St Michael’s, 10th May 2015
Reading – John 4:1-26
In the 1960s Charles Colson developed a fearsome reputation across the United States as a political fixer. If you wanted your candidate to win, then he was your go-to man. He would do almost anything to advance the cause of the local Republican nomination, and just as importantly destroy the credibility of his opponent. In fact he was so successful that eventually he ended up as the right hand man to President Nixon in the early 1970s, with the power and authority to make or break almost anyone he chose.
But then the Watergate scandal erupted in 1972 when five burglars were caught breaking into the headquarters of the Democratic election campaign. Over the two gruelling years of investigation that followed, Charles Colson’s world gradually fell apart. Eventually he was sent to prison where he spent over a year behind bars. Yet during this time something truly remarkably happened. This cynical, manipulative political operative found Christ. He genuinely repented of his sins and dedicated himself to the service of his Saviour. And from his experience of being locked up, he ended up founding the Prisoners’ Fellowship which has grown into an international organisation seeking to reach even the most unlikely of people with the gospel.
It’s worth reading the stories of people like Charles Colson because they remind us that God is still in the business of changing lives today. You see, it’s very easy when we read of a passage such as Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman to think that all happened a long time ago in a far off land, and while it’s a very nice story, it’s not really that relevant to life in the 21st century. The simple message I want to get across this morning is that Jesus is as much alive as He was back then, and that He still has the power to save right here, right now, even in Devonport in 2015.
So how exactly does Jesus change lives? Well, if I were to ask you to explain how you came to faith, I know that everyone would tell a different story. There is no one set route everyone must follow to become a Christian, and our Heavenly Father in His great love and wisdom treats every single person differently. Yet when you hear tell of genuine conversions I believe that from all these varied testimonies it is possible to identify three common factors that mark out a real, life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ. These are:
1. A divine appointment
2. A conviction of sin
3. A meeting with the Messiah
Let’s see how each of these factors is illustrated in today’s passage, and if you have a Bible with you, please would you turn with me now to John chapter 4.
First of all, then, a divine appointment.
Let’s provide some background to our passage. We are at this point early on in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has been preaching and teaching in the area around Jerusalem called Judea and His activities have drawn the attention of the local religious leaders called the Pharisees. Jesus is not willing to engage in a confrontation so He decides to head north to his home territory of Galilee.
But there’s something curious about the way John describes Jesus’ travel plans. Listen carefully to verse 4: Now He had to go through Samaria. What’s the big deal about this? Well, if you wanted to travel from Judea to Galilee, Samaria was the most direct route. Only, the Jewish people hated the Samaritans. The Samaritans had their own version of the Law, their own rules for worship, their own special place to meet with God. In fact, relations between the Jewish people and the Samaritans were so bad that anyone travelling from Jerusalem to Galilee would go out of their way to avoid entering Samaritan territory. It would be rather like a Cornishman deciding that he had to go through the middle of Plymouth in order to go up the line. It was just something you wouldn’t do, unless you had a very good reason.
So what was the reason that Jesus chose to go through Samaria? Very simply, because Jesus knew there was someone from the Samaritan town of Sychar that He had to meet. He had a divine appointment which in God’s purposes was so important He couldn’t miss. And so He arrives there at about the sixth hour, which to us would be the middle of the day. He sends His disciples off into town to get some food, and He sits down and waits.
Now usually there wouldn’t be anyone else around at that time. In that climate the middle of the day is often unbearably hot and physically exhausting. Unless you had good cause, you would probably be indoors resting or at least keeping to the shade. Yet even as Jesus sits and waits, a Samaritan woman comes into view. This was a most unusual time to draw water and we’ll see why she’s there in the moment.
But for now, the point is, even though she doesn’t realise it, she has a divine appointment with Jesus. This is the time and the place when she is called to meet with Jesus Himself, and everything has been arranged just for this one single face to face encounter.
I wonder, can you look back and think of a particular occasion when Jesus decided now was the time to meet with you? When suddenly you became aware of His presence right there with you? You may have been on your own, like the Samaritan woman at the well. You may have been surrounded by lots of people, at a church event maybe, or in a hospital. But however it happened, you were suddenly aware Jesus had come to you. How did you react? Did you welcome the moment? Or did you try to put Him off?
And what about this morning? Perhaps you think you have turned up on the off-chance. Maybe you are focused today on fulfilling your turn on the rota, or making sure you are at least able to fit church in this Sunday. May I encourage you to understand that actually none of us are here by chance? The ultimate reason why anyone is here this morning is that the Lord has called us. The maker of heaven and earth has a divine appointment with you, here today, on 10th May 2015. And whether He is calling you for the first time, or whether He wants to meet with you for the thousandth time, it is just so important that we understand why we are doing what we are doing today. The Lord is here, as we say so often in our Communion prayers. What, then, is our response? What is your response?
A life-changing encounter is, firstly, marked by a divine appointment.
Secondly, it is marked by a conviction of sin.
As we thought just now, it was highly unusual for a Samaritan woman to draw water at midday. Villagers would ordinarily come in the cool of the day to fill their jars and no doubt as they came together they would swap the local gossip and exchange news. But this Samaritan woman wanted to avoid all that. She preferred to endure the heat and the sweat and the sheer physical exhaustion of high noon rather than the company of the townsfolk. And to anyone who was about at this time, her actions could mean only one thing. She was an outcast, someone on the edge of her community, no doubt with a shameful secret she was trying to hide.
But do look carefully at how Jesus deals with her. For a start, He doesn’t begin by telling her she is a sinner! Of course Jesus does have every right to expose her wrongdoing and her shame, and He will do that in a moment. But His starting point is to make Himself vulnerable and simply ask, Will you give me a drink?
Now I suspect it must have been a long time since a stranger treated this woman with this much respect and gentleness. The Samaritan woman was used to being preached at and condemned, and if Jesus had gone in with all guns blazing, she would have immediately resisted. Instead Jesus disarms her by addressing her as a fellow human being worthy of dignity and respect. No wonder she is astonished by His question: “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” And just in case we haven’t grasped the significance of Jesus’ question, John adds: For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.
But there’s another reason why Jesus asks the woman for a drink. Because there by the well in the heat of the day Jesus and this woman, for all their many differences, have one thing in common – a need for water. If Jesus had talked to her about almost anything else, the chances are, she wouldn’t have been interested. But by talking about water Jesus is able to engage her and arouse her curiosity.
There’s so much we can learn from Jesus’ approach here in this passage. Sometimes we can think that in order to share the Christian faith we need to go round with a set message we are called to inflict on those around us, whether they are willing to hear us or not. Now maybe there is a place for preaching on street corners or handing out tracts. But it’s worth thinking about Jesus’ approach here. He crosses every cultural and social divide to reach out to someone on the edge of society. He finds a point of common interest. He talks in a language she can understand. I believe Jesus is providing here a model of how to communicate our faith, and if we are serious about following Jesus, it’s worth reflecting on what we can learn from this encounter.
But please also notice – Jesus is not simply being nice to this woman. Because, although this conversation starts out as a chat about water, Jesus doesn’t leave it there. After all, this Samaritan woman is deeply, deeply needy. The only problem is, she hasn’t yet admitted those needs to anyone else, or indeed probably to herself. And until she can reach the point when she can accept her need for grace and forgiveness, she will remain an outcast, not only from her community but also from God Himself.
That’s why Jesus turns the conversation from physical water to living water. Now to the Samaritan woman by the well, Jesus’ words must have seemed both mysterious and confusing. Here was a Jewish man tired from the journey – as John tells us in verse 6. He had no visible means of sustenance. He had no way of collecting water. Yet all of a sudden here He is talking about living water and eternal life and never being thirsty again. It’s little wonder that she has all kinds of questions.
But in the end the Samaritan woman accepts Jesus’ offer. Because if the water Jesus is talking about really is this good, she thinks this means she can escape the shame and all the village gossip: Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water (verse 15). And it’s at this point Jesus switches the conversation to expose her real, spiritual need. But notice how lovingly and gently He does so, by telling her: Go, call your husband and come back (v.16). He still hasn’t denounced her as a sinner or told her to repent. But He has brought her to the point where she admits the reason why she is such an outcast: I have no husband.
Yet even here when Jesus has finally touched the heart of this Samaritan woman, He does not use language of condemnation and judgement. Rather He simply makes her aware that He already knows everything about her, about the string of failed relationships that have caused her so much hurt and pain. This isn’t to say, of course, that Jesus never directly condemned the sins and wrongdoing of other people. But in the case of the Samaritan woman, once she admitted to herself how much she had made a mess of life, she didn’t need anyone else to tell her how far she had gone wrong. She knew herself that she was a sinner and that before Jesus it was impossible to hide anything. And it was then, when she confessed her need of a Saviour, that she was almost ready to accept the gift of living water which only He is able to offer.
Now I don’t know exactly where you stand before Jesus this morning. Maybe you have reached the point where, so to speak, you have had everything out in the open before Him. Maybe you have done some serious business recently and allowed Him to reach into some part of your life you keep pretty well shut off from everyone else. But I suspect that many of us have secrets we try to hide from ourselves, let alone from God. After all, the first thing Adam and Eve did when they broke the commandment God gave them was to try and hide, and by and large mankind has been trying to hide from God ever since. The story of the Samaritan woman, I believe, is a call for us to get real. Yes, it may be painful to admit the guilt and shame we’ve been trying to cover up. Yes, we may be afraid to make ourselves weak or vulnerable before Jesus.
But as Jesus shows in this passage there is so much love and forgiveness and grace available to anyone who comes to Him honestly and openly, just as they are. And if you sense in any way Jesus is calling you to let go of something you are holding onto ever so tightly, may I as gently as possible urge you to give it over to Him. Maybe, as in the case of the Samaritan woman, a failure in a relationship. Maybe something you did when you were very young. Maybe something you can’t quite believe you ever did, and are afraid to name. Come to Jesus and you will find that He can meet your deepest need with streams of living water, to cleanse, to purify and make you new. And if you need help to do this, then please do pray with me in confidence after the service. There really is no better thing you can do than accept Jesus’ gift into your life today.
A life-changing encounter with Jesus is, firstly, marked by a divine appointment.
Secondly, it is marked by a conviction of sin.
And as I hope has been made clear already, it involves a meeting with the Messiah.
Let’s go back to the Samaritan woman at the well. She has begun to see that Jesus is someone special. She has seen her need for a Saviour. Yet she isn’t quite in a position when she is ready to receive Jesus’ gift of eternal life. Why not? Because there is still that question of the differences between Samaritans and Jews. In effect, she wants to know if following Jesus means she has to change all the customs she is used to and get a whole new religious identity. That’s why she asks Jesus about the difference between the mountain where the Samaritans worship and the temple the Jewish people attend in Jerusalem. She is, in essence, asking which denomination she has to belong to.
I have to say, I can really relate to the discussion Jesus is having at this point. Over the years, I have had dozens of conversations about religion. You think you are getting somewhere as you talk about your faith, and suddenly you find your fielding questions about the difference between, say, Anglicans and Roman Catholics, or the latest pronouncement from some leading bishop. It’s almost as if the trappings of religion act as a kind of deflector shield to take someone who is really interested away from living encounter with Jesus, and I know from my own experience how easy it is to get bogged down or sidetracked at this point.
But Jesus cuts right to the quick. He loves the Samaritan woman so much He isn’t going to let the finer points of religious protocol stop her from receiving the gift of eternal life she so desperately needs. You see, God isn’t looking for people who belong to the right denomination or observe the correct forms of worship. He is looking for people, who from whatever religious background or none, accept their need of a Saviour and who are willing to receive the gift of eternal life His only Son can alone offer.
That’s what Jesus means when He says: God is spirit, and His worshippers must worship in Spirit and in truth. In some ways God couldn’t care less whether you are Church of England, Baptist, Methodist, or anything else. But He is passionate that you understand who Jesus is and have been filled with His Holy Spirit. And don’t let alone convince you that in order to come to Jesus you have to worship with that form of words, or attend that kind of church. Obviously, I’d like it if you came to St Michael’s, but that really is beside the point!
So back to Charles Colson. The late Charles Colson belonged to a generation which was raised in a notionally Christian environment. He went to Sunday school as a child. He was baptised as a good Episcopalian – the American equivalent of being an Anglican. Yet as he recounted in his autobiography no-one ever explained to him who Jesus was. He simply grew up believing Jesus was a good moral example who lived 2000 years ago. That’s why it was such a shock when he met the CEO of a major corporation who had a life changing encounter with Jesus Christ. And although he wasn’t converted instantly, this CEO helped him reach the point when as the title of his autobiography puts it he was “born again”.
My hope and prayer this morning and indeed every Sunday morning is no-one goes away from this church simply believing that Jesus is a good moral example, or that just because they were baptised or went to Sunday School as a child, they are automatically a Christian. Let me say to you again: we are all here today, every single one of us, by divine appointment. Jesus is calling each person gathered here today to Himself. He wants to meet us at the point of our deepest need, if only we will admit that need to Him. And He wants to come to us not to make us religious but to provide us with that gift of eternal life only He can bring. As He says in verse 14:
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.
So today will you listen to Jesus’ call? Will you open your life to Him? And will you own Him as your Messiah?