Every leader can point to numerous mentors who have refreshed and renewed them like an oasis in the desert. These are people who foresee our potential and guide us to reach our God-given calling in life. My PhD mentor, Paul G. Hiebert, was a third-generation Mennonite missionary to India and a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in the 1980s and 1990s. His PhD seminar reminded me of Jesus’ dialogical teaching method in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John. By facilitating a rich dialogue, Hiebert transported his students to higher ground. With his sharp mind, cross-cultural empathy, and awareness as a third-culture person, Hiebert engaged students in profound and yet humble ways. For example, each seminar began with a student presenting a paper that prompted lively discussion among students. Hiebert would sit quietly and, at the end, draw one of his famous diagrams from scratch that elevated our work beyond our imagination, but then offer the credit to us. His dialogical teaching extending beyond the four walls of the classroom to his office, the hallway, and table fellowship at his home, was like an oasis in the desert of monologue.
Likewise, Jesus’ curriculum was both open and contextual. His teaching took place in synagogues, fields, homes, and even at the well when he was exhausted and in need of a drink. As he sat down, a Samaritan woman came to draw water, thinking that no one else was around. Thirsty from a long walk in the desert, from a position of weakness, being without a bucket, Jesus asked, “Will you give me a drink?” (John 4:6-7). By asking for a favor from a Samaritan woman, Jesus redefined who she truly was and could be. He repositioned her. At his request, all “isms” of the woman unraveled—racism, sexism, classism, and regionalism.
The vulnerability of Jesus is of great relevance for leadership today. Icy walls of gender, ethnicity, and class are not thawed by might; rather, through the vulnerability of weakness. Too frequently, empowerment is imposed from top to bottom, merely perpetuating a circle of injustice.
Shocked by Jesus’ unconventional engagement, the woman replied, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (4:9). Her question disclosed both her astonishment and uneasiness. Stepping out of her secure bondage, no matter how oppressive that might have been, required an adjustment that induced anxiety. In her questions, she actively uncovered deep-seated issues. Yet, the more the woman engaged in dialogue, the deeper her encounter with Jesus became. Jesus brilliantly thawed out the woman’s solid self-perception shaped by conventional prescriptions. Jesus understood the woman’s readiness to deal with her empty well within.
Mentors who humbly and firmly accompany mentees are rare today. No matter how much time the millennium generation spends in the virtual reality of social networks, nothing can measure up to face-to-face encounters with mentors like Jesus at the well, who introduced living water to a woman. In return, she became a well that poured out the message of the living water Jesus instilled in her.
Like the woman at the well, I am grateful for a mentor who engaged in numerous life-transforming dialogues and served as an oasis to my thirsty soul. As a result of the model of my mentor, in teaching my students, I too spend ample time outside the classroom, listening, personally engaging in their lives, breaking down walls, willing to be a well when they feel empty and dehydrated.