Welcome to the Well
The story is told of a guy from Colorado who moves to Texas. There, he builds a custom home with a huge glass wall on his great room, from which he can view hundreds of miles of Texas prairie. He’s on the phone with an old friend from Colorado describing his new place when he complains, “You know, the only problem with this place is there’s nothing to see!”
Right about that same time, a woman down the street from him in Texas packed up and moved to Colorado. She built a gorgeous custom home. Her home, like his, had massive picture windows overlooking the Rockies. A friend from back home in Texas calls to ask about her new place and she complains, “I have to say, the only problem with this place is that I can’t see anything. The mountains are in the way!”
People have a way of missing what’s right before them. They go to a city and see the skyscrapers and limos and glitter, but miss the loneliness of people in those great crowds. My Dad was student body president in college. Yet he admits that he could be in the midst of a crowd of people and yet feel like the loneliest person around.
Or you hear someone make a critical comment, and you miss that behind the criticism is their longing for friendship.
Adapted from Haddon Robinson, Leadership, Vol. 4, no. 1.
Today is about not missing how God sees this place. I have friends who pastor churches in other YMCAs who, every year, they make sure to bring a message on why their church is in the Y. David Newman in Ohio gave a talk that kick-started my thinking for today. What does it look like when we see this place as God does?
Let’s admit, there are inconveniences to being a church in a Y. We have to set up each week. We have to be out of this space by a certain time. We could make things look nicer if we were in a traditional church building.
So why are we here? What would it mean for us to see this place more as God does? How should we see this place that we have been invited into, and where we have amazing favor?
I think the best single place to look in Scripture for how we can see this place as God does is John chapter 4. Now the story may be familiar, but today is a chance to see it with new eyes that are completely faithful to what the Holy Spirit is saying through this text.
Open your Bible or Bible app to John chapter 4. I want to bring out three crystal clear observations on how Jesus saw the place that he came to. This passage has everything to do with why we are in this place. Here’s the first observation, and I would encourage you to take notes:
Jesus loved to hang out where people hang out and bring the message of hope there.
In John 4:5 we read…
“Now [Jesus] had to go through Samaria…he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.” John 4:4-6
What brought Jesus to that place seems obvious. It’s hot and he’s tired. It’s high noon in the Middle East, not the ideal time to keep walking the 70 miles or so from Judea in the south to Galilee up north. It’s hot and Jesus is tired, so he stops at the local well.
When you get to know the book of John, you begin to see that often, John is also hinting at something deeper. That’s the case here, as we soon see. A woman comes out to draw water, and it quickly becomes apparent that Jesus sees this place—the community well—differently than anyone else does. He sees it as an intentional, strategic place to hang out where people already hang out, so that he can bring his message of hope there, to them.
Here’s the connection to what we’ve covered so far in this series. When you see yourself as God does (as loved, seen, known, and with your future secured), then you’re able to see others as God does (that the person in front of me has been created in God’s image, Christ came for them, and this is someone I am commanded to love). Building on that, when I see the world as God does (that this world has a Creator, Sustainer, Ruler, and coming Judge), then the call is to see the place where God places me as strategic, not accidental and not incidental. Tiredness or thirst may have brought Jesus to this place, but he sees this place—the community well—as a strategic place, as a place for him to be intentional about hanging out with the people who come there, in order to bring his message of hope to them where they already hang out.
The Jesus pattern we see here is something that later rubbed off on the apostles and the early Christians. There was no such thing as a church building until 400 years later. For the first hundreds of years of the Christian faith, Christians did what Jesus does here: they went to where people already hung out, and brought them the good news of Jesus. For example:
Acts chapter 16, in that place where the apostles set foot in Europe for the first time, where do they go? After asking around to see where people might be spiritually open, they go to the riverside. That’s the local gathering place in that community. Paul and his team go there, they engage in conversation with the people who are there, and the first European comes to faith in Jesus, a woman named Lydia, along with her family and those who work for her. That’s how the first church in Europe started—not in a church building like Notre Dame, but by Christians intentionally going to the local place where community members hung out who might be spiritually open.
Last week we watched in Acts 17 as Paul stops by Athens, Greece. Where does he hang out? Where members of the community already are: he goes to the local synagogue. He initiates conversations about Jesus in the marketplace. When invited, he goes to a larger community gathering place called the Areopagus. In those places, Paul, like Jesus, hung out where people were already hanging out, so that he could bring Jesus’ message of hope to the people there. It’s long been said that if you aim at everything, you will hit nothing. Jesus aimed strategically. Paul aimed strategically. Christians for the first 400 years saw their places strategically, intentionally going to where their local community members already were, and engaging them in Jesus conversations right there in the places where local people already were.
Acts chapter 19 in a different city, the apostles hang out daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. Paul plants a church there in that hall. It’s not in any sense a traditional church building, but it’s strategic. Paul and his team go there daily because the locals already know it as one of their community gathering places.
Here’s another tie-in to last week: Jesus’ pattern of hanging out where people already come, to bring the message of hope there, is so that they will seek God and perhaps reach out for him and find him (Acts 17:27).
We want to go and be with people who are already in this place “…so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him.”
There are fundamentally two different ways to do church, and God uses both of them. They are attractional or missional; aiming for attraction, or being on mission.
The attractional approach to church is captured in the phrase “Come and see.” The aim is to get the biggest crowd possible. A friend of mine was speaking with a pastor in a nearby state, and that pastor excitedly told him, “The goal of our church is to make the best church show north of the city.” That is not our aim here. We are not trying to put on a show.
The biggest challenge to the attractional model is that what you win people through is what you win them to. What you win people through is what you win them to. If you put on the best church show in town one Sunday, you have to constantly keep producing the best show in town. Far too often in the attractional model, the pastor is elevated to celebrity status. Far too often as well, the attractional model borrows heavily from the business world, rather than from the New Testament images which convey that the local church should function more like a family or a flock or a body. So that’s one way to do church, the attractional model. Bring in a crowd.
The other way to do church is missional, and it’s best captured as “Go and be with.” It’s about going to where people are before inviting them to come to us. We take the initiative. This is what Jesus did in Samaria and always. This is what the apostles did everywhere they went. This is what the early church did for the first 400 years: they went to where people already were and hung out with them and served them there, bringing Jesus’ message of hope to them.
In Hamilton County we’re blessed with a bunch of successful attractional churches. The key difference for us is that God has opened the door for us to be in this place, to do what Jesus did—hang out where community members already come to hang out, and bring the message of Jesus here, in this community gathering place. This is the well for Hamilton County. And we want to be a church on mission. This is why we are in this place, because this is the community well.
If that’s not strategic enough to see, there’s something else that sets this place apart for a local church to see—and that is this place’s mission. You have it on your bulletin. Here it is:
The Young Men’s Christian Associations seek to unite those young men who, regarding Jesus Christ as their God and Savior, according to the Holy Scriptures, desire to be his disciples in their faith and in their life and to associate their efforts for the extension of His Kingdom amongst young men.
Every year, every Executive Director of a local YMCA around the world signs his or her name agreeing to this purpose statement. The reason this place exists is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. And that is why we are here. It’s why churches in various places around the country are beginning to see this place, the local YMCA, as the most strategic place to be on mission, to go and be with people where they already are, and bring Jesus’ message of hope to them at this community well. What Jesus did, we want to do.
Here’s the second observation about how Jesus saw this place he came to:
Jesus was willing to break through some awkward barriers to share his message of hope.
Verse 7 reads…
When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) John 4:7-9
Jesus breaks through some awkward manmade barriers so that he can share his message of hope with this woman.
Here’s the first barrier: He was a devout Jew—a rabbi no less—and she was a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans couldn’t stand each other. Samaritans way back in their history had been Jewish, but during the Babylonian exile, the Jews who remained behind intermarried with the pagan Babylonian invaders. Then they took parts of Judaism and parts of Babylonian paganism and made up their own religion. So Jews considered Samaritans to be half-breed infidels. Jewish Jesus shocked this Samaritan by initiating conversation with her. He reached across the barrier of religion.
Here’s the second barrier: Jesus was a man and she was a woman. Devout Jewish men back then would actually pray the following prayer every morning: “Lord, I thank you that you did not make me a dog, a woman, or a Gentile.” Guess what? She was two out of those three. It was considered illegal for a Jewish man to talk to a woman in public. So she was startled that he, a Jewish man, would speak with her, a Samaritan woman.
Here’s barrier #3: she was a moral train wreck. In the Middle East, women coming to the well would come early in the morning before it got too hot, and they would come in groups. You might as well make it social time while you’re doing it—just like so many of the exercise classes here. Women, far more than men, love to exercise together, make it a social experience.
But here you see a woman coming to the well at high noon all by herself. We learn later on that she has been married five times and she is living with a sixth guy. So the logical deduction is that she has a bad reputation locally. People don’t want to be around her—or she feels uncomfortable around them. Jesus reaches across that awkward barrier.
The idea that we’re not supposed to talk about religion is a barrier that exists mostly just in our imagination. Most people are open to spiritual discussions if the conversation is marked by respect and good listening and humility.
Jesus was willing to break through several awkward barriers because he came into those conversations with the irresistible pairing of truth and love together, the truth spoken in love.
This is the opportunity waiting for us in this place—that more of us, more often, begin to reach across awkward barriers to love people like Jesus does, and to bring his message of hope. I tell my pastor peers all the time that in this place, we have far more opportunities to cross barriers and bring the hope of Jesus than any other place I know. This is the well. This place is this community’s well. So let’s begin reaching across those barriers in the name of Jesus here.
Here’s the third observation about how Jesus saw this place he came to:
Jesus talked about a physical need as a means to bring out a spiritual need.
Watch this, starting in verse 11:
Jesus answered 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…Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” John 4:10, 13-14
Physical thirst is what brought this woman to the well in the heat of midday. Spiritual refreshing is what she most needed. So Jesus bridges from a conversation about water, to her far more important spiritual need. In verse 16, Jesus draws out her need for what he has really come to offer, and that is forgiveness of sin. Another man in her life was never going to fill the hole in her soul.
She illustrates what Augustine pointed out back in his 5th century prayer, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Only Jesus can quench people’s deepest thirst. So we want to look for ways to talk about physical needs—the kinds of things that bring people to this place—as a means to draw out people’s spiritual need, that thirst that only Jesus can quench.
A pastor friend, David Fitch, offers his sense of how a local church can do what Jesus did. He writes,
“Commit to a place, regular (weekly) presence in a place, praying for this place [and] its people, so as to discern what God is doing by His Spirit, so as, when the time is ripe, to announce Jesus is Lord here.”
So let’s start doing this. More often, and more intentionally, let’s pray for this place, and pray for the people who come to this place. And as we pray, let’s commit to hanging out in this place and reaching across barriers to initiate good conversations in this place. Let’s trust that if we will do this, the Holy Spirit will lead and guide and He will arrange woman-at-the-well moments, divine appointments, where we will be able to hold out the hope that only Jesus can bring, to people right here, in this place where God has placed us.
There’s just one more thing I want you to see, and it’s all about whether or not we are seeing this place as Jesus does. It’s found in verse 35. Here’s the background: when you read this passage, it quickly becomes clear that how Jesus saw the place and that person, the woman at the well, is not how his disciples saw this place and that person. They were like the homeowners in Texas and Colorado who were missing what was right in front of their eyes.
And so Jesus tries a different tack with them. He draws on the picture of farming to try to help them see that place with new eyes. Jesus asks them…
“Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.” John 4:35
He says, “Do you not see what I see in this place? Open your eyes and see, really see. See this place, and see the people in this place, as I do. Go and be with them, like I do. Commit to going where people already are. Don’t imagine that they’re going to come to you. Go and be with them. Reach across those awkward barriers. Initiate conversations. Look for that person’s spiritual need peeking out in other ways. Then point them to me. Show them who I am and who I long to be in their life. Invite them to come, follow me with you.”
That is seeing this place as God does. This is why we are here. This is the well, the gathering place in this county, and it has a Jesus-centered mission. Do you see that now? This place is the one place in this county that has a Christian mission and welcomes people whatever their beliefs and background. That makes this place the most strategic place for Christ’s church to go and be on mission with Jesus for the community.
We want to be about what every good church should: worship, fellowship, discipleship, serving in ministry, and evangelism, sharing our faith.
What’s different about this church is where the Holy Spirit invites us to do what Jesus did. We get to do it here, at this community’s well. So here’s the call:
- Hang out in this place where people already hang out. Bring Jesus’ message of hope to people here, where we have a wide open door to do so.
- Break through awkward barriers in this place, starting conversations to see how they might lead to opportunities to convey Jesus’ message of hope.
- And prayerfully help people go from awareness of their physical needs, to seeing their spiritual need that Jesus longs to meet.
That is seeing this place as God does: as our primary place for doing the kinds of things Jesus did. This is the opportunity before us. We begin again, right now, in prayer. Pray with me.
Lord of the harvest, help us to see this place more as you do. Open our eyes to the harvest waiting to be brought in. You have placed before us an amazing open door for the gospel, for ministry in Jesus’ name, in this place that has such a broad cross-section of this community. We thank you for this privilege, and we ask you to help us not only to see this place and its people as you do. We’re asking you to make us a blessing to people right here in this place. Holy Spirit, we ask you to arrange ‘woman at the well’ conversations in this place. Lead us this year to see more as you do—seeing ourselves, one another, the world, and this place and its people, with heaven’s eyes. For your glory and our encouragement we pray. Amen.