Sermon, January 17, 2021 | Grace Reformed Church
We turn this morning again to the gospel of John. We’ve finished with chapter 3, one of the most often-quoted chapters of scripture in the entire bible, and it is remarkable what we’ve uncovered so far. If you remember back to the very beginning of this series, when I introduced the book of John, I mentioned that of the four gospels, it holds a very unique place. Since it was likely written a bit later than the others, and John seems to assume that his readers know the content that is in the other gospels, the gospel of John has the opportunity to do two things that the others do not. The first thing John’s gospel is able to do by being last is to have a narrower, more focused purpose than merely writing down the biography of Jesus and his ministry. The stories and teaching that John includes are driven towards one thing, and that is convincing you that Jesus is the Messiah. And he does that by presenting a series of testimonies and signs. And that focus leads to the second uniqueness, that there are several stories and accounts that are delivered only here, in this gospel and not in the others.
We’ve seen this several times already—the wedding at Cana with Jesus turning water to wine, the first cleansing of the temple, the encounter with Nicodemus, the dispute with John and his disciples—all of those are stories that appear in John’s gospel and none of the others. Similarly, as we turn to chapter 4, we have in this chapter two more stories that are unique to John, and both of them point directly to Jesus being the Christ, the Messiah, sent from God, no ordinary man. I plan to spend three weeks, including this morning, considering the lessons for us in the first story in chapter 4, which is Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. So turn with me there now, if you haven’t already, and we’ll read together the beginning of John chapter 4, starting at verse 1 and continuing through verse 15. Listen, this is God’s Holy Word:
Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John 2 (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), 3 he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. 4 And he had to pass through Samaria. 5 So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob's well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.
7 A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “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.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”
The Word of the Lord.
As I said, the plan is to spend several weeks considering this story, and so where we have finished reading the story is not over, Jesus’s process of evangelizing this woman is not finished, the woman’s conversion is not complete, but there is a great deal to learn even though we’re looking at the beginning of the story. And we will especially learn a great deal about how we are to share the gospel, how and to whom we are to evangelize.
The first thing to consider is the entire backdrop to this story. Why did it even happen? How were things lined up that such an encounter could even have taken place? Look at this introductory paragraph—it begins with Jesus in the Judean countryside, outside Jerusalem, and it ends with this encounter in Samaria. If we’re following it as a story, all that we’ve looked at from the middle of chapter 2 (the cleansing of the temple) until this point has been in and around Jerusalem. Jesus arrived in Jerusalem in late spring, at Passover, and it’s likely he’s been there for about 8 months, building his following and his ministry, so quickly and to such an extent that it made John the Baptist’s disciples jealous. And then we read these first three verses:
Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John…3 he left Judea and departed again for Galilee.
It sounds like the Pharisees are a threat. They’re getting suspicious. And we know how suspicious everyone is getting of this ministry, because it is around this time that John the Baptist is arrested for criticizing the marriage of Herod to his own brothers’ former wife. Threatening ministries are beginning to be quashed by the powers that be. And if they’re going to come after John the Baptist, Jesus knows that he may not be too far behind. And we know that he was arrested in December of that year. So, late spring to December, Jesus has been in the area of Jerusalem about eight months ruffling feathers. So he leaves Judea and heads north to his homeland, back to Galilee. And what is between Judea and Galilee? Samaria. And we learn in verse 4, “And he had to pass through Samaria.”
But did he have to pass through Samaria? What is the meaning of that? Well, this is an interesting minor point in the passage, but more consequential than it may seem on the surface. True, Samaria is the land directly to the North of Judea, and it is in-between Judea and Galilee. But the Jews hated the Samarians. We remember when Jesus told a parable about service to service to your neighbors, he used a Samaritan man as the most unlikely of people (in the eyes of a Jewish audience) to help a stranger in need. That’s why Jesus used a Samaritan in that story, a Good Samaritan was something of a paradox, a contradiction in the mind of a Jew. Which is why it was customary for Jews, most of the time, so they didn’t have to be in the company of Samaritans, to go completely around Samaria when they traveled between Jerusalem and Galilee. They hated them so much that they would go around, and it wasn’t simple—going around meant not only that they would add miles to the journey, they would also have to cross the Jordan river not once but twice. If they went through Samaria, no river crossings at all. So that gives you just some idea of how much the Jews despised the Samaritans and the thought of traveling through their land.
So the question has to be asked, why did they dislike them so? Well, of course the animosity ran deep, and the Jews thought they were doing it for the right reasons. The problem was both ethnic and religious. The Samarians were a people that were basically “half-Jews” that were a result of the Babylonian exile. The Babylonians came and conquered Israel, which was the northern kingdom, and it did not include Judea or Jerusalem, it included what was later Samaria and Galilee as we’ve been mentioning. And when the Babylonians conquered them, they carried, force-marched the vast majority of the Jews into exile in Babylon. Remember Psalm 137 that we looked at this summer, that incredibly mournful Psalm about being led off into captivity. “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres…How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
Well, some of the Jews were not marched off, the ones that were too old, or weak, or sickly. They remained there, and intermarried with Babylonians that came into the land. And as they intermarried with the Babylonians, they began to mix the pagan Babylonian religions with their traditional Judaism, what we refer to as “syncretism,” where you mix the worship of the one true God with that of other religions. We can see that going on in the church today—the “many paths” theology rampant in the liberal church is just another form of syncretism.
Anyway, eventually, we read in Ezra that the Jews were finally allowed to return from their exile and to rebuild the temple, and what did they find when they came back? There were these Samarians, a whole people of partly Jewish descent and traditions, but also ones who had mixed their religion with that of the Babylonians. In Ezra 4, we read that the Samarians came and said to the Jews rebuilding the temple, “hey, let’s do this together, we’ll help you because we worship the same God.” And the response from the returned exiles to that was, “no, you’ve perverted our religion, you’re not really Jews, so we won’t let you help rebuild or worship with you.”
And that is the root of the division and the hatred of the Samarians, the Jews wanting to keep their religion pure and not wanting to legitimize the religion of the Samarians, because it was a false one. What can we learn from that? Well, that was a good intention that the Jews had, to safeguard the purity of the church, but why did that have to continue to cause division and outright hatred for hundreds of years? They were zealous for the purity of the Jewish religion, but were the Jews just as concerned with the Samaritans turning from their false practices and being reconciled to God? Clearly they weren’t, if they went to such lengths to avoid even seeing these people.
But Jesus didn’t avoid them, did he? Not only did he not avoid them, he took the opportunity to sit by a well, and when a Samaritan woman came to draw water, he spoke with her, and shared the gospel with her. Now that is noteworthy and astonishing as well, not just because this was a Samaritan person, but because of exactly who this Samaritan person was.
Firstly, she was a woman! We’ve made great strides in equality in our day, but that would have been a striking feature of this story to its original audience. We don’t recognize that as well from our vantage point in our day, but the places that women hold in the stories in the bible are radically counter-cultural to the time. It would be a really shocking thing that Jesus would speak to this woman, a Samaritan woman, in a land that almost any Jew would go to lengths to avoid. And what’s more about this woman? It appears that she is also a social outcast within the Samaritan community. So not only a Samaritan, not only a woman, but a woman of ill reputation. How can we infer that? Well, she’s drawing water in the heat of the day, alone. It was the sixth hour, so about noon. Water would typically be drawn from a well like this early in the morning and after dusk, and the women would all come at the same time. So the fact that she would choose a time to draw water when no one else is there is an admission that she avoids interacting with people. This is not a happy person. This is a lost and lonely person. And it’s also the person with which Jesus chooses to share the gospel.
So just from the setup to this story, the background, we can draw three lessons about evangelism, what our duty is. The first is that there is an appointed time for everything, and we should be wise, sensitive, and prayerful about that. We draw that from the fact that Jesus in a sense fled from the Pharisees at the outset of the story. Was Jesus scared, is that why he left? No, it was not yet time for that conflict, the one that would land him in prison. It was not the appointed time to take on that specific challenge. We are to preach the gospel all the time, yes, but we are not called to invite conflict upon ourselves unnecessarily, or be too brash. We are to be uncompromising in our faith, but also be wise and prudent. There may be times where the conflict is supposed to happen—there may be moments like the Diet of Wurms where a Martin Luther is to stand and face certain death by not compromising the gospel, but not every moment is that. Jesus chose to leave rather than to face that enemy at that time.
Secondly, we see Jesus responding to a specific calling to minister to someone. It says in verse four that he “had to pass through Samaria.” Now we see that is not necessarily true as it might be understood on a surface level—did he have to pass through Samaria? Well, no, in fact we just looked at all of the reasons why it would be unusual for someone like him to actually do that. So why did he have to? Because there was a calling on him to preach the gospel at this time, to this woman. He had to go through Samaria for this ministry to take place.
And thirdly, we learn that the gospel is for everyone. There is no one who is too lowly, too lost, too far gone that it is a waste of time, that the gospel isn’t for them. If Jesus saw fit to minister to a woman from Samaria, who has had five husbands and is currently living in adultery, then there is no one who is unworthy to hear the gospel. Think back to chapter 3, to the last person Jesus shared the gospel with—Nicodemus! If it was an issue of deserving to hear the gospel, if anyone deserved to hear the words of God from the mouth of the Messiah, it would be him, right? A Pharisee, someone so holy that he kept to an even more strict law than regular Jews. Upright, great standing within the community, in Jerusalem no less. So the gospel is just as much for a Jerusalem Pharisee as it is for an adulterous outcast Samaritan woman. The contrast between these two people, in the eyes of man, but in the eyes of Jesus, of God, they are exactly the same, and exactly like you and me, and everyone we might minister to. Sinners in need of a Savior.
So how do we evangelize like Jesus? We preach the gospel all the time but wisely, at the right time, discerning the appropriate moment and manner of our sharing. We seek the will of God in discerning specific callings to preach to specific people, prayerfully and eagerly. And we preach the gospel to anyone and everyone, even the most unlikely of people.
That’s the first major application of this story, learning evangelism from Jesus, and Jesus hasn’t even said anything yet! Now we can continue on to the evangelism itself and learn even more. Looking back through the exchange as far as we’re going to take it today, you have to admit that Jesus’s sharing of the gospel didn’t get off to the best start.
Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)
Jesus asks her for a drink, and maybe his looks, clothing, or accent gave it away, but she responds sort of harshly—why are you talking to me? We have no business together. That’s basically her response. We’ve talked a bit about how the Jews hated the Samarians, but it was a two-way street. The Samaritans didn’t want anything to do with the Jews either, so we need to read this response with a bit of the rebuff that it actually was. Some commentators don’t read the cattiness into it, but I’m with Calvin on this one, she really is a bit hostile, and you can see that even more clearly in how she responds to what Jesus says next.
10 Jesus answered her, “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.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.”
He actually lightly rebukes her for how she responded, “if you knew who I was, you wouldn’t respond that way.” First he asked her for water, and then tells her that he has living water to offer. Some would say that what she says in response is like Nicodemus, she just didn’t get it when he said “living water,” she’s confused. But I would say it’s just like Nicodemus, he didn’t understand being born again, because he didn’t want to be born again, he just wanted a tweak. So does she, she is not humble enough yet to understand what she really needs, living water, so she keeps talking about the practical issues of getting water—“but you have no bucket, the well is really deep, and by the way, are you saying you’re greater than Jacob?” She is dodging. He is speaking of spiritual realities but she doesn’t want those, she doesn’t want to talk about spiritual things. And then Jesus doubles down:
13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
And then she doubles down too. It seems that he is beginning to get through to her, but she remains focused on the practicality of water, not the spiritual water that he is speaking of.
15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”
She doesn’t want to be thirsty and draw water. You’re saying you have water that will quench my thirst for good? Great, I’ll take it, because I don’t want to come here and draw water every day. She recognizes there is something that he has that could be of value, but she is still dodging.
I agree with Calvin and others that what we’re witnessing here is not simply someone who is confused by Jesus’s phraseology, we’re seeing how unbelievers naturally respond to evangelism before God softens their hearts and opens their eyes. Have you known people that seem allergic to spiritual conversations? I think at times even those of us who believe are too nervous or uncomfortable talking about spiritual realities. But people dodge, people respond to the gospel by not wanting to talk about the heart of the issue. I have living water for you! But you have no bucket, no long rope. Your soul will never thirst again! OK, that sounds nice to not have to come to the well every day.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there, as we’ll see next week, and neither should we. God works in his time and there are times that evangelizing someone takes a long time. But the reality is, and why we should never stop, is that just as much as everyone needs physical water to stay alive, everyone’s soul needs the living water that only Christ provides. There’s no other way around it, your soul, my soul, the soul of a Samaritan woman, the soul of a Pharisee—we all need the living water of Jesus Christ or we die. That’s it.
One of the evangelistic tactics that we like to push back against because it’s not really accurate, maybe you’ve heard it before, is the idea that every person has a “God-shaped hole” in them, and people are looking for God to fill it. Well, we know from Paul in Romans that no, people aren’t looking for God, “no one seeks God, not even one.” But the truth of the “God-shaped hole” goes this far—Sproul said once “People desperately search for the things that only God can give them, while at the same time they are fleeing from Him.” Unregenerate people flee from God, while at the same time they are consumed with finding the things that only he can give them. Peace, love, happiness, salvation, meaning. These are things that only God can give. Living water. But we know we still want those things, so as we run away from him we try to find them in money, influence, power, family, nature, things of the world. The water that eventually leaves you thirsty.
So instead of running away from Jesus toward the water of the world, the water that leaves your spirit thirsty every single time, run to him, and receive the living water. The water, as he says, that comes from a well that never dries and bubbles up, wells up to eternal life. That’s a good story. Run to your Savior and lay your life at his feet, and he promises you all these great gifts, the water of life. Amen.
Dear Heavenly Father,
We pray this morning that your Word, your water of life would quicken our hearts to serve you. If there are those among us this morning that have never tasted the water from that spring, we pray that you move them to place their faith in you, confess their sins, and beg to drink from your cup of living water. And for those of us who first drank of it long ago, help us to not take it for granted, give us a zeal to drink of it deeply, and especially to share that life with everyone you place in our paths. We pray for clarity of mind and clear direction always in our efforts to share your gospel to more and more people. In the precious name of Jesus Christ, we pray, amen.