We are inundated with the world’s images and narratives, and the Gospel comes with a counter narrative and images that are powerful enough to drive out and replace the world’s images. As ministers of the Word, we need to speak to the imagination of those God sets before us.
In reading through the Gospel of John as part of my personal study time, I found that the story of the woman at the well showed me more about preaching than I had ever seen in it before (John 4:7-30).
Specifically, I was struck by how Jesus spoke to the woman’s imagination and how this interaction helps me as a preacher to better understand my calling to preach to the imagination effectively.
Calling People to Imagine
In ancient Palestine the task of drawing water from a well did not require a good deal of imagination. You would go to the well almost daily, drop the bucket or skin into the well, and draw it back up. But in John 4, the moment Jesus speaks to the woman her imagination is stirred. He asks for a drink and the woman responds with a question that starts with “How is it…” (John 4:9) These words show how her imagination is at work.
In her experience, Jewish men didn’t speak to Samaritan women, and so Jesus’ words force her to imagine a world where Jewish men do speak to Samaritan women. In simply asking for a drink Jesus demands that the woman imagine the world (even if only a little) to be other than she has known it to be. She knows Jewish men don’t speak to Samaritan women, yet here is a Jewish man speaking to a Samaritan woman!
Jesus then kicks things up a notch and introduces images and ideas that will force the woman to push her imagination even further. He says, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (4:10).
When Jesus opens with “If you knew”, he is inviting the woman to second guess her reality. She was shocked enough by a Jewish man asking her for a drink, but now she has to imagine that this man is something more, or at least different than any other man. Jesus also speaks of the “gift of God” and “living water”, all words that she would have been familiar with but when brought together by Jesus in the order and context of the situation, she is forced to wonder what he means. This “wondering” or thinking requires imagination.
When Jesus adds that all who drink his water will find “a spring of water welling up to eternal life”, she is again being asked to imagine water and life in a very different way.
Put plainly, this woman is being called to imagine a world that doesn’t exist as far as she knows it, and yet a world that she now desperately wishes were real. This is a world where Jews and Samaritans relate to one another; where men are not just men; where water is more than water; and where thirst can be quenched and water can bring eternal life.
There is a lot more that can (and should) be said about all the ways that the imagination is spurred in this interaction, but it is enough here to say that Jesus has so engaged the woman’s imagination that she is prepared to accept that this world that he has presented to her is real.