While reading the story of Jesus pursuing the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 recently, I was struck by the similarities between her and Japanese people. She puts up labels to distance herself from Jesus, and many of our Japanese friends respond similarly to the gospel. This might leave us uncertain about how to proceed, but by following Jesus’ lead, we can look past the labels with grace and share truth. We can help our friends overcome what seems like an impossible barrier by addressing their thirst and leading them to the wellspring of living water, so that they will never thirst again. So what ultimately drew the woman to drink the living water? And how can we use Jesus’ example to minister to Japanese people?
Jesus pursues the woman where she is
The scene begins with a weary Jesus sitting beside Jacob’s well in the noonday sun (John 4:6). Then, as the woman comes to draw water, Jesus engages her in conversation: “Give me a drink” (4:7 ESV). We are reminded of at least one similarity that he and she have: they both need water.
Those of us in ministry can easily find similarities between us and those we are seeking to reach. Many of our relationships happen naturally at our neighborhood community events, at our children’s school functions, in pursuing our personal hobbies, at our jobs, or at our favorite shops or restaurants.
Of course, we can keep our relationships on those functional levels, but that isn’t what Jesus did. He pursued the woman right where she was at. For most of us, this is what we want to do. It’s the reason many of us have left our passport countries and moved to Japan—we want to pursue the Japanese right where they are.
Hiding behind labels
Then comes the Samaritan woman’s response: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (4:9). She puts labels on both Jesus and herself, seemingly trying to discredit their common need for water. She states the obvious to distance herself from Jesus by drawing cultural, religious, and gender lines. So far, Jesus is merely trying to connect to the woman in a natural way.
I’m sure this is starting to sound familiar to some of you. Maybe you’ve tried to connect with a Japanese person in a natural way, only to have them put labels on both you and them—pointing out that they are Japanese and you are not—seemingly trying to discredit something you have in common.
Moving from external to internal needs
The woman’s response doesn’t stump Jesus. He answers her: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (4:10). Do you see what Jesus does here? He ignores the labels and keeps pursuing her with truth and grace. He moves from the external, obvious connection and starts to show the woman her spiritual need, which she can’t ignore.
I think we can learn a lot from Jesus’ example. We shouldn’t back down because of the differences between us and our Japanese friends we’re seeking to reach in Jesus’ name. Yes, there are cultural and religious (and sometimes gender) differences, but ultimately we have to move beyond that and show our friends their spiritual need, which can only be met in Jesus.
The Samaritan woman seems to miss the underlying truth in Jesus’ statement. She says to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” (4:11).
She didn’t understand Jesus’ teaching, and our Japanese friends are often just as perplexed. In a land where Christians are such a tiny minority, it should be no surprise that our friends are confused after hearing the gospel.
Focuses on Jesus’ identity
Jesus, wanting to reach the woman’s heart, digs deeper. He tells her, “Go, call your husband, and come here” (4:16). The woman answers him, “I have no husband” (4:17). Jesus responds, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true” (4:17, 18).
The woman has deeper labels she (and likely others within her community) has attributed to herself, but which she does not disclose to Jesus. But being God, he knows them anyway. Our friends, too, have deeper labels, ones that don’t appear on the surface, but that we can only learn about by pursuing and deeply loving them.
Once again, Jesus doesn’t focus on the label. He doesn’t use his omniscience to judge the woman. Rather, he uses it to show that he knows her deeply and that no matter what label she places on herself, true or untrue, his identity is what must be made known. Jesus shows that his identity can overcome her shameful identity. He offers her a solution to a lack she doesn’t even seem to know she has. Later, she can say: “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (4:29).
In Christ, we too have the solution to the deep spiritual needs of the Japanese people. While it is easy to get distracted by the labels that our friends present, such as “But I’m Japanese, you’re a foreigner,” let’s not. The labels may be true, but they aren’t a barrier.
You know the ending of the story. The Samaritan woman drinks the living water, after Jesus lovingly and graciously pursues her. He meets her where she is, connects in a natural way, and shows her her need for the Savior. He gently leads her to turn her eyes to him, the living water; and away from herself, her culture, and her labels of identity.
Let’s do the same. As we meet our friends where they are at, let’s look beyond the labels of identity and, with love and grace, share the identity of Christ. May God use us to bring many Japanese to the living water.
Michele C. Fisher and her husband, Ethan, are missionaries with JEMS and have served for five years alongside a Japanese pastor and his wife in Gifu City. Prior to Japan, they served at Lakeside Church of Chicago.