The Truth

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

Dear Friends:

Then the woman left her water jar and went back into the city. She said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything that I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he? Then they left the city and were on their way to him. (Jn 4:28-30).

“Everything” is known about her and precisely because it has been brought out in the noonday light, it has lost its dark, oppressive grip on her soul. Nothing seems the same. It is as if she has awakened from a coma.

Job emerged from the fog of suffering, doubt and self-absorption and said to God, “Wow! I had heard of you with head knowledge, but now I see you in my heart and it devastates me with a desire for your difference” (Job 42:3-6, my paraphrase). She feels like that.

“This Living Water is great stuff!” She leaves her old water jar behind when she leaves for the city. It had brought her to Jesus, but now she didn’t need it. When you possess the spring, you don’t need the canteen.

“What is this strange feeling, exactly? It’s joy. . . incredible!” She has to tell someone. That is her sudden, overwhelming urge .

The townspeople, especially the women, have held her past against her. This shame has defined her life right down to her everyday trudge out to the well alone

No more! Forget all that now! The locals wouldn’t speak to her and shunned her with silence. But now she talks to them with a surprising message, “I’ve met a man who told me everything about me like he’s known me all my life–EVERYTHING! Could he be the Messiah?”

In our day, someone who has been overwhelmed by grace and kindness in the face of great shame might ask, “Could this be Jesus?”

Indeed, he fills your heart until you want to leave the old buckets and bottles behind to run ahead. A changed and open heart is the wellspring of new life shared together (compare 2 Cor 6:11). You, who were so fixed on just getting yourself by, now want to share this blessing with others so they can experience the joy too.

What makes the Living Water “live” is the Spirit of God blowing across it as on the first day of Creation (Gen 1:2; Jn 3:5-8). Thirsty people come for the drink and are swept away together by the tsunami of grace.

“He has told me everything that I’ve done.” The bared soul is an absolute essential in a life with God. If we cling to our secrets and maintain our pride, he cannot cleanse and fill us. David prayed in repentance,”You desire truth in the inward being. . . Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. . . The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:6-7, 17). Cleansing is the first step in the new life with Christ.

Confession keeps the community of believers real, accountable and healthy. “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed” (Js 5:8). This blessing has been obscured to this age along with the sense of sin that compels the confession. It has been hidden behind a haze of humanistic teachings and pop-psychology fads ranging from existentialism to the self-esteem movement, excusing sin as mental illness or addiction or the product of genetic and environmental determinism of evolution. These alternatives deceptively contend that we are excused rather than pardoned. They deny human freedom of choice.

Without choice there is no confession. Without confession there is no forgiveness. Without forgiveness there is no freedom before God and others. The First Letter of John tells us succinctly that there is no other way to salvation and the community of faith except entry through our honest confession of sin into the light of Christ.

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true, but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us (1 Jn 1:5-10)

One of the words used by Scripture and believers for the gospel is “The Truth.” Introducing someone to Jesus as the promised Messiah is referred to as “Bringing her to the Truth.” Jesus knew what she had done in the past. The townsfolk knew a lot about what she had done. Now, with joy and without sad defensiveness, she acknowledges the truth with her own lips and gives credit to Jesus for making an honest woman out of her. The authenticity of her testimony compels them to want to meet Jesus for themselves.

That’s the way it is in my experience. It’s been a blessing for me to lead a number of men and women to meet and receive Christ as their Savior and Lord and it has been authentic, unpretentious testimony of who Christ is and what he has done for me that has made the connection.

When I have tried to reach people with formulas, principles and doctrines, I have been answering questions that they aren’t asking. It was like trying to sell fur parkas to residents of Tahiti. They weren’t buying it.

When I have said, “This is who I am, warts and all, this is what I have done, but this is the difference that Jesus Christ has made in me and for me, they often say, “Tell me more. How can I know him too.”

The woman leaves the water jar behind when she goes to share Jesus because she has become the vessel, nothing fancy, just the credibility of an experienced, flawed, grateful woman sharing the truth. That’s what the Apostle Paul is talking about when he writes to the Corinthian believers:

We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God . . .  For we do not proclaim ourselves, we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord . . .For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us (2 Cor 4:2,5-7).

You can look it up for yourselves, but Jesus usually faced arguments in the synagogue and at the temple. Generally, those encounters ended with plots or efforts to kill him. He won people’s hearts in fishing boats, hillsides, market places, living rooms, campfires, pig farms, city streets, dinner parties, tax collector’s offices, and here at the town well. In other words, he appeals to people in the everyday reality of their lives. He comes for those who need him, where they need him.

The week of his crucifixion,Jesus told the priests and the elders that the despised prostitutes and tax collectors would enter the kingdom of God before them because they believed they needed God, but the religious leaders believed that their position, knowledge and virtue were enough (Matt 21:28-32). His invitation is to all of us, but can only be accepted by the honest.

“Come to me all of you who are exhausted, stressed-out, hassled, insecure, working too hard and carrying loads beyond your strength, and I will give you rest. You will find the connection with me won’t jerk you around and walking in step with me won’t blister your feet. Learn from me that it is so much easier to live with me than without me because I will carry your load and you can lean on me all the way” (Matt 11:28-32, my paraphrase).

This story began with conflict and prejudice. Harsh judgments were the rule. Now ,In the village of Sychar, on this hot afternoon, the men and women, boys and girls, are excited to find out through the most unlikely of their citizens the truth. God loves them and comes to them personally, not in Jerusalem or on their own holy mountain, but right where they live. There is no greater or healing truth than that–for us too (Jn 3:16) Receive it for what it is. Receive him for who he is.

As I wrote this message a favorite song of mine ran through my mind. Here it is. I hope it speaks to you the essence of what I am writing about.

BID THEM COME

By David Teems

This worlds overdue for getting crazy
tensions had to rise
there’s a trembling earth beneath my feet
and a trembling in the skies
So keep your eyes upon us, Lord
Please hear this final prayer
There’s a multitude yet to come to you
and I know they’re out there.

Bid them come, Lord Jesus, Bid them come
Bid them come, Lord Jesus, Bid them come
Bring the hungry to your table
the shattered to your feet
and those on paths of desperation
Bid them come

When I consider all this madness
and poor attempts to reconcile
at times my understanding is no greater than a child’s
So I’ll gather with you weary
and I’ll gather with you weak
with you exposed and unprotected
who long to hear them speak…

Bid them come, Lord Jesus, Bid them come
Bid them come, Lord Jesus, Bid them come
Bring the hungry to your table
the shattered to your feet
and those on paths of desperation
Bid them come

© MCMXCIII Penn Avenue Publishing / BMI Rory Knapton Music / BMI
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

“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,

Kent

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Silent Questions

This is the fourteenth message in a series on Jesus’ encounter with the woman at Jacob’s well recorded in John 4. I apologize for the break last week due to travel.

Dear Friends:

Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” (Jn 4:27).

This is a direct, in-depth conversation between Jesus and the woman. No one else’s fingerprints are on it. Jesus speaks to her with a directness that respects her dignity as a woman and a daughter of God. He knows all about her past, her failed relationships, struggles, loneliness, and “the put-downs” that she endures daily. He honors her intelligence by listening to her and responding with caring honesty.

This is the way that women and men hope it will be with Jesus–a real, intimate relationship in everyday life–not a power contest to dominate or be dominated in the name of virtue. Jesus brought ethical reform to a society and a religious culture that made divorce so easy and advantageous for feckless men that women and children were turned out into the streets in droves, suffering and powerless.

In every encounter with a woman, whether poor or wealthy, married or single, Jew or Gentile, Jesus broke with patriarchal tradition to give righteous respect. In the words of Dorothy Sayers, Jesus “treated women like human beings.”

Since, by Jesus’ own confession, “The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing,” this respect for women originates with God the Father.

While the disciples were out running their errands, Jesus was sticking to his mission which is reconciling men and women to God. He makes no distinction between them in offering them full citizenship in his kingdom (Gal 3:28).

The disciples have followed Jesus seeking change through his teaching, but the thought that his teaching and the hoped for change might include women apparently has never occurred to them. This reduces them to speechless confusion. They can’t decide whether to ask the woman or Jesus what is going on. Writing sixty years after-the-fact, John keenly remembers the awkwardness of the moment.

I wish that the disciples had asked their questions on this hot noonday. Jesus would have had opportunity to address the great and wounding silence regarding the place and role of women that has afflicted Christendom for 2,000 years and denied the world half of the voice that could be publicly proclaiming the message of Christ.

Some might say that he could have read the disciples’ unspoken questions the way that he read the woman’s real thirst and he could have given a definitive answer on the role of women. But Jesus was answering their questions by speaking with the woman and listening to her with great care. He’s heard her out on issues ranging from the practical to the deeply spiritual and responded to her with gracious dignity.

Soon he will receive the people from the town of Sychar that she, a former social pariah transformed by his grace, will introduce him to as their Messiah. “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (Jn 4:39a). There is only one other example in the Gospels of such powerful evangelistic witness following an encounter with Jesus (Luke 8:26-39).

Women have been influential in leading me to Christ and encouraging my walk with him. I am amazed, humbled and eternally grateful for the devotion of female spiritual guides, preachers and leaders who persist in their God-given gifts and Spirit-led ministries in the face of antagonism, abuse and stolid rejection.

The disciples are learning something new that is from God and of God in watching Jesus with the woman. They may have their questions but they have a choice to make between what they see Jesus doing and what they have believed all their lives. If there is some belief in our human hearts and minds that Jesus cannot soften and cannot change, then at best we are only devoted to our idea of him, and at worst we are entrenched in our strongholds of proud rebellion. Will we embrace Jesus’ example or attempt to explain it away?

Even as the boundaries and walls occupy the attention of those who would preserve and strengthen them and those who would eliminate them, we must remember that “Something greater than the temple is here” and he desires “mercy not sacrifice” (Matt 12:6-7).  Construct carefully and slowly or tear down as we may, it is Jesus who will stand and live when it is all said and done (Jn 2:20-22). Against all other competing voices, thoughts, preconceptions and demands, Jesus is the one to whom we must pay attention.

“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,

Kent

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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,

Kent

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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 her  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,

Kent

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