Between Expectations and Reality

The is the thirteenth message in a series on Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well recorded in John 4.

Dear Friends:

The woman said to him, “I know that the Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus said to her, “I am he,” the one who is speaking to you.” (Jn 4:23-26).

A few years ago, I gave a talk on the Cross of Christ and the atonement for the weekly chapel service of a Christian university. Afterwards a senior came up to me and said, “Thank you. When I came here four years ago, I thought I would hear talks like this. We want to hear the Gospel, but they send us sociologists.”

It was sad, but not surprising when two years later, I heard the leadership of that university wonder aloud why their graduates would easily refer to “God,” in the general, but rarely to “Christ” in the specific.

It may be politically correct to speak in unctuous, non-demanding platitudes about loving, communicating and working with each other towards a just society. We may insist on legal and ethical behavior as our aspiration, but who is our inspiration?  Without the Spirit of God and faith in Jesus Christ who alone can reconcile us to God, we are simply playing the trivia contest of legalism (Mt 23:23).

The Apostle Paul wrote this truth about our missing connection to God: “You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision or uncircumcision (the appearance of religious commitment) counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Gal 5:4-6).

Adam and Eve fell from grace in the arrogance that they could get “good and evil” right for themselves without a connection to God (Gen 3:4-5). We have been bungling along ever since with a lot of folks trying to justify the rejection of God and others of us trying to justify ourselves to God and all of us missing the mark. It was clear from the beginning that if things were to be put right in creation, the Creator would have to do it (Heb 1).

The prophets spoke of a Messiah, a Savior who would appear to restore God’s errant children to righteous fellowship with their Heavenly Father. The woman knows something of the Word of God and the prophecies of the Messiah, but Scripture is nothing more than a literary anthology without God breathing the Word into us as a living reality.

The conversation between Jesus and the woman is germinating the seeds of spiritual truth planted deep in her soul. In the soaking of the Living Water and warming sunlight of Grace personified, the seeds are coming to life. Who knows who planted the seeds there long before–a parent, a teacher, a friend? They lay dormant in her like tulip bulbs in the cold and dark of winter until this moment.

The tender plant is being coaxed to the surface, one thing leading to another–the offer, the acceptance, the deeper penetration of truth, the breeding of the husks of religious tradition and misconception until at last there is a break-through into the light when “the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings” in a beautiful poetic metaphor for Christ from the prophet Malachi (Mal 4:2).

Why is it necessary for the woman to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? There are those who think that just planting the seed ought to be enough. Studying the Word, memorizing it, insisting on its dictates as the rule of the congregation and community is represented to be life. But this is to mistake paper flowers for the real thing. Jesus says, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. but you don’t know me. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (Jn 5:39-40).

Learning the Word without knowing the One who breathes the Word into existence is like laying kindling for a bonfire with no means of lighting it. Religious training without the compulsion of love is digging reservoirs and laying pipelines without a dependable connection to the water source.

What a cautionary tale there is in this for those who expect churches and church schools to deliver true believers at graduation and are bitterly critical when this doesn’t happen. “You can point the person to the Living Water, but you can’t make them drink,” to paraphrase an old saying.

Shortly before the journey that brought him to the well, Jesus told the scholar Nicodemus that the teachings of Israel about eternal life in the kingdom of God were a dead letter without the Spirit of God bringing new life to the heart and mind through belief in the Son of God (Jn 3:1-21).

Paul would later tell the new Christian believers that the one essential was being born again in Jesus Christ:  “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 (referring to outward signs of religious commitment) is anything, but a new creation is everything!” (Gal 6:14-15). He similarly wrote to the Corinthians, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor 3:7).

I attended church schools from first grade to graduate school, went to church from the first month I was born, prayed and listened to Scripture and sang the great songs of the faith in my home for as far back as I can remember. Then when I was 36-years of age I had an encounter with Christ that made his life the compelling circumstance of my existence. When I gave my mother my testimony, she said with a hurt and argumentative tone, “Surely, we must of done something right?”

“Mom,” I said. This isn’t about you or something you failed to do for me. Please understand. I am grateful for all the sacrifices that dad and you made to educate me in church school and all of the family worships and the sermons and lessons that taught me about Jesus. Those things are the building blocks of my faith, but it took Jesus to bring that faith to a living reality.”

Job’s observation to the Lord, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” is accurate in my experience. It is his surpassing love that undid me and leaves me undone to this day.

When I accepted the truth of Ephesians 1:3-14 that my God and Father chose me “In Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love”. . . destined me for adoption as his child through Jesus Christ because that was his good pleasure. . .lavished grace on me by giving Jesus’ life to redeem me from enslavement to sin. . . and sealed me to himself with the Holy Spirit as his loved and his own” I wanted to die for the first and only time in my life. Facing God’s relentless, unconditional love made me realize how stained and corrupt I was and it made me sick. I begged him to take the filthy rags of my pride and selfishness and to clothe me in the robe of Jesus’ righteousness.

More than twenty years have passed since my shattering encounter with Christ. I’ found out that I know a lot less about God than I thought I did back then, but I trust him much more. This is the difference between knowing stuff about God and knowing Jesus. “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us,” the woman tells Jesus about the Messiah (Jn 4:25). She has it right. Everything, the ordinary and the extraordinary, are different with Jesus.

It is a mystery why more people don’t reach out for that difference. They are content to trudge back and forth to the same old well, resigned to making the effort to obtain what won’t last. Perhaps it is because their expectations of a Savior are at variance from reality.

We live our lives on this earth somewhere between our expectations and reality. This is demonstrated in our conceptions of Christ.

Over the past 2,000 years, Artists have conceived Jesus as beautiful, ugly, majestic, gentle, fierce, suffering, strong, poor, rich, angry, sad, redemptive, friendly, child-like, lamb-like, and a conquering warrior. The reality is that Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would be nondescript (Isa 53:2). Certainly no one recorded what he looked like.

You would think someone would have described his appearance. Even Luke, a physician trained in anatomy with excellent writing ability and a keen eye for detail, did not describe him.

The woman finds a tired, dusty, thirsty young rabbi at the well seeking to distance himself from the expectations and demands of religion (Jn 4:1-2). Could that be the awaited Savior? That would depend on what we need to be saved from. “I am he,” he tells her and that is that.

Truth be told, it doesn’t matter what he looked like. If you are drowning, does it matter if the lifeguard who rescues you is handsome? Does it matter that the surgeon who is going to remove the tumor that is killing you has a scarred and disfigured face?

If Jesus had been described, the temptation would be to look like the description. Where would that leave those who couldn’t match up? Grace provides that answer.

Jesus says that any sick, broken, destitute or imprisoned person–the one that we are least likely to suspect–might be him (Mt 25:37-40). Wherever hearts are broken and spirits are crushed, he is there (Ps 34:18). Wherever the toxic mine-tailings of sin pile up and threaten to bury us, his grace covers us completely (Rom 5:20). He is present in companionship and guidance for confused and grieving travelers on the road home (Luke 24:13-32). He shares meals with sinners and pariahs because they need his mercy (Mt 9:10-13).  He says, “Remember, I am with you always, to the very end of time” (Mt 28:20).

The Messiah comes to our need, not to our strength.

“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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