The stories of the Bible are timeless. Which means the human condition does not fundamentally change from century to century, millennium to millennium. We don’t have to look far in the Bible to find our own story many times over.
The unnamed Samaritan was a first-century Samaritan. In so many ways, she is a 21st-century person, woman or man. It is good we don’t know her name, because we might overlook the fact that her name might actually be ours.
She had done what the divorce rate in our own country demonstrates we are doing—sought fulfillment in one relationship after another. All she had discovered, once she was able to work through the metaphor of drawing water from a physical well, was that she was the empty well herself—a dark hole of human need to which there was no bottom.
Or, to look at it from another direction, she had been drawing on wells, human wells, the affection and excitement of which slaked her spiritual soul’s needs only temporarily and only leaving her all the thirstier. Looking closely, is she that different from most of us?
Henri Nouwen’s words in the book The Wounded Healer haunt me: “We too easily relate to our human world with devastating expectations. We ignore what we already know with a deep-seated, intuitive knowledge, that no love or friendship, no intimate embrace or tender kiss, no community, commune or collective, no man or woman, will ever be able to satisfy our desire to be released from our lonely condition.
“We keep hoping that one day we will find the man who really understands or the woman who will bring peace to our restless life, the job where we can fulfill our potentials, the book which will explain everything and the place where we can feel at home.
“Such false hope leads us to make exhausting demands and prepares us for bitterness and dangerous hostility when we start discovering that nobody, and nothing, can live up to our expectations. Many marriages are ruined because neither partner was able to fulfill the often hidden hope that the other would take his or her loneliness away. And many (single people) live with the naïve dream that in the intimacy of marriage their loneliness will be taken away.”
The woman in our story was fascinated by the fact that Jesus was a Jew and she was a Samaritan. The Gospel writer compels us to move quickly beyond the racial issue in this story to the moral one and holds it up as a model of how marvelous the grace of God is.
Here is Jesus talking to this woman in spite of the fact that he knows the rest of her story. Indeed, beyond that, Jesus is modeling the fact that, because of the grace of God, Jesus is not talking to her in spite of the fact that he knew the rest of the story but because he knew the rest of the story.
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There is all the difference in the world between “in spite of” and “because of.” In other words, there is all the difference in the world between a grace that accommodates us despite our sin and a grace that reaches out to us specifically because of it. Over and over again, this is the pattern of Jesus. He demonstrates a grace that he knows the rest of our story long before we think we have surprised God with our confession of it.
Did you ever think about that? That God, in God’s grace, does not look down on us condescendingly but, in grace, reaches out to us compassionately? Grace is not God breaking God’s own rules when God forgives us. God’s forgiveness is the rule. There is all the difference in the world between a God who is just doing us a favor and a God who loves because God can’t do anything but love us.
It is out this kind of encounter with Jesus that true evangelism germinates in our relationships with others. After the Samaritan woman discovered Jesus loved her as she was, she was able to go back to her own people and tell them of her personal encounter.
Our most effective efforts in sharing our faith with others almost always happens first with those who have known us for what we have been and then discover what Jesus has made of us. The bridge of trust is built much more quickly among those with whom we have lived most closely and have seen genuine transformation take place in our lives because of an encounter with Christ.
The call of Christ to do mission work may take some people across the state, the nation, or across oceans and continents. Most of us will discover the call of Christ will, first, simply take us across the street to our closest neighbors.
Verse 39 is a powerful witness to this kind of evangelism. Going back to her own people, the people who knew her story heard her say of Jesus, “‘He told me everything I have ever done.’” She was saying more than that. It wasn’t just that Jesus knew everything about her but loved everything about her, too.
There is no more powerful story in the world than your own story of what Jesus knows about you and how that same Jesus loved you, not just in spite of it, but because of it.