Sermon, January 24, 2021 | Grace Reformed Church
Here we come to the second of our sermons on the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. We looked last week at the first 15 verses. If you missed it, the recording and full text should be online already. But I can give you the high points.
We looked at some of the background to the great divide between the Jews and the Samaritans, how it went back hundreds of years. And of course when we considered the depth of the animosity between the two peoples, we were able to see how surprising such an event was, a Jewish man even talking to a Samaritan woman.
But then once the conversation started, our main focus was to learn more about evangelism from Jesus. And we centered on three things. First, that we are to preach the Word all the time, but there are specific times that it would be best to do in particular ways. Jesus himself chose not to confront the Pharisees at this moment in his ministry, even though he was definitely about to have opportunity to do that, as they were getting nervous about him and were certainly thinking it would be good to do something about him. So Jesus avoided that confrontation, it was why he was in Samaria in the first place. So too, should we be wise about the manner and timing of our sharing the gospel with people.
Secondly, the text makes it clear that he felt uniquely called to go through Samaria and not around, even though going around would have been the normal course. So too, should we be open and sensitive, and not resistant to God calling us to minister to people specifically. We should be eager to receive such a call, and perhaps we are not in our daily lives sitting in stillness, praying to discern a call. We can be so distracted by busyness.
And thirdly, we drew out of the fact that Jesus was sharing the gospel with this particular person, we drew the fact that the gospel should be shared with everyone. I know that seems obvious, but there are times that it seems one person or another is too far gone, not worth the time, or too damaged to come to God. Not so, obviously, we have a great contrast between Nicodemus, who was a high and exalted person, and this outcast, immoral Samaritan woman. Jesus shared the gospel with both of them, because no matter their station in this life, what they really needed was Jesus, the Word. There is no one who is too far gone.
And also, in these first fifteen verses of the chapter, we looked at the beginning but not the end of Jesus’s evangelizing this woman, how the exchange actually progressed. And in it we see the reaction of an unregenerate heart to hearing the Word. The natural man dodges, rejects, and may even respond rudely, as the Samaritan woman did, but God’s time is the best time, Jesus isn’t discouraged by her dodging, he goes on, and in this episode we will see the fruits of his labor. The text for today is verses 16-26, but so we can get the entire exchange, we’re going to back up to verse 7. Read with me now, John, chapter 4, beginning in verse 7. Listen, this is God’s Holy Word.
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.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. 20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”
The Word of the Lord.
At one point or another, I’m sure that you’ve had the experience of getting into a fairly serious conversation, one that has far-reaching consequences or lead to pivotal decisions, or something like that. Sometimes they come with no warning—most often that happens as someone breaks some bad news to you or something like that. I can’t share from my experience, but we all know those scenes in movies where there are two people (generally a couple or close family) that are already in a deep relationship and one of them says the most frightening four-word phrase in the English language: “We need to talk.” That’s a tough one, yes?
When we hear those words, or something like them, no matter what the conversation was before—weather, books, anything else—when we hear that it’s as if the air is suddenly sucked out of the room. The edges of our vision get a little blurry as our focus is concentrated and our mind begins to imagine in a hundred different directions of dread, predicting the voluminous possibilities of which way this conversation is about to go. These are pivotal conversations in life, and thankfully even whether the conversation suddenly gets serious, or gets there gradually, it’s at least typically a conversation with someone who is already deeply in your life.
But how often do you have a suddenly weighty conversation with a complete stranger? And I’m not talking about the doctor you don’t know telling you a surgery update or something like that. How often does what seems to be a casual conversation with a stranger turn into something life-altering? Well, here we have just such a story, and we see how Jesus gets there with how he evangelizes this woman, which is the first thing we’ll look at today.
I don’t make this point so that we have a step-by-step evangelism guide that you can pull out of your pocket at a moment’s notice—a strategy to convince someone of Jesus, in 5 easy steps! We know that that is all ultimately the work of the Spirit. But we can see how in this conversation with Jesus does arc. It arcs from the most basic of needs and motivations of an unbeliever, and eventually gets to the heart of the matter. Jesus didn’t walk up to this sinner, this outcast, adulterous woman, and proclaim, “sinner, repent!” He built a rapport with her and led her to the truth.
I take this outlining of the evangelism from a commentary by Hendrickson, where he shows that the conversation gets progressively more serious, because Jesus’s appeals to her reach further and further into the center of any person. His first appeal to her is to her sympathy, he simply asks her for water. Here he is, tired, thirsty, hot, with no bucket or rope, as we established last week—and he appeals to her sympathy to get him a drink. And she of course rebuffs that request by saying we’re shouldn’t really be talking.
Then, after seeking sympathy, he appeals to her curiosity. He tells her, “if you knew who I was, you wouldn’t have responded that way, in fact you would have asked me for something better than water.” And, we remember how she responded to that—two things: one, you have no bucket to draw out living water, and two, who are you? Better than Jacob?
Jesus appealed to her sympathy and to her curiosity, and even though it got the conversation going a little, both were ultimately ineffective. People are sympathetic toward many things, but sympathy is not the strongest of urges, not one of our most fundamental needs. And curiosity drives us to many things, many investigations, many questions, but much of that goes to fulfilling our own interests. Having sympathy and being curious are both wonderful things, but they aren’t at the heart of the issue.
With the third volley in this conversation, Jesus starts to probe to the real heart of the matter. He appeals to her desire for rest. And in her response, though it is still dodgy, she admits a desire for at least some rest. She says, literally “Give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty.” Is she only thinking about being physically thirsty? No, she doesn’t stop at saying that she doesn’t want to be thirsty, she says one other thing: “so that I will not have to come here to draw water.” Here, she hints at the rest she really wants. Why is she drawing water at noon? Because she can’t face the other women in the town. She wants rest from her burdens that set up walls between her and everyone else. Jesus appeals to her want of rest, her wanting to no longer be restless.
But we’re not done yet. What is Jesus’s last appeal? Well, after all of this talk of water, why does Jesus change the subject? Why does he ask about her husband? It’s not to change the subject, or veer the conversation away from the living water. Before, he was speaking in metaphor about water, which was directly related to his initial question, wanting a drink. But here he lays aside all metaphor and appeals beyond her desire for rest and to the final piece, her conscience.
Jesus knows her history before he asks the question, and she tries to brush it aside and change the conversation—“I have no husband.” She hopes that’s the end of it. With this question, he pricks her conscience, what she really wanted rest from, knowing that she had been living a life of sin and misery. She’s had five husbands—the likelihood of each of them dying of natural causes in succession is pretty small, especially given the fact that she chose to live in adultery after that. No, this is the story of someone who, like us, is constantly searching for more and more and more out of this life. It’s led her to five marriages already, and she keeps seeking and searching, and grasping for something more. Sympathy, curiosity, desire for rest, and finally conscience—from the most surface of concerns to the most ultimate, the most weighty. From daily inconveniences and grievances to a life and death issue. This conversation just turned unexpectedly to the most important things in life, life and death.
And now, this time, she responds with belief, recognizing that she can no longer dodge, she must admit that this man is a prophet, that he has knowledge from God. The living water that he was talking about, which is desirable to her, he actually has it. Now she knows that the person in front of her is unlike anyone she’s ever met. And what does she ask him about next? Worship.
She’s not all the way home yet, but she’s getting there. This could be seen as another way to steer the conversation away from her sin, from her conviction—that is possible. When scripture doesn’t tell us the exact motives behind a statement, we should take care with our speculations. But what she asks him here is about worship. She acknowledges that she recognizes him as a prophet, and her next question is about how to be faithful. What she asks him about is a real divide between the Jews and the Samaritans. She says, OK, I need to worship, but where? Who is right? You are a prophet, so tell me which is right. We worship here, at Mount Gerezim, and the Jews worship in Jerusalem. Where should we?
And Jesus responds, as he typically does in these situations, not by directly answering her question, but instead answering the question behind the question—the bigger question, the more foundational question. Not where to worship, but what worship is. That’s the bigger question. To be fair, he does answer her question, he tells her that salvation is “from the Jews,” but that is more of a side point, because what he is really saying is that everything is changing. Salvation is from the Jews, but, true worship of the true God is no longer something just for them. God is not ultimately interested in the place where the worship is happening, he’s really interested in the content of our worship. Verse 23 again:
But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.
The Father is seeking people who will worship him truly, worship him in spirit, not merely with rituals on the surface. He isn’t looking for worshippers to go through the motions, thinking that they’ve checked the box marked “church” on their checklist for the week. And this isn’t a shift in how God wanted to be worshipped, it’s how he always wanted it, even when he was limiting his favor to Israel, his chosen people. He always wanted to be worshipped in spirit and truth. It’s not about what people you come from, it’s not about where you are specifically, true worship is a matter of the heart. It is from your heart, your spirit, that true worship springs. Like I said, she asked about where we should be worshipping, and he told her instead what that worship should look like.
These two words that he uses—spirit and truth—are a guard against two major problems with our worship. The first, spirit, guards against dead, lifeless, merely outward expressions of worship. In our day, he doesn’t want worshippers who come to church on Sunday merely out of habit, reading the prayers and singing songs as a matter of course, people coming to worship physically but not spiritually. That was one of the great rebukes of Jeremiah to the Israelites before they were conquered. He said to Jeremiah:
Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’
There are people here proclaiming this the temple of the Lord, but it’s all for show. It’s all formalism. They don’t believe it in their hearts, and they think by all of their loud proclamations they are engaging in some form of worship. No, at that point what they are worshipping is the ceremony, not the God that the ceremony is meant to point to. That is dead worship.
And then on the other side, he says to worship in truth. God wants to be worshipped how he has said he wants to be worshipped. He is to be worshipped with reverence and awe. This is a little more difficult because a very precise guide for worship under the New Covenant is not given to us in scripture, but many take that to mean that we have no rules, that all is acceptable, when in fact there are many principles we can draw from scripture about how God wishes to be worshipped. Many churches in our day have engaged in radical experimentalism with how they worship, trying to tailor their worship services to the people coming in the doors, asking “what would people enjoy about the worship services in our church? What kinds of sermons might they like? What kind of music would get them excited? Should we get laser lights and smoke machines?” When the only question that should really be asked is “what kind of worship could we offer that would be acceptable to a holy God.”
We see both of these errors in worship rampant in the church today, both dead formalism and rampant experimentalism, and both are errors. Jesus is saying here neither of those things are what the Father truly wants from us. He wants you to worship him with the deepest part of yourself, your spirit, and he wants you to do it a manner that is worthy of him and what he has revealed about his character. In the American church especially, we have done a great deal of conforming our worship to the world around us. And these two errors seem like opposites of each other, but they are really the same thing—both of them are exchanging the worship of a holy God, the unspeakable grandeur of God, for something lesser, something of this world. One makes an idol the outward process, the ceremony of worship as if that’s what saves, and the other makes an idol out of the outward process of worship by remaking it in our own image. In the American church especially, we have done a great deal of conforming our worship to the world around us, to our image.
Stepping back and looking at this conversation, it seems like this topic of worship comes out of nowhere and sort of changes the subject, but it really is all related. We mentioned before how Jesus approached this woman with gradually deeper levels of need—sympathy, curiosity, desire for rest, and finally a desire for a clear conscience—the conversation eventually got to the real heart of the matter, her ultimate need to be free from sin. Can we see how that can be one of the problems with our approach to worship as well? It’s so easy to focus on what might make people sympathetic or curious, when what people walking through our doors really need to see is that they are sinners in need of a Savior, and that Savior is who we are worshipping here. We need to stop thinking about what might keep people curious or interested in our church and give them what they really need, the gospel.
In an address I remember from a few years ago, Steve Lawson was speaking about the radical shift in preaching that took place in the Reformation. By the time the Reformation came, the Catholic Church had pretty well abandoned any exposition of scripture, homilies were an optional part of the liturgy. The outward ritual was clearly the focus of their worship. And one of the great reformations was the return of preaching just scripture to the people, preaching straight through books of the bible like we do here. And on that point, Lawson told all assembled that what they really needed to do was to go back to their pastors and say, “stop telling us stories, I like your children but I don’t need 15 minutes of anecdotes about them, don’t give me any more tips about how to live my best life now, just give me the Word. Just give me the bible.” Will we ever get worship completely right? No, not in this life, we’ll have to wait for heaven for that. But we can strive each and every day to have our worship bathed in the Word, and to come to worship humbled and open to hearing that Word. We can come worshipping in spirit and truth, and we pray to God that our worship will always be that. Because we don’t need water for our thirst, we need water for our souls. We don’t need to be fixed, we need to be reborn. We don’t need the things of this world, we need the saving grace of Jesus. Amen. Let’s pray.
Dear Heavenly Father,
Thank you for your Word this morning. We pray that you will always guide us to a true worship of you. Guide our thoughts continually to your Word and your truth, and help us to worship you as you want to be worshipped. Hear our prayers, praises, and confessions—we pray that they are all acceptable in your sight. Be with us now as we continue in worship, and may it bring glory not to us, but ever and always to you. In the name of Jesus, amen.