Sharing the gospel best happens in an open, trusting relationship, using language relevant to the context and needs of the person with whom you are sharing.
This is the paradigm for the ministry of Christ: “The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, ‘Follow Me.’ ”1
An example of this process is detailed in John 4 in the story of the woman at the well. This seems like an incidental story. It is not one that has big, prophetic themes or major theological issues. It’s a little event that provides good insight into the way Christ ministered to everyday contacts. Jesus was walking through Samaria and sat down at a well about a mile outside a town. His disciples had gone into town to buy food. While He was sitting there, a woman came from town to draw water. Not unusual, but He evidently noticed something right away that is implicit in this story. She hiked a mile out of town to this well although there was a well in the middle of town. This small clue opens up to much more later in the story.
Jesus decided to talk to her. He made that decision in spite of several layers of cultural barriers. First, even in today’s world in the Middle East, it is not appropriate in a public place for a man to speak to a woman to whom he is not related. Second, Jesus was a Jew and Jews did not talk to Samaritans. Third, and perhaps most shocking of all, He asked the woman for a drink of water. Observant, conservative Pharisees of the time were so careful not be contaminated by the Samaritans that they would not buy fruit in a market where Samaritans were because the shadow of a Samaritan might fall on the fruit.
Jesus brushed aside these barriers and sought to reach out and relate to the woman with a simple request: “Give me a drink of water.” She responded tentatively, but the conversation expanded. Notice how Christ observed and heard the needs of this woman. He then took a practical thing—the water—and turned it into a metaphor to speak to this woman of her deepest needs. He spoke to her about living water. “If you knew who it was that’s asking you for drink, you would ask him for living water, and you would never thirst again,” Jesus said.
At first, the woman didn’t grasp His full meaning—that’s the nature of metaphors. But later she did, and by understanding this practical term as a metaphor for the gospel, she began to talk about religious things. She said, “I notice you’re a Jewish rabbi, and your people say you have to worship God on the mountain in Jerusalem. But our forefathers say it’s OK to worship on this mountain. Which is right?” This was a major theological argument of the time.
Jesus’ response was that it doesn’t make any difference which mountain you worship on. Yet He was the one who set aside Mount Zion in Jerusalem for His temple. Throughout the Old Testament He called it “my holy hill” and said that was where people should come to make their sacrifices. Yet it had never been the place that mattered. That wasn’t what was important. One wonders how many great theological issues He would say that about today. The important thing is, “Do you worship God in spirit and truth?”
This intrigued the woman so much that she ramped up the spiritual focus of the conversation and brought up the greatest hope of anyone any time: “I know the Messiah is coming, and he’ll explain everything.” Jesus then said something to this woman that He had never said to anyone else in such clear, simple language: “I who speak to you am He.”
Amazing! Why did He say so much? Why so point-blank? He followed her lead. And she believed him. The fearful and untrusting woman, who had been through five marriages—and wasn’t married to the man she was currently with, therefore susceptible to ridicule or shunning on the part of her neighbors—goes back to the village and fearlessly tells everyone she meets to come see this Man. And they listen! Also amazing, considering her situation. A whole village was turned around because of the impact that Jesus had on her life.
Not only this woman, but many in the village were converted and became followers of the Messiah. It’s interesting to note that Jesus did not just go on His way after the woman accepted Him. He interrupted whatever plans He had. (Remember, He was supposedly just passing through Samaria to Galilee.) Throughout the entire story, Christ kept a simple focus on thirst. He was talking about an emotional, spiritual thirst down inside this woman. She had been through failed relationships and didn’t know whom to trust. She wanted to be loved and valued, something she had never experienced. Jesus focused on her thirst, and it became the key for turning her life around. This story captures the essence of what it means to hear people’s needs and share the gospel in a simple, practical way.2