This week we kicked off a brand new series taking a fresh look at who God has designed us to be as a church. The message is focused on our church, but the ideas apply to every church and every follower of Jesus. Who did God make you to be and how can you become more that person? It starts with connecting with people. Jesus was a master at that. Learn more here about how He did it and how we can join Him in it.
Connecting like Jesus – John 4:1-26
Our culture is a maze of contradictions. Think about it: We have never been more connected in terms of technology and social media than we are right now and the webs are getting tighter and tighter all the time. Movies like Enemy of the State with Will Smith and Gene Hackman that envisioned a slightly futuristic reality in which the government can track every single movement we make is now not only completely true in terms of what they can do, it’s actually even more true now than it was then. Social media and other tech giants are working on algorithms that not only know where you’ve been, but attempt to predict where you’ll go next in order to allow advertisers to even more closely and personally target their efforts.
At the same time, though, we are lonelier than ever. I’ve mentioned before the fact that the U.K. has created a cabinet-level position called the Minister for Loneliness whose job is to help combat what experts are calling their loneliness epidemic, especially among the nation’s elderly population. Another study from the U.K. found a clear connection between social media use and the onset of depression, especially among teenage girls. For all our digital connectedness, digital connections simply cannot replace physical ones. What ends up happening here is that we have this pressing need—to be connected with other people—along with vast resources to try and meet it, but none of them are doing the trick. Loneliness will kill a culture, but it doesn’t have to. This is where we can stand in the gap.
We have been created by God to stand in the gap of this and every other need the people around us have because we are a church. We are a part of the institution created by God to stand in the gap between the people around us and the fruits of sin that are constantly threatening to gobble them up, providing hope, and most of all, the Gospel. But, to simply say we are a part of this larger mission is not enough. The reason it is not enough is that how an individual church stands in that gap is going to vary from church to church and location to location. Advancing the Gospel isn’t going to look the same in New York City as it does in Tokyo as it does in London as it does in Cairo as it does in Albemarle as it does even in Oakboro. For any church to simply say they are about advancing the Gospel and then stop there means they’re not likely to be doing any more than spinning their wheels in a whole lot of different directions and not ever really doing much meaningful Gospel advancing. We—all of us—need a clear purpose if we are going to make meaningful strides in accomplishing the mission God has left for us to do.
Well, as a community, we have that. Last year in the weeks leading up to Easter and in the wake of a months-long conversation among the deacons, I walked with you through the basic elements of who God created us to be as a community. The big idea that came out of that series of conversations is a statement that aptly captures our God-given identity as a church: We are a place where people can connect to grow in Christ and reach out for His kingdom. I’ve said as much to you every Sunday morning since. But, simply hearing that idea over and over again, while important, isn’t enough. We’ve got to spend a little more time with it so that it can really seep into our souls and begin to shape what we do and why we do it. After all, if this is indeed who God made us to be—and I am convinced in my heart of hearts that it is—then it’s worth our time and attention to make sure we are falling in line with His design for us.
With all of this in mind, for the next few weeks, we’re going to talk some more about it. We are going to talk about who exactly God made us to be and do a bit of dreaming together as to what this could look like in the days ahead of us. We’ll envision what it will look like when we have become even more fully this incredible body of believers than we are now. Then, on the final morning of this series, we’re going to do something that you may not have really experienced before in church. We’re going to celebrate. We’re going to have a Celebrate Sunday, during which time we’ll delight in all the things God has been up to in our midst lately. You will not want to miss that morning on February 10.
As for this morning, I want to zero in with you on this idea that God has made us into a place where people can connect. What does that mean? What could it look like? What should it look like? In order to get a clearer sense on this, I want to take a look with you at a man who is pretty much better at connecting with other people than anyone else…ever. Any guesses on who that is? Yeah, it’s Jesus—this is a church after all.
Now, there are several places where we can find Jesus connecting with someone, but one stands out as particularly worthy of our time this morning. The apostle John, who was one of Jesus’ best friends in the whole world, tells about this time when Jesus took the disciples through the region of Samaria and had an encounter that would leave them scratching their heads for years before they really understood it. The trip started when Jesus was making space for John the Baptist to have his own ministry without Jesus’ shadow looming so large over it. John tells it like this in John 4:1: “Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), he left Judea and departed again for Galilee. And he had to pass through Samaria. So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.”
Now, there’s a lot going on right here and I don’t want to get too bogged down in the details, but think about just this part for a second. By the time Jesus came onto the scene, John the Baptist already had a pretty vibrant ministry. He and his disciples were baptizing lots of folks as an act of repentance for not living up to the standards of God. Everybody liked John. He was kind of wild, sure, but that only added to his appeal. The common people liked him because he connected with them. The wealthy people like him because he was new and wealthy people always like new things. Even the religious leaders who would later give Jesus a really hard time liked him because they understood him as calling people back to the Law they loved so much. And, he didn’t call out Rome very much and so didn’t provoke any real problems with them. He was the man of the hour in every way. Then came Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ ministry—with John’s help—took off like a rocket and quickly began to eclipse John’s. As you can perhaps imagine, the backers of these two different teachers didn’t always see eye-to-eye.
Jesus could have handled this situation in a variety of ways. He could have pulled rank and told John to take a hike. He could have stayed there and just let the controversy boil. He could have made a big, public show of merging His ministry with John’s. He didn’t do any of that. Instead, He quietly left town and headed for the boonies to continue His ministry there. That’s a level of humility few folks of His stature ever reach. Even though He knew His ministry was the fulfillment of John’s, He never tried to steal John’s thunder. He knew John’s time would come and go and that John posed no threat to Him (nor Him to John), and so He quietly got out of the way to avoid provoking any further conflict. That’s powerful stuff.
In any event, John tells us that Jesus had to go through Samaria. Now, technically, geographically speaking, He did. In order to get from Judea to Galilee, you had to pass through Samaria. But, no self-respecting Jew would ever do such a thing. They considered the Samaritan’s to be half-breed dogs who had corrupted their national heritage and the true religion of Yahweh. The Samaritan’s generally returned this love. In other words, Jesus didn’t “have” to go through Samaria to get to Galilee, He chose to take that route. And John doesn’t say this, but you can bet that as Jesus headed north without taking the road around to the east every one of the disciples was thinking, “What on earth is He doing?”
About midday, when it was hot, Jesus stopped by the well at Sychar, and sent the disciples in to town to get some lunch. While sitting there, at the time of day that no one would have been going to draw water, a woman came to draw water. John tells us what happened next starting in v. 7: “A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink.’” Now, this may seem like a common courtesy but the truth runs far deeper. We see this in the woman’s response: “The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?’” You see, not only did Jews not have any dealings with Samaritan’s as John helpfully points out next, the culture then generally prohibited Jewish men from engaging with women who weren’t their wives. That combined with her obviously checkered past (as demonstrated by her visiting the well at midday instead of with everyone else in the morning), meant that Jesus should not have been talking to this woman for any reason. Everybody seemed to know this except Jesus.
There was no reason in the world for Jesus to try to connect, much less engage, with this Samaritan woman. But He did anyway. Just listen for a second to how this went: “Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will 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.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.’”
Now, just so we’re clear, this woman didn’t have any idea what Jesus was talking about. She honestly thought He had some kind of magical water that would make her permanently not thirsty. Can you imagine never having to stop and get a drink of water again? Think how much time that would save you. So, no, she didn’t understand Jesus at all. But what matters here is that Jesus had her attention. He was connecting with her. In this case He was connecting at a point of common need—water. Once the connection was made, He could take the next step.
Verse 16: “Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come here.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.’” Now, when somebody reveals they have some background knowledge on you that you didn’t give them, they get your attention. They get your attention and about five seconds to make clear whether or not they’re a super creepy stalker.
Verse 19 now: “The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet [you think?]. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” This was just a smokescreen issue. It was a real debate among the people, but Jesus had touched on an uncomfortable truth that strummed the string of her brokenness. Raising this issue was an attempt at deflecting Him away from this pressure point. Jesus doesn’t take the bait: “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But 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. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.’ Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.’”
At this point, the disciples coming bumbling back into the scene pour a big heaping dose of awkward on the whole conversation (because they knew Jesus shouldn’t have been speaking to this woman and they probably thought for at least a minute they had caught Him doing something He shouldn’t have been doing), but the connection had already been made, and over the next couple of days it blossoms into the whole village hearing the Gospel. It’s just incredible. But the question we need to be able to answer here is this: What was it that led to this? How did Jesus do it? How did He connect with this woman with whom He had nothing in common, with whom He shouldn’t have even been speaking in the first place, and out of that connection share the Gospel with not only her, but her whole village? If God has truly made us a place where people can connect—something we desperately need—how can we make sure that this same kind of thing happens with the connections we make? Let’s take a look at this because it has the potential to be a game-changer for not only the way we do church, but the way we think about doing church.
Here’s the question that’s going to be driving us here: How did Jesus connect with this woman? How did He connect with anyone? The answer by now should be as clear as it could be: Jesus connected with people just as they were; so should we. Jesus connected with people just as they were; so should we. Sure, but what did that look like? Well, the first thing He did was simply to be humble. Remember it? When John’s ministry and His were bumping into each other, He simply stepped out of the way to minister in a new location. He wasn’t threatened by John at all. He didn’t have to be because He was confident in who He was.
Humility is a key to connecting with people. More than that, it’s essential. It’s essential because if we think we’re something or someone more—or less—than God made us to be we’re not really going to be able to connect with anyone. It should be obvious why this is the case. If we think we’re somehow more than God has made us to be, and therefore better than the people around us, we’re only going to make the connections we think will benefit us in some way and then only so that we can get out of them what we want, at which point we’ll drop them. We’ll treat people as if they were merely means to an end. People can sniff out that kind of inauthenticity a mile away, and when they smell it will stay two miles away just to be safe. Churches who fall prey to this mindset vary in size, but there’s a clear belief among the members that they’re better than the people around them, and if you want to be a part of them you’re going to have to learn to be like them—a feat they’ll make sure is a high bar to clear. On the other hand, if we think we’re somehow less than God made us to be, and therefore worse than the people around us, we’ll either hide from connections because we don’t think we’re good enough for them, or else we’ll be so desperate to make them in order to boost our self-image that we’ll smother to the point of suffocation anyone who gets close. Churches here either treat guests with such nonchalance as to come across as arrogant, or else latch on so tightly to them that they almost can’t get out the door after the service.
When we’re willing, though, to simply be honest about who God made us to be and confident in that person…or that church…we are able to take the people around us just as they are too. We want to connect with them because we know we’ve got something they need, but we don’t need to put on airs or set up hoops for them to jump through because we’re broken just like they are. The only difference between us and the folks who don’t yet follow Jesus is that we’ve accepted His offer of grace and they haven’t. That doesn’t make us better; it just makes us saved. And, if we love them the way Jesus loves us and they still don’t connect, that’s okay. God’s got somewhere else for them to be. Humility—being honest about who we are before God and okay with that—allows for all of this to be the case.
Being humble was key, but it was far from the only thing Jesus did. Humility allowed Him to be in the right place. Once He was there, the real work began. Jesus started by meeting this woman on her own turf and terms. Notice that He didn’t wait for her to come to Jerusalem or even north to Galilee. He was doing life where she was and met her over the course of that. So often churches will stand on their property and issue calls for people to come to them. That used to work…sort of. It doesn’t anymore; even here where the ghost of Christianity-past still looms fairly large. Now, I’ll say this: There’s a difference between expecting people to just show up without an invitation and holding large events that are open to the community. But generally speaking, if we don’t go to where they are and meet them on their own terms, they’re not coming here. Jesus connected with people just as they were; so should we.
But, we’re still here, right? We’re not going anywhere. We can’t move the building. The fact is, we have services here on a weekly basis, and we want to get people here. But, if we’re here, and they’re there, and they’re not coming here, then that means that as a church we need to be intentional about doing life there—wherever “there” happens to be. It could be at the STEM school (or another local school); it could be on the ballfield; it could be at work; it could be at Eagle’s Nest or Penny’s or Wayside or the Mexican restaurant; it could be at a lot of different places, but we’ve got to start by meeting them on their turf…and from there inviting them to join us on ours sometime. And just in case you aren’t sure how to do this, try this on for size: “Hey, you should come to church with me sometime. It’s a great place to connect and the kind of community that anyone can call home. The preacher is a little quirky, but man is the music good.” Jesus connected with people just as they were; so should we.
Then, we’ve got to receive them just as they are, understanding that there’s a good chance the things we do here may not make any sense to them at all. Remember, the Samaritan woman was not tracking with Jesus at all at the beginning of the conversation. They might as well have been speaking two totally different languages. They were using the same words, but different dictionaries. And listen well because this is important: Receiving people just as they are means that we’ll occasionally rub elbows with folks who are nothing like us. At all. This woman and Jesus could not have been more different from each other. And yet they connected because He was willing to be Himself and to take her just as she was without initially asking for anything from her at all except to connect. Over a drink of water. What could be more harmless than that?
From this place—and this is the next thing He did—He took an opening to speak some truth into her life. Connecting is good, but it’s not enough. We don’t connect simply for the sake of connecting—and we’ll talk a lot more about this next week. We connect for the sake of speaking truth. And we need not underestimate just how important this is. Sometimes today churches are so hungry for more connections that they forget to do much of anything with the connections they make. They’re quietly embarrassed of the truth and so they stay away from it. Being connected does meet a need, but it doesn’t meet the deeper need we all have for salvation. Truth received does that. But truth can’t be received if it isn’t first shared.
I heard an interview with a Scottish pastor last week who came to Christ out of a pretty rough background. His journey to Jesus began when some Christians were willing do the very thing Jesus did here: Connecting with him just as he was. But they didn’t just connect with him. Out of their connections they began sharing the truth with him. They shared the truth that he had a sin problem that lay at the root of his all his issues and that until he dealt with that—something only Jesus could help him with—he wasn’t ever going to find the freedom he sought. He said this was the first time he had ever been told he was the problem rather than merely the victim of other people’s mistakes. Encountering the truth in the context of these connections is what brought him to the path of life. Jesus connected with people just as they were; so should we.
Sometimes, though, when we set the truth before people, even once we’ve connected with them, they won’t like what they find. Truth can be hard if we’ve been trying to live apart from it for any amount of time. This Samaritan woman certainly knew that. Jesus set before her the truth about her past. And she had a past. She’d been passed around from husband to husband like a used coin. That’s not a reality anyone would want to face no matter the circumstances that caused it. So, she threw up a smoke screen rooted in some theological issue that ultimately didn’t matter. Now, at this point, many of us take the bait and follow the rabbit trail away from connecting and truth-telling. We can’t do that. Jesus sure didn’t. But, neither did He ram the truth back down her throat. We can’t do that either. Instead, He gently brushed the smokescreen away and brought her back to the issue at hand. In the process of connecting with people, sometimes they’re afraid of making real connections because of what people might find out about them. They don’t understand yet the incredible receiving power of grace. They don’t understand, and they’ll try and distract us from getting in deep with them. We’ve got to be gentle with them in these times. We’ve got to gently brush away the distractions with a wave of truth and show them the incredible receiving grace of Jesus. We’ve got to join Him in receiving them just as they are while yet refusing to leave them there. Jesus connected with people just as they were; so should we.
And when we’ve made these connections, we invite them to take the next step. That’s what Jesus did. When He had met this woman where she was and gently confronted her with life-changing truth, He invited her to take the next step and receive it. For us, inviting people to take the next step might be inviting them to receive the Gospel, but it might also be simply inviting them to church (and then making sure you’re here when they come). Invite them to church; invite them to this church, because God made us a place where people can connect. People will connect here. That’s who God made us to be. But even if they don’t, they’ll experience what church can and should be here which will prepare them more for the place God does have for them to connect. Jesus connected with people just as they were; so should we.
So then, very quickly, what can you do with this? You can do three things. First, be present in the community. Live the life of Christ in this community with great intentionality. More than that, serve out of the love of Christ in this community with great intentionality. Second, practice the things Jesus demonstrated here with the people you meet in order to better connect with them. Be humble. Meet them on their turf and terms. Always speak truth with them. Be gentle with their evasions. Third, out of these connections invite them to join you here so they can experience the kind of connection-enabling community God has designed us to be. Jesus connected with people just as they were; so should we. Fortunately, God has designed us to be a place where these connections can happen and happen well. Let’s pursue this together because there’s life down this road.