This is the eleventh message in a series on Jesus’ encounter with the woman at Jacob’s well recorded in John 4.
- The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem” (Jn 4:19-20).
The tide of grace is surging up against the hard and dry rocks in the woman’s soul. She glimpses Jesus’ spiritual power and feels its attraction. Yet her soul is bared and vulnerable and her convictions of a lifetime are challenged in his presence. Something is going to have to give.
She recognizes him as a prophet–one inspired by God to deliver a message for a specific purpose. He speaks to her with an unsettling gentleness that offers her a deep draught of grace even as he identifies her need for that quenching.
This is not what she is used to in the conditioning of survival. Five husbands have come and gone for her in a society that has no good place for an adult woman outside of the marital relationship. Her current relationship is ambiguous at best. She has learned to use the thin covers of time, place, and distraction to cloak her inadequacies and fears.
There is no cloak quite as deceptive as religious conformity. If you show up at the right place at the right time, pay your offerings and don’t ask too many questions, you’ll get by regardless of the personal condition of your soul. But “group think” religion is no substitute for faith.
The woman retreats behind the neat fence lines of religion when Jesus gets too close for her comfort. Her people say that the crest of Mount Gerizim rising steeply behind them is the holy place of God. His people say Jerusalem is the place of worship. Whatever the spiritual appeal of Jesus to her soul, he can’t be right if he doesn’t conform to doctrine.
The Apostle Paul skewered “go along to get along” religion at the end of his letter to the Galatians. He said a religion that compels appearances and boasts of success in obtaining group conformity as its reason for being is afraid of being persecuted for dependence on Christ alone (Gal 6:12-16).
This is the kind of religion endorsed by the angry elder brother when the prodigal son was welcomed home by the father with a party (Lk 15:25-32). It is a religion that tries to tell God how to behave, rather than God’s spirit leading us to obedience. It this is our religion, we cannot sing “This is my Father’s world” with conviction, because we will demand the control of our environment for the preservation of our cherished beliefs rather than open ourselves to the possibilities of God’s new creation.
Paul refused to humor this kind of religion. He said, “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” (Gal 6:14-15).
There is a temptation to pass by the woman’s observation on the proper place of worship as just small talk, but that temptation must be resisted for if we yield to it we are joining the rebellion against God. The original lie of Satan was that we could be like God, “knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). The old saying is, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Doing “good” in our own wisdom and strength is every bit the sin as our doing evil because either way we are denying God as the source and strength of our life. We are called to follow God, not compete with him.
Aunt Sally who has never swatted a fly, serves lemonade and cookies to all the neighborhood kids, volunteers at the soup kitchen, but who rejects Jesus Christ as her Savior and Lord has no more chance of eternity than a porn-watching serial killer. Neither does the person who lives her life in strict adherence to principle and virtue, refuses Aunt Sally’s lemonade and cookies because of their sugar content, and prides herself on not needing to repent of pride and selfishness because of her inherent righteousness.
Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6). Paul famously said to the Romans, “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. . . Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift,but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness” IRom 3:23-24, 4:4-5).
If it all comes down to Jesus for us, why not trust him? This brings us to the hardest thing for us to do it seems–trust. Powerful forces gather to prevent our trust in Jesus Christ and they are now confronting the woman. The light and heat of noon are her opportunity to get the water she needs for subsistence. She has her routine. She has her work. She has her religion. She has a semblance
Jesus’ offer of living water means the difference between life and mere existence for her. She’s accepted the offer, but does she really want the difference?
This is the challenge of grace to human pride. We struggle and fight to scratch out an existence that is ours. We take pride in our effort. We are trained to make that effort by parents, teachers, mentors and bosses. “If at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again!” is a mantra drilled into us at school and work. There is a dark side of that saying which goes, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.” Surely, the sequence of five husbands and a lover points out the problem and that her set-piece religious traditions aren’t answering it.
Our best efforts comes to define us. We take pride and find our identity in them. But our self-definition as men and women who can take care of ourselves and work our way through our difficulties is a pernicious lie. Satan urged Eve and Adam to action in the pride of self-reliance (Gen 3:1-7). We have been working ever since for what God willingly would give us.
Pride urges us on. Fear convinces us that if we quit there is no one who will look out for us. Even if we are just getting by what we have is ours we think. Augur, son of Jakeh, wrote of the spiritual dangers of wealth and poverty in Proverbs 30:7-9:
- Two things I ask of you;
- do not deny them to me before I die:
- Remove from me falsehood and lying;
- give me neither poverty nor riches;
- feed me only with the food that I need,
- or I shall be full, and deny you,
- and say, “Who is the Lord?”
- or I shall be poor, and steal,
- and profane the name of my God
Too many times, I’ve watched tired and broken men and women experience the loving and powerful touch of Christ only to turn away again in distrust that his grace is sufficient for all their needs.
Just as distressing, is when the lie of Satan takes hold in sin and failure and the work of enslavement is complete in a battered soul: “I know Jesus says he loves me, but how could he if he knows everything that I’ve done. He could never love someone like me.”
There is no greater tragedy than to see someone take hold of Jesus’ hand to be pulled up out of the muck only to let go in fear of the unknowns of his grace and be sucked back into the quicksand of sin and struggle because shame is what he or she knows and is convinced is deserved. Sometimes that quicksand is legalistic religion. There is no magic trick and no amount of human effort that can remove them from that black hole.
It requires Jesus to unlock the door and give you and me permanent residency in God’s household (Jn 8:34-36). “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:1-2). Any religion that comes between Jesus and us, even if it does good things and claims his name for its own, is bad religion and puts us in the realm of “evildoers” (Mt 7:21-23).
“I see you are a prophet,” she says. If she recognizes the messenger, she’d better listen to his message. Maintaining the status quo of religion is never God’s plan. Water flows or it stagnates and Jesus has offered her living water.
By the same token, true worship has an objective. It is pointing to someone. Salvation comes to those who look, not to those who refuse to see anything beyond the ground they are standing on or who gaze at their navels. “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Lk 21:28). Your redemption is never a place. It is always and only Jesus Christ (Lk 21:27; John 17:3; 1 Cor 1:30). That’s where you need to be looking.
“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,