The conversation in John 4 between Jesus and the woman at the well in Samaria is a well-worn passage of the New Testament for good reason. It has most everything that we really like in Jesus stories, not least being an easy place for us to insert ourselves into the conversation. We tend to like stories in the Gospels that allow us to stand in the place of whoever is in front of Jesus because He legitimately seems great and gracious and He always says exactly what we think we’d like to hear.
Except that isn’t actually how things are.
Frederick Buechner puts this wonderfully:
When a minister reads out of the Bible, I am sure that at least nine times our of ten the people who happen to be listening at all hear not what is really being read but only what they expect to hear read. And I think that what most people expect to hear read from the Bible is an edifying story, and uplifting thought, a moral lesson – something elevating, obvious, and boring. So that is exactly what very often they do hear. Only that is too bad because if you really listen – and maybe you have to forget that it is the Bible being read and a minister who is reading it – there is no telling what you might hear.
Frederick Buechner, “The Magnificent Defeat”
Jesus frequently says things that, if they were translated into our present moment, would be difficult to hear. Even in this story in John 4.
We like this story in our world because Jesus is the rebel who breaks all the cultural norms. He is a Jew in the dreaded land of the Samaritans. He is a man talking to a woman in a culture that was very uncomfortable with that sort of thing. He was alone with a woman in the middle of nowhere…no accountability, no checks-and-balances. And He was treating this several-times-around divorcee, who had thrown in the towel on covenants and embraced illicit cohabitation, with the same respect and compassion as He treated everyone else from priests to lawyers to the bushy eye-browed, blue-collar boys who travelled with Him.
Jesus seems to get everything right here, in our opinion.
But there is something that is going on midway through the story that is supposed to make us pause and pay attention. In verses 23 and 26, Jesus responds to two of the woman’s excuses in a way that, I believe, is not as friendly to her, or us, as we might think. First, after she has just jabbed at Him with flattery, “Sir I perceive that you are a prophet” (John 4:19), she feigns helplessness by declaring that she lives in the wrong place to be right with God (John 4:20). Then she plays the trump card, or what first century Jews may have called the “Messiah card.” In John 4:25 she half-heartedly offers, “yeah I know I’m supposed to worship, you know, to be different, live different, act different, yada, yada, yada…but there’s this guy who’s coming, at some point, and he’s going to fix everything” (in case you’ve never read the story, this is a paraphrase).
To these objections Jesus does not coddle, and He doesn’t even compassionately say, “Daughter, there is way out of your mess…take my hand and I’ll lead you home.” No, Jesus tells her, two separate times, “everything you have needed is already here, so quit acting like a victim and start opening your eyes” (in case there’s any confusion, this is another paraphrase).
Jesus tells the woman that where she lives has nothing to do with worship. He then tells her that the one that she is so anxiously awaiting isn’t a future reality but a present one. Essentially Jesus’ response to the woman’s excuses is a simple as saying, “the jail you claim to be living in hasn’t had any bars or doors for a long time…so don’t try to convince me you’re really as helpless as you say you are.”
He tells her that worship isn’t about a distant location and the Messiah isn’t trapped in the future.
How many of us who have grown up in Western Christianity over the last six decades have heard this same thing? That one day we’ll be able to stand around the throne of God and praise Him when we get to Heaven, and our salvation is really about getting to see Jesus face-to-face just as soon as we can leave this “old world.”
Jesus might have similar words of loving rebuke for us.
Wherever you may be, geographically, emotionally, spiritually, financially, relationally, etc… has nothing to do with whether or not worship is expected of you or available to you. There is no special mountain, there is no holy city, there is no journey required. Authentic worship is wrapped up in spirit and truth, not maps and feelings. If we are waiting for a distant moment, floating on clouds and wearing our crowns, to let our hair down and authentically and unreservedly honor the God who has always been then we are already too late.
Similarly, don’t think for a second that salvation and the Savior are something that you’re waiting on. Eternal life does not begin in the distant beyond, it begins at the moment of redemption. We are inhabited by the Spirit who not only orchestrated His miraculous birth, but also raised Jesus from the dead. Not only this, but that same Spirit is, somehow and some way, also God along with Jesus. We are not far from Him, we are inhabited by Him. There is no distant Messiah, there is only the immanent One; God with us means exactly that God WITH us.
Our excuses tend to reveal not what is happening to us, but what we think is deficient in our lives. We don’t tell people how irresponsible we are when we let them down, we tend to list all the resources and tools and opportunities we didn’t have along the way (“my car is unreliable”, “I didn’t have enough time”, “my health hasn’t been the best”, “I haven’t gotten much rest this week”).
Spiritually this is, too often the same. We just aren’t strong enough in our faith, or we don’t know the Bible as well as other people, or we have kids and so we don’t have time to serve or read or any number of other things. The point here is not those things aren’t true. Jesus doesn’t argue point-by-point with the woman at the well. He tells her, essentially, you are focused on things that are not and I am telling you about something that already is.
How often are we focused on all that we don’t have or can’t find? And God, it seems, is pointing toward all that already is. We are swimming in surprising and unexpected waters. What we see is the surface of the sea all around us as we desperately tread trying to keep our head up. What we are missing is that the Christian life isn’t about keeping your head above water, it is about diving into the depths beneath your chin and finding out that surrendering your life to sea of grace reveals the ocean of riches and grace and beauty that has surrounded you all along.
Though there is broader context, James the brother of Jesus tells us this:
If all you see when you look around is emptiness, then maybe it’s time to stop trying so hard to save your own life, treading water, keeping your head above the waves. Maybe it’s time to fall into the wealth of love that you’ve been fighting against and realize just how much God has already given you in the present, and not just the promise of the future.