The one thing that I would want to say about the Bible, no matter what else anyone would say about it, is that the Bible is a living book, I mean that it is a book that you won’t just read and put away on the shelf like a novel about which you can say, “Well, I read that.” It is more like a friend that you would call up, or visit, to talk with, to get his advice on something important, or to see if you could figure out a problem together. It helps me to think in picture language, and I have always pictured the Bible as rather like a guide book that you would use if you went on a tour of a foreign country. When you stop before some building or some ruin, then you could look it up in your guidebook and the book would tell you where you are and what you are seeing. No one, therefore, really has learned the Bible. What we really do is that we learn where we are by means of the Bible.
This story about the woman at the well… a great story: John 4:7-26 7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” 11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?” 13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” 16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” 17 “I have no husband,” she replied. Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” 19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” 25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” 26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
I used to think that the way to understand it was that it was an example of a time that Jesus failed. Here he was talking to a woman who never understood what he was saying to her. He spoke of living water and she asked where he was going to get a bucket to draw with. He asked her about her husband who was not her husband and she wanted to talk about where you ought to go to church. But I have another conclusion about this story. I see it as a very good picture of how any of us comes to receive the gift of Jesus Christ. When we hear it, we don’t believe it. We get confused and misunderstand what is being offered to us. We don’t want to hear about it. But then, maybe slowly at first, maybe haltingly, we begin to get the picture, and then, suddenly, everything is changed. In one way or another every one of us is a woman at the well. We need Jesus Christ just as much as she did, no matter how long we have been members of the church. Here, then, is a guidebook to tell us where we are. Let’s look at it again.
The first thing to take note of, it seems to me, is the fact that Christian faith is always a gift of God, not something that we give to Christ, but that he gives to us. Jesus and his disciples had been walking a long way. They were on their way from Judea to Galilee, and the shortest way led through Samaria. They came to the town on Sychar, where there was a well that Jacob had given his son Joseph. Jesus sent his disciples into town to buy bread, while he sat down by the well to rest. It was about noon time, and a woman came out to draw water. And you will notice that Jesus speaks to her first, he took the initiative. The fact is remarkable, the first place, for who she was. She was a woman, and women were regarded in Jesus day as something less than fully human beings. Jesus changed all that, really. It might even be said that the whole movement for equal rights for women has Jesus as its first sponsor. It was the first Christians who said that in Christ there is neither male nor female, and so on. Not only was she a woman, but she was a Samaritan woman. Now, you have heard all of your life what the Jews thought of the Samaritans. They were, as far as the Jews were concerned, idolaters. They practiced impure religion. In fact, it hard for us to imagine in what kind of low esteem the Jews held the Samaritans. We know about racial prejudice, of course, just apply that to the Samaritans, and you get some idea of it. Not only was she a Samaritan woman, but she was a sinner, and Jesus knew all that. What would happen if a black woman who has just escaped from the state prison showed up at church here some Sunday morning? Would anybody speak to her? Jesus did.
And this woman reacted in disbelief. Why do you ask water of me? And Jesus turned the tables on her, he offered her water instead. And she misunderstood, “How are you going to get this water, are you greater than our father Jacob who gave us this well?” And of course, the answer is that he certainly is greater than Jacob.
I see in this story a reflection, a way of seeing where we are when we are offered the gift of Christ. In the first place, the testimony of the scripture in all its pages is that Jesus takes the initiative with us. “It is not that you have chosen me,” he told his disciples. “It is I who have chosen you.” Paul said it, “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” The letter to the Hebrews calls Jesus, “our pioneer and perfector.” It seems to say that wherever we go we need never be afraid, for Christ has already gone before us to prepare the way. Even when we come to the valley of the shadow of death, we can have assurance that Jesus Christ has already passed through the valley for us and made it safe, we can even dare to face death without fear.
And isn’t it true that when Jesus offers himself to us we often misunderstand. We figure that preaching is just somebody trying to get us to do something that we don’t want to do or somebody trying to make us religious when we don’t feel particularly religious.
But when Jesus Christ asks us to do something, he is in reality offering us a gift. When he asked this woman for water, he was really offering her the living waters springing up into everlasting life. When he told the right young ruler to give everything he had away, he was in fact offering his life. I encourage people to tithe for just that reason. I know from my own experience that there is nothing as great as a gift you receive when you give. A lot of people think that tithing is a way to raise money or a way to keep books on how much you are going to give to the church. Tithing is not that at all, it is the disciplined way of receiving Christ as he offers himself to us. I don’t know whether anybody can understand that who does not tithe, so all I can do really is suggest that you give it a try.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Christian theologian who died as a martyr in the Nazi persecution in 1945 said this about the gift of God. “When Christ bids a man to follow him, he bids him come and die, but everybody knows that for Christians death means life.” Jesus offered this nameless woman the water that would quench her thirst forever. He offered her the possibility that she would never have to hide her head in shame again. He offers us the life that never loses hope, that never has to be afraid. And sometimes, sometimes, we begin to see what he has to give and we hold out our hands to receive.
So did she. She said, “Give me this water, sir, that I may not have to come here and draw again.” Now, she still didn’t understand what he was talking about. She thought it was some kind of labor-saving device. So Jesus went to the heart of the matter, he said, “Go call your husband.” She held out her hand to receive the gift of God, and he said to her, “Let me see, are your hands clean?” For although the Gift of God is not restricted to those who deserve it, whose hands are clean and hearts are pure, the gift of God carries with it a demand for what John Wesley called a holiness of heart and life. Christian is a label on our foreheads that makes a difference in our hearts.
When she heard that Jesus knew all about her five husbands and the fact that the man with whom she was living was not her husband, she tried to change the subject. She wanted to discuss religion with him, she said, “Sir I perceive that you are a prophet, tell me, should we go to church here or in Jerusalem?’ And isn’t that the way we want to do it? Jesus starts to make demands on us and we want to turn him aside with idle speculation. I think that there is a lot of that going on today. A great deal of what is so popular in religion today, speaking in tongues, speculating on the end of the world, is idle speculation because it diverts our attention from what Jesus wants us to do. Jesus calls us to root out the demons that possess us and possess our world. Yes, I believe in demons. Not the kind that I understand they have in the movie “The Exorcist”, but the kind that keep us from an inward holiness of the heart, and the kind that keeps us from an outward holiness of life. I for one, see racism as a demon that still has a hold on our lives. Blacks and whites end up hating each other, not because they really hate each other as persons, but because they have grown up that way, because the resentments and the fears of long ages possess us like a demon. And no idle speculation about the end of the world, about whether you ought to worship on this mountain or in Jerusalem ought to divert our attention from the fact that Jesus calls us to take notice of what is going on around us and what is a part of us. Go call your brother, Jesus says, I don’t have a brother, we say. Oh yes you do, says Jesus.
You can see, though, that Jesus was not about to be diverted from pursuing this woman and claiming her for his own. He set he question aside with these words, “The hour is coming and now is, when you will worship God not on this mountain or in Jerusalem, but in Spirit and in truth.” True worship Jesus is set over against the idolatry of idle speculation. For you see, true worship is worshiping Jesus and idolatry is worshiping something we have made, a place, and idea, an accomplishment. Or to say it in in the way that the scripture says it, “We do not root sin out of our lives God does.” Holiness of heart and life is not something that we make for ourselves; it is something that God gives us. Our job is to be ready to receive that gift. This woman did not change her ways, Jesus changed them.
You can see it happening in the story, she begins to see, she says, “I know that Messiah is coming, and when he comes he will show us all things,” and Jesus says, “I am he.” And the story says that although she came to draw from the well of Jacob, she went away and left her water jar there, for she had drunk from the water of life. Nothing was changed, but suddenly everything was different. And whoever receives Christ receives the whole gift, living waters, with all the demand that it lays upon us for our lives to be different, holiness of heart and lie, and grace. Sometimes the gift of Christ comes to us like that woman when we don’t want to be different, we would rather not have anything to do with him, when we would rather hide from what he had in mind for us to do, but you can be sure that the gift of Christ is food for our lives.
One afternoon Rod called me. I had never seen him before, but he said he had to see me right away. I hadn’t any idea why or what for, but I agreed to meet him. He said that since he didn’t have a car I would have to pick him up in the K-Mart parking lot. I said that I would, and I did. It was a long story and a long evening. He was recently released from the prison in Huntsville. He said that someone had told him that he was wanted by the police, but he knew that he had done nothing wrong, would I call the Sheriff to see if he was wanted. “No,” said the Sheriff, he was not wanted.
“Then why would my mother tell me that the police wanted me? Would you call her and ask her?” “Is Rod there,” asked his mother. “We have been looking for him all day. Can you keep him there until we can get someone there to pick him up?”
“I think so. “ I said, trying not to show the worry in my voice that was in my mind. What if he found out? What if he thought that I was trying to do him in? There was considerable relief when two policemen knocked on my office door. There found nothing but fresh needle marks on his arm. But my fears came back when they said they couldn’t arrest him in the church.
He asked me to take him to his apartment to move his clothes to a new place he had found for the night. Suddenly sitting there in the car I realized that I did not know what he might have by way of a weapon in his room. My first impulse was to run, second was to pray, I said, “Well, Lord you got me into this, you will have to get me out.” The police rolled up behind us.
Maybe that was a foolish thing that I got myself into that night. I have thought about it a lot, and I think the truth is that whether God gives us life or death, sickness or health, his gift is living water that spring up into everlasting life.
This sermon was preached by Bill Crouch on February 10, 1974 at both Aubrey United Methodist Church and Pilot Point United Methodist Church. The churches comprised a two point charge in the Dallas-Denton District. Bill Crouch was the district superintendent at the time.