You’re going to want to turn in your Bible to John 4 as we read this remarkable conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman beside a well outside of the little town of Sychar.
There is a phrase in verse 4 that intrigues me: “Now he had to go through Samaria.” The fact is, Jesus did not “have” to go through Samaria (geographically). There was no time pressure to get to Galilee. He could have gone around as other Jews did who wanted to avoid defiling themselves by stepping on Samaritan soil. But Jesus had a mission which included Samaria. When Philip, Peter and John return to Samaria in Acts 8 (about 4 years later) the seeds of faith will already have been planted, and we see those seeds being sown in this fertile soil this morning.
When Jesus and his disciples stop at noon at this well outside of the little town of Sychar, it has been a long hot walk already. John says, “… tired as he was, Jesus sat down by the well…”
Do you ever think of Jesus getting tired or hot or thirsty or hungry? John will continually give us these little glimpses of Jesus that shows us how fully human he was. He was angry at the Temple moneychangers, he grieved the loss of his friend Lazarus. Here he is hot and tired from a long walk through a barren stretch of wilderness.
As Jesus sat there, a Samaritan woman came to draw water from the well. I want you to notice some things about this woman that tell us what kind of a woman she was. She came in the heat of the day because that’s when the other women don’t come. She had lived a difficult life and suffered the abuse of others who were quick to judge and condemn. When others are there in the cool mornings or evenings, she isn’t welcome. So here she is at the well when no one else will be there.
I also want you to see how strategically her story is placed in John’s Gospel. This is a study in contrasts with chapter 3 where we met Nicodemus. Nicodemus was the upper crust of society; she is at the very bottom. He is powerful, she is an outcast. He was educated, she had no influence. He lived a righteous life, she lived a life of failure and sin.
Despite their differences, they are the same. Nicodemus came at night, she comes during the day – but they both are in hiding – he from his fellow Pharisees, she from her fellow townspeople. And they both have the same needs: forgiveness, a new birth, a Savior. And what they seek, they find.
Jesus asks her a simple question: “Will you give me a drink?” Though the conversation sounds ordinary enough – a request for a drink of water, I don’t have to remind you of how extraordinary this is. Even she remarks that this is unusual – he is a Jew, she is a Samaritan; he a man, she a woman. Those two things should have been enough to distance them. But Jesus has a mission – and she is the one he came to speak with.
I speak often of divine appointments – those seemingly coincidental meetings in which God brings two people together for a purpose – a conversation, an opportunity to change someone’s life. This is one of those.
Jesus replies: “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
Even as Nicodemus misunderstood Jesus’ words “you must be born again,” so the woman misunderstands his offer of “living water.” And she replies, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep.” Jesus tells her “whoever drinks this living water will never thirst,” and she says, “give me this water so I won’t have to keep coming here to draw water.” They are on two different levels. She hears physical water, Jesus speaks of eternal life.
At this point, Jesus changes direction and speaks to her deepest pain. He tells her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” She hangs her head and says “I have no husband.” And then Jesus says, “You are right, you have had five husbands and the man you are with now is not your husband.”
You need to remember that in the Jewish law, a man could divorce his wife, but a wife could not divorce her husband. This means that five men have divorced her, and the one she is living with now hasn’t even bothered to go to the trouble of marrying her. Can you imagine how that might feel – to have been rejected so many times and to be disrespected so blatantly that you are the town joke – and everybody despises you and talks about you behind your back?
This revelation by Jesus suddenly flips the switch and the light comes on – she is not talking with an ordinary man – he is a… preacher! And I’ve always had a question or two I wanted to ask if I ever met a preacher.
Seriously, his questions are getting uncomfortable and she wants to change the subject to something less personal. The truth is, we all learn early to take the spotlight away from our weaknesses – to divert and redirect and throw up a smokescreen. The woman says, “I can see that you are a prophet – what’s your opinion on the controversy between Jews and Samaritans over who is worshiping God correctly?”
That’s a question that hasn’t changed much over the years: Who is the right church? Who is doing things correctly? Obviously, we are! And that’s how the woman frames it: “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
The problem is that she, like so many of us who share that same concern are asking the wrong question. The question isn’t where but what. Whether you think the true church is found on this street corner instead of that street corner, or this mountain as opposed to that mountain, you’re asking the wrong question.
Jesus’ answer to her, and to us, has nothing to do with location, or the name on the sign, but with the condition of the heart.
Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.” (Jn 4:21-24)
The issue of obedience is not irrelevant. Jesus says, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.” Some want to hide behind the screen of sincerity: “As long as we’re sincere, it doesn’t matter what we believe, God will be pleased.” Sincerity has never been a substitute for obedience. But to assume that because you are correct in what you believe, that you are pleasing to God is also to miss the target. To assume, like the Jews, that we are God’s people because we have the right name on the sign and worship on the right mountain, that God loves us and is angry with everyone else is to seriously misunderstand God. You cannot hide behind form and forget the importance of the heart. God is spirit and his worshipers must worship in spirit and truth. To compromise and minimize either spirit or truth is to miss the nature of God.
Jesus says, “a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” Worship that is pleasing to God has nothing to do with “where” – both Samaritans and Jews alike misunderstood the nature of God. They had boxed him in and locked him up and restricted where and how they thought he could act. God will not be restricted by our small-mindedness and sectarianism.
So, our primary concern should be asking whether we are true worshipers who worship the Father in spirit and truth. And let me tell you, that’s going to be the greatest challenge we will ever face. That means showing up at the right building and performing the correct rituals won’t cut it with God. Nor will achieving this perpetual spiritual high that is all about emotions. The question is, does our worship here on Sunday mornings, affect how we live out in the world the rest of the week? Worship is meant to change us.
When Isaiah stood in the presence of God he was forced to look at himself and realize the depth of his need for God and out of that he responded, “Here am I send me!”
Jesus has obviously struck a chord with this woman. Her smokescreen question to take the focus off of her failure has now brought her face to face with the real question in life: what is your relationship with God? Does God really have your heart?
The woman realizes that she doesn’t have the answer, in fact, she doesn’t even know the questions, and so she again tries to divert the conversation: “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes he will explain everything to us.”
That’s the best thing she has said so far. We think this expectation of the coming Messiah was a Jewish phenomenon, but we see that the expectation was far broader than one little hotspot in Jerusalem. The longing for a Messiah who would come from God and bring deliverance and hope was widespread.
Even in her hopeless condition, she recognizes that God is at work and can do something powerful. And so, while Jesus has challenged her confidence in herself and her religion, she puts her trust in the one who is coming.
At this, Jesus says the most important thing she will ever hear: “I who speak to you am he.” While she realized Jesus was somebody important – a prophet – he was more than that – he was the Messiah she has been waiting for.
This is the first of only two times that Jesus explicitly says, “I am the Messiah.” First to this woman, and then in chapter 9 to the blind man he has healed. He didn’t reveal himself to the Pharisees or the Sanhedrin, not to Nicodemus or to Herod or Caiaphas or Pilate – not to anybody who mattered, but to these two nobodies.
That ought to tell us something right there – that Jesus didn’t come for the elite – for those who are rich and famous and important – he came for everybody, Jew and Gentile, men and women – common people, people who struggle with life, who don’t have all the answers, but whose hearts are open to the one who does.
What comes next confirms what I said a few minutes ago – a right relationship with God changes your life. Just a few minutes earlier, this woman was an outcast, avoiding people, ashamed of her life. And then she meets Jesus who offers her living water and tells her that he is the Messiah she has been waiting for. What does she do?
John writes: Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” (Jn 4:28-29) You think Isaiah’s response was amazing, this woman’s is more so. Everybody in town despises her, but she is so excited about what has just happened she throws all that aside and rushes into the middle of the town square and says, “You have to come hear this man – he told me everything I ever did – I think he’s the Messiah!”
If you had never read the story before, what would you assume the response would be? Laughter, scorn – “We can all tell you everything you ever did!” But that’s not what happens. Something about what she said and how she said it – her excitement, her conviction, her intensity convinced the people who despised her to follow her out to the well to listen to Jesus.
And listen to the result of her conviction: Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony,
“He told me everything I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers. They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.” (Jn 4:40-42)
It’s not just the woman’s life that has been changed, but the lives of everybody in that town. Their interest was sparked by this woman, but then it was the message of Jesus himself that made the difference.
And that’s how it’s supposed to be – that’s what evangelism is supposed to look like. My life is changed by the words of Jesus, and my excitement is so contagious I can’t keep it to myself, and so I start telling others and bringing them to meet Jesus for themselves. And Jesus changes their lives.
Meanwhile, Jesus is back at the well talking with his disciples while this woman is in the town telling everybody about Jesus. When the townspeople come streaming out of the gates heading their way, Jesus tells them, “Do you not say, ‘Four months more and then the harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true.” (Jn 4:35-37)
Evangelism isn’t all about your message and your technique – it’s about Jesus. You tell about what God is doing in your life – you sow the seed and let God worry about the harvest. Often, the seed has already been sown and God has been at work before you ever happened upon the scene. Look around you – the fields are ripe for harvest – tell people about Jesus and let him do the rest.
It’s also a reminder not to dismiss someone as being uninterested in the gospel. Who would have chosen this woman as a likely prospect? She was a Samaritan, an outcast, a sinful woman filled with sin and shame. We would look right past her if we were looking for someone who would be interested in Jesus. No way would she ever be the one who could lead a city to Jesus. But that’s exactly the kind of person Jesus chooses – a person whom God alone could change – a person through whom only God could touch the lives of others.
The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is a story of Jesus and people. There is sensitivity and love – a sense that Jesus really cares for those whose lives are not tightly wrapped and neatly packaged. In his promise of living water, he beckons us to a well from which you and I do not have anything with which to draw. But if we would ask, it could be ours.
When this woman realizes who Jesus is, she leaves her waterpot and goes running to tell others. I just wonder when some of us are going to leave our waterpots and go do something, go tell someone, instead of sitting at the well, convinced we are worthless and that no one would listen to us. God had great plans for this woman. Her testimony literally changed the eternity of everyone in that town. Think what God could do through you.