Cultural Christianity has become a trend. How can we rely on the true gospel in today’s time and age? In this message on John 4:1-42, Jim Shaddix challenges us to understand how all of us are like the woman at the well at first. He shares a couple of lessons we can glean from the passage.
- Use gospel threads to prompt curiosity in conversations.
- Make the gospel big by addressing personal sinfulness.
- Trust gospel threads to wield the gospel’s full power.
Turn to John 4 in your Bible, and I ask you to open it to that place. If you came in tonight and don’t have a Bible, maybe there’s someone sitting close to you that would let you look on. We’re going to be in this text and take a look at what God would teach us.
My assignment for these next two weeks is to take these gospel threads that we’ve been studying about and to give us a window into the lives of a couple of biblical characters who, I believe, sowed these threads into conversations that they had with people. Next week, we will look at the Apostle Paul, as he responds to the philosophers on Mars Hill, recorded in Acts 17. Tonight, I want us to turn our attention toward this familiar story in John’s Gospel—in Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.
Now, I want you to understand that one of the common denominators in these two texts—and certainly these are not the only ones—is they’re two conversations, or they’re two venues, in which there was really no full gospel presentation shared as we would know it to lay out, like a “Roman Road” or “Four Spiritual Laws” or something that included a formal invitation for somebody to respond to the gospel—a sinner’s prayer, or something like that. None of that is present, but what is present is a whole lot of gospel being deposited in some people’s lives.
So let’s look at John 4 and see what we can learn from this story that he tells us under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit about our Lord’s conversation with the woman in Samaria. John 4, beginning with verse one:
Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. And he had to pass through Samaria. So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.
A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” Jesus said to her, “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.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”
I want you to listen to me very carefully. I want to confess to you that I come to this passage of Scripture tonight with a lot of fear and trepidation for one reason. And that is the fear that you and I, as a faith family, have been studying about gospel threads and want to learn everything we can about how we can be more effective in having conversations with lost people—would come to this passage right here first and foremost to see how we might identify with the Lord Jesus Christ, and how He had this conversation. And, in so doing—listen to me come in here real close—we miss the primary point of this passage of Scripture. We miss why the Holy Spirit inspired this text to be in the Bible in this particular place. And you know what that would be? It would be not that you and I would look to Jesus and see how we are like Him as weavers of gospel threads, but this passage of Scripture is in the Bible to show us how much like this woman we really are. And that’s where we have to begin, lest we completely overshoot why God gives us this passage of Scripture in the first place.
John 4 1–42 Reminds Us that We are the Woman First
Note this: We are the woman first. We have to get that. We are the woman first before we look at anything to do with gospel threads, anything to do with how we can be more effective at winning people to Christ and sowing these threads into gospel conversations. We have to see this woman for who she is—who she was intended to be—and that is someone with whom we could identify. How do we know that? We know it when we look at this story. Number one, we are seeing how much like this woman we are. Number two, we are seeing how much like Jesus we are not.
Now, I want to relieve some pressure tonight. I want to start at that point right now, and I want to just take off the table that we are not Jesus in this passage of Scripture. Okay? Everybody good with that? I know some of you got up this morning thinking, “I’m Jesus. And now he’s going to blow that out of the water.” I’m being sarcastic, of course, but let me tell you: I mean it when I say that it’s important that we understand there’s some things in this passage of Scripture that show us this is not our first point of identification.
Why not Jesus?
Let me show you why we are not Jesus in this passage. Three reasons: Reason number one: We can’t satisfy spiritual thirst. We can’t satisfy spiritual thirst. Twice in this text of Scripture—once in verse ten, and then again in verses 13 and 14—Jesus claims to be able to give this woman water that is living water; it is springing up, and it represents eternal life in her soul. You and I will never be able to engage a lost person in a witnessing conversation and claim to be able to give them that from us as a source. We are not the ones who can satisfy spiritual thirst. We simply can’t do it.
Reason number two: We can’t read people’s hearts. Jesus can; we can’t. He does that with this woman in verses 16–18. He tells her to go call her husband; and then when she says, “I have no husband,” He begins to tell her about her sordid past and about her immoral future. You and I will never be able to engage a lost person and be able to do that. I’ll never be able to walk into Starbucks and walk up to some stranger and say, “Hey, buddy. Let me buy you a cup of coffee. Now I want you sit down here, and I’m going to tell you everything you ever did. And I’m going to tell you what a mess your life is in right now.” I wish I could do that. I mean, that’s an attention-getter right there. That’s a way to start a spiritual conversation. Somebody is going to be all over that. But guess what? You can’t do that. I can’t do that. Never be able to do that.
Then there’s a third reason: We can’t claim to be Savior; we can’t claim to be Savior. We’ll never be able to say what Jesus says in verse 26 in this passage of Scripture, after this woman has said, “I’m going to wait for the Messiah. I’m looking for Him. He’s going to fix everything,” Jesus says, “I am He.” You’ll never be able to say that. I’ll never be able to say that. We’ll never be able to present ourselves to somebody in a witnessing conversation and claim to be the Savior of the world. We are not Jesus.
Why the woman?
But, by way of contrast, it’s not hard for us to look at this text of Scripture—is it?—and see ourselves in this woman. Let me show you again three reasons. One: We’re outside of God’s family, and we need Jesus to seek us. That’s where this woman is. By every assessment of the Jews, this woman was a lowly dog; she was an outcast; she lived on the other side of the tracks. In 722 BC, when the Assyrians came in and took over Israel in this region, they deported a lot of the leading citizens and they replaced them by importing a lot of foreigners. Over the years, they intermarried with the Jews who were still in this place. They synchronized their religion, and by the time the Jews made it into the land, they began to consider these people—the Samaritans—as being impure, both ethnically and religiously. And from that point on, they rejected them, cast them aside; they were dogs.
And yet, look at this, in verse four the Bible says: “And he had to pass through Samaria.” No He didn’t. Most Jews didn’t. They would do everything they could to stay away from this area, to go around it. Coming up from Jerusalem from the south when they were traveling to Galilee in the north, many times they would go up, they would cross over the Jordan River, go up the east side, cross back over the Jordan River, into Galilee just to avoid this place.
But the Bible says Jesus had to go there. You know why? The previous chapter tells us. He was God’s representative, and He did only what God told Him to do. He said only what God told Him to say. Jesus had to go—in verse four of chapter four—because Jesus was under divine appointment for this conversation. He went looking for this woman. And there we are. Men and women, boys and girls, that the Bible describes as foreigners, not citizens of the Kingdom, enemies of God—in fact, outside of the family of God—we are orphans and we desperately need Jesus to seek us like He sought this woman.
Reason number two that we are this woman: We are thirsty for God’s life, and we need Jesus to satisfy us. Twice—verse ten, again in verses 13 and 14—Jesus implies the spiritual thirst of the soul of this woman. And then He deals with it straight up in verses 16–18 when He talks about her past and her immoral present, and He shows how dry and thirsty her soul really is. And there we see ourselves—individuals who were created to have the life of God, to experience eternal life but have lost it because of our sin. Men and women who have dry throats spiritually when it comes to our soul, and we desperately need and desire God to put His life back in us. And we need Jesus to satisfy that longing.
Reason number three: We’re blind to God’s worship, and we need Jesus to show us. You know at first reading, it seems like a digression. When this woman brings up the places of worship in Samaria on Mt. Gerizim and Jerusalem on Mt. Moriah, or at the very least, a diversion from having to deal with the conviction of sin that now Jesus has introduced, and it seems like just chasing a rabbit, and to some degree it is. Until we see where this rabbit comes back to. Jesus comes back to the place of telling this woman that God is seeking people to worship Him. This is why they were created. And then in verse 26 when He says, “I am the Messiah,” He sets Himself up as the only One that can show people what this true worship in spirit and truth really looks like. And there we find ourselves once again as this woman, as men and women, boys and girls, who were created in the image of God for the glory of God for the worship of God but have absolutely no clue what it looks like and how to do it, because we are separated from Him in sin, and we desperately need Jesus to show us what that looks like. We are this woman.
And John makes it very clear that we have to begin at that point. In fact, if you look back just in to the end of chapter three and force yourself to ignore the chapter division, you see really how he sets this thing up. Verse 31:
He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
And then John tells this story about Jesus offering this woman with a thirsty soul an invitation for her to have her soul’s thirst satisfied in Him, who would give her a well of eternal life through the Spirit of God living inside of her. John has said, “Jesus is God’s representative.” He says, “Jesus has been given all the Spirit of God to give whomever He will. And Jesus is the One that, if you put your faith in Him, you can access the Spirit of God.” And then we have this story—real life example of somebody being given the opportunity to do this.
By the way, this is John’s theme in his Gospel. You’ve got this imagery of water; you’ve got this emphasis on the Spirit as the life-giving source of eternal life that comes through faith and a relationship with Jesus Christ. So in chapter two of John’s Gospel, what does Jesus do in His first miracle? He takes a water source from which they were filling up water pots for a wedding, and He turns it into wine, which is also representation of the Spirit of God.
You come into chapter three, and He has this conversation with Nicodemus. And He tells him, “Nicodemus, the only way you can be born again is through the water and Spirit. You have to be born again by water and Spirit or you’re not going to see the Kingdom of God.” And then, at least on two occasions in the following paragraph, He says: “If you believe in me, if you have faith in me, you will have eternal life.”
And come over on the other side of our story. Go all the way over to John 7. Let me show it to you here. Maybe it’s here that we find it most plainly. John 7:37, speaking about the Jewish Feast of Booths, John says: “On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”’” And then John said: “Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive….” And that’s it—our identification with the woman. We are her dry, thirsty souls. And in John’s Gospel, John said, “Jesus is God’s Savior, the only one who can satisfy the thirst of our souls with the living water of God’s Spirit.” That’s it. And we are the woman.
I want to apply that in two ways tonight before we talk about gospel threads. If you’re here tonight and you’ve never drunk from this well, I want to invite you tonight to drink freely. Drink of Jesus. Cry out to Him to save you. Place your faith in Him in repentance and trust. He’s the one who’s died on the cross for your sins and rose from the dead to give us back this life of God that we were created to have, and only He can give it. And our invitation to you tonight is that you would come to this well, and you would drink of Him. Trust Him tonight.
But to those of us in the room who’ve been to the well—we’ve drunk of this water, we’ve tasted of eternal life, Jesus has come good with His promise and put inside of us the Spirit of God, which wells up inside of us as a spring of eternal life—I appeal to us tonight to revisit this well often. Not so that we might be saved again. Remember, this is eternal life. Once you drink of it, you’ve got it. But to revisit this well often, so that we could ponder this woman often. So that we could never forget what it was like to be thirsty before we drank of this well. So we could be reminded what it means to be desperate for God, to do something in our lives that we cannot do for ourselves. We need to understand what it means for God to leave heaven and come looking for us, for God to satisfy the thirst of our souls, and for God to show us what we were born for, and that is to worship Him.
Because, you see, here’s the deal, Church. Before we were weavers of gospel threads, we were this woman with a gasping, dry throat. And it does us well to ponder her frequently, because the more we ponder her, the more prepared we will be to weave gospel threads into the lives of people who still have thirsty souls.
John 4 1–42 Says that We are the Weaver Second
So we’re the woman first, but then we’re the weavers second. You say, “Well, Shaddix, can we really go there? You just said the reason the passage is in the Bible is to show us that our identification is to the woman.” Let me show you, Church, why I believe we are justified once we identify with this woman. With them looking to this conversation to see how we can learn how better to weave gospel threads into spiritual conversations. Really, there are two reasons: Number one, this woman becomes a weaver. She really does. She drinks form this well from all indications. She gets the water of life from everything that the text would tell us, and then, if you read in verse 27 and following, Jesus’ disciples come back and they can’t figure out why He’s even having this conversation with her. Verse 28 says: “So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?’ They went out of the town and were coming to him.” Isn’t that cool? The woman with the dry, thirsty soul becomes a weaver of gospel threads. The woman with whom we identify first and foremost is now a weaver of the gospel into other people’s lives.
But there’s something else, and that is that Jesus tells His disciples straight out that they ought to be about the business of doing what He’s been doing at this well. You see it in verse 31:
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work. Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
“Guys, get about the business,” He said. “You’re wondering why I’m talking to this woman when you need to be talking to this woman. You need to be having conversations like I’ve been having, because the fields are ripe unto the harvest.” That kind of frees us up right there to now circle back around and look at this conversation and see what we can learn about weaving gospel threads.
Now, here’s what I want to do. I want to make our primary application tonight—as Pastor David prayed in his prayer—to “cultural Christianity.” And I want to do that for two reasons: Number one, because this is where we live. In the Bible Belt South, in Birmingham, Alabama, we live in a cultural Christian context. We are surrounded by it. The second reason that I want to make this application is I believe when I look at this passage of Scripture that this is the people group, this is the worldview, this is the context that I think this woman most closely represents.
I get it that the word “Christianity” had never even been used up to this point. When this woman enters the conversation, she is not a Christian. I’m not drawing that from anything other than the conversation itself. I think she is a very good representation of a cultural Christian mindset. And I want to show that to you.
I have looked at a lot of definitions and descriptions of “cultural Christianity,” and, quite honestly, most of them are not that helpful. But I ran across one Christian philosopher’s definition that I thought was pretty accurate, and I wanted to show it to you. It doesn’t mean that I’m a believer of all that this guy would champion; I’m just looking at his definition and saying, “You know what? I think that’s a pretty good description.” So you can look at it here on the screen. I’m going to tell you what he said.
“Most Christians would probably fit within the category ‘cultural Christians.’” That’s a pretty heavy statement right there. “Most Christians,” he said, “would probably fit this category.”
Their self-identification as Christian is more cultural and social than religious. These are people who might say they were born Christian. They are often born into ethnically-conscious families that are therefore baptized, married and buried in a particular church but have little or no interest or concern about its teachings or the meanings of its practices. A relationship with God through Christ may be either non-existent or as a Refuge/Provider/Magician on an as-needed basis. [And you understand, he’s saying neither one are true Christianity; neither one are valid.] Perhaps a code of etiquette is linked to their notion of Christianity. “Cultural Christians” serve on church councils, vestries, boards and the like in the same spirit as they would perform any other volunteer service to a charitable organization.
Nevertheless, “cultural Christians” have an emotional commitment to their denomination or to a local church. Occasionally the emotions are of a love-hate quality. Among their primary concerns might be the social standing of a given denomination and the zip code of a specific congregation. When they attend services (which might be weekly), it is out of habit or family obligation, not religious conviction. For them, being Christian is essentially a cultural identity and, selectively, a source of general human values; they may actually [and listen to this statement] be quite secular or humanistic in their day-to-day thinking.
I want to tell you about an interview that I read with Richard Dawkins. You know who Richard Dawkins is? Probably the most famous atheist on the planet today. He is the champion of evolution. Author of the best-selling book, The God Delusion. Spends his time traveling the world, speaking on evolution and the vanity of Christianity. He did a lecture at Charleston University a week ago yesterday, and he was being interviewed prior to that in preparation for that talk.
And this is what he said. Listen to his opening statement: “I guess I’m a cultural Christian.” Richard Dawkins says, “I guess I’m a cultural Christian, but to tie that to belief about the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the nature of life, etc., is clearly ridiculous, and I don’t think the advantages of getting together once a week and singing together or something like that—insofar as that has community-building advantages—it most certainly does not need to go with fundamental beliefs about the cosmos.”
You understand what he’s saying? You can be a cultural Christian and your profession be totally disconnected from your worldview, your convictions. What you believe about life, what you believe about eternity, makes absolutely no difference. And he sees this is cultural Christianity enough to say, “I’m one of those. I guess I fit that bill.”
Later in the interview, Dawkins would say that one of his favorite places to do lectures is in the Bible Belt states of the United States of America. You know why? Because, he said, “I’m always welcomed so warmly.” He would say in the interview that many people don’t realize how many atheists there really are in places like this, contrary to what most people believe. He said, and I quote, “I think people in the Bible Belt are far less monolithically religious than many people imagine. There are lots and lots of people who are freethinking secularists or atheists in the so-called ‘Bible Belt,’ and when someone like me comes and gives a lecture in a great lecture hall, they tend to turn out sometimes in the thousands.”
He’s talking about where we live. This is where we live. These are the kind of people into whose lives we have been called to weave gospel threads. And so I want to show you how this Samaritan woman at the well represents this cultural Christianity.
The cultural Christianity she represents …
Did you notice as I was reading through the conversation a minute ago—just about every time she opens her mouth, she in some way reflects the cultural Christian worldview? Let me show you. First of all, she sacrifices encountering Christ to sustain cultural etiquette. You know the Samaritans hated the Jews as much as the Jews hated the Samaritans? I mean, the prejudice worked both ways.
And so, here in verse seven, Jesus—the chosen one of God, the one in whom the Father has trusted all things, the one who has every bit of the Spirit of God, the one who is God’s means of people accessing the Spirit of God—is standing right in front of her in verse seven, engaging her in conversation. And, on top of that, He is ignoring—completely ignoring—all of the cultural and religious norms by speaking to her in public as a woman, by going to this place in Samaria, and especially by asking to drink from her water pot.
I mean, Jews just didn’t do that, and John says as much in verse nine. You see it there: “For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” Translated, that means they don’t drink at the same water fountains. But not only does this woman not see who Jesus is and understand that He’s wanting to draw her into a conversation, she can’t see past the cultural etiquette to even engage the conversation if it weren’t for Him drawing her farther into it. She says in verse nine—look at it: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?’”
I mean, that’s the way cultural Christianity is. Remember the definition? “Perhaps a code of etiquette is linked to their notion of Christianity. Cultural Christians serve on church councils, vestries, boards and the like in the same spirit as they would perform any other volunteer service to a charitable organization.” So cultural Christians perform religious acts, but they do them more out of custom or politeness. And, like this woman, they also abstain from certain things, not because of moral, biblical convictions but because it’s just the things Christians do. Christians do certain things and Christians don’t do certain things. And oftentimes, cultural Christians don’t have a clue as to why we do certain things and why we don’t do certain things, but they know that they are called to fit into that etiquette. We see this in this woman. Christianity for these false professors of Christ is more about custom than it is about conviction.
Back to the woman. She values religious heritage over reformation of the heart. You see, in verse ten, Jesus offers her living water. He’s offering her God’s life through His Spirit, and all she can say in verses 11–12 is, “Where are you going to get this water? And, by the way, buddy, who do you think you are?” She’s already appealed to her heritage with Jacob’s well.
The interesting thing is there’s not even a reference to Jacob’s well in the Old Testament Scripture. When the Jews came back and inhabited this part of Canaan, they brought Joseph’s bones, they buried him in this area, and so the real estate and everything in it was considered sacred. But there is no reference in Scripture to this well that is so important to this woman. And it appears that sacred associations mean more to her than Jesus’ invitation to her to give Him a drink so He could give her a drink of that which is living water. Cultural Christians are more concerned about religious traditions and practices than they are about the truth of God’s Word and the transformation of heart that Jesus brings about in the truth of His work.
Back to the woman. She wants a genie for the flesh, rather than a Jesus for the soul. She was so close in verse 15, so close to getting it. I mean, she almost saw who Jesus is and what He was offering. Look at it there: “‘Sir, give me this water so that I will not be thirsty…’” And you just want to yell, “Stop! Stop! Don’t go any further! You’ve got it! Don’t say anything else!” And like so many of us who keep talking when we should have been quiet, she keeps talking. And when she did, she revealed that she really, really didn’t get it at all. You see the end of verse 15? “‘[O]r have to come here and draw water.” She missed it by that much.
Oh, she wanted to drink. Even if she knew—listen, watch this, come in here real close—even if she was beginning to think there was something unique about this guy, and He might have something other-worldly to offer her, the only reason she wanted it was so she wouldn’t have to any longer haul her water pot from town out to the well in the heat of the day.
And that is so cultural Christianesque. Cultural Christians want Jesus, but they want Him to be some kind of cosmic Costco or divine doctor or Christian Craigslist that they can sign onto at their convenience—be a member of but only check in when they want something to make their lives more convenient or more comfortable. Cultural Christianity wants Jesus, to be sure, but they want Him to be a genie in a bottle that they keep in their closet to call out so that he can beckon Him to grant their every wish. And that’s where this woman was.
A definition I read just said “a relationship with God through Christ may be either non-existent or as a Refuge/Provider/Magician on an as-needed basis.” Cultural Christianity isn’t all that interested in a Jesus that can satisfy the longing of the soul. And to put back in it the life of God that it was intended to have.
Back to the woman. She practices religious forms without repentance from sin. In verses 16–18, Jesus decides to bring this conversation from analogy to practicality. I mean, we’ve already acknowledged she wasn’t getting the metaphor of the living water. Jesus had to bring it down and make it tangible, so He gracefully speaks to her about her immoral past and present. And He shows her there how thirsty her soul really is. Up to this point, she really wasn’t seeing it. But here we’re also helped to understand that that’s the way cultural Christianity is—doing a lot of religion.
I mean, think about it. This woman had already appealed to her religious heritage, she was about to launch into an argument for the superiority of Samaritan religious practices, worship practices. Later on in verse 25 she will say, “I believe in the Messiah. I am looking for the Messiah.” Make no mistake about it—this woman was embedded in her religion; she was immersed in religion. But watch it—all the time she was living in a cycle of uninhibited, unrepentant sin.
And that’s what cultural Christianity says. That’s a cultural identity and selectively a source of general human values. They may actually be quite secular or humanistic in their day-to-day thinking. Richard Dawkins is exactly right. There is a total disconnect from the profession to what is actually lived out. The cultural Christian would say, “You can live in the Spirit and live in sin.” Jesus would say, “No, cultural Christianity is a Christianity that never finds its way to the feet to be lived out in every day life.”
Back to the woman. She avoids personal responsibility by arguing religious trivia. In verses 19–20, the woman briefly tips her hat to this astounding spiritual insight Jesus had into her life, but then she immediately—she immediately—begins to go down this track of where people are supposed to worship. After the exile, when the Jews came back into the land, Samaritans opposed the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, so they built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim in Samaria. It was later destroyed, but they continued to hold the place as sacred. And this is what this woman appeals to.
Our modern worship wars are really not a new thing; they were going on a long time ago, but they show up in cultural Christianity in an interesting, different form. Remember the definition: “‘… [C]ultural Christians’ have an emotional commitment to their denominational or local church. Occasionally the emotions are of a love-hate quality. Among their primary concerns might be the social standing of a given denomination and the zip code of a specific congregation.” And this woman was holding onto that. Yes, to deflect attention from her sin—to diverge from the conversation—but also to avoid of dealing with the issue of what Jesus wanted to offer.
I’ll show you one more. Listen to this one carefully. She accepts Jesus as a prophet and priest but not as a king. I already told you in verse 25 the woman indicates she believes in the Messiah, the Christ, and it implies that she’s anticipating His arrival. And then in verse 26, Jesus straight up says He’s the Messiah. So she’s looking for Him. He says, “I’m it.” Everybody’s good, right? It fits perfectly. Not so much; there’s one problem. You see, the Samaritans only believed in the first five books of the Old Testament—the Pentateuch—not the rest of it. And their understanding of Deuteronomy 34:10 that said there’s not another prophet arisen like Moses is that there would be no other prophet that arises of any kind until the Messiah came. And so they had this anticipation and this picture of this Messiah that was coming that would be a Prophet-Priest-like figure—kind of like Moses—that would answer all their vexing questions about the Law. But because they didn’t believe the rest of the Old Testament, they didn’t have a full understanding of what all the prophetic books, for example, brought to the table—of the prophecy of Isaiah about the Suffering Servant who would become the reigning King. And consequently, they were looking for an incomplete Messiah. They were anticipating someone that would come and be someone that would address them as a Prophet and a Priest. But they weren’t necessarily anticipating this King.
Definition again speaks of cultural Christians having a relationship with this “Refuge/Provider/Magician on an as-needed basis.” Cultural Christians long to have a Jesus who will forgive their sins as a Savior, grant their wishes as a genie, answer their questions like a Prophet, perform their sacraments like a Priest, but not necessarily rule over them like a King. So it’s not hard for us to see the similarities between this Samaritan woman at the well and cultural Christians who inhabit this Bible Belt where we live.
The threads Jesus weaves …
So let’s draw some lessons from this conversation for our thread-weaving among cultural Christians. Now, to set this, I want you to see and have a way to see and notice how Jesus wove gospel threads into the fabric of this woman’s life. And I’m going to—excuse me for doing this—give you a homework assignment. Okay? I’m going to let you do some of this at home. Some for the sake of time, and also because I want you to look for more than I have identified.
If you look on your Worship Guide there: “Identify the places in the passage where Jesus speaks.” And I’ve put out beside them some gospel threads that I think He’s sowed in those statements. And what I want to encourage you do is to go home and see if you can identify where I’m finding that. See if there are more than you can find, and then do this as a practical exercise. See if you can write out some ways that you might say similar things in similar types of conversations. And let that be a clinic for you and your personal training of: How do I say some of the same types of things and similar types of circumstances that would reach into people’s hearts and minds and grip their curiosity and allow me to be able to take them on a journey further in to a conversation? But let’s take a look at these ten lessons that we can draw out of these.
The Lessons We Glean from John 4 1–42…
Real quickly, number one: Be intentional about getting where lost people are. Be intentional about getting where lost people are. Watch it now, verse four says: “And he had to pass through Samaria.” Not because it was the only route; not because it was the most popular way, because it wasn’t. But because He was under divine appointment.
Now, you and I may think because we live in this Bible Belt and we’re surrounded by cultural Christians that we have all kinds of opportunity, but you see, oftentimes being in the middle of cultural Christianity causes it to be easy for us to overlook these people. You know why? Because we see their Christian symbols, we hear their Christian lingo, and it’s so similar to some of the stuff that we do and some of the stuff that we say, and so sometimes we’re just assuming—think about this—we’re just assuming all these people are saved. They’re Christians. They talk the same talk, and they go to the same churches, and they refer to the same things and values. So I want to challenge you: Be intentional about getting where cultural Christians are and engaging them in conversation.
Lesson number two: Get outside of cultural religious comfort zones. We live in the comfort zone. But watch this, now: It’s important for us, like Jesus did, to break through some of that etiquette of cultural Christianity in order to engage people. I mean, in verse nine, the woman was surprised that Jesus was talking to her. Verse 27, the disciples, when they came, they were surprised. Jesus was obviously crossing some lines here of the etiquette of the day.
Can I just stop right here and say this is one of the areas in which it is such a privilege—there are so many, but this is one—it is such a privilege to be a part of your faith family and to watch you? Because I think this is an area that God is using you in mightily. I mean, what we’re talking here is building meaningful relationships with people of other races, adopting or providing foster care for orphans, giving time and resources to minister to people in impoverished areas, and spending time and money to engage unreached people groups on the other side of the planet.
I mean, all of those are things—are they not?—that cause people to go: “Why are you doing that? I mean, that’s just a little weird.” Some of you are having to face the pain of having your own parents or children look at you and say, “Why would you do that? Why would you spend your money that way? Why would you take that kind of time? Why would give up a Spring Break to go to Thailand? Why would you sell your house and move into a place in Birmingham—in a lower income place? Why would you take two years out of your job and risk not having it when you come home to go and reach and engage an unreached people group?”
All of those things—listen—in the middle of cultural Christianity break through the norms and they cause people to go: “What’s up with that? Why are you doing that?” Now listen, that’s not the first reason why we do it. We do it because people need the gospel, right? But know this: That there is a byproduct that comes along with it. And that is, it gets people’s attention. Makes them curious. Causes them to want to know why. And when they want to know why, they open the door for gospel conversation.
Lesson number three: Take the initiative in starting gospel conversations. This is what Jesus did in verse seven. This is simple; we just have to do it. A lot of us would say, “You know, gosh, I’m just not a people person. I’m kind of quiet; I’m inhibited; I’m reserved.” These are the things we have to pray about ask God’s grace to overcome in our lives, because, in most cases, the cultural Christians are not going to come looking for us. We need to initiate conversation. But let me give you some encouragement here. You know, one of the ways that we do that is look for common points of intersection. This is what Jesus does here. This woman had to go to the well to get water, Jesus needed a drink. Boom!—intersection. So He uses that to start talking about living water. And here’s the deal, in the midst of cultural Christianity, when we’re using a lot of the same lingo, and got a lot of the same practices, we hear people around us talking about some of the same religious forms, there are opportunities every day for common ground that we could use for entry points. Look for ways to initiate starting gospel conversations.
Number four: Use gospel threads to prompt curiosity in conversation. You know, I mentioned that about breaking through cultural norms, but I want you to notice how Jesus intentionally, all the way through this dialogue, is making statements and asking questions that cause this woman to be curious. I told my accountability group the other day, “I’m so bad at this, because I’ve gotten in this habit—and it’s such a bad habit and God’s convicted me about it—and that is, I start conversations with lost people in all the wrong ways.” You know how I usually do it? I usually do it by finding some common ground of criticism with somebody that I’m with—something we can pick on and take shots at. That’s terrible! That is a bad way to do it.
So I’m sitting on an airplane; the airline pilot comes on the intercom, and he says, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re like 427 for takeoff here.” I look at the guy next to me and say, “Every time I come through this airport it’s like this. By the way, would you like to talk about how patient Jesus is with you and your sin?” Or I’m out in the yard working, and my neighbor’s out in the yard working—you know—and I look over to him and say, “Hey man! How’s it going? Doesn’t it seem like every time we see each other we’re having to be out here working in these yards just to keep them up? Hey, by the way, would you like to have a Coke later? Let me tell you all the ways God’s blessing me.” Don’t do that! Find common ground that creates curiosity, and then, within the conversation, keep coming back to questions and statements that would be intriguing. Not would give the person an opportunity in joining you to take shots at the President of the United States or the airline or the grocery store or the weather or something like that. Create curiosity, not criticism.
Lesson number five: Make the gospel big by addressing personal sinfulness. You know, Jesus had to come to verses 16–18. He had to bring this woman to the place of seeing the dryness of her soul. And we have to do this as well. It’s so hard, isn’t it? This is the one we would love to avoid. And that’s to talk about personal sinfulness. But let me remind you of this: The gospel is only as big as the sin that it addresses. And when there is little sin, there’s a little gospel. But when there is much sin, which is reality in our lives—sin that separates us from a holy God—the gospel is big. So pray that God would give you grace to venture to the uncomfortable. And in conversation, somehow bring in to that, as we must, personal responsibility and our separation from God. And make the gospel big. Because, you see, there has to be bad news before there can be good news. And when we venture into the realm with grace and love of showing that there’s bad news, we make this good gospel really good, as it truly is.
Lesson number six: Anticipate and accept some digression and diversion. I’ll not camp here; it’s obvious. This woman digresses; she diverts attention from her sin. This is going to happen. Cultural Christians do it. Everybody does it, because our sin is uncomfortable. Just expect it and anticipate it. My encouragement to you is don’t let it discourage you or dissuade you.
Lesson number seven: Be willing to chase rabbits all the way back to threads. I want to free you up here some. If you’re like me, you get so discouraged sometimes when people get off-point. This woman gets off-point in verses 20–24 when she starts talking about the place of worship. And I’m fascinated; I’m convicted that Jesus doesn’t stop her right there and say, “Hey lady! Right here. Okay? Let’s stay focused here, okay? Stay on point.” No! And He goes down the trail with her. He chases the rabbit of worship location with her, but look at what He does: He chases it right back to an understanding that God is seeking people to worship Him. And this woman, God wants her to be a worshiper. And Jesus is the only way that can connect her with this worship. He brings it all the way back to several gospel threads right there. Sometimes chasing a rabbit can be an encouragement. It can buy you the right to keep going. So don’t be afraid to chase rabbits. Just make sure you chase them back to gospel threads.
Number eight: Don’t demand full understanding of every gospel truth. Wow! This one challenges me. I am obsessive compulsive, and, on top of that, I’m a stickler for orthodox theology. And you know what that creates? That creates a guy who wants to lead people in a “sinner’s prayer.” You know why? I’m not tempted to lead people in a “sinner’s prayer,” because that’s the way and the only way I was taught. I’m compelled to do that because I want them to say all the right words and have all the right theology inside of it. And I don’t know about you, but sometimes I get discouraged from entering into conversations or continuing with conversations because I think, “Well, I can’t get the full gospel presentation.” Or, “This person is just not getting it.” I want to remind you about verses 25 and 26, when this woman says, “I’m looking for Messiah.” Remember what I said? I said she didn’t have a complete understanding of Messiah. But guess what Jesus does in verse 26? He does not give her a theology of Messiahship—“Messiahology”—He says, “I am He,” and He goes with it. And you know what He does? He trusts the Spirit of God to weave the rest of the gospel threads into this woman’s heart.
I am so thankful tonight that, as a nine-year-old boy, God did not require me to articulate and even have a full-orbed systematic theology of all five gospel threads in the right order. He looked and saw a little boy with a broken and fearful heart, and He accepted me. And, Beloved, you and I, we need to do everything we can to share as much of the gospel as we can as we sow these threads. But understand that we should and can never demand that somebody we’re sharing with completely get their arms around all of it and be able to articulate it back to us. We can trust the Spirit of God to weave the full gospel into their hearts.
Number nine: Imagine every unbeliever is a potential gospel-weaver. I love the end of this story, don’t you? We’ve already seen this thirsty soul who has now drunk from the well of living water. She goes back to town, sows a few gospel threads of her own. The woman becomes a weaver. And I want to encourage you with this, because I think it’s something that we should picture in our prayers and even in our witnessing. When we’re weaving gospel threads, when we’re engaging in conversations—try to picture the person that you’re witnessing to, not just as saved, but as becoming a vibrant gospel witness. See this potential disciple as a potent disciple-maker. See the prostitute as a proclaimer. See the gay teenager as a gospel storyteller. See the wife-beater as a bold witness. See the materialistic suburbanite as a missionary to the Sudan. See the woman as a weaver. Look past just the salvation that God is bringing her to, and see His desire to turn that woman into a weaver of gospel threads. And let it encourage you. Think about it with cultural Christians. Just think with me about the incredible potential of a cultural Christian leveraging all of their knowledge and background of religious heritage that once was a stumbling block now to be used as a resource for the powerful advancement of the gospel. And pray that God would do that.
Lesson number ten—it goes right along with it: Trust gospel threads to wield the gospel’s full power. We’ve come full circle here. Remember, I said to you at the beginning there’s no full gospel presentation, no “Roman Road,” no “Four Spiritual Laws,” no “sinner’s prayer” here. And our tendency is to think that if we don’t do that, then it’s not going to take, yet Jesus didn’t do all of that. In verses 28 and 29, the woman goes back and starts witnessing herself. And, verse 30, the townspeople begin looking for Jesus. And in verse 39, many Samaritans from that town believed in Him because of the woman’s testimony. And in verse 41, many more believed because of His word that they heard directly from Jesus.
Wow! That is a powerful, powerful gospel! And listen, we can trust the gospel through these threads to wield all of its power. Even though, maybe, we’re just weaving portions in conversations and threads here and there, we can trust the gospel to wield all of its power and even break through the hardness, the hearts of cultural Christians.