IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 3, Number 28, July 9 to July 15, 2001

A Sermon on John 4:1-26

by Rev. Russell B. Smith

She was a pretty young woman. Our paths crossed during our time in college. We struck up a kind of a friendship — we were in a couple of classes together, we'd see each other at parties, we had many of the same friends. She was intelligent and outgoing, and a real charmer. But like so many young women in America, she bought the lie.

You know the lie I'm talking about — it's the lie that screams at us from the cover of Cosmopolitan. It's the lie that drives shows like Temptation Island. The lie manifests itself in a consuming obsession with physical appearance. The lie manifests itself in the overwhelming use in advertising of scantily clad people, both males and females. The lie manifests itself in the tedious series of novels that depict romance as exotic, exciting, and forbidden. The lie manifests itself in darker ways, in secret rooms, behind closed doors where a secret life is led.

But physicality and sexuality are not the lie; they are only manifestations of the lie. The lie is that if we find that one person, that one right individual, then we will be made whole and complete. The lie is that an earthly relationship with a person from the opposite sex has the potential to satisfy our deepest cravings and longings. The lie is that you can handle any adversity that comes your way, no matter how daunting it is, because you have that one person to whom you can cling. And that makes it all better.

My friend in college bought that lie. She found a boy she liked, she felt complete with him and she gave herself to him completely, physically and emotionally. And when he dropped her because he had gotten what he wanted, he took a piece of her dignity. I watched the cycle repeat itself. She went through several boyfriends. Some, she realized, didn't complete her and she dropped them. Others got tired of her, and she was dropped. And the more she got hurt and wounded, the more she shut away the deeper spiritual longings and the more she focused on the merely physical.

I lost touch with her after college — I don't know what's become of her. But today's Bible passage reminds me of her — it makes me think of all the young ladies, and young men, who put their all their hope in finding that one right person. And when that person lets them down, they get bitter and they build a wall around their souls so that they don't have to face the shame of what it is they've done.

Jesus is the Messiah. Where we have shame, he affirms our dignity. Where earthly relationships cannot satisfy, he offers abundant life. Where earthly relationships suck us dry, he offers living water. What we see in this passage today is that Jesus, the Messiah, offers the abundant life; he confronts with the truth of sin; and he offers a true relationship that genuinely satisfies.

Verses 1-6 set the stage. Jesus and his disciples left the southern area of Judea and were headed North to Galilee. The trip was a three-day walk, and the most accessible and direct road went through the pass between Mount Gerazim and Mount Ebal. This region around Mount Gerazim was the region of Samaria.

A quick history lesson is helpful here. In the days of the king David, Israel was one united land. But remember that after king Solomon, Israel divided into a northern kingdom and a southern kingdom. In 721 B.C., the northern kingdom, which included Samaria, was conquered by the Assyrians. After this conquest, many Jews in the northern kingdom were shipped off to other parts of the empire while settlers from all over immigrated to the region of Samaria. They intermarried with the Jews who remained, and their religions mixed with that of the Jews. In the region of Samaria, for a time, was a racially blended and religiously confused population.

Over time, they rediscovered their heritage and reformed their worship, though with some major differences. Samaritans, for instance, only recognized as Scripture the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. And though they worshipped the God of Abraham, their worship practices still had a feel of the pagan religions. Around 400 B.C., When Nehemiah excluded those of mixed background from temple worship, the Samaritans, under the leadership of a man named Manasseh, built their own temple on mount Gerazim. The Jews destroyed this temple in 107 B.C. Since that time to this day, Samaritans have worshipped in the open air on the slopes of Mount Gerazim.

The historical tension that already existed between Jews and Samaritans was exacerbated in Jesus' time by a band of Samaritans who defiled the temple in Jerusalem with human bones. Thus, the Samaritans were completely banned from the temple, they were cursed publicly within the temple, and they were considered unclean. Touching a Samaritan or receiving food from a Samaritan would be like touching or eating pig's flesh. So, when Jesus sent his disciples to purchase food in the Samaritan village of Sychar at the foot of Mount Gerazim, he did something astounding. He was preparing to include a people that were considered nasty and undesirable.

So you see why the woman responds to Jesus' request in such a brusque manner. Do you hear the bite and the dig? "For Jews have no dealing with Samaritans." Jesus, true to the pattern we've seen before, does not directly answer the question. Rather, he talks about living water. The woman doesn't understand, so Jesus clarifies in verse 13. He talks about water welling up from within. This is a rich Old Testament prophetic image. Jeremiah 2:13 pictures God himself as the fountain of living waters. When picturing the end-time kingdom when all the world is at peace, Zechariah talks about living water flowing from Jerusalem (Zech. 14:8-9). So the Old Testament picture of living water is one of the peace and satisfaction that God brings. While the Old Testament applies this image to the kingdom of God as a whole, Jesus here applies it to the individual believer. Jesus says that the living water he offers wells up from within. This means that God meets our deepest longings for significance and purpose, and that he meets them from within. And don't miss this: Jesus told this to a Samaritan woman, the lowest of the low. The most despised people by the Jewish population at the time — and he's telling this to one of them!

So my college friend has hope. The lie told to her was that she needed a lover to fulfill her deepest needs. The lie told to her was that if she pursued "falling in love" with a concomitant physical interaction, then she would be a shiny, happy person. But Christ alone can provide that source of inner satisfaction, and that's the truth. Christ alone offers us inner healing for the guilt that weighs on our conscience, and that's the truth. Christ alone provides purpose and significance and meaning, and that's the truth.

Christ and Christ alone offers us abundant life. We also see that Christ confronts us with our sin. Look at verses 15-18. After Jesus talks about living water, the woman, still not understanding, asks that he give it to her. Jesus doesn't even answer the question, but cuts right to the heart of her deepest shame. "Go call your husband." The woman timidly answers, "I have no husband," and Jesus brings her shame to the light: "You've had five husbands and the man you are with is not your husband." Jesus doesn't say why she's been through five husbands, but the implication is that the succession has been for less than honorable reasons. And on top of that, she's giving herself now to a man who's not even her husband. Notice that Jesus doesn't traffic in excuses. He neither suggests, nor does she for that matter, that her actions were someone else's fault. Don't get me wrong, this guy that she's shacked up with shares the blame, but Jesus isn't confronting him. Jesus deals with each person's sin individually, one to one. We aren't allowed to say, "What about this other person? Do you know what he did to me?" No. Jesus confronts you with your sin. We all want to be like Dorian Gray. Remember that book The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde? Dorian Gray had a painting of himself, and whatever he did that was bad, rather than it affecting his body, it affected the image in the painting. So he was able to lead this wild and pleasure-seeking life without any consequences.

Secretly, we'd all like such a picture — we'd all like to dump everything off ourselves onto something else. But that doesn't happen. Sin takes its toll. The burden of shame and guilt coats itself around our spirits. When the guilt and the shame get so great that we can't bear the pain, they harden. They harden to numb the pain, but the hardening numbs everything else too. I think that might be why my friend went through so many men. At first it was a longing for completeness. Then it was a hope for affection. And then it was a desperate scramble to feel anything at all.

The only way to crack that hardening around the spirit is through direct confrontation: Jesus speaking to the heart, saying, "I know you. I've seen you. I know what you've done. Don't even think of trying to hide it." Such a confrontation would be horrifying were it not for the abundant life that Jesus promises. And he goes on to tell the woman the nature of the abundant life he offers: a relationship that does satisfy and make you whole.

Look at verses 21-26. The woman seems to be deflecting attention from her sin, but Jesus is okay with that because he's hit a nerve, and he knows where this conversation is going and where it's going to end up. She asks this question about worship, pointing out the obvious differences between the Jews and the Samaritans. And Jesus comes back with this idea of worship in Spirit and truth. She asks about whether we should worship in a temple or on a mountain, and Jesus says the rules of the game are changing. It's not about the location or the form; it's about the spirit with which worship is engaged.

Worship is what we were made for. We were created to worship. How we go about worshipping, while still important, matters less than the spirit we bring to worship. What is that spirit? It is a spirit of adoration and thankfulness for the Messiah, the Savior. You see, the sin in us that Jesus confronts — that's the sin he paid for on the cross. Worship in spirit and truth is our loving response to that sacrifice. Worship in spirit and truth is the abundant life that Jesus promises. It's not about whether I wear a robe or a suit. It's not about whether we speak in tongues or not. It's not about whether we have an organ or a praise band. What it's about is that spirit of thankfulness and gratitude and adoration each of us brings each Sunday.

The New York Times bestseller Girl with a Pearl Earring gives us a wonderful picture. It's a fictional account of the Catholic painter Vermeer and his relationship with his protestant maid. At one point the maid asks him, "Are your paintings Catholic paintings?" After some dialogue, he finally comes back with this answer, "It's not the painting that's Catholic or Protestant, but the people who look at it and what they expect to see. A painting in a church is like a candle in a dark room — we use it to see better. It is the bridge between ourselves and God. But it is not a Protestant candle or a Catholic candle. It is simply a candle" (140). Worship in spirit and truth doesn't belong to the Catholics or to the Presbyterians or to the Charismatics. It belongs to those who have the living water welling up within. It belongs to those who have been confronted with their sin. It belongs to those who adore the messiah for taking away their sin — in the end, Jesus makes it clear that he is the Messiah. And that's the truth. Amen.