The Smell Test

This is the seventeenth message in a series of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well recorded in John 4.

Dear Friends:

Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world” (Jn 4:39-42).:

“I declare that I am personally acquainted with the facts in this statement. I declare these facts to be true of my personal knowledge under penalty of perjury.” These are the statements of a witness testifying by affidavit or what we call in California, a “declaration.”  Such a statement may be used in many legal proceedings.  I have prepared hundreds of these declarations in my career. The key to its effectiveness is the witness’s personal knowledge of the facts.

If a witness gives live testimony in court, he or she is subject to the same personal knowledge requirement. Testimony that depends on something that was said or done when the witness wasn’t present is objectionable on the ground of hearsay because it is no more reliable than gossip. An effective witness has personal knowledge of the facts and communicates them in a truthful manner.

Common sense often tells us when someone is telling the truth. We call it the “smell test.” A communication passes the smell test when the circumstances and knowledge coincide to make sense. Failing the smell test means the facts, as communicated, defy logic or experience and are inconsistent with other evidence.

The Apostle Paul watched victorious legions returning to Rome and found a smell test for Christian witness. The armies would parade their human captives through the streets along with animals and plunder from the exotic lands at the frontiers of the Roman Empire. Some of the captives were destined for life as household slaves. Some were going to die for sport in the Coliseum. Their faces reflected this life and death saga and the tension was palpable as they passed by the cheering citizens. Paul described it this way:

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not peddlers of God’s word like so many; but in Christ we speak as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God and standing in his presence (2 Cor. 2:14-17).

The woman’s witness to Jesus as the Christ is passing the smell test with the Samaritans.

The Samaritans are a religious people. The very name “Samaritan” derives from a Hebrew word for “keepers” referring to the law of Moses. The Samaritans claim to follow a more authentic version of the Torah followed by Israel prior to the Babylonian exile. They assert that the Jews returned from exile with amended and watered down religious practices. The rough equivalent in modern Christian terms would be that the Samaritans would claim to follow the King James Version of Scripture and practice “old time religion” while claiming that the Jews read the New International Version or even The Message and engaged in contemporary and worldly worship practices.

The Samaritan woman likely came to the well alone in the heat of the day to avoid the heat of the judgments of her pious neighbors about her past and current relationships. Now she returns to them in the early afternoon with a surprising message. “Come see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (Jn 4:29). What she had hidden in shame, she now discloses without embarrassment and even names who caused this transformation in her attitude.

The honesty and wonder that accompany the experience of being in Jesus’ presence is infectious. People want to know who or what has made a difference that cannot be manufactured or manipulated. One blessed by such an encounter is a credible witness and attracts those who hear the testimony of Christ as nothing and no one else can. A living witness to the grace of Christ always carries more authority than an accurate but cold presentation of doctrine.

The Apostle Paul describes why this happens. “You show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:3-6).

One has to witness something personally to be a true witness. The authenticity of Christian witness depends upon a personal experience with Jesus Christ. It requires a partaking of his life given to us and poured out as Living Water in ordinary places like the town well.

The Samaritans know the prophecies of the Christ (Jn 4:25-26), Now one of their own says that she may have met him and offers as proof an accountability for her sin and a change of heart that cannot be explained in any other way than the power of God which is called “grace.” Her testimony compels her neighbors to speak with Jesus for themselves and they come away from that conversation absolutely convinced that He is their Savior and Lord.

This openness of response and authenticity of witness did not make its way from a theory in my head to a reality in my heart through seventeen years of Christian education and an upbringing in a Christian home. It did not come alive for me in the first eleven years of service as an administrator and attorney for Christian institutions.

Like the woman at the well, the resources of my self proved inadequate to the challenges of my life. I had my own confrontation with Jesus in the middle of the day while on a business trip. He devastated me with the grace I had thought was for the other persons in the world who didn’t have my spiritual “advantages.

Those advantages proved to be elements of faith, but it took the personal application of the love of Christ to my needy, sinful soul to transform that faith from a “parts inventory” to a working model. Witness comes to life in the experiential encounter with Christ. The last words Jesus spoke on earth to his followers announced this principle: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in all Judea and Samaria, and to all the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Interestingly, Jesus had a heart for Samaria, the place he had just been passing through when he met the woman at the well and her neighbors. Part of the legacy of her conversion is this instruction to the new church.

When I returned to my office after my encounter with God, there were three active believers out of 26 employees, and I wasn’t one of them. I quietly and spontaneously began to tell others what happened to me. Some of them experienced the same reality and passed it on. Years went by and many co-workers and friends accepted Christ as their Savior and Lord or renewed a languishing relationship with him. The number grew through contacts in town and small groups and community formed.

Before this happened I thought Christianity was best transmitted from a pulpit or teacher’s desk. I was taught that it was important to learn “proof texts” from the Bible and tell them to non-believers wherever you found them. Best of all get these people in the door of the church or the evangelistic meeting to hear the “truth.”  Well, it does little good to possess answers to questions that aren’t being asked or try to reach people in places that they don’t normally go. The effort is so unnatural, awkward and downright painful that I, along with most of my “well-trained” Christian friends just avoided it. After all, isn’t that why we hire preachers–too take care of stuff like that?

The religious establishment, on the other hand, berates us to do more. Pass out gospel tracts, hold Bible studies with your neighbors and co-workers who you may have never shared a personal word with before now, show them that your lifestyle is really better than theirs by not smoking, drinking or running around with members of the opposite sex that do, put a bumper sticker on your car, give liberal offerings to evangelistic ministries–do something!!!  The whole thing is pitched as a slightly smarmy, personally intrusive, competitive enterprise labeled “soul-winning.” So in reaction we fall into a graceless, lifeless existence. Knowing that we can never do enough, we attempt nothing at all. We leave the whole thing to the professionals and do not attempt the same feats at home.

It doesn’t have to be this way. What changed all of this for me was a personal encounter with Christ on a warm October afternoon in 1989. I saw, I heard and was convicted of the ultimate truth of Jesus Christ. This reality dominated my waking and thinking. Everything was different. I could testify of my own personal knowledge of the fact of Christ. To my considerable shock, this mere testimony has persuasive power. Personal experience made me a witness. Persons of my acquaintance began to seek out Jesus on my “word of mouth” recommendation.

We all approach the equivalent of Jacob’s well every day. There is our workplace, the gym, and the stores and restaurants that we frequent. There are on-line email relationships and chat rooms. We don’t have to lead with “Jesus” in those places. We need to be led by Jesus into the quiet conversations of our relationships.

People are jaded by superficial relationships and alienated by the results of trust misplaced on to people and institutions who have proved unfaithful. If you have a genuine relationship with Christ–meaning you have frequent and pleasant conversations with him as your best friend, take delight in reading his letters and live by his Spirit–then you have something real to share with someone by demonstrating love without asking for anything in return and, when you are asked, by sharing where you find hope and encouragement (1 Peter 3:15-16, 4:7-11).

Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well isn’t just a nice story. Its power lies in the fact that Jesus takes an ordinary encounter, on an ordinary day, with an ordinary person and offers an extraordinary future and a hope to her in love. She then simply tells her story of who Jesus is and what he has done for her and her whole town comes to belief. Witness doesn’t have to be fancy and should never be complicated or angry. Our testimony of Christ should be straight talk among true friends.

Your witness has to be as authentic as requesting a drink of water on a hot day from whoever you meet that can give it to you and thanking them or by offering someone the same hospitality; by sharing the story of what Jesus has done in your heart and mind with someone who knows, really knows, that you care about him or her;  by truthfully telling where you find hope and encouragement when you are asked; and by living honestly and openly regardless of the circumstances. Anything more than that and you are probably making it up and your witness will fail for lack of credibility.

My hope in all of this is to spread some more grace around and encourage you to do the same. Our Father is rich in love, you know, and there is plenty to go around. We need to take this word to heart and spread the good news.

“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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