I was preaching a winter camp a couple weekends ago and preached a message from John 4. I love the Bible and I love when it comes alive in new ways. The story of the Woman at the Well is pretty familiar to many, but I saw a lesson in the text that I had not seen before, a lesson about the problem with guilt and shame.
Let me give three quick background points that might help flesh out this story:
- Jesus and His disciples were traveling thru Samaria when Jesus stopped at a well, while His disciples went into town to get some food.
- At the well, Jesus asked a Samaritan woman for water which a social faux pax on two levels: First, Jews didn’t talk to Samaritans, they hate each other. Second, this woman was drawing water in the middle of the day…probably indicating she was a social outcast, so a Jewish Rabbai had to business talking to a woman of this “type.”
- As with most encounters in His ministry, Jesus used the natural (in this case, water from a well) to talk about the spiritual (living water from Jesus).
So part way thru their conversation, Jesus asks this woman to go home, bring her husband back to the well, so that Jesus could take with both of them. At this request, she replied that she didn’t have a husband and Jesus commends her for her honesty: “You are right when you say you do not have a husband. You have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband…”
The woman’s jaw must have bounced off the ground at Jesus’ words. How did He know this about her? Had they met before? He certainly wasn’t from town (remember, He was a Jew), but did the rumors of this woman reach Jerusalem? Whatever thoughts raced around in her mind were immediately displaced by the reality that she was standing in the presence of a man of God: “I can see that you are a prophet…” are the words that escaped her mouth. Then look what happens next.
“Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” Prior to speaking at this camp, I had never put together the fact that immediately after Jesus points out her sinful lifestyle, she explains her attempts at trying to rid herself of guilt! Notice she didn’t try to excuse her lifestyle, and I don’t think she was merely getting religious because a “pastor” showed up (believe me…that happens more times than I care to recount!), rather, Jesus exposed her sin and she tried to explain how she’s dealing with it, spiritually.
I wonder how many of us try to deal with guilt in the same way? Maybe you know the familiar cycle: you sin, you acknowledge and confess your sin, then in order to make sure you don’t sin again, or maybe in attempt to hope God doesn’t remember that sin, you try really hard to be more spiritual. You listen to more worship music. You do more service. You engage in more religious conversations. You try…try…try…and yet, like this woman, your guilt remains.
Of course, Jesus meets people where they are, right? Physically, He met this woman at the well, and spiritually He meets her at her greatest need. Even in Jesus’ day, worship wasn’t about the location (the temple in Jerusalem), it was about the heart of the worshipper. He teaches this woman that the location of her worship doesn’t matter if the heart is wrong, but when the heart is right, she becomes the type of worshipper the Father is seeking: one who worships in spirit and in truth. Jesus freed her from the prison of having to do enough of the right things in the right place to be absolved from guilt, and helps her understand that through Living Water, freely given to those who put their faith in Christ, she can be cleansed and freed eternally!
The story ends in such magnificent fashion as many Samaritans put their faith in Christ because they heard this woman’s story (4:39) and embraced the eternal life offered by the Savior fo the world (4:42).
As I think about how this woman was liberated from the guilt of her sin, not because she finally did enough of the right things, but because she finally accepted the payment offered by Christ, I wonder how many of us are dealing with the guilt the way she did before this encounter? How many times have we sinned, then, in an attempt to fill our lives with spiritual activity, try to do enough good to cover the guilt from our spiritual failings?
There are not enough minutes in a lifetime, to worship God sufficiently to cover up the guilt for even one of our sins. But one drop of the blood of Jesus, an innocent man who died to pay the price for the sin of the world, can wipe away the guilt of a thousand thousand sins in a single man, woman or child. When we put our faith in Him, when we acknowledge His sacrifice as sufficient for our sin and guilt, we can experience true freedom from the shame of sin. We can find hope, healing, and true spiritual liberty in being a child of God, and not in trying to do what a child of God “should” do.
Yes, when we have experienced that freedom we should long to live a life that pleases God, a life that flows from a heart of worship and praise. But we must never convince ourselves that our worship, our good deeds, and our best spiritual efforts can somehow erase the guilt of our sin. Only Jesus can do that, and He works thru the faith of His children.
If you’re trying to win God’s forgiveness today, I urge you to find identity with the woman in John 4. You will never be able to do enough to rid yourself of the guilt of your sin, but thankfully you don’t have to: Jesus has already paid the price. Seek God in faith, confess your sin in genuine repentance, and allow Him to set you free as only He can do.
Go ahead and take the plunge, life is always better on the water!