Here’s my adapted version of session 3 from the Winchester Lent course on re-imagining the church (John 4:5-42) for 11-18 year olds:
We re-imagine the Church intentionally connecting and engaging with our local communities in culturally relevant ways. We will rejoice in the richness of the “mixed economy” of all ministry and proactively promote vibrant parochial and breath-taking pioneering ministries amongst “missing” generations, e.g. children, young people, under 35s.
Serve your group
As group members arrive for today’s session, go overboard on making them feel welcome and served. Have trays with drinks on that you carry round to them, take their coats and hang them up, offer plates of canapés or nibbles – make them feel really served and cared for (and maybe just a little uncomfortable).
Using paper, pens and so forth, ask your group to re-imagine what church might need to be like for their friends to want to come. Once you have some ideas, ask the group what church would be like if there was no building.
Creative Worship Ideas
You will need: a map of your local area; or a few local newspapers. Go for a walk as part of your session and look for all the things that you might be able to do in your community to serve. If possible, walk past an old people’s home, some ground that needs tidying, and point out litter and graffiti if you can. If you walk past the church, invite them to think about how they might be able to serve there too.
If going for a walk isn’t possible, look at the map with the same thoughts, or read the newspapers and ask similar questions.
Bible Study Ideas/Questions
While it isn’t a Bible reading, this slam poem about the Woman at the Well is incredibly powerful:
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If you prefer a more faithful retelling of the Scriptures, then try this clip:
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Illustration: It won’t go in! That’s the cry often heard when the family tries to pack the car for holiday. If you’re going somewhere hot you won’t need three jumpers! Do you really need to take that with you? And if you’re flying abroad then it’s a challenge to make sure you don’t overload your case, especially if you are an avid reader! Buy an e-reader, that’s my advice!
The church today is at a watershed. We need to move on in our understanding of the church, and that means thinking about what we’re taking with us. What of all the good things we have done or been in the past do we need to ‘take with us’, and what do we need to ‘leave behind’ and depend on God for to provide for us in the new future? Just like the 72 who were sent out by Jesus, we need to travel light. The key discussion is what we need to take with us, and what we need to let go of, to be relevant and engaged with society today.
In today’s reading, Jesus meets a woman at a well. Through his encounter with her we are challenged to consider what re-imagining the church might look like.
A question of context: Jesus met the woman where she was
Why did the woman come to the well in the midday sun? For a start she came on her own, when women of her day would have gone together as a group, either before the sun was too hot, or just before the sun went down, in the cool of the day (remember, there were no streetlights!). Perhaps she was a woman who wanted to meet travellers for a rather different agenda?
Jesus sat on the well (according to Bailey), literally sat on the cover of Jacob’s Well. The well cover is still there today, 18 to 20 inches thick and 5 feet across, with a hole in the middle to lower a bucket. But Jesus has no bucket, and he is tired and thirsty. So he sits on the well cover, provoking the woman to choose – either to go away, or to come close, breaking the cultural norms of the day (he should have withdrawn 20 feet to allow her to come and use the well).
It wasn’t that long ago that people came to our church buildings for worship and community. The problem was dealing with those who came, not trying to connect with those who saw the church as irrelevant. Today people meet at superstores, around football and rugby fields, in coffee shops, with others who share the same interests such as cyclists, walkers and so on. Ever wondered what people do on a Sunday morning? Take a Sunday off worship and see!
The challenge for the church is to realise times have moved on and many simply have no reason to come to our church buildings. We need to find ways to go to them, to connect with them. Remember the plague churches of yesteryear? Once the disease had gone, the buildings were left stranded as a new community formed away from where it had been.
Jesus said, ‘You are the light for the world, you are the salt for the earth’ (Matthew 5:13-16). We too need to go where people are, to be among them, so that they can see Christ shine through us and meet him for themselves. And that may mean doing less on Sundays, in church buildings, leaving us with more resources to go to them in different places and at different times of the week too.
A question of culture: Jesus overcame the cultural barriers
Another challenge for us today as we re-imagine the church is to live in such a way that we do not conform to how the world does things – as J B Phillips says in Romans 12, ‘do not let the world push you into its mould’. Without thinking, we can easily simply adopt the norms and behaviours of the society in which we live.
The group of followers that went with Jesus comprised more than just the men we read so much about in the Gospels. We know, for example, that rich women funded his public ministry. Here Jesus demonstrates that the kingdom of God is not just for Jews but for all, cutting across cultural barriers. He asks the woman for a drink, and then draws her on to discuss spiritual things that challenge her thinking. But notice how he affirms what she can offer (she has a bucket – Jesus has not), and is open to being served by her.
As we consider the cultural changes that are happening here in Britain, we need to find ways and language to engage with our fellow men, women and children. There are many people of other faith communities around us. The challenge is how to work with them, alongside them, to change our society for the better. Though we may want to speak life-giving words to them, they will hear more clearly by what we do and how we treat them. We need to be the good news as well as speak the good news.
We often talk about the seven signs of John, the ‘I am’ sayings. But here is the first one, tucked away in a conversation with a woman (v. 26): ‘I, the one speaking to you—I am he.’ Just as the woman did not expect to meet God, do we as church expect him to meet with us as we go about his work?
Jesus engaged the woman in a dialogue that brought her to engage with the life-giving water of the Holy Spirit.
A question of change: Jesus invited the woman to join in with his work
One of the fascinating aspects of this encounter is the way Jesus engages the woman in kingdom work. As she begins to understand what he is saying (‘come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done’, vv. 29, 39), he challenges her to go, call and come back (v. 16).
Being authentic disciples will mean people being for Christ wherever they are. So we will need Christian teachers, social workers, police officers, counsellors, local councillors, people for Christ in every part of life. And when we are living out our faith among those with whom we work, play and live, there the kingdom of God will come.
Many new projects to reach out into our communities are engaging at people’s point of need. But these ventures are often small, and edgy, as they work out what they are about and what they can do to connect with the many who won’t come near our church buildings. But these communities are church as much as Sunday Eucharist at 11am. Some will come and go, others will take root and bear fruit over a number of years. But we all need to be ready to be church in the different places we live, work and play. And rather than wait for people to declare their faith in Christ, we need to engage them in changing the world – remember Christianity is caught not taught!
Jesus engaged the woman in his work immediately, where she was.
Illustration: I just can’t see it. Are you sure you can do this? Back in the days when there were sufficient resources to do some significant metalwork at school, that was the challenge: to see the boat even though we were holding a sheet of tin. Days later, with the help of solder, paint and a copper coil with a meths burner beneath it, the boat had come into being, and was ready to make its maiden voyage across the classroom tank. As we go forward under the direction of the Holy Spirit, he will guide us into forming a pattern of church that is fit for now. But at the moment we are still working with the sheet of tin!
The woman at the well is one of the Bible stories that comes alive when we understand some of the background. It’s a great story on first read but, when you start to understand some of the culture and so forth, it becomes even more powerful. Chat with your group about the following thoughts:
Jews and Samaritans. The Jews and the Samaritans hated each other. They had a bitter history and would have done anything to avoid contact with each other. Think Montagues and Capulets from Romeo and Juliet or Portsmouth and Southampton football supporters. Jesus was a Jew, the woman a Samaritan.
Men and women. In Jesus’ day men did not really associate with women and in particular with women whom they did not know. Men viewed women very much as second-class citizens – think about the news story of Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban because she thought girls should be allowed to be educated (there’s a good article about her at www.bbc.co.uk/news/ magazine-24379018). It’s one of the reasons that the woman is so surprised that Jesus asks her for a drink.
It’s midday. It was hot, really hot. Midday in Palestine is not a good time to be collecting water, and yet that’s when the woman comes. Lots of people reflect that this might be because she wanted to avoid the other women who would have judged her or mistreated her because of her lifestyle.
She has been married five times and the man she has is not her husband. This woman’s life has clearly been troubled. In a culture that frowns on divorce and adultery, this woman has clearly experienced both. It would have caused gossip and outrage in her community. Maybe that is why she travelled to the well alone at noon.
Bible Study Ideas/Questions
Lectio Divina is a wonderful way to read the Bible with young people. It’s an ancient practice that builds on the idea that when we hear the same words repeated we hear new and different things each time. Let’s read John 4:5-42 or for a smaller passage use John 4:7-30.
Settle your group, and then ask three confident readers for their help. Explain that the passage is going to be read three times, slowly and carefully, and at the end of each reading there will be a pause for thought and reflection. Ask the group to listen to the readings carefully and to see which phrases, ideas and words catch their attention. When all three readers have finished and you’ve allowed a further period of silence, simply ask: What do you think God might be saying to us through these words?
- What might God be saying to us through this passage?
- In what ways did Jesus serve the woman?
- How was the community changed by Jesus’ visit?
How will our life together this week be different because of these words?
- What am I going to think about?
- What am I going to do?
- What am I going to talk with God about?
What am I going to think about?
Re-imagining the church is difficult – we’ve got this thing that we’ve been handed that hasn’t changed much for hundreds of years – so how do we go about reinventing it? In the movie Pay it Forward the main character, Trevor, argues that it’s by doing little things that we change the world, by helping out people around us. Watch the clip at youtu.be/gw0Lvr4eK-k (or watch the whole movie if you have time – check the rating etc.). Ask your group:
- Is Trevor’s idea realistic?
- Can you change the world a little at a time or are the problems just too big?
- Does Trevor describe what the church should be like or is God calling us to something different?
What am I going to do?
Invite one of the senior leaders from your church (maybe the vicar or one of the church wardens) to attend your group. Spend some time with them brainstorming how your young people could get involved in the church in order to help it rethink itself. Try to get beyond collecting coffee cups or pressing the buttons on the projector and talk about worship, preaching, prayers, governance, synod, and so on.
Put your thoughts into action!
What am I going to talk with God about?
Physical prayers. Often in our church traditions we lose any kind of movement from our prayers. In some churches we might still kneel for parts of the service, but mostly prayer means sitting quietly with our eyes closed. In Psalm 95:6-7, the writer encourages us to try different postures in our prayer and worship: bowing and kneeling before God. Why not encourage your group to reflect on the words from verse 7, while adopting the postures from verse 6.
Encourage your group to bow, and to hold the posture. Read verse 7 and say ‘How does God show his care for you?’ Spend some time talking with God about what he does for you. Now encourage your group to kneel, and reread verse 7. Say ‘How does God want me to care for others? Spend some time asking God to show you the people he wants you to look out for.’
When you’ve finished, invite your group to sit down again, and ask them how they found the prayer time. How did it feel adopting the different postures? What did they hear God saying?
Suggest that they might try different postures when they pray at home. It may make it easier to pray. They could try lying down, standing up, walking around, holding their arms out like the priest at the communion table … the possibilities are endless!
Come, let us bow down in worship,
let us kneel before the Lord our Maker;
for he is our God
and we are the people of his pasture,
the flock under his care. Psalm 95:6-7 (NIV)