Back to devotions

Understanding Culture

(Based on a devotion first published in May 2019)

Culture plays an important role in our lives. It influences our views, values, hopes, humour, loyalties and concerns. As Christians, it’s important we understand the cultural differences of those we encounter — both inside and outside the Church.

The potential for conflict in our multicultural age can be great as we attempt to navigate many differing world views. How we approach these differences determines whether we demolish the walls in someone’s heart or help to build them higher.

Misconception or perception?

The need to understand culture isn’t limited to society today. As we read God’s Word, we should be aware of what life was like for those living at that time. An example of this appears in John 4:4-30 — the story of the woman at the well.

Jesus is thirsty, stops by a well, and asks a Samaritan woman for water, but there’s so much in the story that doesn’t appear in the words alone.

By interacting with the woman, Jesus broke three Jewish customs.

1) She was a woman
2) She was a Samaritan
3) Drinking from her cup would have made Him ceremonially unclean.

Traditionally, the Jews despised the Samaritans, who had their own version of the Bible — the Samaritan Pentateuch — and their own temple.

The woman knew that Jesus had broken several social taboos and was shocked that He was willing to interact with her.

In John 4:9 she says, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ She knew what it meant to be judged. The reason she’d come to the well at noon, the hottest time of the day, was to avoid a community that viewed her as immoral.

Can you imagine her reaction when Jesus spoke to her? Perhaps she initially viewed Him with mistrust. How many times have you experienced suspicion when you’ve reach out to someone who’s different, and who feels they might be judged by the Church?

The account in John’s Gospel is often regarded as being judgmental when Jesus says to the Samaritan woman, ‘You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true’ (4:17-18).

But when we understand the prevailing culture, it subtly changes our understanding of the text.

Women at that time weren’t able to initiate divorce — so the five marriages Jesus referred to indicate that she had either been widowed, abandoned or rejected — making it difficult for her to survive in a patriarchal society without a husband.


When we understand this, we read Jesus’ tone a little differently. He didn’t tell her these things to shame her — He was identifying with her suffering. He understood the painful life she’d led and retold her story in a way she had probably never heard before.

In doing so, He removed the veil from her heart (2 Corinthians 3:14-16), enabling her to receive the living water He was offering and releasing her into true freedom and forgiveness.

Having avoided the crowds because of her former life, she became an evangelist who proclaimed the Good News about Jesus — benefitting an entire town!

Our tendency to judge others because of stereotypes, customs, fears or prejudices can build walls around people’s hearts. Jesus, however, treats people as individuals and accepts them with love and compassion, calling us to do the same!

Unless we understand where people are coming from, they will never lower their guard and — no matter what we say, pray or do — it will be hard for them to respond to God’s love, grace and forgiveness.

A Kingdom culture

As we gain a greater understanding of the culture in which we live and realise how much it can influence us, instead of judging or excluding people, we should find it easier to follow Jesus’ example and dismantle the walls that exist in our woefully fragmented world.

Rather than condemning those living contrary to God’s ways, Jesus demonstrated a very different set of values. As we look at the way He treated others, it will hopefully reshape the way we engage with those we meet. Jesus reached out to the people His contemporaries attempted to avoid. So, let’s follow His example by crossing cultural divides and looking for God’s image in the faces of others.

As we humble ourselves, being quick to listen and slow to react to those with a different world view to ours, we get a little glimpse of heaven on earth, and experience Jesus’ love in a whole new, mind-blowing way!


It’s so easy to read the Scriptures through a western lens and miss much of what was intended to be understood about Jesus and His nature. The more we understand the culture and context of His time, the more we’ll discover something of His upside-down Kingdom.

Take some time to ponder the unsaid aspects of this story as you consider what life may have been like for women in the first century. How might that challenge the way you read John 4:4-30?

What effect might this fresh perspective have on how you interact with others?

Finally, think of one thing you can do differently because of a better understanding of culture. Write it down and ask the Holy Spirit for opportunities for you to step out in faith.