of existence does not change the biological fact that we are omnivores who get our energy primarily from the eating of plants and animals.  Plants and animals are also consumers.  What sets humans apart from plants and animals is our ability to adore.

The point is: God did create fruit-bearing trees -and by extension natural world- for our consumptive enjoyment.  But this consumption must always take a back seat to our adoration of the Creator and an appreciation of His gift of creation. To reverse the order is to wildly miss God’s original design. Adoration must always precede consumption. Any beast can devour food, but only we humans can appreciate beauty. Never-ending consumption without adoration leads to greed, overconsumption and the eventual destruction of our planet.  When God’s order is restored, the results are much different.  Adoration first, with consumption second, leads to gratitude, sustainable consumption, and concern for the thriving of all of life.