This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: John 4:1-26
Sermon by Rev. Peter Hogeterp
Do you remember Ashley Smith, the single mother of a 5-year old daughter, from Atlanta, Georgia? At about 2 o’clock in the morning she had gone out to buy some cigarettes, when a man in a truck followed her to her apartment, forced her at gunpoint to take him inside, tied her up. She recognized him at once. He was Brian Nichols, had been on TV non-stop for almost a day as the person who at the outset of his trial in a Fulton County courthouse had overpowered a deputy, shot her in the face with her own weapon, and then killed the judge, a court reporter and a sheriff’s deputy.
What did Ashley Smith do in this desperate situation? She allowed her captor to take a shower, gave him a change of clothes left in her apartment after the death of her husband, talked to him about the needs of her daughter and how she trusted God to help. She then read Chapter 33 from a book she had been studying, Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, which was all about God’s gifts and plans and how to use them and fit into them. She asked him what he thought God’s plan was for his life, and told him how he had better give himself up because he would never find out God’s plan for his life if the authorities found him– he’d go down in a hail of gunfire. She also gave him some crystal methamphetamine. And when the sun rose she cooked him a hot breakfast of blueberry pancakes, with real butter. She told Nichols she was his sister in Christ, and it was no accident that it was her he had run into during the night–she was his angel from God.
An unbelievable story of heroism not only, but of evangelism at its best–except maybe for the crystal methamphetamine. She was no Billy Graham, but an evangelist nonetheless. That story of Ashley Smith’s heroic efforts made the headlines, along with the book she used to convince Brian Nichols to give himself up–it didn’t hurt the sale of Rick Warren’s book either, which, by then, had already sold some 20 million copies. The Purpose Driven Life has now sold well over 50 million copies–what does that tell you? It tells me that one of the basic human needs people have is to know that they are here for some reason. They hope they were born to a life of purpose, they hope they are designed to fulfill a specific purpose, and if you believe in God, you can add to that that you also hope that not only are you born for a purpose and designed uniquely to fulfill it, you are also redeemed to be able to fill that purpose–sins forgiven, cleansed, renewed, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Everyone has that same basic human need.
What Jesus is showing us this morning through his example, and what the Word of God is teaching us in this Scripture is that He intentionally, now and then, puts us next to people for the specific purpose of reaching out to them in the name of the Lord, with the love of the Lord, and the Word of the Lord.
Evangelism has typically not been a high priority with us Reformed folk. We can identify a couple of factors that have gone into that, I believe. One is a misinterpretation of our theology. Take, for an example, the doctrine of election and predestination. We typically seem to think that it means that if people are going to be saved, God will save them–saving people is His department, and there really is not very much we can do that could make a difference. The chosen are the chosen; and the rest are frozen out. Besides which, since we do not know who the elect are, we really can’t scatter the seed of the Word too generously. The second doctrine from the Canons of Dordt that comes into play is the doctrine of limited atonement, which teaches that Christ’s death, though sufficient for the sins of the entire world, really only atones the sins of the chosen; so it is limited in that sense.
Now that sounds like rather ethereal theology, but in practice what it often meant was that you couldn’t have little children in Vacation Bible School sing “Jesus Love Me,” because maybe they were non-elect, in which case Jesus didn’t love them, and we oughtn’t assure them of something that wasn’t true. We’ll come back later to how those doctrines should be understood– because certainly we want to believe them with all our heart as true biblical teaching. What it seems for some people, however is, that the way they understood (or misunderstood) really the doctrines of election and limited atonement gave us a predisposition against evangelism. The lost were lost, and that was sad, but there was nothing we could do about it–it was all up to God.
A second factor that predisposed us against evangelism was our isolationistic attitude over against the world. Not only were the heathen non-elect, but the devil used the heathen to bring us into immorality and God’s judgment. So we were to stay as far away from these terribly sinful people as possible. It takes nothing at all to fall away from God, so you’ve got to stay far enough away from the edge of the cliff so you will stay holy. And evil is so very tempting that it doesn’t take much to cause us to fall. We were to remain holy by staying away from unholy people. Well, you can see immediately that that doesn’t encourage us to build bridges with non-Christian people. It seems we never saw unbelievers as potentially Christian.
There were, however, always a few people in each of our churches who felt the call to do mission work. Typically we sent them across the ocean, to darkest Africa, or some other uncivilized country where Christianity had not been introduced. But once in a while, there would be a group of people who also cared about the lost in our own community. Most of our churches, if we study their history, have had very dedicated outreach efforts. We typically select a downtrodden part of the city, we visit residents of nursing homes or psychiatric hospitals or men’s missions or youth hostels or prisons, we sponsor a radio broadcast, perhaps our own, or more probably the Back to God Hour, we engaged in Key 73 and learned the Evangelism Explosion method of door to door outreach. But evangelism has always been on the outer circle of the typical CRC church’s life. Most churches have evangelism committees, but few people want to serve on them because the people who love the lost are considered a bit odd. And it's a lot of work for very little to show for it. In some areas we got involved in community evangelistic crusades, although because they were non-Reformed there were always some who frowned on participating. And we have supported missionaries from our churches who represent us in challenging places on the globe. We appreciate the deed-ministry of World Renew, which goes to crisis spots around the world to be the hands and feet of Jesus on our behalf. But, the fact remains, if you ask most people about the state of evangelism in our churches, they say it isn’t very good, doesn’t get a lot of support. If you’d offer evangelism training for adults in any given church, most people would take a pass–they’re too busy. But as we all know, you’re never too busy for what’s of utmost importance to you. Busy isn’t a time issue; it’s a priority issue.
Our Scripture lesson for this morning helps us get at evangelism from a more biblical perspective as we watch Jesus in action with an outcast. The story starts amazingly enough in verse 4, when John tells us Jesus HAD to go through Samaria. Jesus did not HAVE to go through Samaria. In fact, traveling north and south most Jews avoided Samaria because of their great animosity towards Samaritans--they were of mixed race, born from Jews intermarrying with Gentiles introduced into the area by the Assyrians hundreds of years earlier. What most Jews did then was to cross the Jordan to the east–they took the long way traveling north and south. Which is what Jesus could have done. But we read He HAD to go through Samaria–the truth is He CHOSE to go through Samaria–he had a mission to accomplish, someone needed him–that’s why He HAD to go.
Well, they got to the town of Sychar around noon, and went as custom was when you entered a new village, to the local well– something of a gathering place. Jesus’ mission also meant He HAD to go to this well, because it was near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. So you see, in a way, this well belongs to the Jews. It would have been quite clear to the original readers of this gospel that the Samaritans were not God's covenant people; they were. In fact, the Samaritans were encroaching on their relationship with God by living in land that had originally been in "THEIR" family. For the typical Jews of Jesus' day, the covenant was about exclusion. It’s not stretching too much to think that Jesus means for us to draw the line of the covenant not as a box that keeps people out but as a gate that opens up to draw people in. The Jews reading this story may well have thought, Hey, that’s OUR well, given to Joseph by his father–and now these heathen are using it. But Jesus goes there because someone will be coming who needs him.
And sure enough, a woman comes to draw water from the well. Not just any woman, and not just any well. It is high noon–the well is deserted because no one comes to draw water at high noon. For one thing, it’s much too hot for this laborious activity at that hour of the day. And for another, drawing water is a social event for women, and so the women go first thing in the morning to draw the water they need for the day’s activities--drinking, cleaning, and cooking. But they didn't just come to draw the water. There’s gossip to be caught up on–I mean how will you know how everyone is doing if you go when there’s no one else there. They want to know who’s pregnant, who’s had babies, who’s been hospitalized and who’s died. That’s what happened at the Sychar watering hole first thing in the morning every day. The rest of the day, the well spots are empty. Desolate. And Jesus rests here at that time of the day, alone, when no one else would be coming, while his disciples have gone into town to buy some sandwiches and fruit.
Now there were a few people who would come to the well at off-hours, but the only kinds of people who would, would be the occasional outcast, downtrodden, forgotten, disenfranchised soul who is living with pain and shame. The people who don’t want to be seen, who are not tolerated by the smug socialites, the ones no one really cares about–that’s who might come during that part of the day. And that’s who Jesus waits for. And he is not disappointed. A Samaritan woman comes, with her pail, to draw water. Now red flags should be going up all over the place at this point in the story. Jesus knew the social mores of the day. He knows that what he should do as soon as he sees this woman approaching is to get as far away from her as he can, or at least to pretend he doesn’t see her (like he could be reading or praying or doing something equally spiritual),so as not to embarrass either himself or the woman. What he should absolutely avoid is talking to her. He’s a man; she’s a woman. He’s a Jew; she’s a Samaritan. He is the perfect Son of God, she is sexually permissive to say the least. And because he is the Son of God, he should already know what kind of woman she is. And even if he were not the Son of God, he would know he’s supposed to keep his distance. But He doesn’t escape; he engages her in conversation. Because he is the Son of God, he knows he has water for this thirsty woman that is better water than she will ever be able to draw with her pail, satisfying a thirst that she isn’t even able to identify. He treats her as a real person. This is no ordinary well, no ordinary woman, and no ordinary water.
"Will you give me to drink?" she hears him say. She can’t believe her ears. She knows the local mores as well. This doesn’t make any sense to her. If she wasn’t so thirsty–physically or spiritually–she would run at the sound of his voice–away from him–back to anonymity. But she needed water, and she had come a long way. And it really didn’t matter any more what people thought; she was already at the bottom of the heap. If he wanted her too, he could have her here in broad daylight for all the difference it made to her self-esteem or her image in the community.
But he treated her with dignity. He ignored the facts: she’s a Samaritan, a woman, of loose morals. He treated her as a person, a needy person, with a mind and a soul. When she responds with, “You’re not supposed to be talking to me, you know," he says. "If you knew who I am you’d ask me for a drink and I would have given you living water." Just the grace-filled approach he’s taking with her gives her already a thirst for this living water.
Now you would think she might have asked him what he meant by living water–what on earth does it mean. But she says instead, You don’t have a pail; how do you expect to draw water without a pail. This well is deeper than the average well– some 100 feet down or 33 meters–ten stories. But she also sensed that maybe Jesus was talking about something else because she wondered out loud if he was greater than Jacob who dug real wells with real shovels for real water. And what a perfect opening that turned out to be for Jesus–she was opening herself up to him spiritually, and water was the hook–which is what Jesus wanted to talk about anyway.
"If you drink the water I have to offer, you will never thirst again." She liked the idea of not having to come back to this well, especially in the heat of the noonday sun. And Jesus said, "But the water I’m talking about is who you are, what you think of yourself, how you relate to other people–it has to do with the way you’re trying to find meaning in your life. Which brings me to your current live-in," Jesus says. Now because Jesus as the Son of God knows everything, He already knew. But even if he wasn’t the Son of God, He could have known that the only reason this woman was coming at this time of the day is because she couldn’t gossip with the other woman; she was the kind of woman they gossiped about–and the gossip was almost always about marriage or family stuff. "I’m not married," she says. And Jesus thanks her for her honesty. "The truth is," he says to her, "you’ve been married 5 times already and you haven’t bothered to marry your current live-in."
Jesus, please note, doesn’t berate her for being the adulterer she is; he tells her how much he admires her honesty. It’s not that he ignores her sin – he’s the one who brought it up; but he treats her with respect and dignity. Unfortunately, we often prefer to focus on people's sin.
Jesus was not afraid to go right to the heart of what was going on in this woman’s life. Jesus knows that people do not grow spiritually as long as they have barriers of sin in their lives. Most of us don't grow spiritually because we rationalize our sins away. This woman could have. I mean she lived in a culture where men could divorce their wives at a whim – and once divorced, she became damaged goods. And having no status in society by herself, and being a divorced woman, it meant the only way she could survive was for another man to take her in–and she would do his cleaning and cooking. In a real way she was a victim of the social structure of the day. And after 5 times, she was sick of the institution of marriage, and she was tired of men taking advantage of her, but she needed a roof over her head and food on her table. It was not love anymore; it was survival. She could have made excuses. But Jesus knew her spiritual thirst and got right to the heart of it, right to the heart of her.
Now we won’t get into her attempt at trying to distract Jesus from getting that close with asking questions about the proper place for worship (there's a whole other sermon there)--except to say that Jesus lets her do it. Once more he respects her. He politely answers her questions. They are legitimate. She deserves an answer. But let's instead see how the story ends–verse 39-42; this whole heathen Samaritan town came to believe in Jesus because of this woman’s testimony. The victim became an evangelist because her Lord and Saviour took the time to meet her true and genuine needs.
Now what do we learn from this story, especially in the light of our predisposition against evangelism as we saw earlier.
1) We learn that Jesus HAD to go through Samaria. Jesus’ heart beat for the outcast, the lonely and distressed–the people for whom no one else cared. This is not the only example of that in Jesus' life –we see it in Jesus’ approach to people all the time. Once again we need an attitude adjustment. Do you care that the lost are going to hell? Does it matter to you that your friend, your neighbour, maybe even a member of your family might spend eternity in hell? So much for the heathen having to be avoided at all costs.
2) We learn that Jesus always respects all people, believes they are important, treats them kindly, and engages them in conversation. No one is beneath him. He treats people whom everyone else thinks of as nobodies as important–people who need to be loved and who deserve to be loved; they are created in the image of God. By Jewish standards this woman was the last person they wanted to see in their covenant fold. But Jesus loved her. So much for the heathen who don’t deserve God’s love.
3) We learn that Jesus did not condemn her. If anyone might have, it would have been Jesus–who saw her heart. We are imperfect, so we have even less of a right to condemn people for certain behaviors. Jesus was able to separate the behavior from the person, and so must we. So much for the heathen needing to be shown their sin.
4) Instead, Jesus talks about her need to have her social and spiritual thirst satisfied. He sees her need and addresses that, identifying himself as the only person who can fill that need. We learn that evangelism is about meeting peoples’ needs. We need to find out what our neighbor's and friend's needs are–their true needs. Evangelism is not about our pumping people full of doctrines and teachings we think they should have if they are to be saved. It is letting them tell us what they really need and finding ways in which we can fill those needs. We need to discover their needs before we can tell them how Jesus fills them.
5) And finally, we need to see that the doctrine of election does not stop us from broadcasting the truth about Jesus. If anyone is non-elect in this story it is the Samaritan woman. The doctrine of election is our guarantee that those whom God calls will surely be saved. Rather than keeping us from reaching out, it is our guarantee of success. Some people will be saved.
The truth is that our community is filled with thirsty people. George Barna who does polling from a religious perspective, conducted a recent survey in which unchurched adults indicate that 25% would attend a church if a friend ever took the time or made the effort to invite them. Most don’t come because they’re never invited. If one out of four of the unchurched people in our community said "Yes" to our invitation, that would mean thousands of people are ready to come, they are just waiting for an invitation from you. It's not about filling pews; it's about bringing people to Jesus, to heaven for eternity. But once they believe, they need to be part of a community of believers. Why not here? They’re waiting for an invitation. Jesus had to go through Samaria. Where do you have to go? Who do you know that absolutely needs to have some living water to drink? And what have you learned from the way Jesus did it in this story that will guide you in the way you do it?
LITURGY FOR THE SERVICE
A Service Emphasizing Evangelism as a Ministry Priority
Welcome: Welcome to all in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. If you are weary and need rest, welcome. If you are sad and need comfort, welcome. If you are struggling and need victory, welcome. And most certainly, if you recognize yourself as a sinner in need of a Savior, welcome.
Call to Worship: (based on Exodus 15:26 and Isaiah 6:10)
Leader: God invites us into his healing presence with these words: “I am the Lord who heals you.”
People: Diseased, depressed, dysfunctional, defeated, we come hungering for health that only God can provide.
Leader: God calls us to bring open eyes, hearing ears, and tender hearts turned toward him, the Great Physician.
People: We bow before him in faith and expectancy!
Prayer for God’s Blessing on the Service: Our help is in the name of the Lord. As your children we applaud your Greeting, that your grace, mercy and peace are ours. Amen
Opening Hymn: Psalter Hymnal 483:1,3,4 “How Great Thou Art”
(If your church likes to sing 2 or 3 hymns at the opening of the service, I recommend SNC 24, “How Majestic Is Your Name,” and “Majesty”)
As an alternative reading for the Law of God, I recommend that you read responsively Q&A 113-115 of the Heidelberg Catechism.
Hymn of Response: Psalter Hymnal; 262:1,2, “My Faith Looks Up To Thee”
For a Children’s Message: Since the emphasis of the service is on evangelism, I suggest that you take a group of small teddy bears (even let the children hold them), but include a stuffed rabbit or chicken or some other animal. Talk about how one animal stands out from the others, and ask if the teddy bears could make room for that odd-looking animal. Can our churches make room for people who don’t look like us, think like us or act like us? Children’s Hymn: Psalter Hymnal 571 “Jesus Loves Me”
The Congregational Prayer
The Scripture Reading: John 4:1-26
The Sermon Title: THE WOMAN, THE WELL, THE WATER
The Hymn of Response: Psalter Hymnal 530 “I Love to Tell the Story”
A good doxology might be Psalter Hymnal 540:1,2, “In Christ There is no East or West” or SNC 268 “Here I am Lord,” or “Song for the Nations”
Closing Prayer: May the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord; and may the blessing of Almighty God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, remain with us always. Amen