Jesus the Evangelist
Our Lord Jesus gave us the greatest example of preaching, but he also gave us the greatest example of evangelism. In this lecture I want to look at one specific example of his evangelistic technique — his contact with the Samaritan Woman (John 4).
In the New Testament, there are two great evangelistic techniques and these are the ones we must cultivate — preaching and conversation (or debate). Here we see Jesus evangelising via a conversation.
Jesus met this Samaritan woman one day, apparently by accident, beside a well. After their meeting she went and invited the people of her town to come to see Jesus — “a man who told me everything I ever did”, and asked them to consider if he was the Christ. As a result many of them believed in Jesus. How had this come about? We would be delighted with such success in cross-cultural evangelism. What was Jesus’ secret? In a nutshell, it was that he understood her. What impressed her most was that here was a man who knew her, understood her and revealed her deepest needs — “he told me everything I ever did”. He related to her personally.
This is crucially important in our postmodern age. In the modern age, people were more concerned with precise scientific explanations, with evidence, with rationality. Today people are, by and large, more concerned with personal meaning. The question asked is not, “Is it true?” but “How does it feel?” How are we to relate to this?
The Christian gospel is true. In fact Jesus makes claims to exclusive truth — “I am the way and the truth and the life”. But this does not mean that we have exhausted our job of communicating the gospel when we have declared the doctrines of the Christian faith in a purely rational, impersonal way. As we saw in the preaching of Jesus, we must illustrate and apply. We must make the gospel personal. Or, to put it another way, we must make people see that the gospel is personal. Jesus relates to their personal lives, to their personal needs. If we are to follow the example of Jesus, as I believe we must, how are we to go about evangelising?
Get Involved (John 4:4-9)
Who spoke first? Jesus or the woman? It was Jesus. He took the initiative. He started the conversation. He got involved. He broke down the barriers. This was utterly amazing to the woman. She was bound by the prejudices of her time and place. Men, especially religious men, didn’t speak to women in public (the Pharisees wouldn’t even speak to their own wives if they passed them on the street!) But especially, Jews had no dealings with Samaritans. This means literally that they wouldn’t even use the same dishes that Samaritans used. And here was Jesus asking her for a drink from her cup!
Why was there such animosity between Jews and Samaritans? Like most prejudices, it went back hundreds of years. It went back to the time when the Jews returned from exile in Babylon from 538 BC onwards, and were met with hostility by the people who had been settled in the area of Samaria. Scholars disagree if these people are to be identified as the ancestors of the NT Samaritans, but it is clear from Josephus, the Jewish historian, that the Jews so identified them. At any rate the Samaritans of Jesus’ day had a form of Old Testament religion — they recognised the Books of Moses, the first five books of the OT, as Scripture, and they had built a Temple on Mount Gerizim.
We are confronted with similar prejudices in our day: Muslims and Christians, Protestants and Catholics, black and white, Spanish and Indian, urban and rural, Scots and English! What is our attitude? Are we going to follow the example of the Jews and Samaritans? Or are we going to follow the example of Jesus?
Jesus knew the woman’s prejudice, but he overcame it. He had no prejudice against her, although she had against him. So by taking the initiative, he broke down the barrier. Why did he break down the barrier? There are two levels of answer. First, he broke down the barrier, because he needed her help. He was thirsty. He needed a drink and she had the container to draw water. This is significant. Jesus was unafraid to show his vulnerability and dependence on others. He was constantly borrowing — a boat from Simon, a donkey to ride on, an upper room in which to have the Last Supper. So often, we are afraid to ask non-Christians for help or to learn from them. All human beings are made in the image of God and, under God’s common grace, are able to contribute to the welfare of society and to the increase of knowledge in many areas. We should not be reluctant to seek help from a doctor, or a mechanic, or a friend, just because they are not Christians. In this way barriers are broken down. If you want to evangelise, you must break down barriers. You must not have a superior attitude that says, “You can’t do anything for me. I must help you!”
Second, Jesus wanted to get involved. He saw this woman as a needy human being. So he treated her as a human being — a person made for God, but running from God. He spoke to her. He showed no prejudice. There was no barrier on his side. He wanted to lead this woman to believe in himself, so he made contact, he got involved with her. We too need to get involved with people. You cannot evangelise at arms-length! Jesus would not have met this woman if he had not deliberately passed through Samaria, and if he had not gone to the well. We must mix with people in everyday activities — shopping, sports, work, hobbies.
Recently a young man has become a Christian in our church in Edinburgh. He had no church background of any kind. But he and my son share an interest. They are both singers in rock bands. Over a period of seven years my son talked to him and argued with him about the Christian gospel. A few months ago that young man became a Christian. No one can be argued into the kingdom of God; but neither are people converted unless we get involved!
There is another layer of meaning here that we need to note. It involves the culturally symbolic significance of meeting at a well. Not only was the well a symbol of life and value, it was a symbol of meeting. In the Old Testament (in the Books of Moses in particular) the well was the meeting place of the human and the divine (Hagar and the Lord), and the romantic meeting place of man and woman (Jacob and Rachel). Jesus is well aware of this symbolism as he meets this woman. She is an outcast like Hagar. Yet he intends to win her heart, not romantically (although that may have been in her mind), but as her Saviour.
As we evangelise, we must be aware of people’s history — not only their personal histories, but also their collective histories — the history of their people. There will be incidents and nuances of meaning that may be significant as we try to win them for Christ. And we should be unashamed to become involved with social outcasts, even at the risk of misunderstanding. The disciples were surprised to find him talking to a woman. Later, he was accused of being a friend of tax-collectors and sinners, a glutton and a drunkard. Obviously, he was not above suspicion. But he was above reproach. That is what we must be: involved, but above reproach.
Arouse Curiosity (John 4:10-12)
To a certain extent, Jesus has already aroused the woman’s curiosity by asking her for a drink. To begin with, her idea of Jesus is simply that he is a Jew (we will see how her ideas about Jesus change), so she is puzzled why he is asking her for a drink. We should not be predictable and boring. People have certain ideas and preconceptions about what a Christian is. Postmoderns believe organised religion is dangerous and Christians are intolerant hypocrites. We must pleasantly surprise them! We must arouse their curiosity!
Jesus certainly intensifies her curiosity by what he says next. He responds with the kind of humorous riddle that people of the Orient love. He says, “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.” He speaks of a gift from God. He speaks of living water. And he raises the question of who he really is. All these are calculated to intensify the woman’s curiosity. She begins to wonder, “Does God really give a gift that doesn’t have to be earned? What’s living water? And who is this man anyway?”
What she actually says is, “You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob who gave us this well…?” Either she is rather stupid, or perhaps (more likely, I think) she is deliberately taking his words in a physical sense, out of humour or to provoke this stranger at the well. But the point is she is hooked. Not only has she begun to discuss living water (she may think he meant fresh, running water), but she also is considering more particularly who Jesus is. Even half humorously, or sceptically, she is wondering if he is claiming to be greater than Jacob whom the Samaritans revered.
What Jesus says is deliberately mysterious. He often uses such mysterious sayings to arouse curiosity. In the age of modernity, Christians were ashamed of the mysterious. Everything had to be explained rationally. But in the postmodern age, people love mystery. They realise that everything cannot be explained with unaided human reason. There the Christian agrees with them, although we would not reject reason altogether. However, this is a point of contact. We should not hide the mystery and the poetic. Rather, we should present it boldly as part of the full-orbed Christian message. We will find it will attract, not repel.
Appeal to a Longing for Satisfaction (John 4:13-15)
Jesus then turns the conversation to a deeper level. He knows that not only is this woman curious, she also longs for satisfaction in life. Like many others she had not found it. She had been married five times and now was living with another man. She longed for real love and fulfilment but had not found it.
Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones sang: “I can’t get no satisfaction”. And this is the testimony of millions, even of those who seem to have it all. Boris Becker, the tennis player, tried to commit suicide: “I had won Wimbledon twice before, once as the youngest player. I was rich. I had all the material possessions I needed: money, cars, women, everything… I know that this is a cliché. It’s the old song of the movie and pop stars who commit suicide. They have everything and yet they are so unhappy… I had no inner peace. I was a puppet on a string.” No satisfaction!
This is a common human experience. In the eighteenth century, Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, expressed it for that generation:
But pleasures are like poppies spread
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed
Or like the snow falls in the river
A moment white — then melts forever.
Author Douglas Coupland speaks for the postmodern Generation X when he says: “My secret is I need God — I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.” Unfulfilled longings for real love — these are deep in people’s hearts today, not only in Jesus’ day. No satisfaction!
Jesus speaks of recurring, unsatisfied thirst — something the woman could identify with: she had to come to the well every day for water. But he also says that he can satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart. The gift he gives is living water — a spring of water welling up to eternal life. He is speaking of spiritual life — a living relationship with the living God.
The woman appears to misunderstand this. She seems to think that he is talking about some sort of miraculous (but still physical) water that will end the necessity of her daily drudgery of coming to the well. But whatever Jesus is talking about, she wants it! She wants to escape from her daily round of longing and dissatisfaction. She may still be talking in a semi-jocular, teasing manner, but it is clear that Jesus’ words have stirred up some interest within her.
This is one of the major attractions of the Christian gospel to a jaded and dissatisfied world. This was true in the Greek and Roman world of the first century AD. It is still true in this tired postmodern world. Lasting fulfilment and satisfaction still eludes sinful man.
Target Conscience (John 4:16-18)
Jesus then seems abruptly to change the subject. Apparently out of the blue, he tells her to fetch her husband! Just as suddenly a change comes over the woman. Whereas before she is loquacious and ready to engage in banter with this stranger, now she is tight-lipped. Her answer is given in three short Greek words! “I’ve no husband.” It is obvious Jesus has touched a raw nerve!
What’s going on here? What is Jesus playing at? He seems to have been proceeding gently until now — winning her over gradually. Now he seems to have blown it. He has touched a personal sensitive area. And she is on her guard. But he ploughs on. He exposes the fact that she has been married five times and now is living with another man. She has possibly been divorced five times! She must have been a very attractive woman, but impossible to live with!
In any age, but particularly in ours, these are sensitive personal matters. Our postmodern age believes sexual morality is personal. It does not involve wider society. No one has a right to interfere. So why does Jesus interfere? Why does he bring this into the conversation?
He is targeting the woman’s conscience. He has aroused her curiosity. He has appealed to her longing for satisfaction. Now he addresses the fact she is a sinner. This is where we so often fail today. On the one hand, some Christians launch straight into the subject of sin. They have not won people’s interest or confidence, and so they offend. But on the other hand, some of us never get round to really talking about sin — real personal sin. Jesus shows us the perfect balance. He has won her interest and confidence, now he addresses her shame and guilt.
Although the modern and postmodern worlds have tried to do away with the ideas of sin and guilt, they have kept recurring with a vengeance. One of the classic examples of this is The Fall written by Albert Camus, the French existentialist. The narrator once saw a young woman about to commit suicide by throwing herself off a bridge into the River Seine in Paris. He did nothing to stop her. Ever after, he is plagued by guilt-feelings. He has no moral categories to identify any particular sin, confess it and find forgiveness. Instead he torments himself with a general feeling of guilt.
Just because the world has tried to explain away sin and guilt, this does not obliterate conscience. God has created us in his own image and that means we have consciences. But without a clear moral law, conscience goes wild. This is why we do a great disservice to people if we do not target conscience and show the Bible gives us clear moral rules and a way of forgiveness for those who have broken the law. People are plagued by guilt today, but only make themselves feel more guilty by telling themselves they shouldn’t feel guilty!
Although the Samaritan woman is taken aback at first, Jesus’ change of tack does not put her off. Instead she comes to a higher opinion of Jesus. To begin with, he was just a Jewish man (v.9). Then she posed the question whether he was greater than Jacob (v.12). But now she considers him to be a prophet (v.19)! This is because he has revealed her innermost hurt and guilt. In this we cannot completely emulate our Lord, because here we see his divine omniscience at work: “He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man” (John 2:25).
However, we too ought to study human nature so that we will be able to relate the gospel to where people are at, and to scratch where they itch! If we are to follow Jesus in our evangelism, we must bring the gospel in all its fullness to bear on the human heart — and this includes human guilt. Only by appreciating that he is wrong, can a person truly come to Jesus to be put right.
Answer Hard Questions (John 4:19-26)
Immediately the woman mentions the word prophet, she thinks of religion. Since she regards Jesus as a prophet, he should be able to answer a question that has always puzzled her. Jews and Samaritans believe different things and worship in a different way. Her problem and the way she states it is very modern. She just states it. She doesn’t say one’s right and the other’s wrong. She doesn’t even ask which one is right. The fact that religions make competing absolute claims does not make people today ask: Which one is right? It makes them sceptical about all organised religion, and gives them another reason to excuse themselves from being religious.
What is Jesus’ response? The way he responds is highly significant. Some of us in a similar situation might feel that the woman was trying desperately to change the subject, because she felt uncomfortable about her own private life being the subject of discussion. She was trying to wriggle off the hook, by raising a red herring (an interesting mixed metaphor!) We would want to drag the conversation back to “her real problem” and go on about her sexual sin.
The fact that Jesus does not do this has a lot to teach us. It teaches us sensitivity. We don’t need to hit people over the head in order to win them for Christ! We need to make the point about sin, but we don’t need to go on and on about it. Jesus had made the point and he moved on.
He is also treating her as a person — a person with ideas and questions that are important and valid. He doesn’t say her question is a red herring, although she may have been very happy to change the subject! He treats her with respect and dignity as a person, and he treats her question as important. If you want to be an evangelist, you must learn to do the same. You must deal with the real questions people ask, not with the ones you would like to answer!
How does Jesus deal, then, with this point the woman raises (vs. 21-24)? It is essential that we understand and take to heart his approach, because he is dealing with a problem we will all have to confront in this postmodern age.
First, Jesus stresses that no human religion is adequate. Both the Jewish and the Samaritan ideas and practices are about to be superseded. Both Jews and Samaritans failed to take into account the progressive nature of God’s revelation. The Samaritans had got stuck with the first five books of the Bible and with a particular (and wrong) understanding of what God commanded about Mount Gerizim (Deuteronomy 27). The Jews had got stuck with the Old Testament and a particular (and wrong) understanding of what God had commanded David and Solomon about the Temple. They both thought that they had the final word, but they didn’t. God’s final word was just about to be spoken — in Jesus Christ himself. Gerizim and Jerusalem were both pointing forward to Christ. However, although God’s revelation of truth is progressive, it is not perpetually progressive. Jesus clearly shows that the progression is just about to reach its climax and completion. It is important that we communicate this today, so that people don’t get stuck with Old Testament ideas that have been fulfilled in Christ — like Roman Catholics with priesthood, or theonomy with the civil laws of Israel.
Equally important, however, is Jesus’ emphasis on the exclusive nature of God’s revelation of truth. Having stressed the inadequacy of both Jewish and Samaritan ideas, he now stresses that God has made his will clear to and through the Jewish people. It is not just that the Jews have a clearer idea of God (because they accept the whole of God’s revelation so far), it’s that salvation is of the Jews. God has been working through the history of the Jewish people to achieve his purposes. That’s why Jesus identifies himself as Jewish (he says, “We worship what we do know”). There is an exclusive aspect to the truth. Ultimately salvation is from the Jews, not from the Samaritans — because Jesus is a Jew and the whole history of his people was heading to this great climax. We should never forget that Jesus is a Jew and that Christianity is Jewish! And we should never forget in our evangelism that God’s truth is exclusive. Jesus does not try to make a synthesis of Samaritanism and Judaism. The truth excludes error. God’s truth is not relatively true. It is absolutely true. We cannot compromise the truth of the gospel. The Bible is not just one truth among many. In this we will be cutting across the spirit of our age, but in loyalty to our Saviour we must do it.
Jesus stresses that salvation is of the Jews. Christianity is not fundamentally about knowledge. Our basic problem is not that we are ignorant and we need better knowledge. It is that we are enslaved and sinful and we need to be saved. The whole history of Israel was a history of salvation. In the two great events of Israel’s history — the Exodus and the return from Exile — God acted in a sovereign way to deliver his people from oppression. But it is clear that the basic enslavement and oppression of Israel was not political but spiritual.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid upon him the iniquity of us all.Isaiah 53:6
In our evangelism we must stress, as central to the Christian faith, God’s sovereign salvation. God alone can save. And he saves only through his Son, Jesus Christ. And it is only Jesus’ righteous life, atoning death and life-giving resurrection that saves from sin. We are weak and powerless and cannot save ourselves. Postmodern men and women find this objectionable. They claim to have given up rationalism, but they have not given up humanism — the belief that the answer lies with ourselves. Until people accept that only God can save them, they will never become Christians. We must not compromise on that!
It is also clear from the OT that God’s purposes would embrace all nations, not only Israel. In the inauguration of the covenant with Abraham, it is made plain that through Abraham, and through his seed, all nations on earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:3, 22:18). This is on the brink of being fulfilled as Jesus speaks to this woman. The true worshippers of God will not be tied to any one place or temple or nation. They will worship God in spirit and in truth. The way is open to Samaritan as well as Jew, because of God’s sovereign salvation. No longer, as in the childhood of the human race, will people worship through physical rituals in particular places and in ethnic groups.
May the peoples praise you, O God; may all the peoples praise you. May the nations be glad and sing for joy…Psalm 67:3, 4
Now people must worship in spirit — as those come of age, in all the glory of their personhood, being made in the image of God as spiritual beings. And they must worship in truth — according to what God has revealed, as well as genuinely and in sincerity.
All this is good news to this woman. The way to God is not closed off to her because of particular ritualistic laws and ethnic identity or because she is a social outcast. The way is open for all to come.
We have tried to outline Jesus’ thinking in his conversation with this woman — his methodology in personal evangelism. But was it successful? What effect did it have on the woman?
I have no doubt that this woman came to faith in Jesus Christ. Some may feel that her invitation to her fellow townspeople falls short of full faith, because she asks, “Could this be the Christ?” (John 4:29) However, this ignores two things. First, in these words she is inviting others, not making a statement of her own faith. She is being wise in her choice of words. She is not deciding the issue for them. She is inviting them to consider Jesus for themselves. After all, she is saying, “Come, see a man!” Why would she do that if Jesus had no effect on her?
Second, and more clearly, she says, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did.” Making allowance for the extravagance of her language, what does she mean? I have no doubt that her words are explained by the last part of her conversation with Jesus. She says, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” And Jesus replied, “I who speak to you am he” (John 4:25, 26). So we now have three pieces of information. The woman believes the Christ will explain everything. Jesus claims to be the Christ. And the woman states that Jesus has told her everything about herself. The only logical conclusion is that she agrees with Jesus’ statement that he is the Christ. She is converted.
Isn’t it interesting that the woman immediately goes to tell others. This is the sure sign of real faith. Let’s follow her example of following the example of Jesus!