It's not every day that you get to see a master evangelist at work, and yet John's gospel has recorded for us a timeless account between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. Alistair Begg demonstrates that Jesus' evangelism was marked by compassion and truth. Every encounter we have takes place in the grand sweep of God's providence, and these everyday encounters can be used by God to expose the true needs of the heart and reveal His Son.
Well, let’s turn to John chapter 4. John 4:1. I don’t think I have the time to read it all; I’m just going to get it started and then stop and trust that we keep our Bibles open before us.
“The Pharisees heard that Jesus was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John, although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. When the Lord learned of this, he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.
“Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour.
“When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, ‘Will you give me a drink?’ (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
“The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You[’re] a Jew, and I[’m] a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
“Jesus answered her, ‘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.’
“‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?’
“Jesus answered, ‘Everyone 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.’
“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.’
“He told her, ‘Go [back and] call your husband and [then] come back.’
“‘I have no husband,’ she replied.
“Jesus said to her, ‘You are right when you say you[’ve] no husband. The fact is, you[’ve] had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.’”
Well, we’ll just leave it there, because the rhythm of it is such that I want just to keep on and read all the way through, but I don’t think that I should.
We began on Monday afternoon by considering the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus, looking at this under the heading of “Jesus the Evangelist.” In chapter 3, the man addressed by Jesus was a religious professional, someone who was educated, someone with social stature. In chapter 4, John records for us another encounter, but with someone at the absolute opposite end of the social and religious spectrum. This individual is vastly different. The encounter in John 3 involves Jesus in an evening, speaking with a man, a Jew, and a ruler; and the encounter in John 4 takes place around midday, with a woman, a Samaritan, and a moral outcast.
I’ve been accused of filtering everything through the lyrics of the Beatles, and since I’m quite happy to live with that accusation, let me just suggest to you that if in chapter 3 we have Jesus in an encounter with Father McKenzie, then in chapter 4 we have Jesus having an encounter with the girl in “Norwegian Wood” who “told me she [sleeps] in the morning and started to laugh.” The unifying factor is that both of these individuals are in need of a Savior. The friend of sinners—that is, Jesus—is here, in chapter 4, seen crossing the established boundaries of both gender and of race. But then again, what else would we expect from he who is, according to verse 42, “the Savior of the world”? We would expect that the Savior of the world would break down all the barriers that were represented in that time in order that he might achieve the purpose for which he had come.
And I don’t want to delay on some of the details of geography and chronology and so on. I say that not because I can’t but because I don’t want to; I don’t feel that it serves our purpose today, and I commend you to the various commentaries which will do a good job for you. And someone asked me, “Who have you used most on John most recently?” and the answer to that question is: Don Carson’s commentary on John, I think, is very, very helpful.
But what John tells us is, in verse 4, that Jesus “had to go through Samaria.” Some of us, because of where we’ve been brought up, have listened to sermons on this phraseology—“he had to go through Samaria”—which had a tremendous amount of invention in them and not a lot of clarity. I think this is a geographical comment more than anything else, although Jews were known to cross the Jordan twice in order to avoid going through Samaria. But it would seem to be that the reference is simply that if he’s going to take the shortest route, then the shortest route would take him through Samaria.
But having said that, what you have in the terminology here doesn’t come across particularly clearly in the NIV. If you’re using an old King James Version, oftentimes the more literalistic translation of the King James tips us in a certain direction. So it will use terminology like, “And he needs must have to.” You know, it’s sort of archaic in its language. But there’s a PhD here for you in considering the notion of the divine must. The divine must. And there is a must in this, similar to the must of Jesus at twelve in responding to Mary and Joseph—“What are you doing up here? We lost you. Why are you talking to these people in the temple?” And what does he say? In the King James Version, “Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” There is a divine necessity in what is taking place here. You actually have the same thing—interestingly, the same phraseology—when he greets Zacchaeus and invites him down from the tree: he says, “Come down, Zacchaeus, because I must stay at your house today.” And so we don’t want to be too dismissive of those notions, and I leave them with you for your further consideration.
We can say at least this with certainty: that this encounter, as every encounter, takes place within the sweep of God’s providence—that there is no happenstance in this, but actually, the events of the universe had contrived together under the rulership of a sovereign God to make sure that at this precise moment in time and at this exact location on the planet, this lady would meet the Lord Jesus Christ.
And we need to keep in mind what John has already told us in John chapter 3: that God has not sent his Son into the world to condemn the world—to exercise, if you like, a ministry of admonition—not to condemn the world but in order that through him the world might be saved; not admonition but mission. And so, then, we ought to anticipate that in these encounters involving Jesus, we will see this principle exemplified.
Now, what I’d like to do is begin at the end. If I begin at the end, then that means at least we’ve had the end if we run out of time. So, I have essentially a structure to this which goes: first of all, we will consider the talk of the town, then we will consider the talk at the well, and then we will consider the talk with the disciples. So it’s just talk, talk, talk. All right?
The talk of the town, as we discover it at the very end of the section beginning verse 39 and following. John was mentioning last night the way in which the NIV inserts headings for us, and here we have one of those classic headings; in between verse 38 and 39, the heading actually reads like a newspaper headline. And it would have been a legitimate headline in the newspaper, wouldn’t it? If they’d had newspapers at the time, we might have come into town and discovered that the morning newspaper for the community read just as it reads there: “Many Samaritans Believe.” It was such a striking thing in Sychar that this had taken place.
In fact, if we had arrived in Sychar the day after the departure of Jesus, which you have recorded for you there in verse 43—“After … two days [Jesus] left for Galilee”—if we had arrived in town following the departure of Jesus, there seems to be absolutely no doubt that the community would have been abuzz with what had taken place. We would have discovered that friends and acquaintances were recounting the events, and we would also have discovered that some of our friends and acquaintances were actually professing faith in this one who had so recently left them.
And if we moved, as it were, through the marketplace, asking, “What is it that is going on here? There seems to be a buzz about the place,” we would have been told, “Jesus has been here for a couple of days. Jesus of Nazareth has been here.”
“Well,” we might have said, “fine, but how did he come to be here in the first place?”
“Well,” someone might answer, “well, actually, that in itself is quite interesting. It took us by surprise. The first inkling we got of it was when one of the more notorious members of our community, a lady of some questionable relationships, she actually came back into town a couple of days ago, and she was moving through the bazaars and saying to people, ‘Come, see a man.’ Some of the men, the cynics, sarcastically said, ‘I think we’ve heard this from her before, haven’t we? “Come, see a man.” Maybe this is number seven she has for us. Maybe she’s got a new one.’
“But in actual fact, this was different. Apparently, this man whom she wanted us to meet had, in the course of conversation, made a dramatic impact upon her, so much so that the reason she was concerned to tell us about him was because he had so, as it were, shone into the core of her being that she felt as though she was under the scrutiny of the one who searches us and knows us, who knows when we sit down and when we stand up, who knows the words of our mouths before we even speak them. And unraveled and unsettled and revealed by this encounter, what she actually said was, ‘You should come and see this man. He’s told me everything about myself. Do you think he might be the Messiah?’ And a number of us had gone immediately out on the strength of that invitation.
“And it is as you now see. He came, and we urged him to stay with us for a couple of days. And he did stay with us for a couple of days. And that’s why the whole of Sychar has been turned upside down. ‘And they say love is only true in fairy tales—but I’m a believer!’ And a number of people up the street are believers too.”
Isn’t it interesting, just that little phrase as well: “And [we] urged him to stay.” Do you remember when they urged him to stay? Interestingly, in this encounter, they urged him to stay, and then he gave the seminar. In the other encounter, he gave the seminar, and then they urged him to stay—the other one being the end of Luke 24: “And he opened up the Scriptures, and he explained to them, beginning with Moses and the Prophets, all the things in the Scriptures concerning himself. And when their eyes were opened to this notion, then they urged him to stay.” Here it takes place apparently in reverse. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Jesus didn’t use the same material: they urged him to stay, and he says, “Well, let me tell you about messiahship,” and beginning with Moses and the Prophets, he explained all the things in the Scriptures concerning himself and went right through the span of redemptive history, and as a result, numbers of the people came to believe. That is what is recorded for us. And that is why this was the talk of the town.
So what, then, about the talk at the well? Because it was the talk at the well that gave rise to the talk of the town. The impact was on the basis of the contact. And the contact had taken place in this unfolding drama involving a lunchtime meeting at a routine place. I like how sort of ordinary this is. It speaks to some of the things that have been said about the one-on-one encounters, the opportunity to speak with people exactly where they are, to start with people exactly where they are—not to go with a wheelbarrow full of information and try and tip it on their heads, but actually just a start in a fairly unobtrusive fashion.
Now, verse 27 helps us to understand just how unusual this encounter was. Because it’s difficult for us, really, to get underneath the notion of what is taking place here. Because in our community, for rights or for wrongs, it wouldn’t be uncommon for somebody to be talking with a woman at Starbucks, or to be talking to someone they met in a mall, or to be talking really in any context at all. But verse 27 and the reaction of the disciples gives us an insight into the drama that was taking place: “His disciples returned and [they] were surprised”—or shocked, or they “marvelled,” King James Version—that he was “talking with a woman.” Why? Because it was regarded as being wrong. And none of the characters—none of the disciples, we’re told—actually asked him about it or said anything at all. They didn’t need to, because their faces showed it. You can imagine them just looking at one another. If it had been now, they would have been texting one another while Jesus wasn’t looking: “What do you think has been going on here?” they send a text.
A text came back: “I don’t know. You ask him. I’m not going to ask him. I asked one of the other…”
“Well, the last time I asked him, we got into a dreadful mess.”
“Well, okay, fine. Well, let’s just leave it alone. We’ll figure it out later on.”
Now, when you come back to the narrative, then here we go: “When a … woman came.” “When a … woman came.” Rabbis would not teach the Law to a woman. Part of the Jewish liturgy was to say in the morning, in their prayers, “Blessed art thou, O Lord, who has not made me a woman.” And that perspective remains in a significant number of non-Christian cultures today.
It’s not that she was a woman, solely, but it is also that she was a Samaritan woman. A Samaritan woman. The Samaritans were different. They had intermarried. You know the story of it all; I needn’t rehearse it now. They were a sort of caste of people who were racial and religious half-breeds. They were despised by the orthodoxy and simplicity of Judaism because, in years past, they had intermarried and involved themselves, and the whole thing had become diluted. And the notion of engagement between the Samaritan and the Jew, that idea had been fractured a long time since.
So the striking nature of it first is that she’s a woman; secondly, that is she is a Samaritan woman; and thirdly, that she’s actually an ostracized woman. She’s an ostracized woman. Strike one is her gender, strike two is her race, and strike three is her way of life. Here’s three good reasons for not having a conversation with her. Here’s three good reasons for simply sitting there at the well and staring right in front of you. We can always find good reasons as why we’re not supposed to talk to the person, can’t we? Jesus had legitimate reasons for ignoring this one. But he transcends, he breaks down, he crosses the boundaries of race and of gender.
And the inference that we’re given from this encounter, supplemented by the unfolding of the narrative, is that the reason for this lady showing up, as she did, alone was because she was no longer accepted amongst the company of individuals, the women of the town, who would routinely go to gather water, draw water, in the early morning or when the sun had set at the end of the day. So we’re supposed to recognize that the very time—and there is a reference to time: “It was about the sixth hour.” There’s nothing in there, that’s not just added in there because John wanted something to finish up the line. He put it in because it’s factual: “It was about the sixth hour.” It’s not an unusual time for Jesus want to sit down because he’s tired and weary, but it is an unusual time for a lady to come to the well. And furthermore, it’s unusual for a lady to come to the well by herself, because it was a group event. I don’t want to be sexist in this, but it’s just like women going to the restroom. They always… I don’t know what it is. “Oh, I’m going to the restroom.” “Oh, I’ll come with you.” And all they go, little clusters of them. What’s that? I don’t understand. Taking their things. So they go to the well together. Kind of strange she’d come by herself.
So we have a lady who’s alone, we have a man who’s alone. Jesus is alone. John tells us the reason he’s alone is because the disciples have gone to Subway. They’ve gone for the sandwiches. They have gone off in order to try and buy food. Notice that Jesus is described as being both weary and, obviously, he’s thirsty, because Jesus is a man. The question of the personhood of Christ suffers in liberal theology largely from a less-than-divine Christ and suffers in evangelical theology as a less-than-human Christ. If we err, we tend to err on someone who is less than human. But the humanity of Jesus is revealed throughout the entire story of the Gospels. And here—just in a simple observation—here we have the Lord Jesus Christ sitting down in the middle of the day, weary, tired from the journey, thirsty. His disciples have buzzed off. He cannot get anything out of the well, a lady has come with her waterpot, and so he says, “Would you mind giving me a drink, please?”
And the thing to notice, straightforwardly, is that this conversation, this encounter, begins quite naturally. Quite naturally. I’m very thankful for the Campus Crusade workers who taught me how to share my faith, gave me “The Four Spiritual Laws,” helped me to be able to go up to people and say, “Do you know that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life?” and so on, and if I could get them to stand still long enough, I could go all the way through, right to the final two little circles and so on. And I can still do it to today, because it was drilled into me so much when I was sixteen, at the University of Aberstwyth in Wales, at the Institute for Biblical Studies. They said, “This is what you do, and this is how you do it.” Someone asks the question, “What do we do in these encounters?” We start where people are. Where’s the lady? She’s at the well. What do you get at a well? You get water. If you’re thirsty, you might want a drink. “I do want a drink. Could I have a drink of water, please?”
And you’ll notice that it made an immediate impact on her in verse 9. “The Samaritan woman…” It’s interesting. We already know that she’s a Samaritan woman, so we’ve got emphasis here. There’s no double underlining, as we notice. This is not… He hasn’t changed the font. “When a Samaritan woman,” verse 7, “came to draw water…. The Samaritan woman said to him…” We got that part, John. Why’d you write it down twice? Because it’s significant.
“The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You’re a Jew and I’m a Samaritan.’” Brilliant. “‘How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)” So the whole concept of interaction and the absolute taboo of sharing your drinking utensils with someone like this is so amazing to her.
Now, the response of Jesus is not to say, “Well, I’m glad you asked that question, and I have a number of ways that I could answer it. We can answer it historically, we can answer it theologically, we can answer it in a number of ways. So why don’t you just sit by the well here and let me begin?” No, he completely blows past it. He ignores her question. He sweeps it in, but he really ignores it, and what he does is he arouses her curiosity. He says, “If you think it’s surprising that me, a man and a Jew, would ask you, a woman and a Samaritan, for something to drink, wait, wait till you hear this: 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.” He’s going to show her, you see, that while she assumes herself to be the one who is able to dispense what this man has professed to need, he actually is the one who will provide for her what she really needs, which is something far deeper and more significant than that which is found down the well here, albeit a very special well.
If we were working through this over a period of time in our studies with our congregation and we were not trying to do it in one swoop, we would probably stop here. And we would take this water motif, and we would set it within the context, for example, of the psalmist’s words: “O God … I seek you; my soul thirsts for you … in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” We would set it in the context of the prophecies of Isaiah and the anticipation in 12: “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” And we would tie these links together so as to help our people understand the way in which the unfolding story of God’s redemptive purposes runs entirely through the Bible—in other words, that Jesus is not just hauling off with something out of nowhere, but the background to it all is this amazing redemptive purpose.
And the woman’s reaction to that in verse 11 and 12 is akin to Nicodemus’s reaction back in chapter 3, remember? Jesus has said, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he[’s] born again,” and Nicodemus makes a crassly materialistic response to that: “How is it possible for somebody to get reborn and go inside his mother’s womb a second time?” And you’ll notice the lady responds in a similar fashion: “‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep.’” “What are you talking about, getting water? You can’t get water. And furthermore, this is a fine well. We’ve been using this for a long time. Our forefathers have been using it for a long time. This is the well of Jacob; he gave us this well, and he drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and his herds. Are you greater than our father Jacob?” Well, it’s interesting, isn’t it? Because the living water Jesus was speaking about wasn’t down a well, and yes, he was greater than her father Jacob.
But once again, he doesn’t get into it. He doesn’t get into it. He doesn’t start to unpack the details of her investigation—not because they’re unimportant issues, but because Jesus knows. That’s what John has told us at the end of chapter 2, isn’t it? “Jesus [did] not entrust himself to [these people], for he knew all men. He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in … man.” That doesn’t mean he knew what was in a man and he didn’t know what was in a woman. He knew what was in man qua man. He knows what is in humanity. And so, in his encounter with this woman, he is able to cut to the chase.
“I can see you’re surprised. Get ready for some more!”
“But you don’t… Are you…?”
No, he doesn’t tackle these details of Jacob and the wells and the greatness and everything else, because what he wants to do is to address the deep-seated nature of this woman’s condition—the longing in her own heart for reality, the longing that is present in her life, as he knows, for satisfaction.
Now, remember, John has already told us that Christ has not come to condemn the world. So he’s not about to condemn this lady. But nor is he about to affirm her in her sorry predicament. Some of us think that it’s gracious just to sort of affirm people in their dreadful circumstances, because we don’t want to interfere with their lives, we don’t want to point things out that are wrong, and so on. Jesus doesn’t do that.
Still she’s thinking in physical terms. “Everyone who drinks this water,” says Jesus, “will be thirsty. Whoever drinks the water I give ’em, they’ll never thirst again. The water I give ’em will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman goes, “Well, that’s brilliant, ’cause I hate coming out here in the middle of the day—especially all by myself. If you could give me some of this water so I won’t get thirsty and I won’t have to keep coming here to draw water…”
Now, where is this conversation going? So Jesus decides, to quote our friend Rico, to push through the pain barrier. At this point, he says, “We’re gonna have to advance this conversation.” To this point, we’re playing ping-pong back and forth across the net: “You said,” “She said,” “What about…?” “I don’t know,” so on. And then Jesus says—and it’s at this point that the whole thing advances, isn’t it? Simple request on the part of Jesus, verse 16: “Go, call your husband and come back.” If there’s gonna be a transformation in this woman’s life, it’s not enough that she has a longing for satisfaction; she’s going to have to be brought face-to-face with her sin and with her need. And so Jesus tells her to do what he knows she can’t do. Because he knows! “Go and call your husband and come back.”
And what a wealth is contained in those four words there in verse 17, at least in English: “I have no husband.” Do you think she said that defiantly? I think she said it with her eyes cast down. I don’t think she blurted it out. I think she probably just managed to get it out: “I… I have… I have no husband.”
Jesus, in his grace and in his kindness, completes her confession for her. He doesn’t, as the Pharisees were prone to do, seek to wring out from her the gory details or to ply her with questions as to what lies behind her straightforward acknowledgment of her circumstances. “I have no husband.” Jesus says, “That is good that you are prepared to acknowledge that, because I know you’re right to say that. The fact is”—“the fact is”—“you’ve had five husbands. The man you now have is not your husband, and what you say is quite true.”
Again, tone is important here, isn’t it? There’s all the difference in the world between this being said in a certain tone and another. Do we imagine that Jesus said [speaks sternly], “And you’re absolutely right when you say you have no husband, because I know for a fact that you’ve had five husbands, and you’re presently living with a man!” Or, “Well, thanks for telling me that, ’cause I know what you know: that you’ve been through this five times, and you’ve got a live-in lover. So I know you can’t go and call your husband and bring him back.”
You say, “Why, that’s just inference on your part.” Fair. But how does Jesus introduce himself when he issues the wonderful invitation recorded in Matthew 11: “Come to me, all you who are weary and [heavy laden], and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn [of] me.” Why? “For I am gentle and [lowly] in heart.” “I am gentle and lowly in heart.” We’re back at Romans 2 again, aren’t we? “Is it not that the kindness of God would lead you to repentance?”
For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of [man’s] mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
The Gospels pulsate with it. Isn’t that why, in the story of the two lost boys, the father interrupts the son when he comes back? He interrupts him! “Father, I have sinned against heaven…” His speech is all prepared, and it’s a legitimate speech; it’s the right speech; it’s the necessary speech. “I made a complete royal hash of the whole program, Father. I turned my back on you. I went my own way. I took all the stuff. I fouled up completely. I am no longer—” And his father interrupted him. Why? Because that’s the kind of God he is. “Bring, bring, bring, because this, my son, was lost and is found. He was dead and is alive again.” But the Pharisee brother outside can never get that.
And to the extent that the spirit of the Pharisee has invaded our psyche, even our professed biblical, orthodox psyche, we will have a dreadful time—a dreadful time—when we are presented with those whose lives in the twenty-first century are riddled with the impact of a lifestyle that in the realm of human sexuality has completely consumed them, has lost them. Think for a moment of our own sinful response to those who are caught out in these things. Is it not the spirit of the Pharisee that allows me to say, “Well, I can’t believe that Mr. X would have done these things”? “Don’t you know your own sinful heart?” I hear the Spirit of God say. Jesus, when the man came asking what he must do to inherit eternal life, remember it says, “And Jesus looked on him and he loved him.” And the compassion in Christ that is conveyed here takes things forward.
Because there is a perspective shift here, isn’t there, after this? In verse 9 the lady says, “You are a Jew and I’m a Samaritan.” But now in verse 19 she says, “I can see that you’re a prophet.” So, the ball has advanced up the field. At the beginning, she’s speaking to someone who’s from a Jewish background and looking for a drink of water. Now she’s speaking to somebody else entirely. This person has unraveled her. This person has exposed her. But he hasn’t done it in such a way as to make her run away from the well. No! No, in actual fact, he has caused her now to ask a question that Jesus actually answers. Right? “Are you this?” He lets it go. “What about that?” He lets it go. This one he answers.
Which is why I don’t accept the standard commentaries on this verse. If you’ve read books on personal evangelism, when you get to this little section here, it says, “I can see you’re a prophet. Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” And 95 percent of the books say, “What the lady is doing here is she’s trying to stiff-arm Jesus. Now she knows she’s about to get rumbled, and because she’s starting to get found out, she asks some obscure question about whether we should be worshipping up in Gerizim or worshipping in Jerusalem or wherever else it is.” And the books tell you, “Be prepared for that. As soon as you put the finger on the pulse, the person will try and push you back. Deal with the red herrings. This is how you deal with the red herring—the red herring of Mount Gerizim and so on.”
It’s possible. I don’t know. It’s possible. But I don’t think so. I actually think that this is a genuine question on the part of a lady. I actually think that the lady now has suddenly begun to put things together.
“I have no husband.”
Jesus says, “You’re right. You’re a mess. You’re a sinner. Sinners need cleansing, cleansing through sacrifice.”
“Jesus, I’m not saying I want to be cleansed—but, you know, if I wanted to be cleansed, should I go to our place in Gerizim, or should I go up to your place in Jerusalem?”
And look at the fantastic response of Jesus. It’s a glorious response, isn’t it? Jesus says, “Believe me…” “Believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem. It’s not about a place that you go to. But rather, the time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, ’cause they’re the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. It’s not about you going to a place to seek him. It’s about his coming to seek you.” Everything begins with the divine initiative.
And you will notice that it is Jesus’ knowledge of her identity—of her identity, her morally messy past—which has given way to, if you like, this incipient confession of her sin. And it is Jesus’ disclosure of his own identity which paves the way for her confession of faith. He uncovers who she really is, and she says, “I have to go find a place of sacrifice.”
As the dialogue continues, Jesus makes it plain. The woman said, “Well, that’s interesting because I know,” verse 25, “that the Messiah, called Christ, is coming. And when he comes, he will explain everything to us.” And then Jesus did what he had chosen not to do with others, and to this obscure, nameless woman, he tells her point-blank, “Ego eimi. The Messiah that you’re looking for is the one who just asked you for a drink of water, is the one who just told you that if you knew the gift of God and you would take the water that the Messiah has to offer, then you would drink from the wells of salvation, and you would never thirst again.”
Finally, the talk with his disciples.
The disciples are just a funny bunch, aren’t they? I mean, they’re such an encouragement to us. I think they are. You know, they could’ve at least have got him a drink of water before they left. That would have been thoughtful, wouldn’t it? They could’ve said, “Jesus, we’ll be off for a little while. We don’t know how long it’s gonna take. It’s kinda thirsty and tired; let’s get you a drink of water.” No, they buzz off, they’re gone—leave Jesus by himself, and the thing unfolds. And then they come back, and they come, you know, sort of blustering in: “Just then,” verse 27.
“Jesus declared, ‘I who speak to you am he.’” Do you ever have that feeling, in that moment, when you go, “Oh, but wait a minute, they called the flight—just when I was going to go from the identity of Jesus to the work of the penal substitutionary atonement, just when I was going to finally get the two circles out and explain and get you on the chair and do the whole thing, and all of a sudden, they called the flight, and you’re gone. She’ll never be converted now! The jolly disciples have come back and ruined the whole program, just when I was getting her saved, you know—these clowns show up.”
Frankly, it is a comic-tragic picture, really, with these characters. It really is. If this was a Shakespeare play, this is, you know, this is the gravedigger scene in Hamlet. These guys are completely out to lunch. Is it wrong to suggest that the background music at this point—if you were making a little movie of this narrative—the background music would now switch to “Send in the Clowns.” Because here they come. Here come the sandwich boys! Is it too harsh to suggest that these guys, their heads were so full of sandwiches that they had no concept of salvation, that they were so full of the now that they had lost sight of the then, that they were so concerned to make sure that they got the lunch at the right time and in the right way. Not illegitimate concerns, but not the main issue.
So the lady leaves. We don’t know where she’s going. We don’t what’s gonna happen. That’s why we did the end, because we needed to do the end, ’cause it is the end now, in any case. But the disciples get back down to the real important things. They didn’t want to ask Jesus about this. They didn’t think it was their place. After all, what would they have said? Most of the time, their questions were dumb, and they’re best just to leave it alone.
Peter here displays a remarkable ability of self-control—highly unusual, because we would have expected that he would’ve come out with some ridiculous statement that would have got him put to the back of the bus by Jesus, at least for the afternoon. So, “leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town.” She says to the people, “And come out and see the Christ,” and so they start out.
Meanwhile, the disciples urged him, “Rabbi, could you please eat your lunch? Rabbi, would you eat something?” And he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”
Now, again, this is tone, isn’t it? Do you think Jesus looked at them and said [speaks sternly], “I have food to eat that you know nothing about. I’m not interested in your lunch. I’m on a much higher mission.” I don’t think so. I think he just said, “Guys, if you’d been here for what just happened, you wouldn’t be thinking about lunch either. I was hungry when you left. There’s no question about it. Right now, I’m not hungry. In fact, I’ve actually got food that I can eat that isn’t this.”
So one of the disciples said, “Oh, I get it! He must be doing the manna in the wilderness thing.” So he put up his hand and said, “Oh, I get it, there’s the manna in the wilderness and…” No. No, no. There isn’t a bright spark among them. Look: “Then his disciples said to each other, ‘Could someone have brought him food?’”
And once again, the drama unfolds, you see, on the basis of misunderstanding and irony. John does this all the way through. It’s a tremendously helpful teaching point. It’s not dissimilar to what was being shown to us in Mark’s Gospel on the opening evening. Because remember, Jesus has done this: “You destroy this temple, and I’ll build it again in three days.” And the people said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple. How are you gonna do that?” But Jesus was not speaking about the temple; he was speaking about his body. You get the same thing in 3:4: “How can a man be born again when he[’s] old? Does he enter a second time into his mother’s womb?” No. And then here in verse 15: “So that I don’t have to come back here and draw the water.”
So by irony and by misunderstanding, the thing is developed, and then in verse 34, “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” And all the way through the Gospel record, all of the ministry of Jesus is in submission to and in performance of his Father’s will.
And then he gives his exhortation to them, and with this we stop.
“Eat your lunch, Jesus.”
“I don’t really feel that hungry anymore. I have food that you don’t really know about.”
“Well, goodness, what is that about?”
“Well, it’s actually, I’m so committed to doing the will of him who sent me that, really, we just gotta get on. I mean, it’s not unusual for us to think in terms of, ‘Well, it’s a tremendous idea, but we shouldn’t start it now. Maybe in a few months’ time. Maybe when we finish the such and such. “In four months more, then comes the harvest.”’ Well, I know that’s routinely said, but let me tell you: Open your eyes and look at the fields. They’re ripe for harvest.” And he issues a wake-up call to his followers.
I must leave you to unpack this yourself. But it’s hard to read this and not read it in light of 12:24. Just let me tell you what that says. Jesus is speaking there, and he says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a [grain] of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” It’s only because Jesus has sowed the seed at the cross and in his death that eternal life may be reaped by anyone. And that’s why you have this picture. It goes back to the prophet [Amos], where the person treading out the wine is actually overcoming the individual who’s sowing the seeds. And that prophetic picture is picked up here. And Jesus says, “It’s customary for one to sow and another to reap. I sent you to reap what you haven’t worked for. Others have done the hard work. You’ve reaped the benefits of their labor.”
Jesus reveals himself as not simply the Messiah of a narrow Jewish expectation, but he reveals himself as the world’s Redeemer. He reveals himself to a devoted religionist, a religious somebody, in chapter 3, and he reveals himself to a disenfranchised religious nobody in chapter 4. And what unites them is their need of the Lord Jesus Christ. If you like, in chapter 3 we have an encounter that makes it perfectly clear to us that no one is so good that they don’t need to be saved, and chapter 4 makes it clear to us that no one is so bad as to be beyond the hope of salvation.
This lady, I think, is a very contemporary lady. She’s “lookin’ for love in all the wrong places.” If she was present today, she would be talking about how she needed to find out what it meant for her to be her: “Just trying to find out who I am; I’m just trying to find out what I am.” And Jesus comes and said, “Well, I can answer that for you. And what you need to face up to is this, and what you need to discover is who I am.”
As a boy at Bible class in Scotland, I learned lots of songs, and one of them goes like this:
He did not come to judge the world,
He did not come to blame,
He did not only come to seek;
It was to save he came;
And when we call him Savior,
And when we call him Savior,
And when we call him Savior,
Then we call him by his name.
Part of the fun of heaven is gonna be finding all these people, isn’t it? I mean, I don’t know how it’s going to work, but in the new earth, we get a chance to roam around. And, you know, one day you’re having a coffee, and you bump into a lady, you say, “How’re you doing?”
Say, “I’m doing pretty good.”
And then you find out she was the woman at the well. “You’re the woman!”
“Well, I always wondered what happened to you after that. Where did you go?”
And I have a sneaking suspicion… I have a sneaking suspicion—pure conjecture—that she may have made her way to Jerusalem on the day the sun turned dark. And she may have stood with other brave women underneath the shadow of the cross. And when she heard Jesus say, “It is finished,” she would have had occasion to say, “Oh, I get it. He is up there covered in shame, in order that I might be covered in glory.” And she would have stood, as we must stand, in the presence of Jesus and say, “How marvelous! how wonderful!”
Let us pray:
O our gracious God and Father, we pray that you will help us to be students of your Word. On our best day, we’re unprofitable servants. We intrude upon the task. But we pray that you will reinforce within us, as a result of these days, the conviction that when your Word is truly read and taught, that you really speak. And we thank you for every lesson learned in the public arena and in private conversation, and we pray that you will pour out upon us a Spirit of insight to the times in which we live and a genuine spirit of compassion. Save us from admonition, and fill us again with a great missionary zeal, so that wherever we are and wherever we serve you, that we might give ourselves unreservedly, so that a great company of people will be added to that number of every nation and tribe and people and tongue that stand before your throne and declare just how amazing it is that Christ should die for us and be raised for our justification. Hear our prayers, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
 See John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “Eleanor Rigby” (1966).
 John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “Norwegian Wood” (1965).
 Luke 2:49 (KJV).
 Luke 19:5 (paraphrased).
 See John 3:17.
 See Psalm 139:1–2, 4.
 Neil Diamond, “I’m a Believer” (1966). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Luke 24:27, 29, 31 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 63:1 (NIV 1984).
 Isaiah 12:3 (NIV 184).
 John 3:3 (NIV 1984).
 John 3:4 (paraphrased).
 John 2:24–25 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 11:28–29 (NIV 1984).
 Romans 2:4 (paraphrased).
 Frederick W. Faber, “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” (1854).
 See Luke 15:11–32.
 Mark 10:21 (paraphrased).
 See William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 5.1.
 See John 2:19–21.
 See Amos 9:13.
 Wanda Mallette, Bob Morrison, and Patti Ryan, “Lookin’ for Love” (1980).
 Dora Greenwell, “A Good Confession,” in Songs of Salvation (London, 1874), 27. Paraphrased.
 John 19:30 (NIV 1984).
 Charles H. Gabriel, “My Savior’s Love” (1905).
 See Luke 17:10.
 See Revelation 7:9–12.
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.