Perhaps you have seen bumper stickers that read “Jesus is changing the world one individual at a time.” This statement takes into account the very personal nature of Jesus’ engagement of us. Notice how often in the Gospels Jesus engages individuals—Zacchaeus (Luke 19), Mary and Martha (Luke 10 and John 11), Nicodemus (John 3), the Samaritan woman (John 4), the rich young ruler (Luke 18), the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15), the lame man (John 5), and blind man (John 9). For all my concern for systemic issues of injustice, I must never forget that Jesus never forgets the individual and how he often transforms the person’s life such as Nicodemus or the Samaritan woman from the inside out. In fact, my wife who is a Japanese national will always remind me not to lose sight of this focus on the individual. She came to Christ in Japan. She had never heard talk of a personal God who loved the world, even her. When she heard the good news that Jesus loved her and gave his life for her (John 3:16), she responded in faith to him. To this day, it is the best news she has ever heard.
This same Jesus who changes individuals’ lives is also changing structures. He’s changing the world one relational structure at a time. Just think of the Samaritan woman. Jesus breaks through the cultural taboos by reaching out to this Samaritan woman. He talks to her. He asks her for a drink. John chapter 4 tells us that Jews would not even use the dishes that Samaritans have used (John 4:9). Jesus did not allow the cultural taboos and ideology that separated his people from the Samaritans to keep him from breaking into her life with God’s life-giving water of eternal love (John 4:10, 13-14).
Jesus even put himself in a position of need. He really was thirsty and he really did ask her for help (John 4:6-8). Here, too, he is breaking down barriers. I doubt many of his people would ever wish to ‘stoop so low’ to engage this woman and share with her God’s love. How far will we ‘stoop’? What cultural barriers will we cross and taboos will we challenge to share God’s love with others? Even Jesus’ statement that it is not a matter of worshipping on this or that mountain but in Spirit and truth that constitutes the worship that God seeks (John 4:21-24) challenges once again the structures that separated the Jews from the Samaritans. He relativizes their cultural boundaries and personalizes religion and makes it accessible to all equally, thereby making it possible for this least likely of Samaritans (having been married to five men and now living with one to whom she is not married—John 4:17-18) to succeed in receiving eternal life and be his witness to her whole community (John 4:28-30). Jesus is indeed changing the world one relational structure at a time.
This piece is cross-posted at Patheos and The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins.
Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths and Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church. These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.