What do a strange and lonely woman, a well, worship and living water have to do with the Gospel?
To show that the Gospel flows from true worship and is spread in the most unlikely places by the most unlikely people.
We will examine the woman at the well, living water, real food and the Gospel.
An inviting Savior
How do we invite people to faith? When Jesus met the woman at the well (John 4:7) his invitation was distinct in many ways. First of all, he was not a bigot, but willing to chat with anyone. His unbiased friendliness broke the ice. Jesus seized her curiosity by speaking about the gift of God and living water which gives eternal life. In ancient languages, flowing water was called living as opposed to still water. The woman’s curiosity grew. As the conversation progressed, Jesus revealed deeper and deeper truths to her, including his ability to know even personal secrets. The result of the conversation was that not only she came to faith, but others also. While we may not have every ability that Jesus did, we can certainly learn from him and make the invitation attractive to our hearers.
When Jesus met a woman at a well (John 4:7-9) he broke a number of social taboos. The woman mentioned the most obvious. She explained that Jews did not associate with Samaritans. Yet, Jesus was not concerned with such bigotry. A couple of other taboos may not seem so obvious. In a society that was hypersensitive to any appearance of evil, the fact that Jesus talked to a woman alone, could have been taken the wrong way. Especially so because perhaps only someone with a bad reputation would be gathering water alone at a well in the heat of the day. Yet, Jesus did not care what others thought, when he knew he was doing right. We have our own modern prejudices to contend with. How do we react, caring more about what others think or what is right?
In any country, foreigners can be looked upon with disdain and suspicion. Ancient Jews particularly despised their neighbors to the north, the Samaritans, because their ancestors had separated themselves from the union with Judah and Benjamin, been carried away to Assyria and been replaced with a mixed race people of perhaps partial Israelite stock. The distrust between the two peoples was also cultural and religious. The Samaritans were more conservative than the Jews, believing only in the five books of Moses, and they had a rival temple site. Unlike many Jews, Jesus did not avoid Samaritan territory on his travels and without prejudice or bigotry even conversed with one of their women at a well (John 4:9). It was this woman, an otherwise hated foreigner and others from her neighborhood who were among the first to believe Jesus’ message.
Jesus came to Jacob’s well, an abundant source of water. He asked a Samaritan woman for a drink there (John 4:10-11). This was considered inappropriate. The Jews despised the Samaritans and usually went the long route between Jerusalem and Galilee to avoid them. Also, a lone man talking to a lone woman was considered immoral by many overly strict religious folk. The separation of men and women was not really necessary for morality and Jesus readily overstepped the taboo. He was preparing the way for a new order where there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither male nor female, but where all are one in Jesus (Galatians 3:27-28). Jesus offered her living water. She did not understand the riddle because the term meant flowing water. Yet, Jesus meant the water of life through baptism and the Holy Spirit.
Living water flows
When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman about living water (John 4:10-11) he was referring to something spiritual not physical. Unlike the water in the well, living water is like a stream or river. It flows. Living water flowed from the woman’s encounter with Christ into her community. So the Gospel flows from our encounter into our communities. Churches are not cisterns where water collects, but river beds where we drink from flowing water. We were all once enemies of Christ. We went to a well dug by men to quench our thirst. He offered us living water. It flows regardless of ethnic or religious background. Living water flows while we still have questions. Living water flows to the harvest even into the homes of our enemies where many will come and believe in the Savior of the world.
Satisfying every thirst
When the woman at the well met Jesus (John 4:13-15) there was no denouncing of her from his mouth. Commentaries about her are too often colored by whichever political or social ax people have to grind. Jesus was not interested in condemnation of her but revealing himself to her. His purpose in revealing his knowledge of her background had nothing to do with criticism of her life but, to reveal himself to her as the source of living water. Who we are or what mistakes we have made cannot stop God loving us. Jesus sees all that we have done and does not judge. He is far more interested in showing us the way to a kind of life which satisfies every thirst. It’s not what we have done in the past, but what he can do for us.
Our consumer society is constantly buying new things yet never satisfied. We are encouraged to be dissatisfied because that will mean more sales for those who create an ever changing array of new gadgets, cars, appliances and fashions. When Jesus met a woman at a well (John 4:13-15) he suggested to her that he was the source of living water that really quenched a thirst, so that a person need never be thirsty again. A consumer society buys things which never satisfy permanently. If they did, we would never need to buy the upgrade, next model, or the latest fashion. Enticed by the latest and greatest, we fall prey as the merchants of dissatisfaction line their pockets with our hard-earned money. We are their willing slaves. There is only one thing that permanently satisfies and Jesus is its source.
Church growth Samaritan style
Is there a lesson in church growth in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4:13-15)? Protestantism began among the northern European tribes. These culturally diverse peoples may have one thing in common which perhaps influences Protestantism to this day, a bluntness of speech which tends to avoid mystery. When Jesus began introducing the truth of the Gospel to the Samaritan woman, he spoke to her in riddles. He created an air of mystery and intrigue. Jesus spoke of living, flowing water as opposed to still well water. He spoke of a thirst which can only be satisfied by that living water and he spoke of worship without the necessity for temples in particular geographical locations. The woman was intrigued and her village too. Perhaps this enticing air of mystery is missing from our church growth efforts.
Who was the woman at the well from John 4:16-18? Prejudiced opinions seem overly anxious to paint her as either an immoral woman or an innocent victim. Either extreme reads more into the text than it says. She had had five husbands. Whether simultaneous or sequential polyandry, divorced or widowed is also not explained. Then Jesus said that the man she was currently with was not her husband. Whether she merely lived in the same household with a man or was having relations with him is also not clear. What is very clear is that Jesus did not judge the woman. He simply taught her about true worship. We do know that the woman could see that Jesus was a prophet, and she believed that the Messiah was coming and spread the news of Jesus to her whole village.
As Jesus encountered the woman at the well, he discussed her marital status (John 4:16-18). He invited her to bring her husband back, then he stated that the man she is currently with is not her husband. In the beginning God joined the first marriage with no formality or papers. Then marriage became a matter for the family. Two sets of parents approved, the couple went into a tent alone and a party was held. Then the church tried to put God back into the picture. Eventually, marriage became a state matter, in a strange mixture of church and state. Today, some still go into the tent and declare themselves a couple. The line is rather fuzzy. Most churches recognize the state’s legal authority over marriage, but we face a dilemma as Old Testament marriage styles make a comeback.
Feeling like a trained worship seal?
Worship leaders sometimes try to incite people to "perform" like trained circus seals. Such forced "worship" is an outward show and not worship at all. Outward things like music, vocal sounds, languages, robes, crosses, gestures and liturgies are in fact NOT worship. They certainly may accompany worship, but worship is of the heart and spirit. In John 4:21-26 Jesus said that true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. When he said "and truth" Jesus did not mean true doctrine, but true or sincere worship from the heart. So, we do not need to feel judged or compelled to conform to any outward physical gestures or show of religion. Jesus made us free to worship the Father in spirit and truthfully. He declared this with authority, claiming that he is the “I am”, a name of God.
The best evangelists
A professional evangelist comes to town, puts on an expensive show and leaves. A church experiences a flash of excitement, a big bill and very little growth. The best evangelists are not the professionals but the most unlikely people, like the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:29). Was she of doubtful reputation or poor and had been widowed many times? We don’t know exactly and we cannot judge, but there seems to be some question about the man she was currently living with. Was she a caregiver or living in a dubious relationship? For sure she seems to have been a loner, who fetched her water at a time when the crowds were not there. The best evangelists can be new people and even those from the fringes, but always those who have had an encounter with Jesus.
We need more Samaritan women
I’m not interested in church growth gimmicks. They are boring and trite. I have tried many of them and found them to often be ways to keep churches busy but without much fruit. But I am big on ideas from the Bible and in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well is an idea on church growth that succeeded wildly. The disciples were away buying food and Jesus shared the Gospel with one solitary woman (John 4:29). Sometimes just that one encounter makes all the difference. She then prepared the way for the Gospel by telling her whole village. One sows the seed and another reaps the harvest. In this case she sowed, and Jesus encouraged his disciples to reap the harvest. We may not need more church growth gimmicks, but we do need more Samaritan women.
Food to eat
Like the woman at the well to whom Jesus offered living water, he told his disciples that he had food to eat that they knew nothing about (John 4:31-34). Like living water, the bread of life is to be passed on. We eat the bread of communion on Sunday but our food is also to do the will of God and finish his work. What is that work? There is a harvest to be reaped. God has already prepared the hearts of many in our community. It is up to us to seek and find the souls that are ripe for harvesting and do the work. A lone Christian who goes to church and hides all week long cannot harvest. We need to be in our communities and know our neighbors. That involves all of us as a team.
Photina of Samaria
After her encounter with Jesus, the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:42) went on to become a famous evangelist. According to tradition, she was baptized by the apostles with the name Photina. She is also known variously as Saint Photina or Saint Svetlana. Some call her the church’s first evangelist. She and her five sisters along with her two sons were also baptized and became a family of evangelists. After Peter and Paul were martyred, she and her family moved to Carthage to preach the Gospel. She and her son Joses are reputed to have fearlessly preached the Gospel there. Photina’s elder son Victor had become a military commander and was taken to Rome to betray Christians. Instead his witness converted his jailer and his servants and along with his family he eventually died a martyr in 66.
The Gospel is a continuation of worship. It flows from true worship into our communities. It is spread most effectively in the most unlikely places by the most unlikely people who have had an encounter with the living Christ.