Katy Perry, the Samaritan Woman of John 4 and what it means to be a Christian

Most of what I know about Katy Perry I know from reading articles from the Christianity Today website (here and here). That makes me feel super uncool and evangelical, but oh well…

Katy’s story (for those of you like me who aren’t in the know) is that she grew up in a very conservative Christian family, tried to make it as a Christian artist, then went out and made it huge in the secular music business with a series of hits that would not have been hits with her old community.

Katy Perry’s Brand of Christianity-ish

CT quotes the Rolling Stones interview (I’m not even cool enough to have learned about her there) She made these comments:

RS writes that “one would think her religious past is behind her, but [Perry] still considers herself a Christian.” She tells the magazine, “God is very much still a part of my life. But the way the details are told in the Bible—that’s very fuzzy for me. And I want to throw up when I saw that. But that’s the truth. . . . I still believe that Jesus is the son of God. But I also believe in extraterrestrials, and that there are people sent from God to be messengers, and all sorts of crazy stuff.

“I look up into the sky and I’m just mindf—ed — all those stars and planets, the neverendingness of the universe. I just can’t believe that we’re the only polluting population. Every time I look up, I know that I’m nothing and there’s something way beyond me. I don’t think it’s as simple as heaven and hell.”

More stuff from the Her-meneutics blog:

“I do believe in God,” Perry said in Part of Me 3-D. “Maybe not all the details my mom believes, but I have a personal, one-on-one relationship with God, and it’s continually evolving.”

With “Jesus” tattooed in script on her left wrist and “Anuugacchati Pravaha,” a Sanskrit phrase meaning “Go With the Flow” permanently etched on her right bicep (ex-husband Brand got a matching one), integrity, honesty, and vulnerability are the names of Perry’s game, and instilling hope in her fans is her main passion in life.

“I want my fans to leave my show with a heart full of hope and happiness, with a shimmer in their eyes,” Perry said on her California Dreams tour.

Now I may not know much about Katy Perry but I do know she’s not alone in holding ideas like these. This is pretty typical vague, “common sense” spirituality.

Her personal remake seemed wildly successful in terms of her career from the earlier article

Perry said that after her Christian label shut down and that it was clear that “my gospel career was going nowhere,” she started writing love songs and pursuing a pop career — not rejecting her faith in the process, but not exactly fully letting it define her, either. “Letting go was a process,” she said. “Meeting gay people, or Jewish people, and realizing that they were fine was a big part of it. Once I stopped being chaperoned, and realized I had a choice in life, I was like, ‘Wow, there are a lot of choices.’ I began to become a sponge for all that I had missed—the music, the movies. I was as curious as the cat. But I’m not dead yet.”

But then from the later piece

Since Christianity Today last covered the life of Perry, 27, (“Katy Perry: ‘I’m Still a Christian’”) in 2010, her music career has rocketed to record heights, while her marriage to then-fiancé Russell Brand has crumbled. This juxtaposition is aptly portrayed in her documentary, showcasing her awards and credentials in the industry that are second to none, while including moments of tears and heartache on the road as her marriage falls apart.

Reinventing the Self to find what works

Part of what the imagined blank slate of secularism yields is a very pragmatic narrative of “finding what works”. The metrics of her career revealed to Perry that her sequentially evolved second self was more successful than the evangelical Katy Hudson. Lots of other things in her life obviously changed including ideas and commitments that led to her new identity and her new life. She clearly wants to see the new life in continuity with the old, but of course (this is the nature of choosing) ascribes value judgments from one onto the other.

In this evolution the imagined judgment of a god who sees of course changes radically. From a child who learned from her parents that “Lucky Charms” were not to be eaten to express a cultural resistance to the idea of luck, to a voyager on a journey of discovery kissing girls and partying hard will of course imagine a different god.

Wishing to retain the label “Christian” while jettisoning what that label used to be attached to is of course nothing new, and nothing unique to girl kissing or heavy drinking but very much germane to the big questions of who is Lord, who is right, and what will the outcomes be.

The Samaritan Woman at the Well in John 4

A couple of days after reading the Katy Perry stuff I led a Bible Study on the story of Jesus meeting the woman at the well in John 4. It is an amazing story and many of the issues in play in Katy’s story are in play in this story as well.

Raymond Brown’s treatment of the story is stellar.

Jesus is trucking up north to Galilee because he is drawing attention from the Pharisees for the large numbers of people coming out to be baptized and he “must” go through Samaria. The “must” is code talk in John for a divine appointment.

Jesus stops at a well at noon and the disciples go into town for supplies. Jesus meets at the well a Samaritan woman of whom he asks for a drink. Jesus violates the social norms by speaking to her and asking her for a drink. She mocks Jesus for being so in need as to have to break propriety. Jesus then proceeds to show her the real reason for their interchange. It is not his inferiority or need but rather the challenge he makes to her:

  • If she can recognize who is speaking to her
  • she will ask him for living water

The rest of the interchange is a highly structure dialogue by which she begins to learn what he is offering her and why she must recognize who he is.

The Sexually Sinful Heretic

Behind the story is obviously the long history of religious conflict between the Jews and the Samaritans. Who has there right Bible? Who has the right temple? Who has the true story of who God is and what he wants?

She’s possibly alienated from her own people because of her marital/sexual practice. She’s been married 5 times and living with someone she’s not married to.

From a Jewish perspective this woman strikes out on all counts. She’s a sexual sinner AND she’s a heretic.

The story is told in a way that invites us to contrast her with Nicodemus, the Jewish religious leader in John 3.  Both Nicodemus and the woman at the well are confused by Jesus’ teaching. Jesus teaches “you must be born from above (source, spiritual)” but Nicodemus hears “you must be born again (sequence, material)”. Jesus offers her living water (the Spirit, being born from above, the theme continued from John 3) but she hears the offer in pragmatic terms. What she’d really like is indoor plumbing!

Nicodemus’ background isn’t helping him come into the light. The woman’s background isn’t hindering her from coming into the light and as we’ll see she will accomplish something Nicodemus could not.

The First Samaritan Church

If you read the story you’ll learn that she eventually comes to embrace Jesus’ challenge. That she sees him as the Messiah, an idea the Samaritan’s could embrace, and that she’d ask for his “living water”. She returns to the town and tells the town about him, bringing the town to embrace Jesus. The Samaritans beg Jesus to stay with them.

What we see in John is a pre-echo of what we will see in Acts when Phillip the deacon, fleeing persecution preaches to the Samaritans and churches form in that region. What we have in a sense is a proto-church in Samaria instigated by a sinful woman. Jesus is now embraced by many who have come to faith as the Savior of the world, again echo the Nicodemus dialogue.

You’ll note that nothing so dramatically fruitful followed Jesus conversation with Nicodemus.

What Line does the Samaritan Woman Cross?

Jesus in John 4 gives a nice, small, personal definition of a Christian. A Christian

  1. sees Jesus as one greater than father Jacob, as the connection to “living water” which is essential for the undoing of the age of decay, as the Messiah-the revealer of the creator god, as the savior of the world
  2. asks Jesus for that living water, that Holy Spirit, that source of water for our selves, that power for renewal, that convictor of sin, that agent of the god for our reclamation

Conversions in the Bible

In some ways we read the Bible like we watch romance movies. The deficiency of most romance movies is that they focus on the path to the consummation of the relationship but don’t live with the mundane, real work of what the relationship requires.  In all fairness much of the Bible is dedicated to the daily work of the relationship, and the Bible as CS Lewis reminds us was written by Christians for the encouragement of Christians, yet a story like this (and others) is frustratingly short on follow up details.

By virtue of Jesus’ challenges this woman becomes an evangelists and a church planter of sorts. Even before we have baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit her town comes to faith instigated by her testimony. Jesus only stays two days, however, and when he leaves the focus of the story leaves with him, and we don’t know the rest of the story.

The woman clearly would have had a lot more work to do in her life. The pattern of her relationships with men was destructive for her, and also possibly seen as unwelcome and destructive to her town.

What did the woman become as a result of this change? We don’t know.

How did the town change as a result of this woman’s encounter with Jesus and Jesus’ extra-ordinary stay in this Samaritan town? We don’t know.

There are two errors that we could make in the vacuum. To assume everything was rosy. And to assume nothing happened. If you read the rest of the New Testament you discover that 1. Spirit filled, converted people in new churches regularly behaved poorly (read the New Testament epistles to see what they had to deal with) and 2. a movement grew and developed far beyond the scope of the New Testament record that was far broader, more powerful, more complex, more messy than we like to portray in children’s bibles.

We want to know 

  • What happened to her life with men? More men still? Did the man she was with marry her or did she find another one or did she live without one?
  • What happened to the town? Did they just assimilate some vague sense of Jesus? What happened years later when more and more Samaritan towns came under the influence of the work of the Christians who bore witness to the resurrection?
  • What did the Holy Spirit do with this raw material in a incredible absence of other supporting information? We see in Acts 18 what happens with disciples of John who don’t know about the Holy Spirit and Apollos who is powerful but has a deficient knowledge of Jesus?

And Back to Katy

And so we come back to Katy and her second life as Perry currently in complex continuity with Hudson. What will become of her? Will the divorce sober her enthusiasm for what she initially experienced as liberation and life-giving freedom? Will the pain she now experiences cause her to recalibrate her pragmatism and ask her to re-evaluate the kinds of assumptions and commitments that seem quite fluid today? Most likely.

The self moves in time and is in flux and this is one of the most difficult things we have to deal with. We can’t help but mark things in time, using the yard sticks and boundary markers available to us, none of which God’s judgment is dependent upon.

Two navigational helps are Jesus’ command not to “judge” and by that we mean “pass judgment on the future trajectory of another” and the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints.

Jesus’ command is pretty clear. Stay out of the judge’s seat, not in terms of being discerning, but in terms of passing judgment on what will become of others. To do so is a violation of the power of the Holy Spirit that blows where it wills without informing us.

The second is this idea that saints persevere. That is what saints do. Perseverance implies trials and testings and these are not limited to moments nor thoughts between our ears.

“If This Were My Universe”

The most instinctive reflex we have as self-conscious time travelers with lots at stake in a dangerous world is to chart our preferred future. Because none of us seem to be in control of the world we all have our judgments on what is taking place. We seldom get what we want and we all die.

Saints navigate through strange waters. Why did Jesus decide to knock Paul down on the Damascus road AFTER he participated in the killing of Stephen and the hunting down of other believers in Jesus? Surely God could have improved on that timing.

Why couldn’t Jesus have squeezed in a fourth year of ministry and been a bit more clear on women’s roles in ministry, gay marriage, baptism and further details on creation/science issues? Fill in your own questions.

As selves we travel through time and with just a few exceptions we usually don’t peak right at the end of our biological clock and on the way we have moments of clarity, greatness, betrayal and calamity.

Our Own Christian-ish-ness

What is your definition of a Christian?

  • Someone who seeks intimate, experiential communion with God?
  • Someone who does justice and loves kindness?
  • Someone who is morally scrupulous without being self-righteous?
  • Someone who articulates Christ’s teaching and applies and embodies them well to the world?
  • Someone who knows they’re lost and looks to Jesus for what they need?
  • All of the above?

If you read enough church history you’ll know that many applications of these things have changed throughout the centuries, while there’s also been continuity.

There is a real sense that all of this is beyond us.

  • A Christian finally understands his or her place in the cosmos, that they are small and not in control.
  • A Christian finally finds some peace with that and lives out of an optimism that ignites a particular kind of freedom and gratitude.
  • A Christian understands that their outcome is a subset of the outcome of the universe and unlike the expectation of extinction and demise, that instead it will be glorious and specific.
  • A Christian gets busy with the serious business of heaven (joy) even while everything is taken away from them (the cross).
  • A Christian recognizes who is speaking to her, and sanely asks for what she cannot secure herself.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in Devotional Reflection and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Katy Perry, the Samaritan Woman of John 4 and what it means to be a Christian

  1. Pingback: Christian should relate to Mormons like Christians related to Samaritans | Leadingchurch.com

  2. Caris Adel says:

    is is beautiful. I am a big KP fan. We just went and saw her movie the other day. I’m hoping to write about some of it this week. I find her story fascinating –more the point that she felt like she couldn’t experience life in her christian world, and why do we set up such a sacred/secular divide. I also find it interesting/ appalling that so many people instantly dismiss her b/c of her clothes and lyrics, without trying to understand her or give any grace. This is such a beautiful, hopeful look at KP.
    Cool look at the story of the woman too. I had never thought of that in relation to Philip. Loved this post!

  3. Pingback: The End of Christian Retail | Leadingchurch.com

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