February 23, 1992
WHO LOVES A FIVE-TIME FAILURE?
“Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” John 4:29
When her first marriage fell apart, she tried to convince herself that it was all his fault. Her only mistake had been marrying him in the first place. Who could possibly put up with a man like that? When they finally split up, her biggest regret was that it hadn’t happened sooner. She was eager to make a fresh start with someone else.
She soon found another man, and she swore to herself that this time it would be different. And for the first few months, it was. It seemed like they would be happy together. But then the arguments began; one thing led to another; and before she knew it, she was divorced for the second time. This time she couldn’t really blame it all on him. It wasn’t really anybody’s fault, she figured. He wasn’t really to blame, and neither was she. They just weren’t compatible.
When she split up with her third husband, she told herself it was bad luck. She had been too eager to remarry after her divorce, and in her haste to have a man, she’d fallen for the wrong one. She would not be so careless again.
When her fourth marriage came to an end, she became more and more certain that she had been the problem all along. Before, despite a nagging sense of guilt and failure, she could blame the man, or she could write it off to incompatibility or bad luck, but after four divorces, she couldn’t help feeling that she herself had been the problem all along. What were the chances of her marrying four losers in a row? It seemed a lot more likely that she was the loser.
Her fifth marriage was her last try. When that ended in disaster, she was sure that she simply didn’t have what it takes to make a good wife. But she still needed a man to share her bed and share the cost of living, and she soon found one. Like her, he was despised by most respectable people. He had no illusions about romance and no interest in marriage, but he still had a desire for warm food to eat and a warm body to sleep with, and that was good enough for her. She figured they deserved each other.
Actually, I’m only guessing about this woman. I don’t know what she was thinking after each of her divorces–I’ve just been speculating. We don’t know many details about her, only that she had been through five broken marriages. She may have been sexually abused as a child, and found herself unable to really trust a man, but we don’t know that for sure. For all we know, she may have grown up in a healthy family, with her parents feeling more heartbroken and embarrassed every time she failed.
What went wrong? Did any of her husbands beat up on her? Did she have a drinking problem, or did she perhaps marry one alcoholic after another? She wouldn’t be the first to do that. Did they argue over finances? Was she an unbearable nag? It could have been any of these things, or a combination of several. We can’t be sure. One thing we can be sure of: she was a five-time failure.
And there are few things more lonely than failure. In the small town where she lived, wives would warn their husbands to stay away from such a woman, and parents would warn their sons to avoid her. A woman like that was nothing but trouble. The decent women in town would steer clear of her, since it might hurt their reputation to be seen with a woman like that. And even those who had been her friends would feel uncomfortable around her. What could they say? It’s hard to talk to a divorced person, especially if it seems to be her fault. Talking to her might only make matters worse.
If you’ve ever been through even one divorce (let alone five), you may have experienced that dreadful sense of failure and loneliness. If the very person you slept with doesn’t love you any more, how can you expect anyone else to love you? Even people who were once close friends seem to be avoiding you, and perhaps you really don’t care; you don’t feel like talking to them anyway. How could they understand what you’re going through? If you were part of a church, you may have become so uncomfortable around all those religious people and their successful marriages that you stopped going to church altogether. Besides, you can’t handle those sermons which condemn divorce and sing the praises of marriage. It seems that even God has nothing to say to you.
So where do you turn after you’ve failed, especially if the failure is your own fault? Who loves a five-time failure? The woman I’ve been talking about met a stranger who, much to her surprise, really cared about her. In John 4 the Bible tells us about this woman and about the conversation that changed her life.
It began as just another day in her small town of Sychar. Since they had no running water, she had to follow her daily routine of getting water from Jacob’s well, which was outside the village. No one from the village went with her that day, but that was probably nothing new. Maybe it was better that way. At least she wouldn’t have to hear anyone laugh at her or watch them whispering to each other while they kept their distance.
When she got to the well, she saw a man sitting there. He was someone she had never seen before. The stranger was covered with sweat and dust, and he looked very tired. As she started to draw water from the well, she was startled to hear the man asking her: “Will you give me a drink?”
She was amazed that he had spoken to her at all. Of course, as a stranger, he didn’t know about all her failures, but still, he was a man and she was a woman, and it wasn’t considered proper for a man to speak in public to a strange woman.
And when she noticed his accent, she was even more shocked. He sounded like he had grown up in the Jewish region of Galilee, and he looked Jewish, while her village of Sychar was in the district of Samaria, which included mostly poor people of mixed racial background. They were considered a bunch of half-breeds and scoundrels. The Samaritans were despised and hated, victims of prejudice, and they were more than willing to hate those who hated them.
So when the man asked for a drink, she said, “You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” She couldn’t believe that he was willing to talk to her, let alone be willing to drink water from the same jar. He must really be desperate for a drink.
But apparently ,that wasn’t it either. He had other things in mind besides his own thirst. He told her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
What in the world was he talking about? She was pleased that he was at least willing to talk to her, but who did this man think he was? He mentioned something about the gift of God. Did he think he was God’s gift to women? And what did he mean by living water? Maybe he was offering her water taken directly from where the spring bubbled, fresh and alive, at the bottom of the well. But that was at least 100 feet down, and this man didn’t even have a rope and bucket.
“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?” That one ought to stump the stranger. Who could possibly be greater than father Jacob?
But the stranger didn’t even hesitate to answer. “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks that water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
The words were so strange she didn’t know quite what to think, but the man seemed serious. He didn’t seem to be crazy, and he really did seem to care about her. Besides, he had made her curious. She found him intriguing, so she decided to play along. “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to drink water.” Wouldn’t that be nice? No more long walks carrying a heavy water jar–just a constant supply of water without having to work for it.
But he just looked at her as though she had missed the point entirely. And then, almost from out of nowhere, he told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.” He seemed to say it in kind of an innocent and offhanded way, the way people often do when they’re making small talk. “Hey, I’d like to meet your husband.” She stiffened when he mentioned the word “husband.” That was one word that always triggered panic in the pit of her stomach. But she kept her composure and quickly replied, “I have no husband,” hoping the stranger would drop the subject.
I’m sure you can understand her reaction. Sometimes small talk is hard to handle when it pokes into something you’d rather not discuss. When someone casually asks, “How are you?” what do you say if your life is miserable? Sometimes it’s easiest just to force a smile and say, “Oh, not too bad. How are you?” Or when someone, in an effort to make conversation, asks what you do for a living, what do you say if you just lost your job? You could go into all the details, but it might be easier to say, “I’m in construction. What do you do?” You’d rather steer the conversation on to something that isn’t so painful to talk about.
So when a total stranger says, “Hey, I’d like to meet your husband,” what do you say? If you’ve been divorced five times and are now living with somebody else, nobody can blame you for simply saying, “I don’t have a husband.” After all, it’s the truth–you don’t have a husband. Why give a stranger all the details of the broken promises and shattered dreams? Your shame and pain are none of his business, and besides, he wouldn’t understand anyway.
So the woman said in an abrupt voice, “I have no husband,” hoping that would be the end of it. And that’s when it happened. The stranger looked her straight in the eye and said: “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite right.” The man knew. He knew she was a five-time failure. Apparently ,he knew all about her.
But how could he? They had never met before, and he had never been in their town before. He had to be a prophet! He must be one of those people with a supernatural ability to know things and to read people’s minds.
Well, if he was a prophet, she might as well find out the answer to one of the big religious arguments of the day. That would also give her a chance to change the subject. Her people, the Samaritans, worshipped God at a place called Mount Gerizim, while most Jewish people insisted that the only proper place for a temple was Jerusalem. What did the prophet think about this matter?
The stranger surprised her once more. He told her that before long, the proper place of worship wouldn’t even be an issue. God wasn’t confined to Mount Gerizim or Mount Zion. He said that for the time being, the Jews knew more about worshiping God than Samaritans knew. He even said, “Salvation is from the Jews.” But he didn’t say this to put her down, or to exclude Samaritans. In the past God had been revealing himself in a special way to the Jewish people, and salvation would come from the Jews. “Yet a time is coming and has now come,” he said, “when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”
Well, these were extremely powerful words, but they were also mysterious and confusing to the woman. Then she remembered that many people were expecting someone called the Messiah to come, and he would be the man to settle disputes and clear up the confusion. So she said, “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
The stranger answered, “I who speak to you am he.”
The woman was flabbergasted. This man the Messiah? Her mind began to race. When she first saw this tired stranger, she saw him as a Jewish man, desperate for a drink. She was pleasantly surprised that he was willing to talk to her, a Samaritan woman. He seemed very kind and unprejudiced, and she liked that. He also had a very intriguing way of speaking, and when he spoke about true worship, his words had the ring of authority. He seemed to know a lot about God.
But the thing that impressed her most was that he knew all about her. He had a very personal knowledge of her. He knew every detail of her life. He knew her failures. And he somehow knew without being told. That was amazing, but equally amazing was the fact that he was willing to talk with her in spite of what he knew. She couldn’t hide anything from him, but apparently she didn’t have to hide anything. He seemed eager to help her in spite of the fact that he knew all about her.
Could this man really be the Messiah? She wasn’t an extremely religious person, of course, but what if this man was the Messiah? And what if he really was interested in giving eternal life to her, even though he knew she was a five-time failure? As all this began to dawn on her, she became more and more excited.
Just then several other strangers walked up. She could see that they were Jewish, and they seemed to know the man who had been talking with her. They looked surprised that he had been talking with a woman, but they didn’t say anything.
The woman took advantage of the interruption to rush back to town and invite others to meet this man before he moved on. She told them, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?”
Her story was so striking, and she seemed such a different person, that the people decided to go out and see for themselves this man she was telling them about. According to John 4:
Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers.
They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world” (John 4:39-42).
That’s the true story of a five-time failure who met Jesus. One writer calls it the story of “The Bad Samaritan.” This woman seemed to have nothing more than a history of failure, an immoral lifestyle, and some pretty confused ideas about religion.
When she first encountered Jesus, he was nothing more than a stranger to her. Soon, however, she found that he was at least interesting to talk with; before long she figured he must be a prophet; and finally she couldn’t help taking him seriously when he said he was the Messiah. The fact that he knew her so thoroughly, and cared about her so deeply, had a profound impact on her. He forced her to face herself, to recognize her sin and failure for what it was, but at the same time he invited her to enjoy eternal life and worship God in a whole new way. He told her that he was the Messiah, the one everyone had been waiting for. And soon, rather than being merely a five-time failure, this woman had led many people from her village to meet the Savior of the world. She wasn’t a failure–she had become part of the Messiah’s successful mission of salvation.
So who loves a five-time failure? Jesus does. And if he could give this Samaritan woman new life, he can give it to you. Think for a moment: What is the one thing in your life you are most ashamed of? What subject do you try to avoid thinking about or talking about with others? Jesus knows all about it. He knows everything you or I have ever done. Whether your life has been plagued by sexual sins and broken marriage promises, or whether it’s some other failure or sin that continues to drag you down, Jesus can give you a new life. Even if you feel dead on the inside, his Holy Spirit can revive and invigorate you. He can change you from a failure to someone who leads others to the Savior.
Because of Jesus, there is hope for even the worst failures. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17). Jesus became one of us and died on a cross at Calvary, taking the condemnation we deserve on himself. Through his resurrection, he has demonstrated his power to overcome sin and death, and he pours out the living water of eternal life through his Holy Spirit.
Christianity is Christ. Christianity is this man who became sweaty and dusty and thirsty and tired, and who wasn’t too proud to ask an outcast for a drink. He comes in compassion and love, ignoring stereotypes and prejudices, sometimes provoking curiosity, sometimes probing into painful and embarrassing areas of our lives, and ultimately revealing himself as the Christ, the Son of God, the only one who can satisfy our thirst for eternal life, the key to worshiping God in Spirit and in truth.
Jesus calls each of us, no matter who we are or what we have done, to believe in him and receive eternal life through him. The apostle John tells us the true story of the five-time failure with a single purpose in mind, the same purpose he had in all the stories he told about Jesus. According to John 20:31, “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
Lord Jesus, thank you for your amazing love and compassion. Help us to face our sins and failures honestly, and help us to know you and believe in you as the Savior of the world.
Strengthen us with power through your Spirit in our inner being, so that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith. And give us power to know how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.