March 5, 2000

THE BAD SAMARITAN

“The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband.” John 4:29

When Samantha’s first marriage fell apart, she convinced herself it was all her husband’s fault.  Her only mistake had been marrying him in the first place.  How could anybody be happy with a man like that?  When they finally got divorced, it was a relief.  She was eager to make a fresh start with someone better.

Samantha 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 troubles began.  One thing led to another, and before she knew it, she was divorced for the second time.  This time she couldn’t quite blame it all on her ex.  It wasn’t really anybody’s fault, she figured.  He wasn’t really to blame, and neither was she.  They just weren’t right for each other.

When she split up with her third husband, Samantha 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 began to think that maybe she had been the problem all along.  Before, despite a nagging sense of guilt and failure, she could blame the man or write it off to incompatibility or bad luck, but after four divorces, she couldn’t help feeling that there must be something wrong with her.  What were the chances of her marrying four losers in a row?  It seemed more likely that she was the loser.

Samantha’s fifth marriage was her last.  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.  The man, like her, was despised by most respectable people.  He was no starry-eyed romantic and had no interest in marriage, but he wanted warm food to eat and a warm body to sleep with, and that was good enough for her.  She figured they deserved each other.

Who Loves a Five-Time Failure?

Actually, I’m only guessing about this woman.  Samantha isn’t her real name, and I don’t know really know what she was thinking after each of her divorces–I’ve just been speculating. I don’t know all the details about her; I just know she went through five broken marriages.  She may have been sexually abused as a child, and found herself unable to really trust a man, but I don’t know that for sure.  For all I 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–I can’t be sure.  But one thing I know: Samantha was a five-time failure.

And there are few things more lonely than failure.  In her small town, wives would warn their husbands to stay away from such a woman, and parents would warn their sons to avoid her.  A woman like Samantha 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 to a large degree.  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 sermons which condemn divorce and sing the praises of marriage.  It seems that even God has nothing to say to you anymore.

So where do you turn after you’ve failed so badly and so often?  Who loves a five-time failure?  Samantha, the woman I’ve been talking about, met a stranger who, much to her surprise, really cared about her.

Living Water

It began as just another day for Samantha in her small town of Sychar.  The town had no running water, so 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 Samantha 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?”

Samantha was amazed that he had spoken to her at all.  As a stranger, he couldn’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.

She was even more shocked when she heard his accent.  He sounded like he had grown up in the Jewish region of Galilee, and he looked Jewish, while Samantha’s village of Sychar was in the district of Samaria.  The people of Samaria were mostly poor and of mixed racial background.  They were often 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 Jewish stranger asked for a drink, Samantha the Samaritan 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 his main concern.  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?  Did he mean the water taken directly from where the spring bubbled, fresh and alive, at the bottom of the well?  That was the coolest and cleanest water, but it was awfully far down, and this man didn’t even have a bucket.

“Sir,” Samantha 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 ought to stump the stranger.  Who could be greater than Father Jacob, the famed ancestor of both Jews and Samaritans?

But the stranger didn’t even hesitate.  “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 that Samantha 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.”  That would be great!  No more long walks carrying a heavy water jar–just a constant supply of fresh, cold water without working to get it.

An Embarrassing Subject

The man just looked at her as though she had missed the point.  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 offhanded way, the way people often do when they’re making small talk.  “Hey, I’d like to meet your husband.” Samantha 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 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 change the subject.  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 he probably wouldn’t understand anyway.

So Samantha replied, “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, Samantha 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.  Jewish people, however, insisted that the only proper place for a temple was Mount Zion, where the city of Jerusalem stood.  What did the prophet think about this matter?

Could This Be the Christ?

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 limited to Mount Gerizim or Mount Zion or any other mountain.  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.”

These were 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” (called Christ) “is coming.  When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

The stranger answered, “I am the Messiah.  The Messiah is speaking to you right now.”

The woman was speechless.  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 unprejudiced, friendly, and kind, and she liked that.  Also, he had an interesting 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 deeply personal knowledge of her.  He knew every detail of her life.  He knew her failures.  He somehow knew without being told.  That was amazing, but even more 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 already knew the worst about her.

Could this man be the Messiah?  Samantha wasn’t normally very religious, but what if this man really 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?  The more she thought about this possibility, the more excited she became.

Just then several more strangers walked up.  Samantha could see they were Jewish, and they seemed to know the man who had been talking with her.  In fact, they behaved as though he were their leader.  The men looked surprised that their leader had been talking with a Samaritan woman, but they didn’t say anything.

Samantha took advantage of the interruption to rush back to town and invite others to meet the mysterious stranger before he moved on.  She told them, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did.  Could this be the Christ?”

Ordinarily she was the sort of woman most people would simply ignore, but her story was so striking, and she seemed so different, that the people decided to go and see for themselves this man she was telling them about.

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.”

Encountering Jesus

That’s the true story of a five-time failure who met Jesus. You can find it in the Bible in John 4.  One writer calls it the story of “The Bad Samaritan.”

Samantha the Samaritan had a history of failure, an immoral lifestyle, and some pretty confused ideas about religion.  When the bad Samaritan first encountered Jesus, she didn’t know him at all.  He was a stranger to her.  Soon, however, she found that he was at least interesting to talk with.  After awhile 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 Jesus knew her so thoroughly, and cared about her so deeply, had a profound impact on her.  Jesus brought her to a point where she had 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 Savior many had been waiting for.  Soon, rather than being just a five-time failure, Samantha led many people from her village to meet the Savior of the world.  She was no longer a failure but a partner in the Messiah’s mission of salvation.

So who loves a five-time failure?  Jesus does.  And if he could give the bad Samaritan new life, he can give you new life. 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 haunt you, Jesus can forgive you and give you a new life.  Even if you feel dead on the inside, his Holy Spirit can make you alive.  He can change you from a failure into just the kind of person God is looking for: someone who trusts in Jesus, worships God in spirit and truth, and even 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 o himself the guilt and punishment we deserve.  Through his resurrection he has demonstrated his power to overcome sin and death, and he pours out the living water of eternal life in his Holy Spirit.

Christianity is Christ.  Christianity is this man who became sweaty, dusty, thirsty and tired, 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 always offering living water to quench our deepest thirst.  Only Jesus can satisfy our thirst for healing, for meaning, for forgiveness, for love, for truth, for abundant life on earth and eternal life in God’s new creation.  Why is Jesus the only one who can satisfy our inner thirst?  Because, whether we know it or not, our deepest need is simply for God himself.   Jesus is God with us, and the water he gives is the Holy Spirit of God to live within us.

Jesus calls each of us, no matter who we are or what we have done, to believe in him and receive divine life through him.  In the Bible, the apostle John tells the true story of the bad Samaritan (who became a good Samaritan) with just one purpose in mind, the same purpose he had in all the stories he told about Jesus.  “These are written,” says John, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).

PRAYER

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.  Fill us with the living water of your Holy Spirit, so that we may never thirst again, and so that your life and love may overflow from us in worship to you and in leading others to you.  Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.