Jesus asked a Samaritan woman for a drink. He challenged cultural practice, shocking the woman and his disciples in the process.

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Speaking Up

The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ ... ‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? ... Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, ‘What do you want?’ or ‘Why are you talking with her?’
John 4:9, 11, 27

Jesus asked a Samaritan woman for a drink. He challenged cultural practice, shocking the woman and his disciples in the process. But however surprised and disturbed she may have been, she did not back away. She faced up to this disconcerting stranger and questioned him.

People often asked Jesus questions – straightforward ones, as the Samaritan woman does here, but sometimes patronising ones or devious ones to try to catch him out. The rich young man asked Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life, but the answer in the end was too much for him and he turned away (Mark 10:17-31). The Samaritan woman went on asking questions and listening to the answers, and found the Messiah.

Good questions are a useful guide to the success of human communication. I remember classes where teachers were so intimidating that no one dared ask a question, or so lax that silly questions were asked to waste time. At work, where managing, planning and being efficient require meetings and conversations of all kinds, we need to reflect on whether people feel free to ask straightforward, honest questions – and to go on asking. Ideally, we can help shape a climate where questions are permitted and encouraged. We may even need to ask necessary questions ourselves when we sense that others dare not ask them.

In the same way, space for questions is crucial when we are communicating our faith to others. Courses aimed at those on the edge of faith – Alpha and Christianity Explored, for example – sometimes come with the strap line that ‘there is no question too simple, too silly, too big or too hostile that you can’t ask it’. But it’s also good practice to make sure there is adequate space and time for questions within the ongoing life of the church. Our growth into a mature understanding of our faith depends on a Spirit-led process in which we build each other up. Asking questions and sharing answers with each other is part of this process.

The Samaritan woman was not intimidated: she listened, queried and commented. Then she fetched her neighbours and friends, invited Jesus to stay for a couple of days, and many became believers. So much for the power of a good question.

Margaret Killingray

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"Good questions are a useful guide to the success of human communication."