Uniquely Deep

The Struggle with Crossing Cultural Boundaries

[ I wrote this article over 15 years ago. It is still as true today as it was then]

We all know the story of Jesus coming up to the Samaritan woman at the well in John chapter 4 (v. 1-26). I remember the first time I heard the story as a child, in Spanish, in Puerto Rico. I was about 6 years old. I have heard it many times since then and I’m still intrigued by the story.

We are taught about the grace of of Jesus towards the “sinner” and about His offer of living water for those who “thirst.” Yet, it seems to me that there is more to this story than that which we are so easily led to conclude. This story is not just about Jesus’s offer of eternal life as much as it is to whom he offers it and how. This story is about how Jesus reached out cross-culturally.

Jesus begins by talking to this woman. A basic “Howdy do?” He speaks to a Samaritan which was considered a “taboo.” It was the custom that neither culture related to each other, much less talked. Not only did the two people groups go their separate ways, they literally went hundreds of miles out of their way to avoid the land where they lived. AND A WOMAN? This is even worse. Not only did Jesus dare to go through their land (already breaking through boundaries), but he even DARES to TALK to a woman, and not just any Samaritan woman, but an adulteress. Three strikes!

Jesus opens His conversation with, “Will you help me please?” Jesus does not ask if he could help HER, but the other way around. By asking her if she could help Him, he shows true humility. To allow someone to HELP you is one of the most hardest things for some people to do. It is an act of Humbleness. To ask an outcast woman from and outcast people is an even bigger deal. After all, Jesus had much more to offer this woman, He had eternal water. This is the most important lesson that Jesus teaches us in cross-cultural ministry: To HUMBLE ourselves.

Jesus asked a simple question. He didn’t care what the answer would be. In fact, He knew what the answer was before he asked. Yet He asked anyway. He knew it would be the opportunity that He needed to open a conversation with her. He didn’t come to her saying, “I’m a Jew and I have a lot to offer to you. I want to help you by giving you eternal life.” Jesus went about it differently. He knew that He had a need and that this woman who struggled in life could still help him. She was a woman whose culture and life was different in all ways. This woman could still fill his need. He was thirsty and had nothing to draw water with. She did. In turn, Jesus saw her need, and in order to help her, he had to start a conversation. His goal was to come to her with humility. He didn’t want her to feel threatened or fearful. He wanted her to feel comfortable. After all, He was in HER territory. Therefore, this dialogue had to be within HER comfort zone. By this action Jesus showed her that he might be a Jew, but He was NOT above her, and was willing to ask for her HELP. We see a WILLINGNESS to consider others as equals, and to make others comfortable.

The first lesson in cross-cultural ministry, is to break down barriers by opening a dialogue allowing the other person whom you have come to help (serve) to first HELP (serve) YOU. By this I don’t mean to “demand,” but “ASK,” “Will you help me?” or “Could you help me?” In North American society I have learned that people don’t ask for help unless they have to. North American culture lives by the rule that says, “Everyone takes care of their own business.” To other societies this seems obnoxious and proud. As Christians, Jesus teaches us to put aside the wrong things we are sometimes taught. Let me say this from a Latina point of view: It is necessary for people to put aside their preconceived notions that they can not talk to us because “we” don’t understand them, and if we do, it is only to “teach” us. They make sure to make the latina knows it is her job to learn to speak English, and not the American’s job to learn Spanish. Many people come to me saying, “You are in America now, you need to speak English.” What people don’t realize is, it is not the language that makes me Latina, it is the whole culture that is different. I am different in the way I converse, think, do, eat, and so on. In the Latin culture (or Hispanic culture), for instance, to not ask others for help (even if they have little), is seen as arrogant and prideful. We also know that if you need help, it is our duty and desire to help you because we are all Familia. We then expect you to help us when we have a need. On the flip side, the Latino and other minority cultures, are also afraid to ask for help, but for other reasons: we believe that we will not be helped. Due to the experience that we have been told, “Help yourselves.” Or “if I help you, you wont learn.”

Jesus did not demand water from the woman at the well, and I’m so glad he didn’t. She would have felt offended and would have left right away only to come back with several Samaritan men to throw Jesus out. The story would have been different: “Jesus runs away from the angry Samaritan Mob.” Jesus didn’t do that. He sat at the well, the Samaritan’s well. When a woman approached the well he kindly asked, “Will you give me a drink?” Jesus in turn offered His help. He awaits for her response, within her cross-cultural context and on her grounds. He offered to fill her need. This is compassion, to offer help and fill the needs of others. Yet, permission needs to be there. American culture, just as much as other cultures, needs to learn to ASK.

Help is seldom asked for filling the need that we have. Maybe because we don’t think they can. Maybe because we think that they are too different and will not understand. Maybe we think we are here to help them, not the other way around… Today however, the Hispanic population and other minority groups are increasing in the USA rapidly. Sometimes Americans don’t realize that many Europeans are in “their territory” just as much as Hispanics are in “yours.” (Many minorities have been here for generations, and Everything from California to Texas was once Mexico.) Goodness, even I forget when I cross from the Anglo-white culture into the Latino and back. Let us then be humbled in our approach to cross-culturally ministry. Let us be compassionate and willing to reach out in their context with LOVE and humbleness. Let’s learn from Jesus and how he approached other cultures. Only then will you be given the opportunity to offer your help and service to other groups.

Let me then be the first one, “Will you give ME a drink.”

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