Peeling the Onion

This is the 12th message in a series on Jesus’ encounter with the woman at Jacob’s well described in John 4.

Dear Friends:

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you don’t know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is not here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth (Jn 4:21-24).

You come to Jesus, attracted by his shining grace, hugged close in his accepting embrace, loved as you have never known love. When you say, “Yes,” you believe that you do so with an open and willing heart. Then he starts peeling you like an onion and everything that you thought you knew, were certain of, believed with all your heart–layer after tightly-wrapped layer of desire, expectation, opinion, defense, scars, fear, guilt, shame, pretense, and the gunk acquired by merely living–is pared away.

Before the Lord Jesus comes to dwell in a human heart, he strips it bare of all the things that have piled up in there and line the walls. He does not seek to make us better, to upgrade our virtues and capacities. He seeks to make us over and if we allow him to get a hand on us, he won’t stop until he has his way with us.

I tell you from intimate experience that this happens. There is nothing as terrifying or thrilling as Christ’s relentless transformation of the human soul. Things that I once accepted with trained thought and good conscience to be the best part of me, he has insisted on throwing out with the rubbish of my worst sins and traits.

The peeling away of cherished understandings and proud convictions can be painful. I’ve begged him to stop at times. “Lord, what is wrong with this. You gave me this ability, didn’t you. This belief was learned from your people. Everyone thinks this is OK. Can’t you just leave me alone and work with what you have? ”

His answer to that prayer is ever and always, “No, Kent. Your claim to strength is a denial of my grace and an exaltation of imperfection. I am not interested in historic preservation of your quaint and quirky soul. I, your Creator, am no caretaker. My power is at its maximum efficiency when you are weakest (2 Cor 12:8-10). My salvation means starting over from scratch with you and making a completely new creation (2 Cor 5:17). So I am going to peel you like an onion. You must decrease and I must increase until you are nothing and I am everything (Jn 3:30). Nothing else is going to work.”

His response is devastating to my pride, but being Christ’s new creation is the only thing that counts (Gal 6:15). He demolishes the old structure before he builds the new one and he is not sentimental about what he removes and discards.

This is what the Samaritan woman is beginning to understand. She came out in the middle of the day to avoid the crowd, Jesus was there and quickly dispatched barriers of gender and religion to talk to her. She raised practical objections to his invitation to drink living water. He ignored her objections and renewed the offer. She appealed to history–“Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob?”– and his reply was in effect, “History hasn’t prepared you for what I have for you.” She told him, “I have no husband,” but he revealed that she had no secrets that he did not know.

In Jesus, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). The woman’s innermost being is laid bare before him. A voice out of Eden echoes in the deepest recesses of her heart, “Where are you?” Her instinctual fearful reaction is to hide her naked self behind the “fig-leaf” of religion (Gen 3:8-10).

She’s learned some religion along the way. She’s spent some time in the company of “spiritual” men. She is a good listener and they liked to think they were making an “honest” woman out of her. Is that his angle? It’s time to change the subject with some flattery.

She feints with the distraction of praise, even as she takes cover behind doctrinal barriers. “Sir, you’re a prophet I see. Our Samaritan ancestors worshiped on this very mountain, but you Jews say the only legitimate place to worship is Jerusalem.”

He doesn’t stop peeling away her religious “skin.”Mount Gerizim or Mount Zion, take your pick, because it doesn’t matter where you worship if you are a ‘true worshiper’ of our heavenly Father. You see, it is who you worship that matters, not your place of worship. You Samaritans don’t have Scripture to back up your worship, but we Jews worship what we know to be true from Scripture because “salvation is from the Jews.” He means the covenant relationship between God and the children of Israel from which the Samaritans have wandered away in apostasy (Gen 12:3). More to the point, he means the promise of a Messiah in the line of David (1 Chron 17:13-14).

He continues, “The hour has arrived when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for that’s the kind of worshiper that the Father is seeking.” He makes a deeper point, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

The spirit of which Jesus speaks, is “breath,” the essential element that brings flesh to life, a gift of God from the moment of the creation of humanity (Gen 2:7; Ecc 12:7). Breathing is even more basic than water since hydration is necessary to carry oxygen throughout the body. Without water the body convulsively gasps for the oxygen that it is denied. Jesus is telling the woman that true worship takes the focus of our entire selves on the Father as the source of our lives. “As I live and breathe. . .” is an old exclamation to underscore a truth communicated–“As I live and breathe, I am telling you that it was really him.”

We owe our breath, the very essence of our life, to God and our proper gratitude is praise. “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!” (Ps 150:6). It is God’s very breath, the Holy Spirit, that brings us to worship. The Spirit “helps us in our weakness” and connects us to the will of God (Rom 8:26-27). The Spirit teaches us the words of Christ as our living reality (Jn 14:26). The Holy Spirit is the channel by which God’s love is poured into our hearts (Rom 5:5). By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus was resurrected to life, and by that same power of the “Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” we are “set free from the law of sin and death” (Rom 1:4a; 8.2).

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” said Jesus (Mt 5:3). A literal translation of that saying is “The people who have a legitimate claim on the kingdom of heaven are those who know that they are beggars, dependent on God for their very breath. That humiliation is the root of true worship and the starting point of real prayer. “Seek the Lord and his strength, seek his presence continually,” David prayed when he brought the Ark of the Covenant into the center of Jerusalem for the worship of God (1 Chron 16:11).

There was no magic in having the Ark present. Without the presence of God it is just an elaborate box. It served Israel as a reminder to praise the God of the covenant.

There is no inherent spiritual power in a mountaintop experience or in the bricks and mortar of our houses of worship no matter how beautiful they may be.

Praise and worship are not ends in themselves. If we praise the praise and worship the worship or insist on the holiness of places and objects, we are idolaters.

True worship seeks God for himself alone. Worship does not wheedle and bargain with God for his benefits for that is “gold-digging” behavior. It does not seek perfection in our performance for that is to remove our eyes from the Lord. Our holy God lives in the praises of his people (Ps 22:3). We crave his life as our living reality. The simple principle that we live with the Lord or die without him is graphically described in David’s prayer of Psalm 63.

O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands and call on your name.

(Ps 63:1-4)

The woman came out for a drink of water with an existence that was sterile and empty. At the well, the Son of God speaks to her with guileless honesty, gradually revealing to her who he is. She begins to realize that she is really thirsty for the Living Water and fainting for lack of the breath of God in the corpuscles of her soul.

Instead of a mere drink of water that she can draw by her effort, can contain in her own vessel, and can take or leave in her own choosing and timing, everything that she thought she knew about God and worship is swept away in a gushing flood of grace. Panicked by the loss of control, she clambers up the walls of her religious certainties in an attempt to regain her footing, catch herĀ  breath, and escape the scouring that is stripping her of her carefully-tailored pretenses. She finds out that she can’t even breathe on her own. The life that Jesus is offering her is entirely dependent on God breathing for her.

Jesus is revealing the Father’s intentions toward her. He will not leave her alone until there is nothing left of her at all. He will peel the onion down to its very core and consume that. This is the devastation of the cross that takes all that we are and gives it to God as a living sacrifice–this is the worship that’s acceptable to God (Rom 12:1). “Nothing in my hand I bring, only to Thy cross I cling,” is the way the old hymn puts it.

The Apostle Paul described this worship to the Colossians: “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory” (Col 3:1-4).

These are hard truths and tough love to be sure. We cringe and quaver and yearn for the onions that used to spice our dishes in our enslavement in Egypt (Num 11:4-6). We take refuge in points of doctrine and spiritual interpretations most pleasing to us. Jesus does not humor us in our self-indulgence no matter how strong our felt needs or pious our attitudes. “The time is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.”

All along you and I thought we were seeking him in places and times of our choosing, and now we find out he is seeking us with a simple “yes” or “no” question: “Do you worship me or don’t you?”

What is your answer to him?

“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,


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