This is the tenth message in a series on Jesus’ encounter with the woman at Jacob’s well recorded in John 4.
Jesus said to her, “Go call your husband, and come back.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” (Jn 4:16-18).
In the very moment of her acceptance of the water, Jesus’ touches on the woman’s deepest insecurity and shame.
“I have no husband.” It is easy to imagine the edge to her voice, the cringe in her eyes and the quick flush to her cheeks.
This exchange will cast a shadow on the story for generations to come. There will be tongue-clucking speculations that she was a wanton, serial adulteress — a “woman with a past” — facing her Lord.
A cold chill seeps through the heat of noon day for those who are enticed by the kindness of the Lord, yet are wary that the grace he offers with one hand will be snatched away by the other, accompanied by a stinging slap to say, “One so unworthy and broken could never expect to be loved without condition.”
One has to read this judgment into the verses because it can’t be found in Jesus’ words. He is speaking to the facts of her life with his unique gifts of grace and truth.
Those gifts are complementary and must not be separated. Grace without truth is a dangerous placebo. It worsens sin and brokenness by masking the symptoms. Truth without grace is brutality. It is a hard, bleak winter with no hope of spring.
There could be many explanations for the woman’s marital status — a child bride left widowed; a divorcee in a place and time when men had only to say the words, “I divorce you” to make it so; a survivor of the ravages of disease and the violence ever present in the tensions of Roman occupation; and adultery, of course. Someone may have given up on her or she may have given up on herself. For all we know, there might have been little choice for anyone in the matters. We don’t know and can’t figure it out.
Whatever the story, she knows it, of course, because she’s lived it. It cloaks her soul like a scratchy wool coat on a hot day.
But how does he know?
Intuition tells him something. This is not the early morning when the women come to the well together to draw the day’s water. She is out here alone in the bright midday with no husband at her side to satisfy social propriety. So one can deduce that she is not married, though intuition cannot tell the full story.
He will say later, “I do nothing on my own, but speak these things as the Father instructed me. And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him” (Jn 8:28a-29). He has a connection to the Father made clear and strong through obedient listening. The specification of “five” former husbands indicates the clarity of Divine revelation is present (Jas 3:17).
Let’s assume the worst for sake of argument, that the woman has lived a life of rampant immorality up to this point. Neither “quantity” nor “quality” are valid considerations when it comes to judging sin, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). There is no de minimis exception to the death penalty for sin. “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (Jas 2:10).
If it were to come down to a competition, it is impossible to sin more than grace will cover (Rom 5:20, Eph 2:7; Jas 2:13). We need that grace, and, more to the point, we need faith in Christ Jesus who ministers limitless grace to us in kindness (Eph 2: 7-9). Sin will trap, kill and bury us, unless we turn to Jesus and keep our focus on him (Jn 17:3; Rom 7:24-8:4).
The woman is looking at Jesus right now and that’s all she needs to be doing. He takes note of her past and her present, but he doesn’t linger on it. He knows the worst of it, and now she knows that he knows. Her testimony ever after will be, “He told me everything I have ever done” (Jn 4:39).
There are no secrets between them, no games and no pretenses. He does not harangue her, seek to exploit her, or turn his back on her. He stays with her. His offer of the water of life stands without condition.
God the Father, through the prophet Isaiah, spoke a word for his errant children that Jesus is fulfilling for the woman by his presence with her at the well.
- “Fear not, for you will not be ashamed;
- be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced;
- for you will forget the shame of your youth,
- and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.
- For your Maker is your husband,
- the LORD of hosts is his name;
- and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
- the God of the whole earth he is called.
- For the LORD has called you
- like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit,
- like a wife of youth when she is cast off,
- says your God.
- For a brief moment I deserted you,
- but with great compassion I will gather you.
- In overflowing anger for a moment
- I hid my face from you,
- but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,”
- says the LORD, your Redeemer.
- (Isa 54:4-8, ESV)
There is much more for her to learn from Jesus, but there is no reason why she can’t receive all that he offers. She is beginning to believe him. Nothing will ever be the same.
“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him” (Ps 34:8).
Under the mercy of Christ,