The Woman at the Well and Same-Sex Marriage: How to Reach a Thirsty Culture

Yesterday, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States. While in some ways this ruling is a watershed moment that will have far-reaching implications for believers in the future, in other ways it is merely another step down a road that our culture has been walking for some time. If you’re still laboring under the delusion that you live in a Christian nation, this is probably a helpful wake-up call: you are (and always were) a stranger and exile in this land.

There are many issues facing believers now: questions of religious liberty, biblical faithfulness, etc. But what should be one of our biggest concerns now is how to reach people in this culture that is opposed to us. The Supreme Court’s verdict is yet another reminder that evangelism in America is now a cross-cultural endeavor; we are divided from the rest of society by a widening gulf of biblical illiteracy and secular worldview. Any strategy for reaching the lost in our communities has to take this reality into account.

For help in that regard, I want to turn to a familiar story: Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). This is one of the best “cross-cultural” missionary stories in the Bible, and we can glean a lot of wisdom here to apply to our own situation. In fact, our cultural situation is actually remarkably similar to the story: Jesus is crossing cultural boundaries to reach a woman broken by the false promises of sexual freedom. That is exactly the issue that the church in America faces today. So gleaning lessons for interacting with victims of the sexual revolution is not a stretch for this text at all; that’s practically what the story is about. I see four lessons to learn from this story that will help us be salt, light, and living water in our decaying, dark, and thirsty society.

1) Sexual “liberation” doesn’t keep its promises, but Jesus does

The heart of this story centers around Jesus’ conversation with a broken, desperate woman. As he reveals halfway through their conversation, she has had five husbands and is currently living with her boyfriend. No man has been able to give her fulfillment, or perhaps she hasn’t been able to give fulfillment to any man. She’s been chasing hapiness and fulfillment through sexual freedom, but all she’s ended up with is emptiness, shame, and bondage. And in the words of Bono, she “still hasn’t found what she’s looking for.” She’s coming to the well where Jesus is sitting in the middle of the day in order to avoid the other women who draw their water in the morning; obviously, she still feels the oppressive shame of her sexual past. She’s carrying more than a water jug; she’s laboring under the baggage of failed sexual relationship after failed sexual relationship. In other words, she’s just like most of the women you meet on your campus or in your workplace.

To this broken, sinful woman, Jesus extends a remarkable offer: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I 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.” (4:13-14) When Jesus says, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again,” he’s no longer talking about the bucket in her hand. He’s talking about her endless quest for satisfaction, joy, and fulfillment. That’s obvious from where he goes next in his conversation– right to the heart of the issue: “Go call your husband.” Jesus wants to gently expose this woman’s sexual “liberation” for what it is: an empty lie that will never satisfy her thirst. And in its place, he offers himself as living water that will finally, fully, deeply satisfy the desires of this woman’s heart. “I’m what you’ve been looking for,” he’s saying.

Learn from Jesus this hard, sweet truth: sexual “liberation” doesn’t keep its promises, but He does. The people celebrating the Supreme Court’s decision today think that the doors to happiness and personal fulfillment have been opened wider. They are destined to be disappointed, because solid joys and lasting satisfaction can’t be found in rebellion against God; they’re simply not there. The people waving rainbow flags on the news are chasing a mirage that will only leave them emptier and thirstier.

Let that truth put some toughness and tenderness into the backbone of your faith. Toughness, because regardless of what the world says, there simply is no real life to be found apart from fellowship with, trust in, and obedience to the living God. So we can be confident that we are, in fact, on the right side of history, because we stand with Jesus, who is sovereign over all of history. But this truth also calls for tenderness, because the sexual revolution is failing its victims. As Russell Moore said in his commentary on yesterday’s events, “The church must prepare for the refugees from the sexual revolution.” Let’s be a community refreshed with the living water that Jesus has given us and eager to hand it out ourselves to the thirsty all around us.

2) Build cross-cultural bridges by humility

A second lesson to learn from this story comes from seeing how Jesus initially engages this woman. There are a lot of good, gospel-centered ways to build bridges to your unbelieving co-workers, friends, and family. Having a loving, servant heart is certainly chief among them. But Jesus employs a different strategy here. Instead of offering to serve the woman, he humbles himself and asks for her to serve him: “Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink.'” (4:7) Putting yourself in someone else’s debt is a disarming, winsome way to connect across cultural boundaries and demonstrate humility and lack of self-righteousness. Sometimes the best way to be winsome to the homosexual couple who has just moved in next door is to come over and offer to help put together their furniture. But sometimes, the best way to humbly connect with them might be to call them up and ask them to help you put together your furniture. Especially when dealing with broken people– as Jesus is doing here– honoring others above yourself with humility, meekness, and thankfulness is a powerful gospel witness.

3) Let them change the subject

This has probably happened to you at some point when you’ve been sharing the gospel with someone: you’re talking about sin and their need for a Savior, and when you start hitting too close to home, they get uncomfortable and try to deflect the conversation by changing the subject to a hot-button topic. The issue of homosexuality seems to come up a lot in these situations. You’re talking about how Jesus died for all their sins, and they say, “Well yeah, but what about the Bible condemning gay people?”

When this happens to me, part of me wants to roll my eyes in frustration and say, “Yeah, but what does that have to do with anything? You’re just deflecting!” But Jesus deals with this same situation in his conversation with this woman, and he is surprisingly willing to go along with her deflection. He starts pressing in to her sinful past, and she quickly changes the subject: “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.'” (4:19-20) She doesn’t want to talk about her sin, so she brings up a hot-button theological controversy to hide behind. Jesus doesn’t scold her for changing the subject. Instead, he goes along with her question, but uses it to quickly redirect her back to her heart. “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.” (4:23) He takes her query about correct modes of worship, and within two sentences he’s back to probing her heart.

Learn a valuable lesson from Jesus here: let them change the subject, but use it to redirect the conversation back to what is ultimately important: the gospel and their own heart. If the person you’re witnessing to changes the subject to homosexuality or gay marriage, don’t see it as a deflection; see it as a gospel opportunity. You could say something like, “Yes, the Bible talks about homosexual sin. But you know what? A much bigger deal to me is that I’m a heterosexual sinner– I’m wired from birth to sin heterosexually– but Jesus came to save people like me, and he’s changed my life.” And boom, you’re back at the gospel.

4) Broken people make the best missionaries

The final thing to see from this story is that God has not placed us into this cultural context for no reason. Rather, the very fact that our society is so sexually and morally bankrupt and filled with so many broken people, is actually an astonishing mission opportunity. Because what we see in this story is that when those broken people taste Jesus’ living water, they are transformed into the best missionaries capable of reaching their own culture.

After being confronted with her past and Jesus’ offer of pardon, the Samaritan woman runs back into town and begins telling everyone– even the women she was previously avoiding– “Come, see a man who told me all that I’ve done. Could this be the Christ?” (4:29) Her testimony was so persuasive, and Jesus’ effect on her so transformative, that the entire town had to come and see for themselves. And what they found set them free as well. Verse 39 says, “Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.”

There is something about being set free from the bondage of sexual shame and emptiness that particularly equips a person to be an effective witness to the life-giving, shame-defeating power of the Savior. Ask someone who has drunk their fill from the world’s shallow wells and then tasted Jesus’ living water; ask me about my liberation from pornography in college; ask someone who has found in Jesus full healing from sexual brokenness; and you will find someone who has been set on fire by grace and eager to tell the world.

 

So could it be that the recent institutionalization and celebration of sin in our culture is not a defeat for the church, but God’s providential preparation of a mission field for his people? The lines have been clearly drawn, and more and more people will be discovering that there is no life outside of Jesus. Will they see in us the kind of winsome, humble, gracious, life-giving welcome that first rescued us? May the church of Jesus Christ rise to the opportunity that God has given us, extending living water to a thirsty world.

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