Christ Speaks to the Problem of a Guilty Past
John 4: 1 - 30
Each week we will meet someone who met Jesus face to face. Some will be very familiar and others will probably be new. These encounters are valuable for what they reveal about Jesus and what they teach us about the common problems of life. Although 2000 years have passed since Jesus walked on the earth, his words remain incredibly relevant. Times change but the human heart remains the same. We have the same hopes and fears, dreams and doubts. We struggle with the same problems: uncontrolled anger, foolish choices, misplaced priorities, hypocrisy, guilt, indifference, frivolous curiosity, misguided ambition, limited faith, convenient excuses, nagging doubt, compulsive busyness, broken dreams and personal failure. We hear people talk about making the Bible relevant. All you have to do is make the Bible clear. Tell it like it is and it will be so relevant that we may not want to hear it.
The story of Jesus and the woman at the well is familiar - struck by how simple and profound it is. A man meets a woman in a seemingly chance encounter. In a few brief moments her life is changed forever.
It was a hot day and the sun beat down. The sweat poured off his brow as he walked along the dusty road. He had been travelling with his friends since sunrise. Now the sun was directly overhead. They were hurrying to make their way through this part of the country as quickly as possible. He came to a well and thought to himself, “If only I could have a drink of water.” At that moment, the woman came along. It wasn’t the normal time, and it was unusual for a woman to come to a well alone. But this woman was different. As the woman looks at Jesus, 4 invisible walls stand between them. There is a religious wall, a gender wall, a racial wall and a moral wall. Yet our Lord found a way through all of them. He found her … and then she found him!
1. Contact v. 1 – 8
Geography is important in understanding this story. In Jesus’ day there were 3 regions stacked on top of one another. There was Galilee in the north, Samaria in the middle, and Judea in the south. A little history will help us - Jews and Samaritans disliked each other. The Jews looked down on the Samaritans as religious and racial half-breed heretics.
Nothing happens by chance in this story. Every detail is part of the outworking of God’s will. The woman isn’t looking for Jesus. All she wants is water. But Jesus is looking for her. Though she does not know it, this woman has a “divine appointment” with the Son of God. Reaching people for Christ is not always comfortable and may at times be difficult. But you have to go where people are if you want to reach them at all. She came alone to the well at noontime. This was potentially dangerous and somewhat unusual. Women normally came together to the well in the morning or the evening. It was something of a social event. The fact that this woman comes alone may mean that her chequered past was well known to the villagers, she had been ostracized by them.
The conversation begins with a simple question from Jesus: “Will you give me a drink?” He is tired and thirsty and she has the water he needs. But he has the water she needs. He was thirsty and knew it. She was thirsty and didn’t know it. The woman did not come to the well seeking Christ, but he came to the well seeking her. In his approach we see the great heart of our Lord Jesus is without prejudice. It matters not to him that others would not go to Samaria and others would not speak to this woman. He welcomes all and shuns none. Luke 19: 10 - the Lord Jesus came to seek and to save the lost.
2. Challenge v. 9 - 15
Triple surprise - 1. That a Jew would speak to a Samaritan. 2. That a man would speak to a woman he didn’t know in public. 3. That a Jew would drink from a Samaritan’s cup.
When Jesus offers her “living water,” he is being ambiguous because the phrase could also mean running water. “You came here for water. I’ve got water you’ve never dreamed of before.” He is leading her step by step to saving faith. First, he leads her to see her need, then he reveals who he is, then he offers her something that could change her life. He is offering not to quench her thirst but to rid it once and for all. Jesus returns again and again to the central issue: “Do you know who I am? If you knew my true identity, you could ask and I would give you water that leads to eternal life. Not just a drink of water but a gushing spring that will well up within your heart.”
The simplicity of salvation – v.10 - Jesus says, “You would have asked and I would have given you living water.” That’s all salvation is. It’s asking God to save you and receiving salvation in return. Think about that. Heaven itself is yours for the asking. Just ask for it! That’s all. Just ask Jesus with a humble heart to save you. Salvation is yours for the asking.
The vanity of all earthly things - Anyone who drinks of the water of this world will thirst again. We all know what it is to be thirsty and we know that the body can live for weeks without food but only a few days without water.
“Fill My Cup, Lord”
Like the woman at the well I was seeking
For things that could not satisfy
And then I heard my Saviour speaking,
“Draw from the well that never shall run dry.”
Fill my cup, Lord I lift it up, Lord.
Come and quench this thirsting of my soul
Bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more.
Fill my cup, fill it up and make me whole.
v. 15 - the woman says “Give me this water!” She didn’t understand what he meant but she wanted what he had.
3. Confrontation v. 16 - 18
On one level it appears that Jesus is being insensitive. Why bring up anything about her past? Is Jesus trying to embarrass her? The answer is no. His instruction to call her husband made her very uncomfortable. She doesn’t want to go into detail so she simply replies, “I have no husband.” True but not the whole story. She knew she was hiding the truth but what she doesn’t know is that Jesus knows it, too. So he proceeds to reveal the rest of the story. This woman has had 5 husbands and the man she is living with currently is not her husband. This is the ultimate reality check. How could a woman in that day have had 5 husbands? Even today that would be very unusual. Did they all die? That’s unlikely. Had she been divorced 5 times? Probably. Was there promiscuity involved? Most likely. Certainly she is currently living in a sinful relationship with a man outside of marriage.
The words of Jesus are a verbal slap in the face, and yet it was the most loving thing he could have done for her. There is an important spiritual principle at work here. Without conviction of sin there can be no conversion. God sees behind the mask to the reality within. Until we come to grips with the sickness of sin and our own wilful disobedience to God, we cannot be saved. Is Jesus being cruel? No more than the doctor who prescribes surgery to save your life. Unless he removes the tumour, you are certain to die. Will the operation be painful? No doubt, but weighed against death the pain is part of the healing process. Jesus described his mission: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2: 17). Just as a doctor must sometimes seem to hurt in order to heal, even so the Great Physician of the soul must wound us with the truth about ourselves in order to heal the sickness of our sin.
By asking about her husband, he exposes this woman’s lifelong pursuit of happiness. Evidently she has entered one failed relationship after another. And each time she said, “This is the man. This time I’ll be happy.” Each time she was disappointed. Now she won’t even risk marriage. But the words of Jesus reveal a deep-seated loneliness, a hole in her heart that no man could fill. Far from being irrelevant, these words of Jesus go to the core of her problem—and of ours. We’ve been raised to believe that if you only find the right man or the right woman, you’ll be happy. So we jump from one relationship to another, desperately hoping against hope that this time things will be different, this time we’ll make it, this time we’ll be happy. Yet no human relationship can satisfy our needs. We are spiritual beings made for a relationship with God. There is a “God-shaped vacuum” inside the human heart that no man or woman can ever fill. We were made to know God, and until we know him through Jesus Christ, we are doomed to restlessness and despair.
Let me ask a question - Does Jesus love this woman? Yes, he does. He knows the truth and still offers her eternal life. Here is the wonder of God’s grace. Only someone who loves you can look at your past without blinking. Real love means knowing the truth about someone else and reaching out to them anyway. He’s not ashamed of her past but he cannot help her until she gets beyond the shame and admits the truth.
She is almost but not quite saved. She is near the kingdom but not in the door yet. Jesus laid bare what she thought she could keep hidden. That always makes sinners uncomfortable. She wants to change the subject, which is what she does.
4. Conversion v. 19 - 26
It is now clear to this woman that she has met a most unusual man. Because he knows her past, she thinks he must be a prophet. Since he is a Jew and she is a Samaritan, she begins to engage in a theological debate. She wants to know which mountain is the right one for worship. Jesus doesn’t bother debating with her. He simply tells her that a time is coming when geography won’t matter. What God wants are people who worship him in spirit and in truth. He doesn’t condemn her faulty theology or say, “You’re stupid to worship at Mount Gerizim.” That wouldn’t do any good and would probably make her angry and end the conversation.
One of the great truths to come out of this story is that God is greater than geography, race, class, sex, and religious tradition. True worship - not about where or how or even when - about who you are and who God is. God wants worship that is based on truth and a wholehearted personal commitment to him. There is good news and bad news in that statement. The bad news is that religious activity doesn’t really count. Going to church, being baptized, giving money, praying six times a day, following the Ten Commandments, having a Quiet Time every day, those things, as good as they are (and they are truly good things) don’t count with God when it comes to salvation. The reason they don’t count is because anyone can go through the motions and still have a heart filled with anger, bitterness, profanity, hatred, lust, greed, envy, and pride. The worship God accepts must be based on the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ and offered to him from a humble heart of faith. But there is equally good news in that statement. If what God wants is spirit and truth, any one can qualify. Salvation is not limited to the Jews. The Good News is meant for everyone. Salvation is not about going to the right mountain. It’s about going to Jesus for salvation. And anyone can do that anywhere at any time!
Slowly the truth is dawning on this woman. She has heard that the Messiah will some day come to the earth. Imagine her surprise when Jesus says, “I who speak to you am he” (verse 26). This is an amazing statement from our Lord. Here he plainly claims to be the Messiah. Jesus is claiming identity with God. No doubt this woman was blown away. She came for some water in the middle of the day and she ends up meeting the Water of Life face to face.
5. Changed Life v. 27 - 30
The woman is converted between v. 26 and 27. How do we know? Because she leaves her water pot and goes to tell the others in town. I am struck by how little the woman understands. All she says is, “He knows me.” That’s not exactly the Apostles Creed. “I think he is the Messiah.” That’s not exactly the Four Spiritual Laws. In point of fact, she’s not a very likely witness at all. Most of us would want our new converts a bit better trained than that. But God uses those who are willing to be used. Her invitation -doesn’t say, “You must be born again,” but a much gentler, “Come and see.” No threats, no promises, just come and see for yourself. Her invitation is sincere, non-threatening, and open to everyone. When Jesus gives you living water, you want to share it with someone else.
We come to the end of the story in v. 39 - 42 - Here is a wonderful lesson in the power of the gospel. One woman with inadequate knowledge and just a mustard seed of faith brings her whole town to Jesus. Talk about Evangelism Explosion. This is it! And she never attended any classes or read any books. She met Jesus, he transformed her life, and she couldn’t stop talking about it. Sometimes we wonder how little a person can believe and still be saved. Or we ask, “How much do you have to understand in order to go to heaven?” Evidently the answer is, not much. And we wonder, “How much can a person be wrong about and still be saved?” I think the answer is, quite a bit as long as you are solid on two things: 1. That you are a sinner, and 2. Jesus is the Saviour you need. If you know you are a sinner and you are willing to trust Christ as your Saviour, you can be saved. There is plenty of time to fill in the rest of the details later.
The things we learn from this wonderful story:
a. No one is too sinful to be saved.
b. No one is so lost that the Lord cannot find him.
c. No one can be saved without facing his sinful past.
d. No one who faces his sinful past will be turned away by Jesus.
e. No one who meets Jesus will ever be the same again.
Jesus is ready to give us Living Water. It’s free for the asking. Are we ready to receive it? What a story! What a Christ! What amazing grace! Amen.