Ignorance about God is a serious problem. Now, very few people would actually say they don’t know much about God. More common is the idea that we know enough about God to get by. You know, as much as country music songs teach us about God and Jesus and the importance of saying prayers. But this view of God can’t get you that far. You end up with a speckled view of the Law and an unclear idea of the Gospel. The country music Jesus considers sins to be mere blemishes on an otherwise angelic person. And the reason you get into heaven is because he overlooked your sins because he loves you…“forever and ever amen.” This vague view of God also doesn’t tell you where to find His grace where He offers it, and when you really need it.
What happens then is that true knowledge of God is filled in with contrived thoughts about who God is. Phrase like these crop up: “God helps those who help themselves.” You’ve also probably heard something along the lines of, “God is love, therefore he couldn’t possibly hate your sin.” Another popular idea is, “If I have a good feeling after church then I must have gotten something out of it.” You won’t find any of these ideas in the Bible.
In today’s Gospel reading, we meet a woman from Samaria, and the Samaritans had a similar problem. It dated back to the time when the Kingdom of Israel split. Jerusalem, where the Temple was, was in the Southern Kingdom. Without the Temple, you can’t be a faithful to the Lord’s decrees. One of the kings of the Northern Kingdom built Samaria to rival Jerusalem. Since the Samaritans were excluded from the Temple, they started adopting pagan practices to supplement their former temple worship. The resulting religion of the Samaritans was a hodgepodge between Israelite worship and whatever other religious notions came along. That’s why the Evangelist notes, “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (v. 9). Strangely, despite this confused theology, the Samaritans still considered themselves faithful Israelites.
That’s where you come to the Samaritan woman who met Jesus. She has a very vague understanding of the Scriptures, and an even vaguer idea of the Messiah. She’s not like Nicodemus, who was an expert at the Scriptures and recognized Jesus’ signs. But just like Nicodemus, she doesn’t recognize the Messiah, even in broad daylight.
With her patchy knowledge of God, she also faces a dilemma in her personal life. John paints the picture: Near the town of Sychar, close to where the patriarch Jacob lived for many years (Gen. 33:18-20), this is a place where the rich history of God’s people is remembered fondly. Now comes a woman to draw water from this historic well, “given by our father Jacob.” But she comes by herself. Why? Because it’s the middle of the day, when nobody is around [Gen. 24:11]. She’s not trying to beat the dinner rush; there’s something more. It’s the accusing glances she’s bound to receive if she comes in the cool of evening.
But what she finds is Jesus—a man, but even less expected, a Jewish man. Oh, he’s probably going to condemn me for my half-breed ancestry. But, Jesus is very different.
When He speaks with her, He doesn’t address her ancestry or just her behavior; Jesus addresses the condition of her heart: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” You’re thirsty, dear woman. Not just in the bodily way; your soul is parched.
He diagnoses her by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, and He knows what is in her heart. Her coming to this well day after day was an analogy for what living without the true God was doing to her. She is aware of what she’s done wrong, knows she shouldn’t be living this way. She’s ashamed of it, because her conscience accuses her. Yet, she can find no peace. Instead, her vague religion leaves her with Band-Aid fixes for her sin, like coming to the well when nobody is around. Workarounds and excuses lead to more of them, until you’re tangled in this knot you can’t untie. It’s like having to draw water from a well day after day: the task will never be finished and she will never have her thirst for peace quenched.
Jesus diagnoses her real problem, which is her need for repentance, to return to the Lord. So, He says, “Go, call your husband and come here.” If she wants to be done with Band-Aid fixes, she will need to confess her sin. And she does. “I have no husband.” The God of Jacob had confronted her, and the Spirit had led her to make a true confession. Thus, Jesus says, “What you have said is true.”
Imagine what this woman’s life looked like. She’s been divorced 5 times, probably labelled a hussy by her community. Maybe she seeks something to numb the pain of those fractured relationships; she’s given up on getting married again at all. She’s desparate for something to numb the pain, silence the conscience. Her picture of the Messiah, the ideal of what life with God could be, is postponed. Just like when we make excuses—I’ll get back to going to church when this crisis is over, or when I get back from vacation.
Likewise, the Spirit leads you to a true confession of your sins. At the beginning of the service in the Confession and Absolution, we said, ”If You, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with You there is forgiveness; therefore You are feared.” (Ps. 130:3) That is not your self-diagnosis. Your self diagnosis is usually that you’re not that bad, at least compared to others. Sure you’ve made some mistakes this week, but nothing major, nothing too big to handle. Apart from God’s Word, our own self diagnosis leads us to think we can take care of ourselves on our terms.
The words of Jesus have brought the Samaritan woman to repentance. It doesn’t stop there, though. The Spirit does not just lead you to a true knowledge of your sins; He also leads you to truly know that God is gracious and merciful toward sinners. The Samaritans, with their confused theology had also lost where to seek God’s grace. On the one hand, the Scriptures state that God is to be found in His Temple, but on the other hand the Samaritans didn’t have the Temple. The woman had confessed her sin to God, and now her question is, How can I seek God, whom I have offended? As a Samaritan, she doesn’t have access to the Temple. What hope is there for her?
Where is God to be found? The answer is good news for the Samaritan woman: The hour is coming where it’s no longer a matter of mountains, temples, or animal sacrifices. In the past, these things were important because they formerly were where God was found. However, the hour has come for those things to be fulfilled. Those things were a shadow, but the substance belongs to the One who is standing before her. And it is the Messiah whom the Spirit points to. All who would worship the Father in Spirit and truth worship in Christ. He is the temple where fullness of deity dwells bodily. All the animal sacrifices end in the one sacrifice made on the cross. God is no longer found in a building, but He is found in the flesh—Jesus.
That is the good news for you, also! In Christ, you are able to approach God, whom you have offended by your sins, and with all boldness pray, “Almighty God, have mercy upon us, forgive us our sins, and lead us to everlasting life.” Every day of your baptized life in Christ, your Heavenly Father gives you His Holy Spirit. The Spirit calls you by the Gospel, to repent of your sins and believe in your Savior.
Jesus approached this woman, who was wandering like a sheep without a shepherd, with compassion. He holds up the gifts of living in the Kingdom—He is the gift of God, the One who gives water that springs up to eternal life. “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live” (Isa. 55:1-3a) He holds these gifts up so that she can compare what she has now with what God has prepared for those who love Him [1 Cor. 2:9].
Learn from the compassion of the Lord. He tells her what He has to give and the Holy Spirit works a spiritual thirst in her. This teaches us how to share our faith, especially with those who have wandered or have serious doubts. It starts with meeting her where she’s at—she understands shame and guilt, but with a hazy knowledge of God’s will it just festers inside her.
The Law of God came and cut her to the heart. Yet, Jesus’ words are not just more “should-and-didn’t” pangs of guilt toward which we eventually become callous. They’re aimed at honing in on a specific sickness in her life. That sickness can’t be treated by avoiding others. It can’t be fixed by her own solutions. This much to tell us when we talk to people who have neglected their faith, and not come to church in quite a while. They know they should. Guilt. They get busy with other things, which at times can be overwhelming and lead to more trouble. More guilt. In most cases, what you’re meeting is someone who has plenty of guilt already, but it’s become unclear what direction that guilt is coming from, and like the Samaritan woman, they need guidance back to the living waters which Jesus gives. What Jesus offers them in Word and Sacrament is what they aren’t getting out there. They’re not stupid; they’re starving. They’re withering away without God.
And that’s what has brought us here…both here in person and online, to quench that thirst which the world cannot:
“As a deer pants for flowing streams,(Psalm 42:1-6)
so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
“Where is your God?”
These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I would go with the throng
and lead them in procession to the house of God
with glad shouts and songs of praise,
a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.”
Your salvation is here in Jesus Christ. Amen.