It was probably about a month ago now that I went to see my friend Jon preach at York Evangelical Free Church where he is currently head pastor. Jon is a good pastor, a good preacher and also now my landlord. I was happy to seem him actually preaching and to see him in a context in which he could be himself. There are multiple sayings about animals that were never meant to be caged and, if you had known Jon in his last position as associate pastor in a local church here, you would know that all those adages and sayings are commonly used for a reason. It’s because they’re true.
It was towards the end of his sermon when, in one of my few fits of distraction, that I heard him say my name from the pulpit. Now, you must understand this church was about 30-50 people with lots of kids running around. My black attire, beard, piercings, long hair and black/red Demon Hunter trucker cap was definitely atypical but no one there seemed to notice and, if they did, they were still very nice and polite when they shook my hand. But, anyways, I was sitting in my seat towards the back with my friends when I hear him mention my name. And then he says something that has stuck in my brain for one reason or another. I’m not quoting verbatim here but it was something along the lines of, “Take my friend Jeremiah for instance. He reads more books than anyone I know and reads his Bible a lot. But he and his Demon Hunter hat would probably not be allowed in 50% of the churches in America.”
As the weeks progressed, this thought continued to spin in my head. He was right in saying that I would not be allowed in 50% of churches. A lot of the time I feel like I’m not allowed in 50% of anywhere. That’s really been the story of my life from childhood and up. I have never really belonged much of anywhere until I became a Christian. Are the two related? Who knows. The reason the thought continued to toss and turn in my head. Why is it that someone like myself would not be welcome in 50% of America’s churches. Well, the reason is entirely obvious because, well, I don’t look entirely conventional and I don’t really care. I’m comfortable in the skin I have most of the time and that seems to throw people off because, obviously, if they’re not comfortable with my appearance I shouldn’t be either. So, the issue is that people focus too much on the external.
Now, I know what you’re thinking because I too put my palm to my face at how obvious this concept is. But clearly there are people who struggle with this issue of externality because I still get stared at no matter where I go. Do I care? No. Should you? Probably not. Unless you’re the one staring at me. But we’ll get to that eventually.
So, we have the problem pointed out. It’s that we, as people, are far too concerned with the outward appearance in the church and probably in life as well. To bring up a personal example, I attended a very conservative church when I really got serious about what I believed in. It was the church my parents’ went to, something I followed for most of my childhood until I got a job that had me working Sunday mornings. Anyways, this church was full of people who dressed up in skirts, dresses, suits and ties (not all at once, of course) and wore happy little faces as they pretended for an hour-and-a-half that everything was okay. My insertion into that dynamic was… interesting to say the least and the reactions I got were also very interesting. It’s a scientific fact that when you insert something that doesn’t belong into a system, it is the system’s reaction to force it out or destroy it. If only it had worked that way in the beginning.
Just like they played church, they also played nice. Not to say that all of them were fake because there were some genuine people I’ve known for years and still talk to on a regular basis. But it seemed almost like a badge of pride to be the hip, cool elder in a snappy suit who talked to the one freak in the room. There was always the plastered-on smile and the overly enthusiastic handshake and the standard, “How are you doing?” or something along those lines. They didn’t really want you to answer the question just like no one wants to know the real answer to that question in real life. Then they’d move on and I’d leave.
So, I thought to myself after all of this reflection and thinking and writing and taking notes. If you know me at all you know that I just can’t pull this kind of stuff out of thin air. So, I finally came to the conclusion that this all needs changing and I’m going to be the first one to tell you all this great and wonderful information and… No, I’m just kidding myself. This kind of stuff has been said time and time again, so I may be rehashing a new topic but it just means that, at some point this may hit home for someone. So, my reflection has brought on the thought that, yes we need to stop but that focus needs to go somewhere. It’s easier to replace something in a bad habit than doing away with it. Like gum or licorice for cigarettes or exercise for… anything you like. Right?
Here’s what I’m proposing and it may sound crazy but I have backup for it, as I always do. What we need to do is take this lens that so much wants to focus on what someone looks like and judge them or how they react in a certain situation and judge them and we need to shift it and focus on something else. “Well, of course Jeremiah. We know this. It’s plainly obvious from the 1000+ words you’ve coughed up for us already.” Look, I can’t be held responsible for my own verbosity. It’s an innate quality that I will never escape no matter how hard I try. But I digress yet again. What I am proposing is we take this lense that we so strongly use to focus on the externality of people and shift the focus to their eternality.
Let’s define that word. Eternality is a quality that we each possess that grants us existence beyond the passing of our mortal bodies. Jesus’ teachings are replete with statements about eternal life or life in the eternal fire. It’s so important that we grasp that our lives are not just here and now on this earth, working our jobs and hanging out with our friends. This is what we should be focusing on more than anything else and I thought about just how I could best illustrate this because who better to teach us this lesson than the Man himself, Jesus? So, I pondered about where this concept was fleshed out in detail. And I found it in the Gospel of John, chapter 4:1-41.
Those well-seasoned Christians in the crowd will probably groan at the use of this text because they’ve heard sermon after sermon after sermon and covered this an innumerable amount of times in Bible studies throughout their lives. It’s not my job to entertain you, in the end. If you don’t like it then move on, check out and do something else. Moving forward…
We’ll set the scene a little bit. At this point Jesus is resting in a town in Samaria called Sychar. In fact, he’s sitting next to the well where everyone in that town draws their water for their everyday tasks. Jesus is in territory that is not regularly tread by Jews because, as we’ll see in verse 9, Jews had no dealings with Samaritans. We’re not concerned with the frequency at which they dealt with each other but we do know that some Jews detested Samaria enough to walk around it rather than going through it even though it extended their journey. But anyways, Jesus is chillin’ at this well at about noon when this Samaritan woman comes to the well to draw water (v. 7). And here’s where we’ll see the conflict between the eternal and external starts to flare up a little bit. I love how artfully this gets handled. Check it out:
In verse 7 the woman comes to draw water and Jesus asks the woman for a drink. Let’s brings some more culture into this. Women were not regarded at all in this time. In fact there are some old Jewish writings that show just how men really felt about women in those days. In Josephus’ The Antiquities of the Jews it is written: “Let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.” According to Dr. William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith, “The daily prayer of every Jewish man included the benediction “Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who has not created me a woman (Berachos 60b).” So, we have two very external things working against this particular person that Jesus is about to converse with in that she is both Samaritan and a woman.
Chances are this woman, whose name we never find out, would have approached the well in a way that raised the least amount of attention to the man sitting at the well. But Jesus breaks through things that would have tripped up any other Jewish man of the day and asks her for a drink. The woman is surely taken aback as she says in verse 9: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” She is still hung up on the external situation she’s found herself in and does not fully grasp what is going on here. And as thrown as she is at this moment you can probably only imagine what happens when Jesus throws in this statement of eternality. Jesus answered her (v. 10), “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.” Now, we have to keep moving to see this idea fleshed out but we have to look at as sort of dipping our toes in the water of this idea and move forward for now…
It gets more interesting at this point because we have Jesus offering to this woman information about her eternal self and she doesn’t really wrap her brain around it. We can tell in her response in verse 11 & 12 when she says to Jesus, “Sir you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get this 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.” I think John Piper addressed this best in his sermon in John when he was summarizing all the people Jesus had encountered that were, as I think he put it, “spiritually dead.” His point was that the people Jesus talked to would come back at his statements with something earthly or external for our purposes. He says, in summary “I [Jesus] will give you living water” and the woman responds, “Yeah, but you don’t have a bucket!”. And it’s this same external argument we see time after time after time. For me it’s, “I believe in Jesus and want to work as a pastor someday,” and invariably the response is something like, “Yeah, but you have all those piercings in your face.”
Clearly the lines are being drawn for division between these two qualities. And it continues on as Jesus responds to the woman and her fixation on the external well and the water it contains. She clearly has not made the connection yet between Jesus and the living water he offered which is, of course, not a physical water but something spiritual which is a dichotomy that Jesus traverses quite well throughout the gospels. We continue forward with Jesus in verse 13 & 14: “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.” It is at this point that Jesus delivers the full message of the offer for living water and conveys to her that, no, it’s not just some water that you can pull out of a well but is, indeed, a source for eternal life. This is where Jesus effectively breaks through this barrier of external judgements that the Samaritan woman has brought to the table and we see this in her complete shift in attitude in verse 15 because, let’s be honest, 1) who could say no to an internal spring that would cause thirst to cease forever in an arid climate 2) Who could say no to a spring that also gave you eternal life? The woman responds to Jesus by saying (v. 15), “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”
Her reaction is understandable in light of her circumstances. She’s a woman coming out at noon in a hot climate to draw water from a well. But she’s out there alone which really just begs the question “Why?” because we all know women don’t like to go anywhere by themselves if they can avoid it. Also, what seemed like a simple offer from Jesus to give her this living water ends up being a little more than the woman bargained for. Jesus tells the woman in v. 16 “Go, call your husband, and come here” to which the woman replies (v. 17) “I have no husband.” In that time, unmarried women were also not regarded well and they couldn’t work. But the story doesn’t stop there as Jesus takes this seemingly external judgement and unfolds the truth she hadn’t told her to let her know that he, indeed, knew. Jesus says (v. 17b-18) “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.”
I can’t imagine what the woman must have thought at this point. A man she doesn’t know has already told her that he had the source for eternal life and has unfolded her sordid past of being a 5-time divorcee and that she is now shacking up with a man. These are things that negatively affect the woman’s eternality but Jesus does confirm that she wasn’t lying to him when she said she had no husband. But it is in the woman’s response that we really see a shift start to occur in the way that she is viewing her current conversation. She sees that Jesus is a prophet (v. 19) but says that, while her ancestors worshipped on the mountain, Jesus as a Jew would have said they could only worship in Jerusalem. We start to see the external fade away but you can still see the underlying tension that the woman expects in dealings with Jews. Jesus, once again, shifts her focus back to where it belongs and tells her (v. 21-24) that a time will come where Jerusalem and the mountain will no longer be places of worship for them because Samaritans do not know truly what they are worshipping and brings it all to a head in its eternal focus. After tearing down this assumption of where and how to worship, Jesus tells the woman “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (v. 24)
After swatting down what the Samaritan woman thinks she knows the woman responds to Jesus by saying (v.25) “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things”. She seems to be trying to prove herself to Jesus after her life had been exposed for what it really is she seems to want prove that she does indeed know some things. Maybe she’s still assuming those external focuses still which is really hard to believe but reflect on your own life and your own density in approaching spiritual matters and hopefully you can give this poor woman a break. She does know that there is a Messiah and that he is coming and when he does he will give them all the knowledge they need. What a perfect time for Jesus to drop the simple but very dramatic and powerful truth to this woman. Jesus simply tells this woman (v.26) “I who speak to you am he.”
Of all the responses that the woman was probably expecting at this point, a man declaring himself to be the Messiah probably wasn’t one of them. Everyone in this region had been waiting and hoping for the coming of the Messiah for generations. And now in this small town in the middle of Samaria sitting next to a well, probably looking very unremarkable, is a Jewish man claiming to be so. If that is not a full swing into the eternal than I don’t know what is and I probably don’t want to because that is a bombshell of monumental and epic proportions. Just put yourself in that woman’s sandals for a minute and see how you would react.
Well, the truth is, we don’t get to find out what this woman’s reaction was. At least, not right away because those wonderful disciples of Jesus return and are shockingly focused on the externality of this situation. Understandable since we’re early on in the story and they don’t really understand what’s going on until after the events of the entire of Gospel of John have transpired. Either because of their relational unintelligence or because she’s just so excited, the woman leaves but we do get some idea of her reaction. In verse 29 she says “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” She clearly has moved past her assumptions based on the external circumstances and has started to grasp the eternal implications. Good for her.
Unfortunately, as can be seen in the conversation in v. 31-38, the disciples are not at all grasping this concept. They offer him food in v. 31 but Jesus says “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” and the disciples make the same assumptions you or I would make about the situation and say to each other “Has anyone brought him something to eat?” Once again we see the followers of Jesus not quite getting their mitts on what is actually going on. They, too are spiritually dull. But Jesus pulls the focus back to where it belongs.
A sidenote. I really don’t know how Jesus maintained his patience through conversations like these. If you teach and teach and teach and your pupils do not understand, eventually I would probably get aggravated, face-palm and probably give the disciples a good smack to the back of their skulls. Thankfully, I was not Jesus and that’s not actually his response though there are times I can see Jesus actually face-palming (Luke 9:51-56).
Back to the text, we see Jesus pulling the disciples focus back to where it belongs. In v. 34 he says “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work…” I’m sure the disciples were scratching their head at this because they’d seen him eat by now and for him to say that his food is something that isn’t actually edible. But what I think he is saying is that what sustains him is to do the work of his Father, what keeps him going and that what they would offer him as sustenance would not have been sufficient for that capacity. It his here that we then see Jesus break down the disciples’ place in all of this that they would reap what God the Father and the Son have sewn but in this eternal relationship they both rejoice in the harvest (v. 36). We too are in this position because we must remember that it is not us who saves but the work of the Holy Spirit. We are merely workers in the field, doing the work so that we, in the end, may also rejoice in the harvest which won’t take place until the end.
And we see a glimpse of the work that Jesus is doing for the one who sent him in v. 39-42. The woman clearly grasped the eternal message that Jesus had given her. They actually came to Jesus and asked him to stay which he did for 2 days. It says in v. 41 that “many more believed because of his word” and to the woman “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” How absolutely insane is that? Because of the testimony of a woman and then the teaching of Jesus that many Samaritans in the town of Sychar became believers in Jesus as the Savior.
Why do I bring this up? Why did I drag you through so much scripture that essentially highlight two conversations? Because I wanted to show you just what happens when we shift our focus from the external to the eternal. Because the woman saw the eternal offer that Jesus was making she was able to understand that he was the Messiah sent to redeem mankind and then spread the word to the people in her town. When the eternal message of Christ becomes the central motive for something your focus should shift away from who a person is or how they dress. This is not just in evangelism, apologetics but should also be in your daily dealings with people and with dealings with your brothers and sisters in Christ. When you look at someone and judge them just based on how they look and act you totally negate their eternality, the fact that they too have hope in Christ and our outward actions should reflect that (Ephesians 4:1-7).
Here is my personal exhortation to you. Don’t put on your suits, your ties, your dresses, or whatever niceties you deem appropriate for a church setting. Don’t play church and put on your happy face for the hour and a half to two hours that you’re there because life just seems to fade away as you enter the doors. Don’t do that and then condescend to speak to someone like me out of some twisted obligation that you have for yourself to be nice to everyone to their face because that’s what “good Christians” do. If that’s your motivation, to focus on the external and still think you’re doing some sort of noble deed, don’t waste your time, don’t waste mine. Instead, go read your Bible, repent and pray that God will give you the eyes for the eternal that he gave the woman at the well in Sychar. Because until you see life through the lenses of truth offered by the Savior of us all, you will never learn to live eternally for eternity.