Dr. Brene Brown, a social scientist from the University of Houston, wondered if there was a “core need” that was shared by every human person. After 6 years of study, she arrived at an answer. She concluded that “we are neuro-biologically wired for connection.” She went on to say, “We are created to belong, and our greatest fear is that we will not belong.”
This research, on its surface, simply validates what the Church teaches and what most Christians know intuitively. Active, authentic Christianity is about connection and belonging. Christianity’s fundamental proposition is about belonging, belonging to Christ, and belonging to others in His body.
However, our familiarity with the scriptures can often cause us to miss the importance and power of belonging, as a message. Jesus clearly knew the power of belonging, of connecting, and in one of the most puzzling and contrary interactions recorded in the Gospels, illuminates the amazing power that can be released by belonging and connection.
The fourth chapter of John’s Gospel details the well-known story of the woman at the well. This story is a case study in the power of belonging and of connection. To truly grasp the importance of belonging as a central theme in the story, one must understand the cultural setting in which the story occurs.
Under first century rabbinic law, the interactions between Jewish men and women were strictly limited. Women were largely relegated to the home and private life, rarely going out in public unless accompanied by others, particularly their husbands. Men did not speak to women in public places. Women were not allowed to testify in legal proceedings. The Talmud taught that it was a waste of time for a man to teach the sacred writings to his daughter.
Culturally, there was a deep disdain between Jews and Samaritans. The Samaritans, while descended from Jews, had intermarried with the gentiles of the region. They were, in a very real sense, viewed as traitors and deserters of the faith. Jewish prejudice and antipathy toward Samaritans were deeply ingrained.
The Meeting At the Well
Jesus, traveling through Samaria, has paused to rest at Jacob’s well at noon, in the heat of the day. A Samaritan, a woman at that, comes to draw water. She certainly recognized him as a Jew, and knowing the antipathy between Jews and Samaritans, would have had her guard up.
Jesus, though, seems to have a laser focus on connecting with this woman. He speaks to her, violating all convention, asking her for a drink of water. Her response to Jesus is off-putting, designed to let him know that she is nobody’s fool. Essentially, she says to Jesus, “You Jews want nothing to do with Samaritans, and you don’t even talk to your own women! Why are you asking me for a drink?”
Undeterred, Jesus is set for the connection, and He is committed to a connection. He says, If you knew…who was saying to you, give me a drink, you would have asked me [for a drink], and I WOULD HAVE GIVEN YOU LIVING WATER. By telling her that HE would give it to HER, he was making an offer, and he was connecting with her. Her response is a connection- “OUR ancestor Jacob gave us this well…” Not “your father” or “my father”, but OUR father, Jacob, the ancestor of both Jews and Samaritans. As the scene unfolds, Jesus lays out one of the greatest teachings of the entire Gospels- that those who drink from Him will never thirst, and that a spring of eternal life will be in them.
Then, Jesus tells her to call her husband. As they talk, we discover that she has had 5 husbands, and the man she currently lives with is not her husband. We now know why the woman came for water in the heat of the day. She was ashamed and shunned. She had been divorced by 5 men (a woman could not divorce a man), discarded, rejected and abandoned. The man she currently lived with wouldn’t even marry her.
From Belonging to Belief
There she stands, in the moment, totally exposed. Jesus knows her life, and she knows that He knows. She begins to realize Jesus isn’t judging her past or even present. He doesn’t shame her in her sin. Instead, he’s connecting with her. He tells her the deep shame of her life, not to condemn her, but to redeem her. Jesus is setting a new standard.
As Jesus continues to interact with her, she asks Jesus a question about proper worship, He offers one of the most profound teachings in all of the New Testament. People will no longer worship in Jerusalem but will worship in Spirit and Truth. At the end of this short discourse, Jesus tells her, “I am he [the Messiah]. Profound teaching and revelation regarding His very nature- given to broken, battered foreign woman.
The outcome of Jesus effort to connect with this woman is stunning. She goes directly into the city, preaching Jesus to the very people she was trying to avoid by going to the well at noon. Her passion and testimony are so compelling that the Samaritan residents come out to see the Jewish rabbi Jesus. Many came to believe because of her testimony, and much more because of what Jesus said.
The King of Belonging
Belonging is a central theme of Christianity, and essential to God’s heart for each of us. God the Father is a father. He sent a family member to save us, and restore mankind to His family. The scriptures speak repeatedly of us as adopted sons/daughters, and of being co-heirs with Christ.
The ultimate belonging, of course, is the belonging of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, whose belonging is so intimate that they are one. Belonging, as Dr. Brown said, is indeed “neurobiologically hardwired” into to us because belonging is a part of the nature of God himself, and as image-bearers, we come from and are ultimately destined to, belonging.