by José David Rodriguez
Augustana Heritage Chair of Global Mission and World Christianity
Today, and especially given the world financial crisis we have experienced in the last few years that has led to so many and profound transformations in all of our lives, strategic planning has become a priority of most people and organizations. Last July I return from Argentina after a two-year commitment of missionary work with my wife Kathryn at the United Evangelical Lutheran Church. My role was to serve as President of a Protestant university in Buenos Aires, the Instituto Universitario ISEDET. I also taught courses in systematic theology at the university, and joined two other clergy colleagues in the pastoral ministry of La Cruz de Cristo Lutheran Church located in the neighborhood where we lived.
As President I spent nineteen months in a process of institutional assessment and strategic planning for the university. The church body that called me and my spouse continues its engagement in a life-long process of renewing and revitalizing efforts in missionary and ministry planning. Our own seminary here in Chicago is presently involved in a strategic planning process and if you think about it, even our students are beginning to think strategically as they look for job opportunities after graduation in May. Given the ubiquitous presence and importance of strategic planning I thought I would look into this Gospel reading of John to search for important clues in developing a strategic plan for the proclamation of the Gospel. If we are going to witness to the gospel today we need to have a plan and prepare ourselves for this task, after all, that is precisely what we try to do with candidates for the ministry at the seminary in their program of studies. The story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman is an opportunity to learn some valuable lessons as we plan strategically for the preaching and witnessing to the Gospel in today’s world.
A Deliberate Engagement with the Context
As I prepared for this morning’s chapel reflection on John’s text I was drawn to the valuable study prepared by the New Testament scholar Frances Taylor Gench’s for preachers, teachers, congregations and students of all types on women’s encounters with Jesus in the Gospel.1The analysis provided by Gench which incorporates traditional and contemporary interpretations provides a wide and rich horizon for reflection on these important narratives.
The first important component for strategic planning that comes to mind in reading John’s Gospel relates to the context where this story takes place. The story takes place in Samaria, a geographical sector of the region despised by the orthodox political and religious authorities of the time because, among other things, their religion and their customs had been mixed with pagan elements. The resistance of Samaritans to assimilate to the dominant social and religious Jewish melting pot of the time led them to being described as impure, aliens, or second class citizens.2This is the context chosen by Jesus to engage in ministry and mission. As we begin planning for our ministry, how many of us dare establish as a priority this type of context for our witness of faith? Jesus did, and I am sure he did it intentionally. We might not realize it fully yet, but the constant transformations in our world and social environments are leading to a less homogeneous and more diverse reality in which we are called to proclaim the Gospel. This is a challenge that we need to take on deliberately and prepare ourselves to meet it with courage and commitment, with confidence and audacity. In fact, as time continues to go by we are not going to be able to avoid it.
An Intentional Approach of Breaking down Barriers
Another element in John’s narrative that can serve us well for our strategic planning comes from the dialogue established by Jesus with the Samaritan woman. This dialogue reflects a bold and confident approach by Jesus of breaking down barriers established during his times in going about his teaching, preaching, and practice of the Gospel. The African New Testament scholar Teresa Okure argues that in this narrative we have a missionary proposal aimed to correct those that have veered off from the compass of the Gospel. For Okure, the story highlights a) John’s distinctly theological [God-centered] and christological [Christ-centered] understanding of mission which for her is the subject of the whole Gospel; b) it underlines that missionary activity embraces both believers and unbelievers and c) establishes genuine dialogue as the appropriate method for mission.3
The Gospel narrative clearly describes some important prejudices overcome by Jesus in his dialogue with this person. Most Christian preachers on this text focus on biases relating to gender, social, cultural and religious nature. Here I would like to bring attention to another predisposition that is usually missed but that should also constitute an important consideration as we move forward in developing our strategic planning for the proclamation of the gospel.
In her reflections on this text, the Botswanan scholar Musa W. Dube warns us against subscribing and promoting what she calls a “theology of imperialism.” For Dube, “Imperialism is… about controlling foreign geographical space and their inhabitants. By its practice and goals, imperialism is a relationship of subordination and domination between different nations and lands, which actively suppresses diversity and promotes a few universal standards for the benefit of those in power.4
For her, as for other postcolonial critics, one of the strategies of imperializing texts is the use of female gender to validate relationships of subordination and domination.5To address this concern, in his examination of this narrative Lisandro Orlov, an Argentinian Lutheran Pastor, argues that by asking for water in the full heat of the day, Jesus approaches the Samaritan women from a “transparent condition of vulnerability.” God’s real incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth is one of the core teachings of the Christian faith. Thus, his request for water initiates a dialogue in which Jesus the Christ voluntarily positions himself in a relationship of need to this Samaritan woman surrendering in this way his position of power and privilege.6
As the letter to the Philippians eloquently states, “… who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and being found in human form (Philippians 2:5-7).” Are we willing to follow this intentional example of “transgression” in our ministry? Is our strategy as bold, intentional, and confident as that of Jesus in approaching the victims of prejudice? What type of approach will follow our strategic planning? Will it be the one that underlines power characteristic of the “Theology of glory,” or will it be the one that witnesses to the vulnerability of “The cross and the resurrection?”
The Argentinian New Testament scholar Nestor Míguez also points out that among the various teachings of this narrative, we need to pay especial attention to the perspective of the woman from Samaria. This was no doubt a very perceptive and insightful woman. While in the narrative she is not originally even recognized by the disciples — they were rather astonished to see their teacher speak to her, given her low social status— Jesus does take the initiative to approach her, and in their dialogue reveals a fundamental teaching of faith. What for some interpreters of this story has been conceived as Jesus’ reproach of her notorious character for having five husbands and presently living with a man out of wedlock, Miguez describes as a turning point in their dialogue by which Jesus reveals God’s radical interest in her predicament, as well as God’s messianic strategic plan in him (Jesus Christ the Messiah) to transform her condition and renew the hope and expectations of the faithful in God’s promised eschatological reign.
The decisive moment in her dialogue with Jesus came when he moved from the realm of ideas to the concrete and specific experience of marginality and exclusion she experienced in a patriarchal and oppressive society. As a woman, she was not able to divorce. The initiative was always taken by the husband. Five men had already married her and later probably abandoned her. Given that five husbands had reproached her, on five different and consecutive occasions she had been accused, forsaken and deprived from a necessary relation for her subsistence. Now another man who was not her husband was protecting her.
For the woman from Samaria, the conversation with this Jewish stranger began to make sense and became greatly relevant when he spoke with clarity and authority about the injustice to which she had been submitted. While in general, interpretations of this passage place the blame on the inconsistent and notorious character of this woman, only few focus on the exclusion to which she had been submitted by her successive despisers. Now this foreigner takes this matter seriously. He is seen by her as a prophet. Things are beginning to change.7And it is this experience that drives her to become a passionate witness to the Gospel. In her dialog with Jesus, this woman from Samaria realized that the relevance of the gospel is radically experienced when it impacts the core of our human nature, when it reaches not just our thoughts and ideas, but our being as a whole.
Proclaiming the Gospel in Our Context
Yesterday I preached on this passage at a local congregation. Emily Ewing, one of our M.Div. senior students that practices her bilingual skills (English-Spanish) in the ministry of the First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chicago, invited me to provide supply preaching at the congregation.
The design established by this ministry for Sunday activities is an eloquent expression of taking to heart some important features of John’s story we’ve just discussed in developing a strategic plan for the proclamation of the Gospel. Sunday activities begin at 8:30 AM with breakfast. At 9:30 there is a break for Bible study followed by worship at 10:30. After worship everyone is invited for lunch. These are the Sunday activities for a congregation located in Chicago’s urban setting addressing the needs of homeless brothers and sisters that constitute an important sector in this context. I was humbled and enthusiastic to participate in this exiting and relevant ministry.
Strategic planning is an on-going task that can become a valuable resource only when we employ it. I trust that the brief reflection we have made on John’s gospel today may bring more clarity and precision to our task of witnessing to the Gospel. As we continue to prepare for this ministry let’s express our gratitude to God’s loving initiative to show us the way and call each one of us, in spite of our failings, to carry out this important work of love for all creation.
1 Frances Taylor Gench, Back to the Well: Women’s Encounter’s with Jesus in the Gospel (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004).
2 Ibid, 111-112.
3 Ibid, 127-128. See also, Teresa Okure, The Johannine Approach to Mission: A Contextual Study of John 4:1-42 (Tubingen: J.C.B. More [Paul Siebeck], 1988).
4 Gench, 131. Also, Musa W. Dube, “Reading for Decolonization (John 4:1-42),” Semeia 75 (1996): 38.
5 Ibid, 42. Also, Gench, 131.
6 Lisandro Orlov, “Evangelio para el 23 de marzo de 2014,” Boletín, .
7 Nestor Míguez, “Estudio Exegético-Homilético 024, Marzo 2002,” Instituto Universitario ISEDET, http://www.isedet.edu.ar/publicaciones/eeh.htm.