For the past several months, we have been exploring how to share and live out the gospel in a post post-modern and post-Christian culture. Having looked at the state of our culture, we are now considering how we respond with the gospel. Specifically, we are looking at the example Jesus provided when He encountered the woman at the well, and how He provided a timeless example of how to share the Good News. Last time we looked at how Jesus reveals the woman’s true inner thirst for God. Today we’ll look at how He reveals to her the emptiness of her current attempts to quench that thirst.
He said to her, “Go, call your husband and come here.” The woman answered and said to Him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this which you have said is true.” – John 4:16-18
Metaphors, illustrations, inclusios, alliteration – throughout the Bible we find all kinds of literary devices that God uses to inspire His messengers. But a non-sequitur? I can’t recall coming across that particular device in my seminary hermeneutics classes. Yet, looking at Jesus’ response to the women at the well and her request for living water, this seems to be just what He uses. She asks for living water, and He responds with a command for her to call her husband. How does that follow?
Perfectly, it turns out. If we know Jesus and His ways.
While it seems like Jesus is changing the subject here, He is actually doing just the opposite. He knows the woman can’t obtain the power of the living water He supplies until she comprehends her own need for it. So instead of telling her where to get living water, He starts by pointing her to the things she is clinging to as a substitute.
She has a void in her life that only God can fill, and yet she is desperately trying to fill it with something else; namely men. And she keeps going back to that well. She has husband after husband, but none work out. And now she’s at a point where she’s not even bothering with marriage! Jesus isn’t changing the subject, but rather demonstrating for her what she needs to lay aside in order to receive the true hope only He provides.
There is a yarn – perhaps true, perhaps fable – regarding the best way to catch a monkey. As it goes, one must drill a hole in a large empty gourd just large enough to fit the monkey’s unclenched hand. Next, one places a treat of some kind inside the gourd. When the monkey reaches into the gourd to retrieve the treat, it will clench its fist to grab it. However, once clenched, the ape’s fist will longer fit through the hole. He (or she) will have to let go of the treat to escape from the gourd – but alas will not do so because this would mean losing the treat.
It turns out monkeys and humans have some things in common. We too are unwilling to let go some of the lures of this world, even if it costs us our freedom. This is especially true of unbelievers. The monkey is bound to a gourd, but the unbeliever is chained to any number of traps; things they cling to in hopes of filling the void marked by the absence of a relationship with God.
Yet, while the void in the Samaritan woman’s life is common to all unbelievers, what they seek to fill it with differs. For her it was men, for others its status, others power, and still others money. Some fill it with alcohol, others drugs, and others pornography. But it’s not just about bad things – some will try to fill the void with possessions, and others even with family. Whatever that thing is, the unbeliever tries in vain to use it as a substitute for God – as an idol.
Jesus here shows us an essential step in His sharing truth. He takes the time to know the woman’s sin – to understand her need and what she is trying to meet it with. Jesus shows her that she is trying to meet the void she has with God through empty relationships with men. He does something similar with Nicodemus in John Chapter 3 – who had a different void. Diagnosing Nicodemus’ need for spiritual rebirth, He talks of being born again. The point is this; as Jesus interacts with people throughout His ministry, we see Him first diagnosing the nature of their need and then responding to it. We need to do the same thing! Because everyone’s need is different.
But there is something else to consider. Jesus skips a step in His evangelism that we cannot. He didn’t ask questions. Why? Because He didn’t have to. He’s God. He knows all. We, however, are not God. We have to find out. Our evangelism cannot start with the mouth. It must start with our ears. As we enter into our spiritual journeys with others, we must begin with the loving act of listening.
Listen to know.
Listen to understand.
Listen to love.
Too often we simply throw the gospel at people and declare “seed planted.” But if that is our approach we’re likely throwing a lot of seed on hard ground. To prepare soil, we need to work it. To prepare hearts, we need to know and understand them. When we know this – just like Jesus – we can see the void in other’s lives and help them fill it with the one and only True Hope.