Discerning what discipleship means

January 10th, 2023

What if every day is the perfect day to finally be exactly who you were always meant to be?
—Tyler Knott Gregson

The woman at the well is my person—that is, my person in the Bible. She can’t be my “go-to” person, I guess, given the fact that two thousand years separate us. But almost every day, she inspires me. From her I have learned more about faith, more about myself, and more about God, than from many of my contemporary acquaintances. I admire her. I respect her—this woman with no name who holds her own in a conversation with Jesus and ends up being the first witness to the grace upon grace (John 1:16) that is ours because of Jesus.

I think we all need a person in the Bible, that character who embodies for us what believing in God looks like and feels like. In them we see aspects of ourselves. It is through them that we are better able to articulate what faith means in our own lives. It is through them that we gain a better sense of who God is calling us to be. In them we also see who God is and key characteristics of God, because God made God’s very self known to them. God showed up in their lives, and they responded in ways with which we resonate.

Consider who this person in the Bible might be for you. What is it about this character that rings true to you, in whom you see attributes of yourself, your own discipleship self? Maybe you can even imagine being friends. Sitting down for a cup of coffee or going out to lunch. Maybe it’s the biblical person you most want to meet in heaven. What about God has this person taught you or that you have always thought to be true about God, that you have hoped about God? What has this character showed you about God that still remains important for you today?

My new book invites you on an exploration of one character in Scripture toward discovery of your biblical person—and hopefully, of yourself as a person of faith, maybe even learning a little more about God in the pro- cess. How we understand discipleship, faith in Jesus, and the Christian life is not just based on church tradition or denominational instruction but is also a very personal construction. Somewhere in the history of our developing belief in and relationship with Jesus, we likely latched on to a story in the Bible in which we could see ourselves. The story helped us make sense of our own experiences of God. We connected with the characters, the scene, the details, the conversation—and with what the story revealed about God. Perhaps without realizing it at the time, the story shaped both our life with Jesus and our knowing of God.

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We have a tendency to put discipleship in a one-size-fits-all category—that there are certain expectations or requirements for how to live as a Christian that we must follow, especially if we want a life with Jesus beyond the grave. Our inclinations toward competition in faith or absolutism about belief have us convinced that there has to be only one way to follow Jesus, that we need to get this discipleship thing “right” so as to secure a mansion (or at least a few comfortable rooms!) in heaven. Yet, a skimming of the Gospels shows us that the disciples were not a uniform bunch. Comparison among Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John confirms that these four evangelists—these writers of the Gospels—present very different portraits of discipleship. Based on their primary christological viewpoint—that is, their essential understanding of Jesus’s ministry—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John offer four unique perspectives of what discipleship looks like. That could make us nervous—shouldn’t they have gotten their stories straight? But if that was the goal of the Gospel writers, where would that leave us? What about our relationships with Jesus? Don’t they count? I think they do, and that’s one of the reasons I love the Samaritan woman at the well. Her story reminds me that my story matters. After all, the woman at the well is not an “official disciple.” She’s not included on any of Jesus’s lists. She doesn’t have all the answers. She doesn’t even go looking for Jesus; Jesus goes looking for her. 

The woman at the well shows us that being a disciple of Jesus is not limited to those twelve named—isn’t that a relief?—and the Gospels writers couldn’t even agree on the names of the twelve (Matthew 10:2-4; Mark 3:13-19; Luke 6:12-16; see also Acts 1:13-14). Jesus collects followers as he goes along, and often the most unlikely and unexpected individuals. Some have names, like Mary and Martha (John 11–12:8; Luke 10:38- 42), Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-9), or Joseph of Arimathea (John 19:38-42), but most of them don’t—like the man born blind who was healed (John 9:1-41) or the women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities (Luke 8:1-3). I hope you find a sense of comfort—maybe even a sense of awe—in the fact that Jesus invites people to follow him somewhat indiscriminately. We are also members of the most surprising cast of characters to take up the cross and follow Jesus. We are the Gentiles, after all. We are the outsiders, objects of God’s love that those first twelve disciples could never have imagined, just like the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus sends those first followers out into the world because God loves the world, and look what happened. It seems Jesus meant it when he said, “God so loved the world” (John 3:16). 

Even beyond the four Gospels, the rest of the New Testament tells stories of all kinds of different Christian communities trying their best to live Christian lives. From the early churches to which Paul writes, to the seven churches who received the book of Revelation, these groups of believers had to figure out what believing in Jesus looked like in their own contexts and with different challenges, both within their communities and from without. It wasn’t easy being a Christian then, and many days, it’s not easy being a Christian now. It is important to remember that the first followers of Jesus were not Christian at all—and neither was Jesus. Jesus was a Jew, and the first disciples were Jewish. The Jesus movement, we might call it, was an offshoot of Judaism made up of people who believed that Jesus was the expected Messiah. The writings of the New Testament don’t tell us what we have to do as disciples but invite us to discuss and imagine how discipleship plays out in the real lives of the followers of Jesus—including us. 

In the woman at the well, we discover what discipleship looks like em- bodied in a particular individual whose life is changed by her encounter with Jesus. Her encounter with Jesus unlocks her potential as a disciple of Jesus and offers us five keys for what belonging to Jesus means: discomfortwondertrustletting go, witness. By overhearing her conversation with Jesus, perhaps we can better imagine how our own discipleship has come about and better appreciate how we live it out. This encounter at Jacob’s well should feel encouraging—that your own faith experiences can be trusted. That your own encounters with Jesus are worthy of reflection. And that you, as a disciple of Jesus, matter to Jesus—and to God. 

This new book is divided into five chapters for individual devotional or group study. The five chapters move through the five sections of the conversation, as each section opens up one of the five keys to unlock your potential as a disciple of Jesus. After a general Introduction to the Gospel of John with background information that will help us with our study of John 4:1-42, the five main chapters focus on a portion of the dialogue between Jesus and the woman at the well. Each chapter opens with Focus Verses and then provides additional passages in the Gospel of John that will be helpful background reading to understand what’s going on in John 4 (Read). Next is an overview of the specific section of the conversation, highlighting important issues and themes that connect to other parts of the Fourth Gospel (Review). Points for discussion follow (Reflect), each point followed by topics and questions for further consideration or conversation (Respond). The chapters close with a summary of the disciple-ship key that we have learned from the woman at the well (Renew) and then end with Prayer. There is also some space at the end of each chapter for you to take notes (Notes to Self). The Epilogue concludes the book. 

The Samaritan woman at the well merits my words of gratitude. Her wonder and trust, her courage and witness continue to inspire me when my faith wanders and assure me when my faith wanes. I am humbled and honored to have given her story the attention it deserves. I pray that in listening to this extraordinary conversation between Jesus and the woman at the well, you will be able to hear how God is calling you to your own life of discipleship. This holy calling is not about having all the answers but leaning into the questions by which you might discover who God has called you to be—for the sake of the world God loves so much. Jesus doesn’t ask us to get it right, but to be in relationship—with him and with others. In the end, what I hope you will discover is that discipleship is not so much about doing but belonging.


Excerpted from Belonging: 5 Keys to Unlock Your Potential as a Disciple by Karoline M. Lewis. Copyright © 2023 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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