Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Scandalous Grace (John 4:1-18)

Watch the news, read the newspaper or magazines, or just survey the headlines of the tabloids while you are in line at the grocery store, and you will see that there is a morbid fascination with scandal. Here’s a politician, a preacher, a celebrity, a business executive, who has been caught red-handed and up to no good. It is nothing new. If there is anything new about it, it is that we have become so inoculated to scandal that we are no longer offended by it; rather it has become a form of popular entertainment. This begs the question: If it doesn’t offend, is it really a scandal? After all, one of Webster’s definitions of the word scandal is “a circumstance or action that offends propriety or established moral conceptions or disgraces those associated with it.”[1] It comes from a Greek word, skandalon, which is used in the Bible to refer to “an obstacle to faith.” [2] There’s an offense that hinders faith. Thus Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:23, “We preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block (skandalon) and to Gentiles foolishness (the Greek word is moria, from which we get the word moron), but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Paul is saying that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a moronic idea to the Gentiles, but to the Jews, it is offensive. The very good news that saves those who believe on Christ is a hindrance to the belief of Jews and others. It is offensive. It is a scandal. And what is it that is so scandalous about the Gospel, so offensive to a lost and dying world? In our text today, we see a picture of the scandal in action and discover that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a message of scandalous grace.

Verses 1-5 serve as background to the main action of the text. They set the stage for what follows. In Chapter 3, we saw that John the Baptist’s followers discovered that Jesus and His disciples were becoming more popular than John and drawing large numbers of people. John’s response is summarized in his well-known statement of John 3:30, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” But John’s disciples were not the only ones who had gotten wind of the surging popularity of Jesus of Nazareth. Verse 1 tells us that the Pharisees had heard about it too. Jesus knew that they would not react the same way John did. They would come in and stir up trouble and attempt to bring a premature end to the divine mission of Jesus. So, He left Judea and went back to Galilee by way of Samaria. And coming into the town of Sychar, where Jacob’s historic well stood (and still stands today) and where the Patriarch Joseph is buried, Jesus sat down by the famous well. Soon he was joined there by a Samaritan woman, and in the course of His interaction with her, His scandalous grace is put on full display.

I. The Scandalous Grace of Jesus Condescends to Our Human Condition (vv 6-7)

Think back to the opening words of this Gospel. John 1:1 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John did not begin with a Christmas narrative like Matthew and Luke did. John gave us, if you will, a prequel. The story of Jesus doesn’t begin on Christmas Eve. In fact, His story has no beginning. As the divine Logos, the living Word of God, Jesus has existed from eternity past. He was “with God,” in the beginning. But not only was He with God, He, in fact, was God. John 1:3 says that He created everything that has come into existence, and nothing came into existence apart from Him. To fully understand Jesus, we need to understand that we are speaking about the infinite and eternal God of the universe. As God, He is transcendent. It means that He exists outside of the created universe, above and beyond all in a realm that defies definition or boundary. But not only do we worship a God who is transcendent, He is also immanent, present everywhere at all times and always at work sustaining that which He created. He is far off, and He is near. The great 19th Century Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck says that God “transcends all space and location; He is not ‘somewhere,’ yet He fills heaven and earth.[3] And this has been so from the beginning. But when Jesus came, God came near to humanity in a way that was qualitatively different. John 1:14 says that this Word that was with God, and was God, in the beginning, became flesh and dwelt among us. In Jesus Christ, God became man. The prophet Isaiah foretold His coming and called Him Immanuel, which means in Hebrew, “God with us.” 

Philippians 2:6-7 describes the condescension of the incarnate Christ: “although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.” Hebrews 4:15 reminds us that Christ is not a high priest who “cannot sympathize with our weaknesses,” but is One who has been “tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” In Christ, God took upon Himself not just the appearance of humanity, or the physical form of humanity. He took upon Himself a human nature that was subject to the same weaknesses and experiences that each of us have. We see that on full display in this text in verses 6-7. After walking for a considerable distance for a day and a half, Jesus took a seat at Jacob’s well, “being wearied from His journey.” The “sixth hour” would be noon, the heat of the day. And He was thirsty, so He asked the stranger at the well to give Him a drink. The God who is described in Psalm 121:4 as the One who neither slumbers nor sleeps knows what you feel like when you are weary. The God who is infinite in strength and power, who can produce water from a rock and springs in the desert, who describes Himself as the Fountain of Living Water, knows how you feel when you are thirsty. The God who possesses the earth and all it contains, who says, “every beast of the forest is Mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills,” knows what it means to have nothing, and to be reduced to asking of the kindness of strangers to meet His most basic human need.

This is scandalous to the unbelieving mindset, to think that God would stoop so low to become a human, and one of humble means as that. A common objection to the Gospel that one often hears from Jewish people is, “If you claim that Jesus is God then you are guilty of making God into a man. That makes you an idol worshiper!” Sometimes, the objections are more harshly worded: “Our God sits enthroned in heaven! Your god wore diapers!”[4] I think of countless conversations I have had with Muslims over the years, in which they always say, “You Christians blaspheme when they say God is a man.” My response is, “Can God do anything He chooses to do?” They say, “Of course He can.” I say, “Suppose God chose to become a man, could He do that?” They respond, “Of course not. God would never choose to become a man!” Ah, but He did. And He did this in the person of Jesus Christ. But it is an offensive thought to many, downright scandalous. But this is how His grace operates. It is scandalous grace that we see displayed as God Almighty condescends to our human condition.

II. The Scandalous Grace of Jesus Overcomes our Social Stigmas (vv 3, 9)

If you are familiar with the New Testament, you probably understand that the Jewish people of the first century looked down upon the Samaritans with a bitter prejudice. And the feeling was mutual, by the way; the Samaritans didn’t like the Jews any more than the Jews liked them. This prejudice was rooted in several historical events. In the year 722 BC, the Assyrians had invaded and conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel and deported most of the Jewish population. They resettled the land with their own people and with other foreign people. Not only did these new arrivals to the land bring their idolatrous religious beliefs with them, but soon they began to intermarry with the remaining Jews in the land. The offspring of these unions were the first Samaritans. The Jewish people considered them to be idol-worshiping, racial half-breeds, the sons and daughters of political enemies. The Samaritans had a belief system that overlapped some, but differed significantly from their Jewish neighbors. They could not worship together, so the Samaritans erected their own temple on Mt. Gerazim around 400 BC. Around 100 BC, their temple was destroyed by the Jewish forces in Judea under the leadership of John Hyrcanus. With all this, needless to say there was no love lost between the Jews and Samaritans.

Notice in verse 3 that it says that, in order to get from Judea to Galilee, Jesus “had to pass through Samaria.” Now, geographically speaking, He did not have to pass through Samaria. There were two well-travelled ways to get to Galilee from Judea. Going through Samaria was a common way, being significantly shorter. But some Jews so despised the Samaritans that they actually crossed over the Jordan River and made their way North through Gentile territories, crossing back over the Jordan just south of the Sea of Galilee. They would rather take their chances going the long way through Gentile lands than to take “the short cut” through Samaria. But, Jesus had to pass through Samaria. It was not a geographic necessity; it was a necessity of the will of God. Jesus had to go through Samaria in order to overcome the social stigma of the Samaritans and deliver the good news of His Gospel to them. And God had already established a divine appointment for a meeting with a particular Samaritan here at the well. Not only was the person that He would encounter there a Samaritan, this person was also a woman. In either case, the average Jewish male would have wanted to keep his distance. Within a generation or so, the Jews would actually codify a law that declared all Samaritan women to be in a state of perpetual uncleanness.[5]

It was scandalous for Jesus to be in Samaria, here interacting with a Samaritan, and with a Samaritan woman at that. Because Jacob’s legacy was prominent in the area, people would certainly be familiar with how both Isaac and Jacob’s prospective wives were met at wells. For Jesus to be fraternizing with a woman near a well like this would have been frowned upon as flirtatious. Not only this, but notice that the woman herself seems taken aback by His forwardness. She says, “How is that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink, since I am a Samaritan woman?” She points out in verse 11 that Jesus does not even have anything to draw water with, meaning that He will have to use her supplies. That was an unthinkable thing. The statement in verse 9, “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans,” is generally true, but the statement’s literal meaning may be something like, “Jews do not use the same things as Samaritans.”

In the eyes of an average Jew, or an average Samaritan for that matter, everything about this scenario is all wrong. It is all scandalous! There are so many social stigmas about it all. But the scandalous grace of Jesus overcomes these social stigmas. He will not let her womanhood or her Samaritan heritage stand in the way of the good news that He has come to share with her. Maybe you are like her today. Maybe you think that there is something about you that would keep you separated from Jesus. You are from the wrong side of the tracks and you think Jesus wouldn’t want you. Maybe you’re from the “right side” of the tracks and you think you don’t need Him. Whether it is the color of your skin, or the language you speak, your gender, your financial standing, your personal well-being, or some other stigma that you feel isolates you, you need to look into this passage of God’s Word and see the scandalous grace of Jesus that overcomes every social stigma to meet you where you are today.

I wonder, are we as willing to overcome these obstacles to get the good news of Jesus into the lives of the stigmatized people in our community? If we reach out to the unreachable peoples of our community, there could be a scandal. But if we understand grace, we know that it is always scandalous. Jesus wasn’t put off by the scandal of social stigmas. He overcame them by His scandalous grace.

III. The Scandalous Grace of Jesus Confronts Our Sinful Past (vv 16-18)

In Seminary, I concentrated in Apologetics, which involved a lot of study in the Philosophy of Religion. So, I would say that I am sort of an “armchair philosopher.” Every now and then I find myself in a conversation with people who are much more conversant in the realm of Philosophy, and for a while I can fake it and pretend like I am following the conversation. But then someone will ask me a question like, “What do you think the major contributions of Ayer to the field of logical positivism are?” I kind of do one of those hard swallows and find a way to back out of the conversation politely. This is not really the conversation I was wanting to have! Usually I have to just confess, “Look, you really lost me a long time ago, but now I’m completely dumbfounded and there’s not much I can say.” My ignorance is exposed at that point.

This Samaritan woman may have had an experience kind of like that with Jesus. Once the obvious was stated, that He was a Jewish man and she was a Samaritan woman, they seem to interact as equal conversation partners here. She’s interested in water, He’s interested in water. They banter a bit politely back and forth. But suddenly the conversation takes an unexpected twist in verse 16 as Jesus says, “Go, call your husband and come here.” I imagine she might have hesitated for a moment, maybe she did one of those hard swallows, before she said, “I have no husband,” hoping to just dismiss herself from the conversation. But Jesus won’t let it go. He says something that leaves her absolutely dumbfounded: “You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one who you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly.” I can see the wheels turning in her mind. “How does he know this? What do I do now? This is not really the conversation I wanted to have with a stranger at the well!” Never once did she deny the things He said. She even says in verse 29 that “He told me all the things that I have done.” But she has to understand something about Jesus. If you come to deal with Him, He is going to confront your sinful past. If He truly is who He claimed to be, He has to. At His birth, the angel said to Joseph, “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). John the Baptist heralded Him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” If He’s come to save people from sin, then we need to understand that He is going to have to confront it in us all.

Here is a woman with a checkered past. She’s had five broken relationships in her lifetime. Were they all failed marriages? We don’t know her circumstances. Perhaps she had been widowed five times. It seems highly unlikely, but I suppose it is possible. Perhaps once or twice she had been abandoned by her husbands for some petty reason, as women often experienced in that day. It is hard to believe that this would have happened five times! If she had been divorced multiple times, it is not hard to imagine that at least once she may have been found guilty of adultery or some other sin that ruined her marriage. The rabbis of her generation would not have approved of five marriages under any circumstances, for more than three were considered inappropriate. But the five past relationships may not have all been marriages that ended in divorce or death. The Greek word translated husband in the passage is a rather generic term that most often simply means, “man.” She’s had five men in her past. Was she married to them all? Had five husbands died? Was she five times over the victim of abandonment? Or had she had five lovers, some of whom she was not married to at all? Regardless of those issues, Jesus’ primary emphasis falls on the latter portion of His statement: “the one you have now is not your husband.” She has a lover now, and she is not married to him. He is not her husband. The wording may even imply that he is not her husband, though he might be someone else’s husband. Whatever her circumstances were five times in the past, she was presently involved in an illicit sexual relationship with a man to whom she was not rightly married. And it seems that she has even developed an unsavory reputation in her community because of this. How do we know that? First of all, the drawing of water was a social custom for the women of that day, as it is for most women in cultures like this around the world today. Women would rarely come to draw water alone. The hard work of fetching the daily water was made more endurable by the social interaction with friends. But she has come alone. And she has come at noon, in the heat of the day. Most often, women would come early in the morning or later in the day when the air is cooler and the heat of the sun not so intense. But perhaps to avoid a socially awkward situation, this woman has come at a time when others are not present. Maybe she seeks to avoid an encounter with the wife of the man with whom she is now involved, or the wife of another of her past lovers? Her life is marred by one relational trainwreck after another. She carries around the baggage of all this with her every day. It has affected her entire way of life. For a woman who has had so many relationships, she finds herself shamefully alone to bear her sins in social isolation.

If we had been there, and known Jesus and known this woman, we might have been offended that He would interact so congenially with the likes of her. We might protest and say, “Jesus, you should not desire the company of such a person as this!” After all, that is what many in His day thought in their hearts (Lk 7:39), and many likely said aloud! But remember that Jesus, even though He knew all these things about her, is the one who initiated this conversation by asking her for a drink of water. In scandalous grace, He reaches out to the sinner, confronting her past sins, that He might save her from them. And He does the same to each of us. He is not ashamed to be called the friend of sinners (Mt 11:19). He said Himself, “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Lk 5:31-32).

So, perhaps you wandered into church today, or maybe you come in every Sunday, and you play pretend in conversation with Jesus. You dress up and smile and play at church like someone who has it all together. But know for certain that if He hasn’t yet, there will come a time when Jesus will deal with your sin. You can try to keep it under wraps; ward off the confrontation with curt dismissals as this woman attempted to do. But you will not forever evade Him. He has come to be the Savior of sinners, and if you would be saved then you must deal with Him about your sins. He loves you too much to leave them hidden below the surface. He will draw out the truth, which He already knows fully well. Your sins are known to Him. But He is not deterred. In scandalous grace, He takes the initiative to confront you and your sin, not in order to condemn you, but in order to save you. He would have you know that He has come to take your sin upon Himself, and bear it on your behalf under the judgment of God as He dies on the cross. He would have you see your sin covering Him in His death, and He would have you see that sin destroyed and put away forever as He triumphs over it in His resurrection. That the King of Glory would fraternize with sinners, this is quite scandalous! But it is a scandal of grace that is necessary if we would have any hope of being reconciled to God. Fear not that He will confront your sin! Welcome the confrontation of this scandalous grace. Embrace it, for in this confrontation is salvation found. The most scandalous aspect of the entire scene is found, not in how Jesus confronts the woman about her sin, but in the offer that he makes to a sinner such as she is, and to sinners far and wide such as we are.

IV. The Scandalous Grace of Jesus Satisfies Our Deepest Longings (vv 10, 13-14)

Have you ever had a desire for something, only to obtain it and find that it does not satisfy? We all have. Why is that such a universal experience? It is because that is the way God has designed you and the world you live in. God loves you so much that He created you to long for Him. There is within every human being what some have described as a “God-shaped hole.” This sends us on a quest to find satisfaction for that longing. But God loves you too much to allow anything other than Himself to deliver that satisfaction. He has “wired the world,” if you will, to disappoint you. He has set limits on the amount of satisfaction that you can have from anything that is not Him. Other things beckon you, promising to fill that void and satisfy your longings, but they only lead to disappointment. So many have tried to fill it with drugs, alcohol, sex, relationships, religious activity, money and material possessions, but they soon find that the hole remains unfilled. Only God can fill that hole. David said, “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You, O God” (Psalms 42:1). That is the longing of every human heart, even the ones who refuse to acknowledge or admit it.

Day after day, the Samaritan woman has come to Jacob’s well to draw her water. She takes it home with her, and uses it to clean, to drink, to cook, and when the day is done, the water is gone, and the next day, she has to go back and do it all over again. Her experience with the water is like many other experiences in her life. She had a thirst for love, for companionship and pleasure. She found a man whom she thought could satisfy it. But he didn’t. She found another man, and another, and another, and another, and now another. With a lifetime of sin and shame in her past, she still hasn’t found that which will satisfy her deepest longings. But on this day she met Jesus. And though she is put off by the forwardness of His request for her to give Him water, He says to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” For nearly two millennia, people had drawn water from Jacob’s well. It’s still there, and you can still draw water from it today. But no one ever left there with all they needed to satisfy them forever. Jesus points to that well and says, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” She misunderstands. She thinks He’s still talking about regular old drinking water. She has yet to realize that He is offering her something every greater, that satisfies a deeper need and a deeper longing. His offer is to quench the spiritual thirst in her life that she’s tried to satisfy with any number of other pursuits. But if she will receive the living water of Christ, that thirst will be satisfied forevermore, and the living water will gush forth like a geyser flowing into eternal life.

King Solomon was a man who many would say had it all. He writes in the book of Ecclesiastes about his great riches, his vast power, his many lovers, but in the end he concludes that it is all vanity; it is empty and hollow and ultimately does not satisfy. So, after a lifetime of disappointment, he says that it all comes down to this: “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth” (Eccl 12:1). Don’t waste your life trying to fill the void or quench your spiritual thirst with things that can never satisfy! Not only does it frustrate and disappoint you, it breaks the heart of God who is reaching out to you with the offer of eternally satisfying living water. The Lord speaks through Jeremiah, saying, “They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer 2:13). Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever felt that you were trying to drawing water from a well that has run dry? Yes, we all have! Over top of every would-be well in life that would promise us satisfaction apart from the Lord, He has inscribed the words, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give Him will never thirst again.”

All around the world today, people are dying from diseases caused by a lack of clean water. Today, you have the opportunity to drop a few coins into some buckets as you exit, and that money will be used to dig wells in places like Bihar, India where clean water has never been tasted before. We’ve already sent money off for the completion of one well, and we’re working toward number two now. But not only have the people of Bihar never tasted clean water; they’ve also never heard of the living water that Christ supplies. And so wherever these wells are dug, the message of Christ is proclaimed that the people of Bihar and many other areas of the world will know that though they may have to return to the well every day for their drinking water, the living water of Christ will satisfy their spiritual thirst for God forever! In scandalous grace, He offers it to a sinful Samaritan woman, to a village in India enslaved to the worship of 300 million false gods, and to broken people seated in a church pew in Greensboro. The invitation echoes across time and space, leaping off the last printed page of our Bibles: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost” (Rev 22:17). Taste the living water of Jesus, and never thirst again! And if you have this living water in you, let it spring forth from you and spill over onto those around you as you offer this water to all who are thirsty for what Jesus alone can provide!

[2] G. Stahlin, “Skandalon” in Gerhard Kittel & Gerhard Friedrich eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Geoffrey Bromiley, trans.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 7:339-358.
[3] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (abridged in one volume, John Holt, ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 192.
[4] Michael L. Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Volume Two, Theological Objections (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 14-15.
[5] “Daughters of the Samaritans are menstruants from their cradle, and therefore perpetually in a state of ceremonial uncleanness.” D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 218.

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