Scripture provides many examples of Jesus crossing cultural and religious barriers to meet those in desperate need of His salvation. The approach He took to reach into the life of the Samaritan woman at the well offers us much by way of application. Drawing from Christ’s pattern, Alistair Begg presents a series of principles to follow as we seek to speak boldly and live radically for the sake of the Gospel.
I invite you to take your Bibles, and we’ll turn back to the portion of Scripture that we were studying this morning in John chapter 4. In order to be able to complete what we had hoped to do before the conclusion, or by the conclusion, of next Sunday morning’s worship, it is important that we finish what we began this morning, and I want to do that as briefly and hopefully as effectively as I can before we come around the Lord’s Table.
For those of us who were present this morning, we can follow quite naturally on from where we left off. For those of you who weren’t, we were looking at the conversation between Jesus and the woman at the well. And we spent time in observation and left precious little time for any kind of application. As we went through the pattern of Jesus’ approach, we noted that he began naturally; that he then aroused the lady’s curiosity; that he spoke to her, addressing her need and search for satisfaction; and then, in turn, that he confronted her with the nature of her sin by addressing the whole area of her conscience.
And as we followed that through, we recognized that while there is a unique element in observing the pattern of Christ’s ministry, nevertheless, there are particular principles of approach that we might observe. And in the final sheet of my notes for this morning, I had listed seven points by way of application, and I want just to go through them before we gather round the Lord’s Table.
We observed, then, the approach that Jesus had taken with the lady. We have said, “Is there something that we might learn from this approach of the Lord Jesus, and if so, what is it?” Well, let me give you these seven things by way of application.
First of all, if we’re going to make this kind of impact, it is imperative that we learn how to live radically. Live radically.
There was that about the approach of the Lord Jesus here which was absolutely radical. As we noted, he crossed the barriers that were prevalent in his day of both gender and race, and he did so for the express purpose of reaching into the life of this woman, whom he knew to be in such desperate need. It may seem straightforward to many of us that this would be the case, and yet, I fear not. Because by and large, it would appear that churches in general, and perhaps we as Christians in particular, have tended to believe that those to whom we speak concerning the good news of the Lord Jesus need to be the ones who make all the moves, and that we must go and invite them to cross various barriers in order to hear what we have to say to them. And while there are opportunities to do that—and next Sunday, in part, is something of that—nevertheless, we recognize that if we’re going to significantly impact people with the good news of Jesus Christ, we need to move into their territory, we need to cross bridges into their lives, and we need to make it far more accessible by means of our willingness to live in a radical way.
There have, in the history of the church, been people who have been particularly radical in these things, and they stand out to us in the history of Christian biography. Some of us have friends and neighbors who are particularly good at this. Some of us are naturally reticent. But I do believe that we are living in a time—indeed, presumably the church has always lived in a time—when, if we’re going to impact the culture with the good news of Jesus Christ, we cannot stay within our own little comfort zones of ever-diminishing circles of influence and believe that the world will come knocking at our door to inquire just why it is that we believe what we believe. Jesus took the initiative, he broke down barriers, he lived radically, and we need to discover what that means.
Secondly, in following the pattern of Jesus, we need, in initiating conversations like this, to act naturally, as did he.
My father, who was never a musician—who produced one son who is not a musician either—used to tell me always, “I think the best key in which you could ever play is the key of be natural.” “Be natural.” And he gave me that instruction when I was tempted to mimic others at school, and when, in turn, as God gave to me the opportunity of ministry, I was tempted to try and be as smart as the man to whom I was assistant or as profound as someone else, and detecting this in me, he would say to me always, “Remember, son, the best key is be natural.” And so, we might learn—I learned from that, and I learn from the example of Jesus here. We made much of it at the time; we won’t rehearse it greatly now. But he simply began by asking, “May I have a drink?” “May I have a drink?”
What a strange thing it is to hear people witnessing, and they get a funny tone in their voice. Have you noticed that? They can be talking quite naturally about anything: “How did the football game go? And did you read that in the newspaper?” And then, all of a sudden, they have a sort of… a strange sort of catharsis that takes place, because they’re now speaking about divine things. And people just say, “You know, you are bizarre. Why are you talking like that?” And they say, “Talking like what?” And they don’t have a father around to hit them on the back of the head and remind them, “All you gotta do is act naturally.” Our friends are not impressed by pious talk, by ecclesiastical jargon, by deep sounding words which they could never fathom, even with an excellent dictionary. But they may be intrigued by the very natural approach that we take.
So, the radical element of our crossing bridges needs, then, to be allied to a very natural approach in conversation. And thirdly, when we’re able to engage with people in conversation, we should proceed creatively. We should proceed in our conversations creatively.
This is the pattern of Jesus here, as we noted this morning. In the process of it all, he could have gone very quickly to his concluding point. He could have gone directly to the issues of this woman’s life. And yet we saw how he was very straightforward and yet intriguing in the way that he opened up the subject: “Could I have a drink of water?” “Why would you ask me for a drink of water?” He leaves the question aside, and then he says to her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it was [who asked] you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” There is an intrigue about that.
So, when we think in terms of speaking for Christ, instead of blurting out with some little prepackaged, jargonized speech that we’ve created—and somebody says, “Well, I’m very interested that you would be showing up at my door,” or “that here, over this cup of coffee this afternoon, that you would be speaking in this way,” at that moment, let the bell go off. Don’t allow yourself to go back into the “Oh yes, I am so glad….” When you feel that coming on, you gotta resist that, and say something like, “You know what? It’s unbelievable, isn’t it?” And the person’ll say, “What do you mean, ‘It’s unbelievable’?” You say, “Well, you know, a year ago—a year ago!—I would never have been sitting here. A year ago, I would never have had this conversation. Six months ago, you wouldn’t have found me dead with this literature in my hands!” Now that’s kind of intriguing. Anybody that’s still thinking at all is forced to say, “Well, what happened a year ago?” You see? Creative! Creative. Not the encyclopedia salesman. Creative.
Living radically, acting naturally, proceeding creatively. Fourthly, avoiding unnecessary controversy. Avoiding unnecessary controversy.
The lady introduced the question of the Jews and the Samaritans. People regularly introduce the question of the Muslims to me—or perhaps the Roman Catholics and the Protestants in Northern Ireland. Very interesting question, but that’s not what I came to talk about, and I’m not planning on talking to somebody about it unless it’s clear to me that it is actually a great stumbling block to their understanding of faith in Jesus Christ. “Well,” you say, “how will you know?” Well, you won’t always know, but you get good at wondering as you go along, and a measure of discernment, as the Lord helps.
“Well, what about the well of Jacob? Is this a nice well, or what do you think of this well?”
“Interesting conversation, but not what I came to talk to you about. I’m going to set it aside.”
“Well, do you think the flood covered part of the earth or all of the earth?”
“Well, interesting conversation, but let’s leave that for a moment.”
“Well, do you think that there were seven days in creation, or do you think it’s periods of time?”
“Interesting thought, but we’re not going to stop there for the moment.”
“Because it’s not the issue.”
And what I would say to people—and I give you this, just as those who have taught it to me—is simply this: that when you engage in conversation, and you’re living in this way and acting naturally and proceeding creatively, and somebody says to you, “Well, what about this, or what about that?” say, “You know what? That’s an interesting question. Let me just leave that here for a moment and proceed with what I’d like to tell you. And we’ll come back to that.” And nine times out of ten, if you’re able to proceed creatively, you’ll never, ever come back to it. Because it wasn’t something that was germane to the discussion; it was just thrown in along the journey. But if you go down that road, there’s no saying where you will end up.
Someone starts to talk to you about astrophysics; unless you are in the 0.2 percent of the population that could answer the question with any measure of effectiveness, I suggest you don’t touch it with a forty-foot pole. Because they will have you tied up in unbelievable knots within no time at all—and the issue is not astrophysics, in any case. That doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant; it doesn’t mean you may not have to go and buy a book if it’s a genuine concern for the person. But in the time being, as you go through the process, it is important to avoid unnecessary controversy. “Well, I notice you don’t have any symbols in your church. Is it a proper church?” “Good question. We’ll come back to that.” And so on.
Fifthly, we need to learn also to confront people honestly.
There comes a time where we have to, as it were, allow the Scriptures to speak with forcefulness. And this, of course, came, as we said, in the pivotal statement in verse 16, where Jesus said to the lady, “Go, call your husband and come back.” And in that moment, he confronted her honestly. And it is going to be important, within the framework of our speaking about the things of Jesus, to reach a point at some juncture where we’re able to confront people honestly with the issues that are before them.
Now, “honestly” does not mean “harshly.” For Jesus did so with sensitivity. And so, if we’re making notes, we should say there is a point at which we should confront honestly, and then in brackets we should write the word sensitively. When Peter writes to those who were his readers of his first letter, he says, “I want you always to be able to give an answer to those who ask a reason for the hope that is within you,” and then he immediately says, “but do it with gentleness and with respect.” Because the manner in which we speak will often be so overpowering that people won’t hear the message that we want to bring. And some of us are more prone to that than others and need the help of others in saying, “You know, I think you could temper your language a little better. I think that you may be able to speak just as honestly but a little more sensitively.”
And then, sixthly, we need to be able to explain clearly. To confront honestly and explain clearly.
There is no easy way to this. Nobody ever learns how to make presentations for their work without that they give themselves to it with diligence. For example, if you sell some piece of electronic gadgetry which would bamboozle the average individual, and they take this out of the box and they are about to use it, they expect to be able to turn around to the salesperson and say, “How do you do this?” or “Why does it work in this way?” And with a measure of justification, if you are unable to answer the most rudimentary questions, they’re going to assume that you really should never have been the salesperson in the first place.
And I recognize that to make this exhortation tonight is to turn everything back on ourselves as a pastoral team in relationship to the way in which we edify and equip you as a congregation, and I recognize that in what I’m saying. But thinking back on it, I never once was in a church, in my formative years, where they ever taught me how to share my faith. I had to go and get myself a couple of books, I had to go and get myself a couple of friends, and I had to go and stay up at night and learn these things off by heart. So when somebody said, “You know, I think the resurrection is a hoax,” I would be able to say, “Now, tell me why you think it is a hoax,” rather than to say to myself, “Oh, goodness me! I wish they hadn’t said that, because I don’t have clue what to say in response.”
Now, unless, you see, you have thought about the issues of the swoon theory, and the idea that Jesus did not die but simply swooned in the tomb, and that he was never dead but simply came around in the tomb and went walking in the street, the first time somebody hits you with that, you’re not going to have clue what to say to them. But if you think about it for long enough and you prepare for it properly, you will be able to address them truthfully and you will be able to explain clearly.
When somebody says, “You know, I think I’m a good person, and indeed, I think I’m good enough to go to heaven,” you might be prepared to say, “And how good do you think you have to be to go to heaven?” And when they say, “Good enough,” you might be prepared to say, “And how good enough is good enough?” And you might ask them how many times they sinned in a week. And if they said, “Just once a day,” you could tell them, “Well, that’s 365 a year. And how old are you?” “Well, I’m ten.” “Well, that’s 3,650.” (The only reason I said ten was because I couldn’t be sure of multiplying by any higher number. But I could double it now, but… I’m not one to impress you. I’m not sure I could double it right now.)
But then you’re gonna say to the person, “Well, let’s suppose you manage to keep it down just to one sin a day for all of your life to this point. How good do you think you have to be eradicate that volume of sin?” And then, when you have the person at that point, you can say, “Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if somebody died in your place so that the goodness that you could not bring, they brought? So that they might die in your place, bear your punishment, and enable your life?” “Well,” said the person, “that’s an intriguing idea, but I don’t know. Where do you get that from?” And then you say, “Oh, somewhere in the Bible.” They’re not going to appreciate that; they expect you to know your Bible. How do you know your Bible? You read your Bible. You read your Bible every day. You make little notes in the margin when people teach you. You have a little loose-leaf book that you write in little gems and nuggets that you’ve understood. And before you know it, you’re putting together the ability to explain clearly the things of the Lord Jesus.
And seventhly, and finally, if we’re going to seize these opportunities, we need to be prepared to speak boldly.
Eventually, Jesus looks the lady in the eye. She’s reached the point where she says, “I know that when the Messiah, called Christ, comes, he’ll explain everything to us.” And Jesus said, “Guess what? I who speak to you am he.”
Now, this is a time for sensitive boldness, loved ones. This is a time of a great interest in spiritual things in our country. It’s an interesting combination of an interest in spirituality, with the demise of the mindset and worldview that is scientific rationalism, and into that vacuum of the thinking of men and women has come this unbelievable confusion. And I think we tend to believe that if ever we lay it straight out, boldly, the words of Jesus, “I am the way and the truth and the life,” and “no one comes to the Father [but] through me,” that somehow or another our very boldness and clarity at that point will be the thing that turns everything in the wrong direction. But the fact is, we don’t have any option but to proceed along the lines of Jesus himself.
That’s all I had written down. I want now to conclude, because I want us to have time around the Lord’s Table. But I want to add a P.S., and it is this:
You are writing a Gospel,
A chapter each day,
By the deeds that you do
And the words that you say.
Men read what you write,
Distorted or true;
So what is the Gospel
According to you?
The danger in the emphasis of these Sundays is the idea that somehow or another, if we can only be effective with our tongues, we will be inevitably effective in our witness. And it isn’t always so. Not that there is no place for what we’ve just outlined; there is a vital place for it, and a necessary place.
But I was struck this week to read again the encounter of Dr. Stanley when he tracked down Dr. Livingstone in his missionary journeys. Stanley met Livingstone, recognizing something of what Livingstone was doing, but at the time that Stanley met him, he—Stanley himself—had no knowledge of Christ and no awareness of what Livingstone was really about. In reflecting upon those early days, Dr. Stanley wrote as follows: “[Livingstone] never spoke a word to me about being a Christian. It was not his words or his preaching … that won me [for] Christ. I was not a Christian when I found him, but I had not been with him very long before I was worshipping Livingstone’s God, trusting [Livingstone’s] Savior and reading [Livingston’s] Bible.”
It’s really the response to the children’s song:
God make my life a shining light
Within [this] world to glow;
A little flame that burneth bright,
Wherever I may go.
For the issue, you see, is not that they are impressed with our ability to speak of him, but it is that they are introduced to him who is the Lamb of Calvary, who takes away the sin of the world.
 1 Peter 3:15 (paraphrased).
 John 14:6 (NIV 1984).
 Commonly attributed to Paul Gilbert.
 Attributed to Henry M. Stanley in Cyrus Napoleon Broadhurst, Personal Work: On Bringing Men to Christ (Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham, 1912), 141. Possibly a paraphrase based on “Power of Life,” Expositor and Current Anecdotes 5, no. 1 (Oct. 1903): 270.
 Matilda B. B. Edwards, “God Make My Life a Little Light” (1873).
 See John 1:29.
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.