A Tale of Two Cultures: A Cautionary Tale

Two years into our life in Germany, and I’m still having “aha” moments.

I had an “aha” moment last week in our home group, and it may forever change the way I prepare for Bible studies.

When doing ministry in a foreign culture (read: that includes anyone who has not been thoroughly churched), be ready to be hit with perspectives that you’ve never considered. Heck, you better be ready to be hit with perspectives that no one you know has ever considered.

Allow me to set the stage.

The Woman at the Well — The Traditional Take

We were discussing the story from John 4 where Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at a well. He gives her a little ribbing for having been married 5 times before finally giving up on the whole enterprise and moving in with her boyfriend, but then Jesus gives her the good news that he is living water, and that whoever believes in him will never thirst. This is all a spiritual metaphor, of course. The woman runs immediately to town and tells all her other Samaritan friends what she had seen and heard, how Jesus knew her in a way no stranger could. The people were amazed and many of them believed on Jesus that very day.

The way I have heard this taught 100% of the times I’ve heard (or taught) it, the end of the story is a great victory! Oh, the power of a personal testimony! What an amazing account of Jesus winning people over by displaying the power of God amongst people! All the woman had to do was tell people what happened to her and say “come and see.” Evangelism can be simple!

You might see where this is going.

I prepared for questions I thought people would have (i.e. What is a Samaritan?). I was ready to push people toward seeing that Jesus is living water, that he knows us and loves us. You want application? Love across borders and demographic lines! I was ready to go.

Then I wasn’t.

The problem was that I was thinking like a Christian. Here’s the way some of our friends read this story.

The Woman at the Well — Take Two

The first part was pretty straightforward. Jesus is at the well. There was a woman (What is a Samaritan? — I was one for one. So far so good.) and that woman talked with Jesus. He did some amazing thing and told her about living water. Check. Check.

Where things diverged was the attitude toward the village people (and to a lesser extent, the woman herself). There was almost universal agreement that the people had behaved foolishly when they believed in Jesus.

“Why would you not investigate the claims for yourself?”

“It seems irresponsible to change your whole world view because of someone else’s experience.”

“What silly villagers! Even the woman should have been more discerning.”

The story that had always ended in triumph was now one of embarrassment. It represented something foolish and silly that modern people are now too smart to fall for.

Disclaimer: All this was to say nothing about the value of whether or not Jesus is worth following, just that the people had no way of knowing on the small sampling of data with which they were provided.

How I should have responded

I spent a week mulling this over. It doesn’t change my view. I still think this is a great victory for the gospel and the power of personal testimony. But what is the best way to answer challenges like this? Here are some things I could have said:

  • How do we know (since it isn’t apparent in the text) that the people didn’t spend some time debating and considering the ramifications of their decisions?
  • How else could Jesus have known those things about the woman? After all, there were no paparazzi or media, no way to stalk someone on Facebook and learn their secrets before meeting them. What other explanations could there have been?
  • What would an appropriate response be if you were to witness the power of God? What about if you were convinced someone you know had witnessed His hand at work?
  • If a testimony doesn’t cut it for you, what would be the threshold of proof that you’d need to make a decision to follow Jesus?

The Woman at the Well — Take Three (third times the charm?)

All of these would have been better than how I did respond, which was with a “uh huh. It’s really interesting to me that you all think that, because it’s so different than how I have always viewed this story.”

I was so blindsided that I really had little-to-no response, other than to share my side of the coin. That wasn’t all bad, because it was diplomatic and gentle. But it left something lacking.

But then…

After rolling this around for a solid week, we decided to put off our next lesson and just hang out in this story. I wrote down the questions above (in German, of course), printed them for the group, and just explained that our prior discussion was really interesting and we’d like to go further with it.

We asked our questions, and it went really well. The conversation that followed allowed room for honesty and questions about each other’s testimonies, and it turned out to be a really great night.

The Takeaway

Why am I writing this? Because I think it is good to get out of our comfort zones and let people challenge us. But also because it is always okay to not have the answer you think you need right on the spot. It is okay to leave a topic and come back to it, as long as you are diplomatic and don’t burn bridges along the way.

We are formed (for good and for bad) by the way we were raised. Experiences like this will change the way you read scripture and prepare for discussions. They expose blindspots and help us figure out why we believe what we believe.

Go. Interact. Get humbled. Grow.

Bis zum nächsten Mal (until next time),



One thought on “A Tale of Two Cultures: A Cautionary Tale

  1. Pingback: Latest Update from the Burczyks in Germany – Kontaktmission USA

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