What may be shocking to some is the people who Jesus connected with and those he did not, as reflected in the first four books of the New Testament. Jesus reached out and really cared for people who were struggling with sin issues in their lives. Jesus said that even prostitutes were coming into the kingdom of God ahead of the moral people because they were responding to the message of repentance.
Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.
For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.[i]
In John 4, we find the story of a woman who was an outcast in her community and how a meeting with Jesus not only changed her life, but her entire community. Of all the people in town, she was the least likely person, to have the greatest impact, yet her witness about Jesus caused people to meet him.
Jesus is talking to a woman struggling with finding love and acceptance in her life. There was a lot of pain and disappointment in her relationships. What appeared to be a serendipitous meeting turned into a life changing moment. Jesus has a way of challenging the status quo and breaking into the places of pain in our lives. Regardless of the type of sin that entraps us, Jesus is ready to free us. The question we need to ask ourselves is, are we willing to get involved in the process? Are we willing to be set free and become God’s instruments in our broken, sin-filled world? The former president of Gordon-Conwell Seminary, Haddon Robinson, speaks directly to this issue:
There is a kind of math that originated in the counting rooms of hell. This kind of math is always interested in reaching the masses but somehow never gets down to a man or a woman. This kind of math always talks about winning the world for God but doesn’t think much about winning a neighborhood for God. That math makes it heroic to cross oceans and never cross streets.[ii]
The needs of the masses often keeps us overwhelmed and uninvolved. What we need to re-discover is that when we focus on the need of the individual, God can direct us to a person we need to reach. They may even be the instrument God uses to impact a community.
Years ago, one of my ministry mentors, Jack Whitesell told a story that I’ve never forgotten. A cocktail waitress in Albuquerque, New Mexico was so excited about her newfound faith, that she invited all of her family and friends to church for her baptism service. That night thirty-two people gave their lives to Christ because of the transformation in her life. What happened to this waitress is very similar to what happened one day while Jesus was passing through that small village in Samaria, called Sychar. As we look at Jesus’ approach with this woman, there are three major things we can learn from Jesus about reaching out to people.
THE FIRST THING WE CAN LEARN ABOUT REACHING OUT TO OTHERS IS THE NEED TO RE-EVALUATE OUR OWN LIFE’S PURPOSE
What we discover from Jesus is that people were his focus. What is our focus or agenda in life? What are we trying to accomplish? What is our life all about? If life is only about our personal security, comfort and prosperity, then we will stay safely hidden behind our self-made, culturally conditioned barriers. We will live inside those comfort zones.
If we are going to impact the lives of others, we must re-evaluate our own lives first. To reach out to others requires that we move outside our walls and barriers that we have created to protect ourselves from entering the pain of others. Why do we resist getting involved in other people’s lives? One reason is that it is costly and inconvenient. It takes time and emotional investment. Yet, if we are going to be effective in reaching out to others, the focus must be on the other person. We can become so self-focused that we do not even see those around us. But when we reach out beyond ourselves, we find life far richer. To remain contained within our comfort zones diminishes us. It leaves our lives unfulfilled and dissatisfied. Reaching out to others will force us to go beyond what we are personally comfortable with. Jesus is seen here breaking some of the social conventions of his day. He overcame both racial and gender barriers in talking to this woman.
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.)[iii]
Jesus was tired, thirsty and hungry when he stopped at this well. Yet, his focus was on this other person, and once he engaged her in conversation by asking for water it led to answering her questions and meeting her needs. We can only become effective in touching other people’s lives when our focus changes from our needs to theirs.
One of the great enemies to effectively touching others is our own personal indifference. On April 12, 1999, Elie Wiesel delivered a speech to President Clinton, his wife, and members of Congress in Washington, D.C. The world-renowned humanitarian and author spoke about ‘The Perils [dangers] of Indifference’ Elie Wiesel is a Holocaust survivor.
What is indifference? The root meaning of the word means ‘no difference.’ A strange and unnatural state in which the lines blur between light and darkness, dusk and dawn, crime and punishment, cruelty and compassion, good and evil. What are its courses and inescapable consequences? …indifference can be tempting more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person’s pain and despair. Yet, for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbor are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the Other to an abstraction.
Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony. One does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses. But indifference is never creative. Even hatred at times may elicit a response. You fight it. You denounce it. You disarm it. Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response. Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees, not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own.[iv]
When we think of sin, we think of the sin that we commit, but the Bible also talks about the sins of omission. James explains that to know what is right to do, and not doing it is sin (James 4:17). What is our life’s purpose? Are we seeking personal safety, security, comfort and prosperity, or is it to bring glory to God? When it is about us, we can be indifferent, but when it is about God’s glory that becomes impossible. God will shatter that by working through us to touch the lives of others. What we struggle with is the magnitude of the need. The needs are so great in our world, where do we begin? Who do we reach out to? Does every need mean that I must be involved?
THE SECOND THING WE CAN LEARN ABOUT REACHING OUT TO OTHERS IS RECOGNIZING DIVINE OPPORTUNITIES
God wants us to see needy people in the course of our busy lives. Jesus was on his way to Galilee from Judea when he stopped at Jacob’s well to rest and refresh. It was here that he met this woman at the well. It was an unstructured meeting, but it was part of God’s plan. How often in my life have these things happened where I’ve ministered to people in their need. On one family vacation in Yellowstone, I ended up praying with a family who was struggling with grief. Or on another trip I chatted with a young woman and her brother in law on a plane trip that gave me an opportunity to share Christ with them. I need to mention that it was one of those indirect, stopover locations that was not in direct line where I was headed, but these passengers came abroad at that location. Later, the brother-in-law came to my office in Red Deer and gave his life to Christ and was able to direct him to a church in New York. In the course of our lives God directs us to intersect into the lives of others. They are Divine appointments. John here gives us the background to this unusual meeting.
Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John, although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples.
So 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 noon.[v]
Jesus sensing that his popularity was attracting attention decided it was wise to back away from the inevitable conflict that eventually happened in Judea. He left and went to Galilee, but Samaria was the shortest route home. It was in the course of his journey, that Jesus came across a God-given opportunity.
How do we respond to God-appointed opportunities? I know that there are times I’m insensitive and miss them for what they are. Do I always embrace those moments? No, I’ve failed as well. While vacationing with my family in Florida, God brought a broken hearted individual my way and I didn’t make the most of the opportunity. My brother-in-law invited me to see what he did for a living. He runs a business installing and reconditioning pool tables. When we got to the house, to install a new table, the homeowner introduced himself like this: ‘Hi, I’m Fred, and I’m a three-time loser.’ He opened the windows of his soul to us and began to explain about the broken relationships in his life. Even though I listened and dialogued with him, I could easily have shared with him or prayed with him, but I didn’t. I was distracted by other objectives and pursuits.
Why do we miss God’s appointments? Sometimes it is out of fear, as we are so concerned about how the other person is going to respond that keeps us from doing the right thing. Let us open our hearts each day to the opportunities God presents to us, as there are people around us struggling with all kinds of issues in their lives. Many are open to hearing about a God that cares.
THE FINAL THING WE CAN LEARN ABOUT REACHING OUT TO OTHERS IS OUR WILLINGNESS TO RISK BEING MISUNDERSTOOD
So often we don’t want to risk offending people. We’re not talking about being an offensive person, but a caring person who is willing to risk sharing the good news to others. Our silence may be culturally acceptable, but it certainly isn’t the loving thing to do. You have to be willing to engage with people.
A. Often the reason we may not speak is that we don’t know what to say.
We may not know the circumstances in their lives, or what’s in their hearts, but we can learn about the circumstances by having a concerned heart and a listening ear.
Notice how Jesus engaged this woman in conversation. He begins on the natural level, a non-threatening conversation, and moves to asking for her to help him. When we ask for others to help us, we empower them. He was thirsty and asked the woman to draw him some water.
When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?[vi]
B. Jesus then shifted the conversation from the natural to the spiritual by creating interest.
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.[vii]
The woman’s thinking was on a practical and natural level assumed that Jesus was talking about a means to conveying the water to her.
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 livestock?[viii]
There is a sense of irony as we, the readers, realize that Jesus is certainly greater than Jacob. While Jacob’s well provided refreshed for the moment, one needed to continue to come and draw water over and over again. Jesus now moves her to the spiritual level but stating that the water he will give will forever quench one’s thirst.
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.’[ix]
This thirst is not for natural water, but for God, for eternal life in the presence of God; and the thirst is met not by removing the aching desire but by pouring out the Spirit.[x]
Our greatest longing comes from within our soul. No temporary and external thing will ever satisfy us. Only God’s presence, His Holy Spirit living within us, can bring lasting satisfaction to our soul. So, what are the barriers that keep us from receiving Christ and His Spirit in our soul? False substitutes that never really satisfy hinder us from receiving what we really long for and need.
C. Jesus knew what was in her heart and was about to gently confront her about the issues in her life.
Jesus realizes that she has misunderstood what he was telling her, as well as her not realizing what the core issue is in her own soul. That is true for most people. When we are speaking and addressing sin issues, we feel at a loss as to what to say. We may argue, ‘But Jesus knows what is going on even in a stranger’s life, and even when I know what is going on, I’m afraid I’ll say the wrong thing and mess things up. Or worse yet, we feel like we’re meddling.’ Yet, we know that sin is a universal problem that we all struggle with, including ourselves. Jesus puts his finger on the pain in her soul and speaks to that issue.
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.’[xi]
Jesus deals with issues that are hindering people from this amazing spiritual life.
So, where is Jesus today? You could rightly say, in heaven, but where is He today in our world? He lives within us and can guide our conversations. He can say something through us that connects within the other person’s heart. He knows what to say. He can lead us in a direction to impact a heart.
The sheer flexibility of Jesus leaps from the pages as he deals with a wide array of different people and their varied needs. No less startling (though more often ignored) is the manner in which Jesus commonly drives to the individual’s greatest sin, hopelessness, guilt, despair, need.[xii]
She had five husbands. Had some died? How many had divorced her? D. A. Carson gives us some cultural and historical perspective of the values of the society in which he was addressing.
Rabbinic opinion disapproved more than three marriages, even though they were legally permissible; no body of religious opinion approved common law marriages.[xiii]
In other words, she was shunned by people in her world. She felt all the social stigma of failure and shame. Yet rather than condemn her, Jesus was reaching out to her, offering her a new beginning and a new hope.
D. Sharing the truth can bring people to a living and transforming faith.
The woman said, ‘I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.’
Then Jesus declared, ‘I, the one speaking to you—I am he.’[xiv]
When Jesus answered her questions regarding the religious tensions between Jews and Samaritans, Jesus’ response that ‘worship will no longer be about an earthly sacrificial system, but in spirit and in truth’, this unnamed woman made a leap in her communication by saying that when the Messiah would come, he would explain everything. Jesus then makes the most powerfully revealing statement to her, ‘I am he’.
It is entirely in line with this Gospel that Jesus should unambiguously declare himself to be the Messiah to a Samaritan, but not to his own people. For many Jews, the title ‘Messiah’ carried so much political and military baggage that is self-disclosure in such settings necessarily had to be more subdued and subtle.[xv]
This is the first person that Jesus tells that he is the Messiah. That Jesus told it to a Samaritan, a woman, and a woman who was considered an outcast is a marvel. Jesus is breaking all the social barriers in his revelation to this woman. She probably seemed like the least likely person to have any impact in the lives of others, but that was not the case.
E. When we fulfill God’s purposes, our soul is renewed in the process.
What happened to the weariness that Jesus had experienced, and the hunger he felt? It was replaced by a deep satisfaction. When we do what God has planned for us, it energizes our lives. Not only was the woman energized, so was Jesus.
Meanwhile his disciples urged him, Rabbi, eat something.
But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you know nothing about’.
Then his disciples said to each other, ‘Could someone have brought him food?’
‘My food’, said Jesus, ‘is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work’.[xvi]
Why don’t we engage in this significant and satisfying aspect of life more? Why are we so often distracted from a message that impacts the lives of others? Often, we are insensitive to God’s opportunities. We keep telling ourselves that people aren’t interested or open. But is that really true? What may be true of the natural harvest isn’t true of the spiritual harvest. People are hungry, thirsty and weary of sin’s consequences. They long to be free and have a greater purpose to life.
‘…Don’t you have a saying, “It’s still four months until harvest?” I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. [I can see the woman leading the townspeople to Christ as Jesus is saying these words]
Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together.
Thus the saying One sows and another reaps is true.
I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.’[xvii]
What was the result? For the woman at the well, she had the deepest needs in her life met. Like most people what began as a concern to meet her physical needs became the means to meeting her deeper spiritual needs. Jesus expresses what really satisfies the human heart. We please God by caring and touching the lives of others. Ultimately, what was the result of reaching out to this one hurting person? Her excitement brought a community to Christ.
Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, He told me everything I ever did.
So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days.
And because of his words many more became believers.
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.’[xviii]
Knowing about something is not the same thing as experiencing it. That is so true in the spiritual life. Knowing about Jesus is not the same as following Jesus. Knowing that we should tell others about Jesus is a lot different than actually doing it and experiencing the joy of seeing lives positively impacted.
Let us pray in this season of our lives that God will grant to us opportunities to share God’s message of hope to someone who is thirsty for life. If you are that person who is thirsty for what will truly satisfy your soul, turn to Jesus in genuine repentance. He will set you free from those barriers that keep you from God’s amazing love.
[i] Matthew 21:31b-32, The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.
[ii] Haddon Robinson, “A Case Study of a Mugging,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 102.
[iii] John 4:7-9.
[v] John 4:1-6.
[vi] John 4:7.
[vii] John 4:10.
[viii] John 4:11-12.
[ix] John 4:13-14.
[x] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, Mi: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 220.
[xi] John 4:16-18.
[xii] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, 221.
[xiv] John 4:25-26.
[xv] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, 227.
[xvi] John 4:31-34.
[xvii] John 4:35-38.
[xviii] John 4:39-42.