In her book, ‘It’s Incredible,’ Ann Kiemel, relates the powerful testimony of God’s forgiving grace in the life of a young woman named Mary.
Mary understands when people ask her about forgiveness. Married when she was seventeen, it seemed so perfect and right, but while pregnant with their first child, she discovered her husband was having multiple affairs. One day before the baby was born, David, her husband was struck by a car while riding his motorcycle. The result of this accident was an amputated leg and bitterness. His anger knew no bounds and he threatened to kill the child when she would cry. His anger continued to grow and for her own safety and that of the child she fled and began working in a restaurant within walking distance to her new place. After some time, she developed a relationship with a police officer who came regularly. Even though he was married the attraction between Mary and Larry grew into an unhealthy relationship. Broken hearted, once again Mary moved away, but wherever she went, Larry, the police officer found her. She thought she loved him, and before long, she was pregnant with his baby. Again, Mary moved on and found a duplex and ended the relationship for the sake of Larry’s marriage.
The couple who lived on the other side of the duplex were working on a fence and so Mary went out and introduced herself. In the course of the conversation, they mentioned that they had to leave to get ready for a church softball game. Mary asked which church and if she could attend with them on the following Sunday? This church going couple were shocked, because this young woman was initiating the invitation. The people in that small congregation quickly took Mary under their wing. They helped her learn that Jesus forgives even though Mary was struggling with forgiving herself. She decided she needed to finish High School, and began taking night classes while continuing to work, but her income never seemed enough for her and her two small children and she ended up on welfare. And then out of nowhere Larry, showed up again. It had been fifteen months. Lonely and vulnerable, Mary in a moment of weakness became pregnant again. She wanted to die. She felt, she had not only disgraced her family, her church family and God, but was now taunted by the fact that she was a Christian and knew better. She seemed to be creating one problem after another and wanted to run. How could she face her church family after all the love and support they had poured into her life?
In desperation she went to the bathroom and started taking every pill she could find, but suddenly, it seemed the whole room was filled with the presence of God. She began to think of the words to a song that she had recently learned in church…Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once as lost but now I am found, was blind but now I see. There in the bathroom, a sense of love and peace filled her heart. She realized that she was sensing God’s very presence despite her sin and failure. God loved her and forgave her. She found enough love to start over again. A loving church family still cared for and forgave her. Mary finally found a loving man who became her husband and they created a Christ centered home.[i]
Every person who comes to know Jesus in a personal way has a story. When God wanted to communicate who He is, He came to earth and what He left behind is an amazing story that continues to change people’s lives down through the centuries. In John’s gospel we have two incredible encounter stories with Jesus that gives us the extent to which God works in reaching out to us as human beings. These two people and their story is a study in contrast. The first is the story of a Jewish religious leader, a man who came to Jesus at night. The second is the story of a Samaritan woman who met Jesus at high noon in a place where most Jewish people in Jesus’ day avoided. In her case, she was an outcast even within her own community. What we discover in their encounters with Jesus, is that they finally found what had been missing in their lives. These two lives are representative of two groups of people; those who are moral and struggle to see themselves in need of a Savior and those who live immoral lives and believe that they are beyond the scope of God’s forgiveness. Today we are going to look at their encounter with Jesus and how they discovered what was missing in their lives.
THE FIRST ENCOUNTER STORY THAT BROUGHT ABOUT WHAT WAS MISSING IN THEIR LIFE IS DISCOVERING THE INSUFFICIENCY OF BEING A GOOD PERSON
Healthy, moral people struggle with seeing their need for God. They are generally satisfied with themselves and their lives but are still trying to fill their lives with meaning. There is a longing in their soul and neither success, family, nor wealth will ultimately satisfy the restlessness within them. It was Augustine who said, ‘our souls are restless until we find rest in God alone.’ Nicodemus was a religious and political leader of the nation of Israel. The fact that Nicodemus came to Jesus and confessed that Jesus had come from God says something of his openness to finding out what Jesus was all about. As a Pharisee, we know that he was deeply concerned about God and obeying God’s word. Here was a man who sought to please God, knew much about God, but also recognized that something was missing in his life. It’s one thing to know about God and something totally different to know God in a personal way, which is what came about as a result of his meeting with Jesus..
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council.
He came to Jesus at night and said, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.’[ii]
In this brief introduction to Nicodemus we learn two critical things about him. First of all, he was a Pharisee. So, who were the Pharisees? They were a religious sect in Judaism that adhere to a literal and strict interpretation of the law and the oral traditions, which were commentaries on the Old Testament. The Pharisees were not of aristocratic background like the Sadducees. They were primarily from the merchant and trading class of their day. They would be considered the business class of our day. Though fewer in numbers than the Sadducees, 1st Century Jewish historian Josephus tells us that there were about 6000 Pharisees in his day[iii], and they exerted a tremendous influence over the lives of the people.
The second thing we discover is that he was part of the Sanhedrin, the religious and political body of the Jewish leaders under the Romans. The fact that Nicodemus comes to Jesus suggests that not all agreed with the majority in regard to Jesus and his ministry, but as we see, he came to Jesus at night. While we cannot say with certainty that he came to Jesus at night for fear of being associated with Jesus and possibly being expelled from the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus was certainly desirous to talk with Jesus. We may struggle with coming to Jesus because we are afraid of what others might think of us. However, Nicodemus took a risk and from an eternal perspective it was the most important decision and action he ever made. Jesus challenges all of us that embracing Him is worth the risk.
‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus replied, ‘no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields-along with persecutions and in the age to come eternal life.[iv]
Nicodemus made a confession that he recognized that Jesus was a teacher sent from God because of the signs, but something was still missing in his life and his understanding about God. Jesus is about to explain what that something is and the shock that awaited this moral religious leader.
Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again [born from above].[v]
To be born again means a new beginning. This concept wasn’t foreign to Nicodemus. Jewish teachers had a saying, ‘A proselyte who embraces Judaism is like a newborn child.’ It brings one into a new world and gives them a new identity. What was Jesus saying? That Nicodemus who knew much about God, really didn’t know God personally and needed a new beginning. Nicodemus’ focus was on the physical impossibilities of a second birth.
‘How can someone be born when they are old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!’[vi]
D. A. Carson relates what was probably transpiring to Nicodemus.
…Nicodemus did not understand what Jesus was talking about at all. At this point he could not believe that new birth was a requirement for entrance into the kingdom and was amazed (v.7) by the very category.[vii]
Jesus’ response is to explain to Nicodemus the nature of God’s kingdom and the way in which a person enters it. It certainly wasn’t through the religious approach that Nicodemus represented.
Jesus answered, ‘Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.
Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.[viii]
Jesus is now pointing back to the idea found in the Old Testament.
When water is used figuratively in the Old Testament, it habitually refers to renewal or cleansing, especially when it is found in conjunction with ‘spirit.’ …Most important of all is Ezekiel 36:25-27, where water and spirit come together so forcefully, the first to signify cleansing from impurity, and the second to depict the transformation of heart that will enable people to follow God wholly.[ix]
Jesus is saying that this is a spiritual birth and not a physical one. It must be the work of the Holy Spirit who comes into our lives and gives us spiritual life. This is not achieved by something we do, but rather by something God does on our behalf. We must surrender to God, by repenting and trusting in Him.
You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’
The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’
‘How can this be? Nicodemus asked.
‘You are Israel’s teacher,’ said Jesus, ‘and do you not understand these things?[x]
When we try and grasp spiritual truths with our natural human understanding, we just do not get it even if we have been in church all of our lives and even studied the Scriptures. It is a work of God’s spirit revealing Himself to us, experiencing His forgiveness and creating a change of heart and mind. When Christ comes into our inner being, we have new desires, a desire to please God and know Him better. The things that once captured our hearts lose their control over us.
Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.
I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?
No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man.[xi]
Jesus then uses a very familiar story that Nicodemus was certainly acquainted with in order to help him understand who Jesus is and what He was about to accomplish in his death and resurrection.
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.[xii]
Let’s go back to the text that Jesus is describing for us found in the Old Testament that is an illustrative example of what Jesus is about to accomplish in bringing salvation from death itself.
But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!
Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.
The people came to Moses and said, ‘We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people.
The LORD said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’
So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.[xiii]
Simply put, this was an act of faith. They were acting upon God’s word and the result was to be healed, and spared death. They were given life. This was to be an object lesson to teach a powerful spiritual truth. Jesus would now ‘be lifted up’ on a cross and when we who have been bitten by sin and are in the state of ‘spiritual death,’ look to Christ as our Savior from our sins because He becomes sin for us, rather than experience the second or eternal death, we receive eternal life.
What was Jesus telling this religious, moral person? That all of us need a Savior, all of us have sinned. All of us need to look to Jesus for our salvation from sin in order to receive eternal life. Religious tradition alone won’t get us there. As Jesus said, we must be born of God’s Spirit; born from above, born again.
THE SECOND ENCOUNTER STORY THAT BROUGHT ABOUT WHAT WAS MISSING IN LIFE IS THE HOPE FOR THOSE WHO BELIEVE THAT THEY ARE BEYOND HOPE
There are many people who feel that they are a lost cause. They are so far gone that God could never forgive them, nor love them; but as we will see, God cares for us no matter how broken and sin-tainted we have become. Some feel such deep guilt and shame. I read somewhere that the difference between guilt and shame is that guilt is feeling bad for what we have done. Shame is feeling bad for who we are. Jesus came to take away our guilt and shame. There are so many who feel worthless and without value. They feel that there is no hope for themselves and they are too far gone. But there is no one beyond the reach of God’s amazing love and grace. I love God’s message of hope to the person who feels they have sinned too greatly and could never be forgiven.
Come now, let us settle the matter, says the LORD. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.[xiv]
We move from the story of Nicodemus to a women who lived in Sychar, a small Samaritan village. The bible tells us that God, the Father, directed Jesus to go through Samaria.
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 noon.[xv]
Who were the Samaritans? They were a mixed race of people, who had multiple ethnic backgrounds including a Jewish background. They were from a number of different people groups who had been relocated to the land of Israel during the Assyrian Empire and had intermarried with the lower class of people from the ten northern tribes of Israel. There were incredible racial and religious tensions between Jews and Samaritans, and Jews would travel around Samaria from Galilee to Jerusalem rather than go through the shorter geographical route to get to these Jewish locations. Here in our text we read that Jesus was directed by His Father to Sychar for a purpose.
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 are a Jew and I am 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.’[xvi]
The fact that Jesus was a Jewish man caused the woman to question why Jesus would even associate with her, but Jesus revealed that He was someone special. If she only knew who it was that was asking you for a drink and the gift that Jesus could give her, she would be asking him. Now her curiosity was aroused.
‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water?[xvii]
She is thinking on a physical level, while Jesus is speaking of something profoundly spiritual that would help her find what she has been missing all of her life. Her next question is simply who are you?
Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?’[xviii]
Jesus answers her question about who He is by what He can provide.
Jesus answered, ‘Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.[xix]
That was certainly true. Here she was drawing water in the heat of the day. Jesus is talking about meeting the thirst not of our bodies but of our souls. There is a longing in each heart that can only be filled by God’s presence in our lives. Yet, when that place designed by God for Himself in our lives is empty, we try and fill it with all kinds of pursuits, activities and relationships apart from God and it leaves us empty. This woman longed for something or someone to love her and meet the thirst in her soul.
The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming her to draw water.
He told her, ‘Go, call your husband and come back.
‘I have no husband,’ she replied. Jesus said to her, ‘You are right when you say you have no husband.
The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.[xx]
The reason she was alone, isolated from the friendships of the other women in the town was because she was a moral outcast. Can you sense the rejection in her life? Here we see how God reaches out to us in our brokenness and neediness, when others now have turned their backs on us. God takes the initiative in all of our lives. God, the Father sent His son to her in order to bring her life, even as God, the Father sends Jesus, His son into our lives to bring us to Himself.
Dr. Lawrence Crabb in his book, ‘Encouragement: The Key to Caring,’ writes:
The essence of encouragement is exposure without rejection. When we realize that God or others still love us in spite of ourselves, in spite of our failures and yes, our sinfulness than we can be free to accept the problems and even have the courage to face them and overcome them.[xxi]
God cares so deeply for us that He sent His son for us and to us in order to free us from our sin, our alienation and distance from God. Jesus tells this woman who He is.
The woman said, ‘I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming. When we comes, he will explain everything to us.’
Then Jesus declared, ‘I, the one speaking to you – I am he.[xxii]
This woman had finally found what was missing in her life. She immediately left her water jar, raced into town and began to tell her community that she had met a person who was the Messiah.
Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people,
‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?
They came out of the town and made their way toward him.[xxiii]
What was their conclusion after meeting Jesus?
They said to the woman, ‘We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.[xxiv]
We all need a Savior. From the most moral person to the vilest, hardened one and everyone in between. None of us are without sin. Even Mary, the mother of Jesus in her song that announced her as God’s choice of being the mother of the Messiah stated her need for a Savior.
And Mary said: ‘My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,[xxv]
Not only do moral people need a Savior, but also those who have sinned grievously against God and others. We remember one of the thieves hanging on the cross beside Jesus, hearing that Jesus forgave those who were crucifying him, asking to be remembered as well to which Jesus replied, ‘Today, you will be with me in paradise.’ Why? Because that’s why Jesus came to earth, to die as a substitute in our place taking our sin upon Himself. But we must cry out to Him for forgiveness and receive this amazing gift of eternal life.
[i] Ann Kiemel, It’s Incredible, 80-83.
[ii] John 3:1-2, The New International Version of the Bible, (Grand Rapids, Mi: Zondervan), 2011.
[iii] Josephus, Antiquities, XVII. Ii. 4, 746.
[iv] Mark 10:29-30.
[v] John 3:3.
[vi] John 3:4.
[vii] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, Mi: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 190.
[viii] John 3:5-6.
[ix] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, 195.
[x] John 3:7-10.
[xi] John 3:11-13.
[xii] John 3:14-15.
[xiii] Numbers 21:4b-9.
[xiv] Isaiah 1:18.
[xv] John 4:4-6.
[xvi] John 4:7-10.
[xvii] John 4:11.
[xviii] John 4:12.
[xix] John 4:13-14.
[xx] John 4:15-18.
[xxi] Lawrence Crabb, Encouragement: The Key to Caring.
[xxii] John 4:25-26.
[xxiii] John 4:28-30.
[xxiv] John 4:42.
[xxv] Luke 1:46-47.