Sunday, October 18, 2009

You're Talking to Her? (John 4.7-30)

October 18, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell

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Once again, the spoken version of the sermon was significantly different than the printed version below. I'd encourage you to listen to the live audio to get a sense of how the Holy Spirit was moving through the proclamation of the Word this morning. ~RMA

Today we are again looking at one of the accounts of Jesus-in-action. Several weeks ago we read the claim of John 1:14 that Jesus, full of grace and truth, reveals the glory or presence of God. We have been looking at accounts of his words and actions that demonstrate that claim to be true.

Last week we heard the story of Zaccheus and saw Jesus acting in a manner consistent with his teaching to love one’s neighbor, even if the neighbor is an enemy. Zaccheus was one of the great public enemies of the day, but Jesus nonetheless came to him in grace – that is, love beyond expectation – and Zaccheus was transformed and changed. I asked last week if there might be a person like Zaccheus in your life, one who has wronged you or hurt you and who God might yet be asking you to show grace in His name.

This week we look at a very similar story. Jesus again befriends someone who would have been considered an enemy and stranger, though more for cultural and political reasons than for any direct insult or injury. Again, Jesus approaches, not with words of judgment, but with gestures of grace, mercy, and love. Those actions open the door for him to speak words of truth and reveal something of who he is and who God is. And like Zaccheus, this woman’s life was transformed and God was glorified. Let’s look at this story to learn yet more about what it means to love our neighbor, even a stranger who makes us uncomfortable, in the name of Jesus for God’s glory.

A Real Outsider

I began last week’s sermon by describing to you just how hated Zaccheus was. This week I want to make sure you understand just how unusual, even unheard of, it would have been for Jesus to talk to the woman at the well. Considered from just about any perspective at the time, the woman was a real outsider, and Jesus should not have been talking to her.

There were three reasons: she was a Samaritan, she was a woman, and she was a social misfit. We talked several weeks ago about the hostilities between the Samaritans and the Jews. They didn’t get along, they didn’t socialize, and they certainly didn’t find any common ground around religion. As is mentioned in the passage, each had a different central holy spot – a different temple and holy city. In many ways, theirs were competing religions, though each looked forward to God’s Messiah or Anointed One.

Second, it was also (as it is today) very unusual for men to speak to women in public as Jesus did at the well. Jesus broke that social taboo often, so the disciples were probably used to it. But the Samaritan people of the town or any others who heard or saw the encounter would have been shocked at Jesus’ actions.

Third, the woman had been married many times and was currently living with someone to whom she wasn’t married. That would have been plenty of reason for the others in town to exclude and cast her out of the respected social circles. The very fact of her coming for water in the heat of the day speaks volumes to her exclusion from her own community. She was avoiding them and they likely encouraged that.

So, if the Good Samaritan was an outsider, this woman was one three times over. And yet Jesus demonstrates here what we heard last week in the story of Zaccheus. He came to SEEK and to SAVE the lost. So there is every indication this encounter was intentional and full of meaning.

As I did last week, I’d ask you to begin to consider who might fit this description in your own spheres of living. Who comes to mind as being on the outside of whatever groups you are a part of?

What Did Jesus Do?

We’ve already twice highlighted in past weeks that Jesus was and is interested in the lost and least, even if they are sinners, even if they are “the enemy.” He continues to demonstrate this interest in this story. Rather than restating that focus, I’d like to highlight HOW Jesus went about relating to this woman. He does live up to the John 1:14 description, embodying grace and truth and revealing the glory and presence of God. But he does so in a very significant and thoughtful way, and that’s what I’d like to explore with you in greater detail.

Jesus is hot and thirsty and goes to a well to get some water. He waits for someone with a cup to approach to share water. Then the Samaritan woman approaches, a woman he recognizes as living with moral compromise either by supernatural means or by keen observation. He bears the message of His Father about a coming Kingdom of purity, righteousness, and glory. What to say? What to do?

Does he proclaim the Law of God, challenging the poor religious and cultural decisions of her Samaritan fore-fathers, who disobeyed God’s word and compromised their faith and culture?

Does he issue a call to repentance, challenging her to give up living with a man to whom she is not married?

Does he avoid her as a foreign, sinful, woman – as any of the religious types of his day would have done?

Does he simply speak the truth as he does elsewhere, and announce the Kingdom, perhaps do a miracle, and move on?

This is the question of the day: when it comes to witnessing to God’s glory and presence to a real outsider, and doing so with grace and truth, how does Jesus do it?

In a sentence, he approaches with grace, which opens the door to speaking the truth, and it leads to personal transformation and ministry.

Let me say that again, because it is a pattern well worth learning and living:

Jesus approaches with grace, which opens the door to speaking the truth, and it leads to personal transformation and ministry.

Now let me break that down.

Grace and Truth

Jesus approaches with grace. Jesus did not let race, creed, or even lifestyle keep him from approaching with grace. Though he came out of a religion of holy separation, his was a fulfilling of the covenant promise to Abraham that God’s people were blessed to be a blessing. So rather than turn away, he went all the way into the Samaritan woman's world, spoke to her, and asked her for a drink of water from the well. He asked for her help! Can you imagine? He who had all the power of God and all the truth of God… he asked this outsider for something. Given her social status, it probably validated her humanity more than anything she had heard or experienced in years and years. You are a real person, worthy of conversation! And she was shocked. In some ways, just having the conversation was grace, it was so unexpected. But look at what Jesus says in verse 10: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” That word GIFT signals grace. That “living water” isn’t conditioned on her race or gender or behavior, but on God’s grace. And it hers for the asking!

Now, I am fully aware that the language I’m using sounds a lot like political correctness, especially when I start listing race, gender, and lifestyle. It makes us squirm a little. But listen carefully: what Jesus is offering is at the heart of salvation by grace through faith. We do not EARN God’s grace or salvation; God offers it freely as a gift to all who ask and receive. Everything in us wants to earn it, but that’s just not the Gospel of Christ. (And a good thing, if you realize how pure God’s holiness and righteousness are!) So Jesus says to this outsider, “If you knew who I am, you’d not have focused on earthly things, but heavenly things.” And just like that, because Jesus treated her as a real person worth saving and with experiencing “life,” she began to ask about matters of truth.

That experience of grace opened a door to speaking the truth. If there is one new nugget of information for us in this story, I think that’s it. Christians use words like grace and truth often, but we don’t really understand grace. We want to parcel it out as people understand and live out truth. If you believe these six things you can join a church; if you get the major sins licked, you can enter the outer circle; and if you really get spit and polished, you can come into the inner circle; and those are the chosen few. And grace is nowhere to be found. We keep singing about it and talking about it and preaching about it, but it’s a concept, not a reality.

And the real tragedy is that when we wield truth in that manner, we often lock grace up and throw away the key, for people either turn away from an impossible standard or begin to pursue it as the means to salvation and never “get there.” Instead, Jesus models for us a relationship between truth and grace that is not only effective, but life-giving. And it neither waters down truth nor locks away grace. Note there is no simple formula: grace is not a free pass, nor is the truth spoken in judgment; rather, both work together as a means to reveal the Father.

So Jesus crosses “outside” to speak with the Samaritan woman outcast. And he offers the free gift of God’s living water (a metaphor for salvation, meaning, and eternal life). She responds with truth questions: What is this water? Who ARE you?

Jesus answers with truth about God and himself (not yet about her): he says more about the living water and what it is, using more biblical imagery and explicit mention of eternal life. Still thinking literally, she asks for the water. And at this point of her expressing interest in spiritual truth, he speaks of her personal life and relationships. Interestingly, he doesn’t judge her situation here, but affirms what little she shared and goes beyond that to see her so clearly that she perceives he is (at least) a prophet.

So in addition to the questions of “What is this water?” and “Who are you?” now the question is raised, “Who is she?” His perceptive truth statements about her life (interestingly, devoid of judgment) lead her to an extended conversation about worship, but one that ultimately leads to Jesus identifying himself as the Messiah, whom she is also awaiting.

In fact, all the interaction, both grace and truth, were driving towards this – Jesus revealing Himself as God’s Anointed One, and inviting her faith response to that revelation. Along the way, Jesus identified the grace-gift of salvation and several truth statements about that salvation, himself, and her own life.

Now this is not intended to be a road map or checklist for evangelism. But it does show in broad strokes the power of grace to connect with someone at the deepest level and to create opportunities to explore truth together. It also elevates truth about God and His salvation to a first priority. Let’s look at what happened next.

Transformation --> Ministry

Look at the transformation that occurred! It was as miraculous as what happened with Zaccheus, particularly when you consider her likely reputation in town. The woman left her waterpot and went into the city with the news. She who had been avoiding all contact with townspeople by coming to the well in the heat of the day now went into town and sought out men of the town to tell about Jesus. She forgot her original purpose (water) and the rejection and embarrassment she would surely encounter.

So finally, note the ministry that came out of the transformation! It is staggering, not just in its scope, but when you consider the woman at the heart of it. Her transformation and witness were so compelling that the townspeople followed her back out to see Jesus. Look at who God used to reach a town of Samaritans… one who was most outcast among them. That goes even beyond the Zaccheus story. Not only was she transformed, but she brought others to Jesus. And lest we wonder whether the truth of her life and sin might be obscured, listen to what she said: “Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; could this be the Christ?” (v. 29) No longer was she hiding her sin from the town, but admitting it in the light of the one who knew all of it and still chose to love her unexpectedly and without condition.

That is the power of grace to unlock truth and bring glory to God.

Application

We are going to finish this story next Sunday and see how the disciples responded to the whole thing. We’ll also press further on the topic of how we can show the grace and truth of Christ to others.

So for now let’s return to the question of whether there is someone like the woman at the well that you know. Is there a person who maybe hasn’t done you personal wrong like Zaccheus, but who is thoroughly an “outsider” to you and your group of friends?

What would it look like for you to go to that person, not with the list of reasons why they are that way, but with the unexpected love of God? What would it look like to suspend judgment about their apparent sins and simply relate in a transparent and Jesus-like way? I’m not saying their sin isn’t important or that they won’t have to wrestle with it. But in most cases, judgment (spoken or unspoken) is not the entry point for the Gospel with those who do not know God.

One final caution I’d mention: though this all happens in a single encounter with Jesus and the woman at the well, my experience is that it doesn’t often happen that way. Be patient. For now, see if you can find someone to love unexpectedly, expecting nothing in return; and see what happens.

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