Although Christ’s earthly ministry focused on the heavenly and eternal, those around Him were often preoccupied with their immediate, material needs. For the Samaritan woman in John 4, what began as a simple conversation at the well revealed her soul’s greater need: forgiveness of sin. In this message, Alistair Begg examines Jesus’ natural approach to that life-altering exchange. When we focus on sharing the Gospel, we declare the same good news she received that day: Jesus is the Messiah!
I invite you to take your Bibles and turn with me again to John chapter 4 and the portion of Scripture that was read for us. And with your Bibles open, we’ll come before God in prayer:
Father, the cry of our hearts is in the words of the song:
Make the Book live to me, O Lord,
Show me yourself within your Word,
Show me myself, and show me my Saviour,
And make the Book live to me.
Our focus in these days as a church family is upon the whole area of evangelism, and particularly of reaching out to our friends and our relatives, our associates, and our neighbors. And that accounts for the somewhat strange word that you’ll find in the bulletin as a heading for this morning’s study.
As of last week, we began to think in terms of what it would take to be meaningfully involved in talking to our friends and loved ones and neighbors about the Lord Jesus Christ. And in order to try and address that subject adequately, we determined that to turn to John 4 would be a great help, not least of all because it would allow us to follow the example of the Lord Jesus himself as he engaged in conversation a lady that he met in a fairly common situation in an occurrence on a normal day of the week for her, and yet it was to prove to be a life-changing day.
For those of you who were present the last time, you will recall that we endeavored to set this conversation in its context, and we said that we would then go on to consider the conversation itself, which we now do.
And we notice, first of all—indeed, we concluded with this last time—that when we consider this conversation, we see, first of all, that Jesus Christ began naturally. The opening gambit there in verse 7 is a very straightforward beginning. He asks the lady for a drink and by doing so appeals to her sympathy. By seeking a favor or by granting a favor, it’s possible to open lines of communication in a way that doesn’t necessarily happen quite so straightforwardly with other approaches. And it may be something as simple as offering to lend out to a neighbor some shears that we have that would make their task a lot easier when we see them struggling away, and before we know it, that simple offer of kindness has opened up doors for conversation that we might never have imagined. So we don’t want to overlook the fact, nor do we want to understate the fact, that in the beginning of Christ’s approach, he began naturally.
The response of the lady to this natural beginning was that she was struck by it. It made an immediate impact upon her, because Jesus had crossed two barriers in particular: he had crossed the barrier of gender, insofar as it was unfamiliar for a man to speak to a woman in this kind of public context; and he had also crossed the barrier of race or of religion, given the fact that he was Jewish and this lady was herself a Samaritan. And so it is that his request for a drink of water is responded to by a question by the lady in verse 9: “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?”
It is interesting that Jesus chooses not to launch into some kind of diatribe concerning this racial-religious distinction. Instead, having begun naturally, he then proceeds to arouse her curiosity. Incidentally, if you want to note this progression, those are the first two points: that he began naturally, and secondly, that he then went on by means of arousing her curiosity.
Verse 10, he says, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” It would have been possible for Jesus simply to strike out and to say, “Here’s the deal lady: I’m the one who has the living water, and you need it.” He could have done that. He chose not to. And his approach intrigued her: “If you knew, then you’d ask, and you’d get something that you can’t even imagine.”
Now, by means of this approach, the Lord Jesus raises this whole discussion to a higher plane. And he begins to show the woman that while she assumes that she is in the position to provide what he needs, she’s about to discover that she is in need of water and she is speaking to the one who is the very fountainhead himself. She is speaking to the one who is able to supply her needs, which are far greater than the need of this gentleman, this stranger, who has initiated a conversation by requesting the favor that she would use her waterpot to draw for him, that quenching of his thirst.
Now, if your Bible is open—and I hope it is—you will see that in verses 11 and 12 it becomes very clear that the lady is not following this in spiritual terms. Jesus has already elevated the conversation to the issue of spiritual water, and the lady’s thinking in purely physical terms. It was customary in the Middle East for travelers to move around with all kinds of equipment necessary for a long journey, and it was not uncommon for them to carry with them leather buckets, which essentially could be collapsed into baggage—into a saddle bag—and yet the leather bucket could be taken out and made into a manageable shape and then dropped down the well. The lady looks at this stranger and she says to him, “You don’t have anything to draw water with. I can see that you don’t have the leather bucket. How in the world is it possible that you could speak in these terms?” She’s thinking purely physically. And we ought not to be surprised, because this is the most normal reaction of people. Indeed, in the previous chapter—in chapter 3—where he addresses Nicodemus, and he says to Nicodemus: “You can never enter the kingdom of God or see the kingdom of God unless you are born again,” Nicodemus responds in a very physical, natural way. He says, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus is speaking of spiritual life; Nicodemus is thinking of physical life. Here Jesus is speaking of spiritual water; the lady is still thinking in physical terms.
And that’s why she introduces this question of her ancestors. Because, you see, Jacob was a significant figure in their history. He was an important man. And it was clear that the father, Jacob, the forefather, had provided this well. He’d actually drunk from it himself. It had been at his initiative that the well had been bored and that the provision had been made. And so the lady looks at the stranger and she says, “Are you wiser than Jacob? Are you more significant than Jacob? Because after all, Jacob was significant. He gave us the well; he drank from it; indeed, his heritage drank from it.”
Now, this is the second question that she’s asked Jesus. The first question had to do with the Jews and the Samaritans, and he set it aside. Here comes the second question: “Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this well?” And he sets that aside. Why? Because it’s not the focus. It’s not the issue. The issue is not about the difference between the Jews and the Samaritans. The issue is not about the history of this region, and particularly the issues of who Jacob was or what he did. And Jesus understands that.
And may I say to you in passing that if you are ever going to be effective in speaking to people about Jesus, it is imperative that we understand what the focus is. For there will be all kinds of questions that are interesting, all kinds of matters that may be discussed; they’re not all irrelevant, they’re not all insignificant. But if we’re going to be straightforward about things, there is a time for everything; there is a purpose to everything under heaven. And we need to learn when what is being expressed is something that we should follow up on and when we should set it aside and proceed with the main issue.
And so, in verses 13 and 14, Jesus sets the issue further forward. He has begun naturally, he has aroused her curiosity, and now here in verse 13 he addresses her longing for reality. He addresses her deep desire for satisfaction. “Everyone,” says Jesus, “who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
And how this must have registered in the mind of this lady! Because it clearly spoke of something more significant than simply the fact that there was a possibility of getting a drink of water and you wouldn’t be thirsty again. The lady was bright enough to understand that it was something more than this. Indeed, she may well have known the Scriptures well enough to recognize that they were full of this kind of water terminology.
If you doubt that, let me give you a number of places to which you may turn for your own study. In the Psalms, for example: Psalm 42:, the Psalmist describes his soul; he says, “My soul thirsts … for the living God.” In other words, as he looks in upon himself, he says, “There is that longing within me which longs for God, as if I was so thirsty and dying for a drink of water. I long for God in that way.” Isaiah describes those who “with joy … will draw water from the wells of salvation.” That is Isaiah 12:3. The same prophet in chapter 55 issues the invitation, “Come, all [of] you who are thirsty,” he says, “come to the waters.”
Now, about what is the prophet speaking? He’s clearly not speaking simply in physical terms. The work of the prophets was not to go out and work for a water company, for goodness’ sake. This is not Minnehaha, or Ha-ha-hee-hee, or whatever that spring water is. They’re not out there flogging water; he is speaking of that which would be identified by an individual which, when he says, “I want you to come and I want you to drink,” it appealed to the longing of their lives.
And Jeremiah does the exact same thing. Indeed, Jeremiah has this amazing picture; he speaks of those who “have forsaken … the spring of living water, and have dug [out] their own cisterns, broken cisterns,” he says, which “cannot hold water.” You can read that in Jeremiah 2:13. A classic picture of modern man in need of satisfaction, forsaking the only source of living water and going about to dig wells of their own discovery, and then to sink down into the well these cisterns, which they hope will contain the answers to their satisfaction, only to discover that the cisterns fracture and they rupture and they break.
There are men and women this morning all over the city of Cleveland who have awakened to another Sunday without purpose, another Sunday without significance, another day without meaning, another day where they reach for the coffee or for an “eighty-six proof anesthetic crutch,” another day when they reach for their newspaper, another day when they say to themselves, “What in the wide world is life all about?” They have that deep sense of the human predicament: a nameless unsatisfied longing, a discontentedness, a thirst. And so they run around to dig their own wells, only to find that they are inadequate and that they cannot satisfy.
And when you read through the whole of the Bible, you discover that it is full of this kind of reference. By the time you get to the last book in the Bible, Jesus is described as the Lamb who is the shepherd who leads the people to the springs of living water. And here’s this lady whose life has been marked day after day after day by water. If you ask her, “And what do you do on a Tuesday?” she says, “Well, at noon, I go for water.” “How about Wednesdays?” “I go for water. Indeed, I go for water every day about the same time.” And here on this normal day, she encounters an abnormal situation in which this extraordinary man speaks to her about the things she thought she knows everything about. ’Cause if she knows one thing, she knows how to draw water. And Jesus says to her, appealing to her deep sense of longing for satisfaction, “I can give you water and you will never thirst again.”
Now, you would think that as a result of this, the lady would suddenly have fastened onto it. Not so. Look at verse 15: “The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.’” Jesus speaks in spiritual terms; the lady responds in physical terms. If she really had any inkling of what Jesus was saying, she certainly doesn’t acknowledge it. Her concern and her focus is with her own personal convenience. “It sure would be nice not to have to make this journey every day,” she says.
Now, loved ones, do you see what’s happening here? This lady is like so many of our friends and our relatives, and like, in some cases, ourselves as we sit here this morning as strangers to the life of God. We have sat now regularly in worship, and everything spiritual we respond to in physical terms. We have decided that we are interested in preserving religious exercises in an irreligious world, and we have determined that somehow, if we only do it correctly, it will deal with the deepest longings of our lives, and it doesn’t. We have thought mistakenly that simply to be interested in these external affairs will suddenly transform our lives, and it hasn’t. And we’re dead to the truth of God’s Word. We’re as dead as if we were actually physically dead and the preacher was talking to us while we laid prone along the pew. And the preacher would come to all the dead bodies in the seats and speak to them! And nothing at all would happen.
You see, that is the picture of man’s life outside of Christ. It is not that we are naturally open to these things. It is not that we have a common, shared desire for this to be true. The fact is that when people speak concerning the realities of spiritual life, we’re totally dead to it! Oh, we may be intrigued by some of the philosophical ideas; we may be interested by some of the history and the apologetics. But when it comes right down to the heart of it all, when they come to us and they say, “Now, wouldn’t you like to have this living water?” our response is just like the lady: “Well, you know, I certainly would like to have some kind of insurance policy that would prevent me from having to keep coming back along the road here.”
So what is necessary? He began naturally, he aroused her curiosity, he appealed to her deep sense of dissatisfaction. Now notice that verse 16 is the pivotal statement of this whole conversation, whereby Jesus appeals to her conscience. Having responded again in physical terms, Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
You see, if there was going to be any transformation in the life of this lady, she was going to have to face up to who she was. It wasn’t going to be enough for her just to have a sense of wanting satisfaction. She needed to be brought face-to-face with her sin. And that, you see, loved ones, is why it is so important that the Bible is proclaimed in all of its fullness. Because if the message of the gospel is diluted to the point where it simply goes like this: “Here is good news of living water, would you like living water? Stand up and take some living water”—then the person may assume that this water is available without any consideration of who they are or of what they’ve done or the significance of what price was paid in order to provide the water.
And incidentally, that is why, presumably, in the wake of the Lord Jesus, in the multimillions who profess faith in Jesus Christ in the continental United States, there are so many who have no evidence in their life of any kind of transformation at all. It is simply that they have signed up for a religious trip—that somebody offered them some water, and they said they’d like the water, and they’ve begun to go along. But they’re no different in their home, they still have a foul mouth, they still have a life that is unchanged, they still have no interest in worship, there doesn’t spring from their heart the genuine desire to share their faith, there is no passionate concern for those who do not have Jesus Christ, but because they were told that this was the way, they assumed that this must be it, and the missing link is that they have never known the reality of Jesus because they have never seen the necessity of Jesus. Jesus seemed like a good idea. Jesus seemed like an option. Jesus seemed like a fairly okay way to approach life. But, you see, the Lord Jesus understood that if this lady was ever to become his follower, she was going to have to face her true predicament.
Let me tell you this: genuine Christian experience demands this. Genuine Christian experience of knowing Jesus as Savior begins when my life is awakened to my need of God as a result of seeing the fact of my sin.
I just saw on CBCN, or CBNC, or whatever it is, a couple of advertising executives who have joined together on a huge worldwide project, and as they sat there and spoke and they were interviewed, they said again and again and again, “The way to be effective with people is to find out what it is they want and then give them what they want. If you try and do it any other way, you’ll never manage it.” And I said, “There we are.” That is why the church is where it is today. Because it has decided that the advertising agents know better than the Holy Spirit of God. So what we’re supposed to do is go out and find out what people want and then give them what they want.
Well, where in the world can you proclaim any message of sin in that context? Did you have anybody that you ever met who wanted to be confronted with the fact of their sin and their emptiness and their bereftness of God? Never in your life. So you’ve got two options: either you’re gonna be biblical, which will have a different kind of effect, or you can be unbiblical, and you can fill this place five times over on a Sunday morning.
You see, in verse 16, Jesus asks her to do something that she couldn’t do. Did you ever think about that? “Go, and call your husband,” he said, “and come back.” She couldn’t do it. How could she go and call her husband and come back? She didn’t have a husband to go and call and come back.
Now, this approach of Jesus is standard. If you turn back for a moment into Luke’s Gospel, let me just show this to you. Luke 10:28. Jesus continually asked people to do what they couldn’t do—which is contrary to what we always say: “Jesus will never ask you to do something that you can’t do.” Right? It’s one of our little evangelical clichés. Yes, he will.
Luke 10:28. This guy who’s a big expert in the law was planning on testing Jesus to see if Jesus knew as much as he did, and he asked the question, Luke 10:25,
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” [Jesus] replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart … with all your soul … with all your strength … with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
What? Love the Lord my God with all my heart, all my soul, all my mind, all my strength, love my neighbor as myself, and I will live? I can’t! I can’t! That’s right! But you know how many people are in church this morning all across Cleveland, and they think they can? And that’s their whole horrible existence. What a horrible religious experience, to have misunderstood what Jesus is saying and to try and do what he said you can’t do. So they’re out pulling up their socks, sharpening up their spiritual knives, and getting about the business of trying to do their best. Jesus says, “Do this and you will live.” The man had the opportunity to say, “I can’t do this,” and Jesus would then have said, “Let me explain the way to heaven.” Instead, the man, trying to justify himself, said, “Who is my neighbor?” So Jesus then told him the parable of the good Samaritan to try and help it to dawn on him.
Anybody here this morning, and you haven’t realized that God has asked you to do something you can’t do? If you turn forward to Luke chapter 18, the rich young ruler, asking the same question. This guy would have been a deacon in most of our churches just because he asked this question. Luke 18: “A certain ruler asked him, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’” And Jesus said, “You know the commandments: ‘Don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’” And the guy says, “All these I’ve kept since I was a boy.” Whoo! Pretty good. Better than me, that’s for sure.
So Jesus put his finger on the one thing he couldn’t do. He said, “Sell everything you have and give [it] to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” Why did he say that? Because he knew that the man loved his possessions with an unholy love, and until the man was prepared to face the fact that he was in love with his possessions—he was committed to that, that was the apex of his selfishness and of his sin—and until he was prepared to relinquish that, he could never follow Jesus Christ. And as long as a man is here this morning saying, “I’m a religious man and I can do my best,” you will never know Christ as Savior. As long as I believe that I can do all of these things and earn my way, there is no possibility.
And so it was with the woman. The fact that she can’t go and call her husband causes her to face the fact that her life up until this point has been wretched, it has been sordid, and it has been, frankly, immoral. She didn’t want to talk about husbands. She was prepared to talk about Gerizim, Samaritans, Jacob’s wells, water, all of that jazz. The one question she did not want to face was the husband question. Why? Because the husband question said, “Lady, you got a major problem.”
Now, what a wealth of expression is contained in the four words of verse 17: “‘I have no husband,’ she replied.” Do you think she said it defiantly? I don’t think so. Do you think she said it open-facedly? I doubt it. I think she was looking down when she said it. We’ll find out when we get to heaven, but I think she was looking down. And as she looked down, she said in her shame, “I have no husband.” That was the lady’s confession of her guilt and of her sin. And Jesus, instead of wringing out of her, as the Pharisees would like to have done, her further testimony to her failures and to the tragic nature of her checkered past—Jesus, recognizing that these four words cost the lady everything to say, “I have no husband”… And she knew that that, more than anything else, summed her up. Five times in these relationships, for whatever reason, she was a disaster zone, and now she had a live-in lover. And now she meets a man at a well, and how the world the conversation got to this she doesn’t know, and why it is that she’s prepared to acknowledge this before a total stranger, but she looks down; she says, “I have no husband.”
And Jesus says, “You know what, you’re telling the truth. You’re saying the right thing.” And he completes her confession for her. He doesn’t make her squeeze it out of her own mouth. He is gentle, he is gracious, he is kind. But you see, when we start to offer Jesus to people as gentle and gracious and kind—until men and women have been brought to see the nature of their sin, the message is kind of a triviality, especially to a modern man: “I don’t like this gentle Jesus. I don’t like this meek Jesus. I don’t like this man. I don’t like this pale Galilean figure.” But Mr. Businessman, the day that you are prepared to look down into the dust and to say, “I have no wife,” or to say, “I am consumed with myself,” or to acknowledge my emptiness before God, then this gentle Jesus will become a wonder to you.
Jesus says in Matthew 11, “Come unto me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart; and you will find rest for your souls, for my burden is easy. My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
It’s the same picture in Luke 15 of the boy coming back up the road after the tragic mess of his life. “Wasted his substance” in “riotous living,” the King James Version says. In a pigsty, he looks at himself and says, “What a dreadful predicament. How many hired servants of my father’s have food enough and to spare, and here am I in a pigsty? No one’ll give me anything to eat, and I’m so hungry I would eat this pig swill. I will go back to my dad, and I’m going to tell him: ‘I’ll just be a servant in your house.’” And he rehearses his little speech, and he makes his way up the road. And when he sees his father, he begins his speech: “Father I’ve sinned against heaven and in your sight. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.” And all of a sudden, his words are smothered in the folds of his father’s gown. His voice dies in the embrace of his father’s love. His confession is absorbed by the tears from his father’s eyes.
Loved ones, understand it clearly: There is no kinder shepherd, there is no salvation for sin, save in this Christ. There is no freedom from guilt, there is no place a man or woman may go to bring their checkered past, there is no way that a teenager may start all over again, save here in the embrace of this Jesus. And that’s what excites me about going out into these highways and byways! That’s the wonderful thing: that there is a great message of good news in this same Christ!
For the love of God is broader
Than the measures of [man’s] mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
The lady hasn’t grasped the total picture, but she’s making progress. Verse 19, she’s realized that this is no ordinary man. She says, “I can see … you are a prophet.” And then most of the commentaries suggest that what we have in verse 20 is a digression; she’s trying to avoid what is going on. I’ve thought that for the longest time until this last two weeks or so, as I’ve studied this again and again. I’ve changed my mind; I don’t think she’s avoiding anything here. She had every opportunity to avoid everything when Jesus said, “Go and call your husband.” ’Cause she could’ve split at that point. She had the chance to go. Jesus says to her, “Hey, you can go. Go call your husband.” She could have buzzed off then, said, “Whew! Man, I’m glad I got outta that.” But she stayed. And also, on the previous two occasions—the Jacob question and the Samaritan-Jew question—where she raised the questions, Jesus avoided them, because they were not the focus. But on this occasion, she asks this question and Jesus answers it. Why?
Because I think it’s a genuine question. I think what she’s saying in this is, she’s acknowledging her guilt: “I’ve got no husband. I am a sinner. I need to be cleansed. I know that cleansing demands sacrifice. I know that as a result of sacrifice, there is an atonement for sin. Now I need to know, should I go up to Gerizim or should I go down to Jerusalem? Because I need to be cleansed. Jesus, where’s the right place?” And here comes the wonderful news: “Hey, you don’t have to go up the hill to the mountain, you don’t have to go down to the temple, you don’t have to wait for tomorrow, but right now, today is the day of salvation, now is the accepted time. Now you may believe in me, you may trust in me and in what I am about to do, and your guilt may be cleansed, and your sin may be forgiven, and your life may be transformed.”
And having helped her with her confession of sin, he now helps her with her confession of faith. The woman says, “‘I know that [the] Messiah’ (called Christ) ‘is coming. [And] when he comes, he will explain everything to us.’” And then here we have one of the most fantastic little bits of the whole Bible. In two words, ego eimi—“I am he”—Jesus declares himself in a way that he hasn’t done to anyone else. He reveals himself to an obscure, nameless woman. At point-blank range, he tells her who he is. He says to her, “Hey, you say the Messiah will announce all things, and you’re right. Because I’m the Messiah, and I’m announcing to you what you need to know.”
And then it’s at that point, you will notice, in verse 27, that the disciples return. How providential that Jesus was able to reach that point before these blustering buffoons came back. You can just imagine them coming down the road, barging and shouting and arguing with one another as they were so prone to do: “No, I’m giving him the lunch, I bought the lunch, I’m giving him the lunch.” “No, you gave him the lunch yesterday.” Little did they know, he didn’t even want the lunch by this time. Because he had food to eat they didn’t know anything about. And his focus was above, and theirs was on the earth.
The application of what we’ve just discovered follows. And we’ll come to that; maybe tonight before Communion we’ll draw a link around this study, maybe next Sunday, we’ll just see. But for now, he who has ears to hear, she who has ears to hear, let them hear what the Spirit of God is saying to the church.
 R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943). Lyrics lightly altered.
 John 3:3 (paraphrased).
 John 3:4 (paraphrased).
 See Ecclesiastes 3:1.
 Isaiah 55:1 (NIV 1984).
 Ray Stevens, “Mr. Businessman” (1968).
 See Revelation 7:17.
 Luke 10:25–28 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 18:18 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 18:20–21 (paraphrased).
 Luke 18:22 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 11:28–30 (paraphrased)
 Luke 15:13 (KJV).
 Luke 15:21 (paraphrased).
 Frederick W. Faber, “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” (1854).
 See 2 Corinthians 6:2.
 See John 4:32.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.