The Woman at the Well audio (7MB)
If you were here last week you may remember how John saw his main role as telling people about Jesus. You may also remember that that task of proclaiming Jesus is also our task. Well today we move on to the next episode in John’s account of Jesus’ ministry. Here we find Jesus’ providing a great model for sharing the gospel. We find Jesus taking every opportunity to bring people to a knowledge of the truth which is found in him, and then we see the woman herself becoming a witness to Christ. And we finish with a reminder that the task of evangelism is ongoing.
Jesus has decided to return to Galilee. The most direct route to Galilee passed through the region of Samaria, so that’s the way they went. We’re told they came to the town of Sychar where Jacob’s well was, and still is. It was the sixth hour, that is midday, and being tired from the journey, Jesus sat down to rest while his disciples went into the town to buy some lunch.
Just then a Samaritan woman comes to the well to draw water. Now this is strange. No-one goes out in the heat of the day to draw water. That’s a job for the morning or evening when it’s cool. So why would this woman come now? Maybe, as we’ll see later, because she’s a social outcast. She comes now so she won’t have to bear the looks and comments of the other women from the town.
So Jesus is sitting by the well and this woman walks up. What do you think he sees? Most Jewish men of his day would have seen a woman, of doubtful moral character, who, even worse, was a Samaritan. Their first thought would have been to ignore her. Even if she’d been brave enough to speak to them they would have turned away. But what does Jesus see? He sees an opportunity to share the gospel with someone who’s in great need of it.
Here we start to approach the central theme of this passage. Every opportunity to share the gospel must be taken. I wonder are you like me, in that when you come across someone, you ask yourself this sort of question. Are they good prospects for the gospel? Do they look like promising material, or should you save your energy for someone else and instead just discuss the weather? Well, one of the amazing things about the gospel is that all sorts of people are touched by it, in totally unpredictable ways.
I mean, look at this woman. As we’ll discover in a moment she’d had 5 husbands already, she was living with a de facto, she had little or no social standing, she would have been looked down on by everyone in town, and yet she’s ripe for the harvest. And what’s more, having heard the gospel she’ll become an evangelist in her turn. So never pass up an opportunity to share the gospel with others. You never know who will respond until you try.
Well, Jesus opens the conversation by asking her for a drink; a very down-to-earth, everyday sort of place to begin. This takes the woman by surprise. She would never have expected a Jew to ask a Samaritan for a drink. It was well known that Jews would never share eating or drinking utensils with a Samaritan. If they did they’d be unclean for the rest of the day. But notice what an effective tool this element of surprise is. It raises the interest of the listener and gets the conversation going.
But then Jesus goes a step further. He takes her response about him asking for a drink and he says: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10 NRSV). See how smoothly he moves the conversation from a cool drink to the water of life? Mind you, all she can think of is living water meaning running water, something that’s rare in an arid climate like that of Samaria. But Jesus isn’t talking about physical water. He’s talking about spiritual water, about spiritual life. He says “Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
You know, the Old Testament regularly speaks of water as a symbol of the life that God brings. eg. in Jer 2, God accuses his people of two things. He says: “My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”
But then as the prophecies of salvation appear we get the other side, of God promising to give them living water again. So in Zech 14:8 we find: "On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea; it shall continue in summer as in winter." In Is 12:3 we find the promise of life and salvation expressed in terms of water: "With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation." Or Is 49:10: "they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them."
Finally, who could hear these words without being reminded of the words of Is 55: "Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!. ... Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.” (Isa 55:1-7 NRSV). Here is the promise of eternal life for all those, of every nation, who will come and take it.
So here’s Jesus, talking to this Samaritan woman and offering her the living water that Isaiah was talking about all those years before, living water that’s for all people, even for Samaritan women. And so the woman responds: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” But while the grace Jesus is offering is free and without limitation, it’s not cheap grace. Nor indeed was the living water that Is 55 spoke of. Here’s the rest of that passage: “6Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; 7let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” And so Jesus says to the woman “Go, call your husband, and come back.”
The free grace that Jesus offers requires one thing. That’s that we acknowledge our sin and turn to God for forgiveness and healing. That’s not an easy thing for us to do is it? We don’t like to admit that we’ve failed, that we’re basically rebellious creatures. It’s an unpopular thing today to tell people they need to repent. But the need for repentance is as great today as it was in Jesus’ day. That’s why he tells the woman to go and call her husband. He knows her domestic situation. She’d had 5 husbands and is now living with a man to whom she isn’t married. If this were now we’d hardly even raise an eyebrow would we? We’ve been so dulled to what God requires of us that we don’t give a second thought to people who are living in de facto relationships. But Jesus obviously does. So he points out her need for repentance about this matter.
Well, the woman does something at this point that so many people do when they’re faced with their own moral failures: she changes the subject. Better still, she starts a religious argument. It’s a classic postmodern response isn’t it? That’s all right for you Jews, but we Samaritans believe different things to you.
But Jesus isn’t deflected. He brings her right back to the point. It’s no good trying to argue for religious pluralism, because there’s only one God, and what he wants goes beyond what either religion understands. Mind you, there is an essential difference between the Jews and the Samaritans. The Samaritans worship what they don’t know, while the Jews worship what they do know. The Samaritans’ worship was a mix of various religions, brought to Samaria when the Assyrians resettled the land. They believed they were worshipping God, but in fact had no true knowledge of God at all. On the other hand the Jews worshipped what they knew, because salvation comes from the Jews. The Jews stood in the stream of God’s saving revelation. Their history, their Scriptures revealed God’s saving plan for all peoples.
Jacob’s well was at the base of 2 mountains: Mt Ebal and Mt Gerizim. On these 2 mountains the People of Israel had stood when they first entered the promised land. One half stood on Mt Ebal and proclaimed the curses that would fall on them if they disobeyed God, and the other half stood on Mt Gerizim and proclaimed the blessings God would give them if they continued to obey him. So when the Samaritans wanted a place to worship God, they naturally chose Mt Gerizim, because it was the mountain of blessing.
But Jesus says, the hour is coming when neither this mountain, nor Jerusalem will be the site for true worship of God. No, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.
Here we come back to the issue of true repentance. It’s only in a spirit of truth that you can truly worship God. It’s no point living in denial. It’s no use pretending you’re OK. No, God can see into the depths of our hearts. He wants us to be honest with him. But he doesn’t just leave us there. He also expects us to worship him in spirit. So he gives us his own Spirit to dwell in us, to cleanse us and make us new.
In fact, Jesus says, the only people who can worship God are those who worship in spirit and truth. All the outward aids to worship, the holy places, the sacred music, the liturgies, the symbols, the special dress, are all obsolete. The greater sanctuary has come. Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is the new Temple, as we saw a few weeks ago. Now we look to a time when the whole earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea, to a time when in the new Jerusalem there will be no temple, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple (Rev 21:22)
Well, the woman responds to this revelation with a glimmer of faith “I know that Messiah is coming.” And she’s rewarded with Jesus’ self-revelation: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” At this point the woman can’t hold back any longer. She leaves her water jar and runs back into town to tell the people what she’s discovered. Here is a treasure too good to keep to herself. “Could this be the Messiah?” is her cry. Here we find an example of one of those anecdotal rules of thumb of evangelism. That is, that the best evangelists are those who are recently converted. She can’t help herself. She forgets her embarrassment, her poor social standing. This news overrides all of that. - I guess it’s a pity that we forget how exciting the good news is when you first encounter it. If we could hold on to that excitement, our evangelism might be all that more effective!
Meanwhile the disciples are talking to Jesus about what’s just happened. As with the woman, the conversation begins around food, but Jesus quickly turns it around to the question of true nourishment. He says: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” His food is doing the things God has asked him to do. That is, spreading the gospel. And, he says, the disciples have a part to play in that as well. He says “Look up! Look around you! You’re surrounded by people who are ready to be harvested for the Kingdom.” When was the last time you looked around your neighbourhood at the people around you, who are in such terrible need of the gospel: people who need that living water that Jesus offers? When was the last time you thought about the terrific privilege that God has given you of being one of his workers, reaping that harvest that the Holy Spirit has prepared?
How do you reap this harvest? Well, we have two examples in this passage. You can reap by telling people directly about Jesus and the salvation he’s brought, and you can reap by bringing people to hear about Jesus, the way the woman did: that is, by bringing them to someone else who’ll tell them about Jesus, bringing them to church or pointing them to God’s Word where they’ll meet Jesus personally. Either way, you’ll be helping to bring in the harvest that God has prepared.
What we find here is Jesus taking the opportunity that comes to him to tell a Samaritan woman the gospel; as a result we see a whole town coming to believe in Jesus and we see his exhortation to his disciples to do the same. That exhortation is the same for us today. “See how the fields are ripe for harvesting.” This is the core of our mission statement. So let’s take every opportunity that comes our way to bring people to a knowledge of Jesus Christ, whether by direct witness or by bringing them to others who’ll tell them of Jesus.
Let’s pray that as we speak the gospel to our friends we might play our part in the gospel harvest.