Nicodemus came to see Jesus at night. He came because he recognized in Jesus the evidence of a new work of God (after four centuries of prophetic silence). The Samaritan woman at the well of Sychar runs into Jesus in the middle of the day. She had little to recognize in Jesus because she came from a people who had lived in a deeper silence for over seven centuries, since the Assyrians ravaged the northern kingdom of Israel. Over the intervening time, the Jews and Samaritans developed an adversarial relationship. By the time of Jesus, they despised each other. Yet, Jesus shows up at that well as if there were nothing to worry about.
Our world is full of cultures in conflict. In many cases that conflict takes the form of hatred, with all the violence and destruction that that entails. And, sadly, our country is not alien to such conflict either. Our history – sometimes not so far in the past – bears the scars of that violence. How can this vicious cycle be stopped?
Does it take a grand gathering of the two cultures to hash it out: For one side to air its grievances, for the other to air its justifications, and then come up with some negotiated agreement where the two cultures agree to repair the damage and go forward?
Many people think that is possible. I… am not sure. On the one hand, I can completely understand the need for corporate agreement to establish the rules of Law (not to mention behavior) that will keep our multi-cultural society viable for everybody. And I can see how acknowledging the past can be an important tool in shaping that agreement. But on the other hand, I don’t see how such a corporate agreement of culture with culture has any hope of addressing the root cause of the problem.
You see, cultures are not people. And Jesus did not come to Earth to save any culture. He came to save people… who can only be saved one by one. Only people have hearts. Only people have spirit. And therefore, it is only people, individual people that can hear the voice of God and repent and respond.
I like Jesus’ approach at the well of Sychar…
Sometimes the elephant in the room is not the elephant that matters.
Yes, the well is in Samaria. Yes, Jews and Samaritans basically hated each other (although if they had to do business together, they could do it cordially); but all Jesus seems to do, in light of this, is shrug his shoulders.
John 4:5,6 He [Jesus] comes therefore to a city of Samaria called Sychar, near to the land which Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Now a fountain of Jacob’s was there; Jesus therefore, being wearied with the way he had come, sat just as he was at the fountain. It was about the sixth hour.
He and his disciples have been walking down toward Galilee from Aenon in Judea where they had been baptizing. The distance to Sychar is 40 miles, basically a two-day trip. It is now noon and Jesus goes ahead and sits down while his disciples go into town to buy some food.
John 4:7-8 A woman comes out of Samaria to draw water. Jesus says to her, Give me to drink (for his disciples had gone away into the city that they might buy provisions).
There is nothing unusual about a traveller asking for water to drink from the keeper of a well. In fact, in a country full of deserts, it was an expected courtesy, even a duty. Just like in Arizona, where almost no eating establishment will refuse water to anyone who asks (even though there is no law forcing that courtesy.) But the Samaritan woman recognizes that Jesus is a Jew (either by his accent and or his clothing). And so, she reacts according to her understanding of their cultural conflict.
John 4:9 The Samaritan woman therefore says to him, How dost thou, being a Jew, ask to drink of me who am a Samaritan woman? for Jews have no intercourse with Samaritans.
Notice that this is not a refusal. But it is a taunt. It is like she is saying: “Oh, so that’s the way it is… If you weren’t dying of thirst, you wouldn’t even look at me. But now that you need something, it’s OK to talk to me.”
How would you respond to such a taunt? Would your reaction be to say something like: “C’mon, give it a rest now! Why don’t you do the decent thing?”
That natural response would preserve the acrimony. But Jesus completely ignores the taunt, completely ignores the undeniable cultural conflict, and speaks to her like he would speak to any other person (any other Jew).
John 4:10 Jesus answered and said to her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that says to thee, Give me to drink, thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.
Jesus’ focus is always His mission. She is just another person in need of salvation.
I wonder what would happen if we honestly treated ourselves and each other as just people (and not as members of a group or a culture)? I mean, that would require that we were willing to see each other’s pain, willing to acknowledge each other’s history, without judging it or minimizing it or justifying it, but then went ahead and treated each other as children of the same Heavenly Father. Isn’t that how you would want to be treated?
(I am sure that there is a time to deal with the elephant in the room, the issue of cultural conflict, whatever shape that takes, and how our society can rightly deal with it. But does that have to be now? Every now? Does that have to happen first before we see in each other children of God? I may be wrong. But I don’t see Jesus engaging at that level at all here. Why? Because there is a bigger elephant in the room: This world needs saving.)
John 4:11-12 The woman says to him, Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: whence then hast thou the living water? Art thou greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?
I like this Samaritan woman. Even though she is talking to a Jew, she is actually paying attention to what he says. Yes, she may still be in snarky mode, but she is willing to have a conversation. I can see someone else just pouring out the water for the stranger, seeing he drank it, and then turning around and leaving. But not her… There is something different about her. Maybe that is why God chose this day and time for her to come to the well.
John 4:13-14 Jesus answered and said to her, Every one who drinks of this water shall thirst again; but whosoever drinks of the water which I shall give him shall never thirst for ever, but the water which I shall give him shall become in him a fountain of water, springing up into eternal life.
I think we need to stop here for a moment and compare this conversation Jesus is having with the woman to the conversation he had with Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a fellow Jew, an educated, and religious, Pharisee. He ought to have known about spiritual things (remember John 3:10). Yet Jesus could not easily talk to him about spiritual things. Do you remember that? He had to use the analogy of the wind coming and going and being real, in spite of being invisible, to get Nicodemus to understand that He was trying to teach him things of Heaven, while Nicodemus was getting stuck thinking in earthly terms.
The problem was Nicodemus had preconceived religious ideas that stood in the way of an open mind. In the end he listened, and he received that full revelation of what the gospel is about (John 3:16).
But the woman at the well has no preconceived religious ideas. She doesn’t even seem to know that there are things of the spirit and things of this world. To her, life is life; this thing that we live day by day. And yet, Jesus is unabashedly speaking to her of spiritual things. Why? Isn’t this bound to confuse her?
Let’s not sell her short. If you remember the occasion when Jesus started teaching a series of parables, beginning with the parable of the sower, there is a point at which he pauses, and then we have this conversation:
Matthew 13:10-13 And the disciples came up and said to him, Why speakest thou to them in parables? And he answering said to them, Because to you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of the heavens, but to them it is not given; for whoever has, to him shall be given, and he shall be caused to be in abundance; but he who has not, even what he has shall be taken away from him. For this cause I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear nor understand…
Why were the mysteries of the kingdom revealed to the disciples and not to others? What made them different? The answer is right there: Because they asked! Remember, if you ask, it will be given to you. The more you want to know about the Kingdom of God, the more that will be revealed to you. But if you don’t care, if you can “take it or leave it”, then you miss it all.
The Samaritan woman asked. And I believe it was that spirit of willingness to ask that was the reason that she came there that day at that time. She may not “get it” but she keeps on asking:
John 4:15 The woman says to him, Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst nor come here to draw.
I don’t think she is jesting or mocking. I think she is thinking, “On the outside chance that this stranger does have something, I don’t want to miss out.” Think about it: Not to have to haul that jar or bucket full of water all the way to town every day…
John 4:16 Jesus says to her, Go, call thy husband, and come here.
And now comes the moment of truth. Because any time we agree to talk to God, to have a conversation, even if we just started it just to ask for things, to pray for our needs, eventually He is going to ask us to listen to Him. Eventually He will be the One asking me questions. Otherwise, it would not be a conversation, would it?
And what makes that a risky proposition is that I cannot hide anything from God.
John 4:17-18 The woman answered and said, I have not a husband. Jesus says to her, Thou hast well said, I have not a husband; for thou hast had five husbands, and he whom now thou hast is not thy husband: this thou hast spoken truly.
I love this exchange because her reaction is so natural, so human, and Jesus is obviously chuckling at it.
But now, all of a sudden, the woman realizes that the conversation was not about earthly things after all… because obviously this is a prophet. How does that change the dynamic now?
Oddly enough it makes her retreat back into the culture conflict mode:
John 4:19-20 The woman says to him, Sir, I see that thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshipped in this mountain, and ye say that in Jerusalem is the place where one must worship.
Isn’t that funny? Or maybe it is sad. All along, the conversation, even if it was just banter, was going on fine, between two people. But the moment she feels threatened by the possibility of a challenge to her life choices, she backs into the comfort of the conflict: “Me Samaritan, you Jew.”
But it makes sense. What better way is there not to face any personal responsibility than to hide within the crowd?
I hope we never do that.
But Jesus will not let her hide. God will never let us hide.
John 4:21-23 Jesus says to her, Woman, believe me, [the] hour is coming when ye shall neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem worship the Father. Ye worship ye know not what; we worship what we know, for salvation is of the Jews. But [the] hour is coming and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for also the Father seeks such as his worshippers.
Jesus does tell her the truth, “you Samaritans got it wrong”, but that is not the core of His answer. The core of the answer is: If you really care about worshipping, then forget your petty squabbles and preconceived ideas that you have learned from the world: The Father does want to be worshiped but true worship comes from the spirit and is done in truth.
John 4:24 God [is] a spirit; and they who worship him must worship [him] in spirit and truth.
And this is why Jesus refused to get drawn into the cultural conflict. The things of this world, good or bad, are insignificant when compared to the purposes of God. As human beings we have access to both the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God. We live our lives in the first, by nature, but we don’t have to live in it exclusively. And once we “get that”, we have to re-evaluate our perspective. For the smallest thing in the Kingdom of God has to be overwhelmingly greater than anything that we can have or anything that we can experience or have experienced in this world.
Psalm 84:10 For a day in Thy courts is better than a thousand. I had rather stand at the threshold of the house of my God, than dwell in the tents of wickedness.
Jesus’ reply gets through to the woman. That tells us that deep inside she indeed cared about worshipping God. She just didn’t know how to do it or even if God would hear her.
John 4:25 The woman says to him, I know that Messiah is coming, who is called Christ; when *he* comes he will tell us all things.
And so, she lays it on the line. If this had been any other Jew talking to her, the conversation may have been all curt and superficial – business as needed, and nothing else. But Jesus’ conversation has gotten past the surface, past the culture conflict, past the posturing, and has reached her heart. And she reveals something from her heart that would have been shocking to any other Jew:
She, a Samaritan, longs for the coming of Messiah.
Who would have known? Maybe no one would have ever known her heart if not for Jesus. And Jesus responds to that longing with a revelation as monumental as the one He gave Nicodemus.
John 4:26 Jesus says to her, I who speak to thee am [he].
Only the heavenly minded can be earthly good.
A few of decades ago there was a proverb going around in the Church that told us:
Don’t be so heavenly minded that you are no earthly good.
And you can see what it means. There is a trap we Christians can fall into whereby once we accept Jesus as our Savior, and our pastor assures us that we can never lose that salvation, we can, so to speak, put the car in neutral and coast the rest of the way through life. “Hey, I am saved; I go to Church every week, maybe help there once a week too, get together with my brothers for lunch… life is good. The rest of the world may be going to Hell in a handbasket but that’s their problem. I got saved, they can too.”
And the proverb is there to remind us that there is work to be done in this world. But why was this proverb even needed?
I think it is because there is a very real temptation to simply trade crowds. If my identity in the world was derived from being part of a crowd, I can confuse becoming a Christian as being all about changing my membership: I am now part of a different crowd that we call the Church. But there is no identity in being part of a crowd!
Our identity is our person: our soul and spirit that God uniquely crafted for each one of us. It is that spirit – you as an individual – that God desires to spend eternity with. And it is that spirit that he wants to transform day by day to become closer and closer to the image of His Son.
1 Corinthians 15:49 And as we have borne the image of the [one] made of dust, we shall bear also the image of the heavenly [one].
2 Corinthians 3:17-18 Now the Lord is the Spirit, but where the Spirit of [the] Lord [is, there is] liberty. But *we* all, looking on the glory of the Lord, with unveiled face, are transformed according to the same image from glory to glory, even as by [the] Lord [the] Spirit.
Romans 8:29 Because whom he has foreknown, he has also predestinated [to be] conformed to the image of his Son, so that he should be [the] firstborn among many brethren.
And so, the only question we have to ask ourselves to see our folly is this: Did Jesus coast through life?
A couple of Sundays ago, Pastor Charlton at Mountain Park Church mentioned this quote from C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity: “If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were precisely those who thought most about the next.”
So, indeed, although I see the point of the proverb, I beg to differ.
Only the truly heavenly minded can be earthly good.
Because our mission, our purpose, comes from Heaven. And unless we live there every day, and listen to what God cares about, we will forget why we are here. This is what Jesus says in His prayer to the Father in John 17.
John 17:15-18 (NIV) My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.
This is precisely Jesus’ message to His disciples as they come back from town with the food they went to buy.
John 4:27-30 And upon this came his disciples, and wondered that he spoke with a woman; yet no one said, What seekest thou? or, Why speakest thou with her?
The woman then left her waterpot and went away into the city, and says to the men, Come, see a man who told me all things I had ever done: is not he the Christ? They went out of the city and came to him.
The disciples are puzzled because they are looking at this scene with their worldview still stuck inside the culture conflict. (Not only was he speaking with a Samaritan, it was a woman to boot!) But what is funny, they don’t notice what the woman has just gone and done. As soon as she gets to town, she starts hailing people on the street and telling them about Jesus.
The irony is not lost on Jesus:
John 4:31-38 But meanwhile the disciples asked him saying, Rabbi, eat. But he said to them, I have food to eat which ye do not know.
The disciples therefore said to one another, Has any one brought him [anything] to eat?
Jesus says to them, My food is that I should do the will of him that has sent me, and that I should finish his work. Do not ye say, that there are yet four months and the harvest comes? Behold, I say to you, Lift up your eyes and behold the fields, for they are already white to harvest. (And I think Jesus is here nodding his head toward the town and the approaching crowd.)
He that reaps receives wages and gathers fruit unto life eternal, that both he that sows and he that reaps may rejoice together. For in this is [verified] the true saying, It is one who sows and another who reaps. I have sent you to reap that on which ye have not laboured; others have laboured, and ye have entered into their labours.
The purpose of a divine encounter is to bear divine fruit.
Have you ever had a divine encounter? By that I mean a situation, a conversation, that at the moment you didn’t realize it would change your life but after the fact you look back and say… “maybe it was God who orchestrated that?”
The Samaritan woman came to that well that day, at that time, for the express purpose of a divine encounter. She did not know it. But God did. And because she stuck with it, in spite of her prejudices, in spite of the conversation treading into uncomfortable ground, that divine appointment bore its fruit:
John 4:39-42 But many of the Samaritans of that city believed on him because of the word of the woman who bore witness, He told me all things that I had ever done. When therefore the Samaritans came to him they asked him to abide with them, and he abode there two days.And more a great deal believed on account of his word; and they said to the woman, [It is] no longer on account of thy saying that we believe, for we have heard him ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Saviour of the world.