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July 05, 2007
Several weeks ago I completed a brief project building a website for a church called Jacob’s Well, an upcoming church plant in Middlesex County, New Jersey and a part of the Acts 29 Network. As I was building the site I didn’t think much of the name, of its origin or its important. That changed, though, as I read an upcoming book by Richard Phillips. The book, Jesus the Evangelist is set to be released in the next week or two and is published by Reformation Trust. Based on a series of expositional sermons, the book seeks to teach the general principles for witnessing, the theological message of the gospel and the practice of evangelism by looking at the model of Jesus in the first four chapters of John.
When he turns to the practice of evangelism, Phillips teaches from the fourth chapter of John which is, of course, the well-known story of the woman at the well. This chapter falls immediately after Jesus’ late-night encounter with Nicodemus and the contrast between the two characters is striking. James Montgomery Boice says:
It is difficult to imagine a greater contrast between two persons than the contrast between the important and sophisticated Nicodemus, this ruler of the Jews, and the simple Samaritan woman. He was a Jew; she was a Samaritan. He was a Pharisee; she belonged to no religious party. He was a politician; she had no status whatever. He was a scholar; she was uneducated. He was highly moral; she was immoral. He had a name; she is nameless. He was a man; she was a woman. He came at night to protect his reputation; she, who had no reputation, came at noon. Nicodemus came seeking; the woman was sought by Jesus.
A great contrast. Yet the point of the stories is that both the man and the woman needed the gospel and were welcome to it. If Nicodemus is an example of the truth that no one can rise so high as to be above salvation, the woman is an example of the truth that none can sink too low.
As Phillips looks at Jesus’ encounter with the woman, he draws out several features of Jesus’ evangelistic approach. The first is caring for the lost. Jesus cared for this woman so much that he made a great detour in his route simply so He could encounter her. He was wearied by His journey having expended Himself in journeying to her. “For many of us, the first step in doing evangelism is simply to care enough for the lost to become weary in the gospel.” Phillips says also “Realizing [Jesus’] sacrificial care for your soul ought to inspire you to care for the salvation of people you know and love, that He might send you as His witness to them.” It seems obvious but it still made me pause and think about whether I love other people enough to share the gospel with them. Or do I love myself more and thus protect my dignity, my reputation?
I’m going to skip to the third and fourth feature of Jesus’ evangelistic witness before returning to the second. So the third feature is connecting with people on a personal level. We see Jesus making a real and a deep personal connection with this woman, not regarding her as just anyone, but caring for her specifically. And having done that, Jesus moves to the fourth feature which is communicating good news. Jesus offered to this woman the good news—He offered Himself, the one thing she needed most.
It was the second feature that most stirred my soul as I read it: Jesus crossed a boundary that separated this woman from God. This Samaritan woman would never have come to Jerusalem where Jesus did much of His ministry. She may eventually have heard of Him, but would not have ventured into the city to witness His teaching and His miracles. As a Samaritan and as a serial adulterer she was hated and reviled. She was not welcome in Jerusalem. So Jesus crossed the boundaries and went to where she was.
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 crossed three boundaries in just this brief exchange. First, He crossed a social boundary that existed between Jews and Samaritans. Because they mixed their pagan religion with Judaism, Samaritans were despised by Jews, most of whom would not even deign to venture through the nation but would instead take a circuitous route around it. There was a barrier of ethnic and cultural hatred that Jesus chose to cross. Second, He crossed the gender barrier. Where most rabbis would not even speak to their wives or daughters in public, lest this tarnish their reputation, Jesus sat down at a well to speak to this woman and did so without shame or excuse. Third, He crossed a social and religious barrier or taboo by asking the woman for a drink. According to temple rules a man who drank from a vessel polluted by a Samaritan risked being separated from the fellowship and worship of God’s people. But Jesus deliberately passed over this barrier as well.
What we see here is that Jesus was unashamed to cross over the barriers that society, culture and religion had constructed that might keep Him from reaching the lost. He so cared for her soul that He would defy all of these barriers. Phillips draws this application:
We, too, have to cross barriers to reach people for Christ. This does not mean that we should participate in sin—Jesus never did that. But it does mean that we have to reach out to people who will never come to church or read the Bible. This woman did not belong to the religious world that produced Jesus. So He came into her world with the gospel. He crossed ethnic, gender and religious lines to seek her out. William Barclay exclaims, “Here is God so loving the world, not in theory, but in action.” We must do the same on His behalf.
This convicted me to look at my own life and to see the ways in which I’ve been afraid to cross barriers. Just two days ago, as I was sitting in my front yard reading a book, a salesman came up the path and tried to lure me into signing up with a new electrical company (“We’ve had great success in Romania” was one of his selling points). I was very nice in telling him that I wasn’t interested and that there was absolutely nothing he could say or do that would get me to agree to sign up. He tried every trick in the book before eventually agreeing that, if the electrical prices climb as fast as he says they are going to, he has my permission to come by the house in the dead of winter, when we’re using more electricity than at any other time, point to me and say, “Ha!” But not long after he left I realized that what I should have done was say, “I’ll listen to you if you give me equal time to tell you about something that’s important to me.” It would have been easy to do, but I was unwilling to cross that barrier. I can think of countless times I’ve been unwilling to cross boundaries based on society or on some unwritten “Christian” rule. And if I think really hard I can also remember times when I’ve gasped as others have crossed barriers I’ve been certain are not meant to be crossed.
I was convicted by the example of the Lord who showed at Jacob’s Well that He cared far more for others than for Himself. I was convicted by Jesus the evangelist. And this is clearly the way the Apostle John would have wanted it.