I HAVE BEEN reflecting on a fascinating incident in the ministry of Jesus, as recorded in the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel. Seated beside a well, Jesus begins a conversation with a Samaritan woman who comes to the well to draw water. By the time the story has ended, this woman has brought an entire town of people out to meet Jesus, many of whom come to believe in him. There are many things this story can teach us about evangelism.
To begin with, the situation hardly looks like a promising situation for ministry. Jesus is in the wrong place. As John points out, the Jews and Samaritans did not get along very well. Travelling through Samaria, Jesus and his disciples were in hostile territory.
It is also the wrong time. It is high noon; it is hot; and Jesus is tired and hungry from his journey. He is resting by the well, waiting for the disciples to return with food. This doesn’t seem to be the time for a breakthrough in ministry.
He also, apparently, is with the wrong person. Almost every commentator who writes on this passage points out that high noon would not be the usual time for a woman to be coming to the well. It would be too hot. The custom would be to come in the cool of the evening, and to relax a bit around the well with the other women from the village, visiting one another and catching up on the news. But this woman was apparently shunned by the other women in the village, possibly because of a bad reputation. (As Jesus points out, she had been married five times, and was currently living with a man who was not her husband.)
But Jesus is able to transform even this seemingly hopeless situation into an opportunity for productive ministry. How does he do it? First, he knows what he is about. His mission was to proclaim the good news of God’s Kingdom and he never lost focus. Whatever the circumstances, whatever the situation, he would find a way to do it. If there was a large crowd, he would preach to them. If there was a small group, he would talk with them; if there was just one hurting woman from a hostile race and shunned by her own people, he would begin a conversation with her. He never forgot what he was about.
Secondly, he had the confidence in what he had to offer. “You are thirsty,” he told her, “but if you drink this water, you will get thirsty again. On the other hand, if you drink the living water that I offer you will never thirst again.” Jesus was confident that what he offered would meet the deepest needs of the human heart.
Thirdly, he refused to get side tracked into arid discussions about religion. When the woman tried to deflect the conversation into a religious discussion about proper worship, he simply told her such questions were not ultimately important. What was really important was whether she would receive what he was offering.
When the disciples returned, the woman ran off into town, telling the people about Jesus and inviting them to come to the well to meet him. As Jesus spoke with the disciples, he looked up to see a parade of townsfolk making their way towards him. “When we were walking past the fields,” he said to his disciples, “didn’t I hear you saying that the harvest would be ready in about four months?” Pointing to the people coming down the road, he said, “Look, the harvest is ready right now, and here it comes.” Jesus knew that people all around him were spiritually hungry and searching.
The implications are clear. We need congregations who know their mission is to proclaim the good news about Jesus, and who never lose their focus. Who know, that even when it looks like they are in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong people, there are still opportunities for effective ministry. Congregations who realize they are surrounded by spiritually hungry people, and who believe that in the Gospel, they have something of value to offer, something that will meet the deepest needs of the human heart.
And finally, the realization that even if we can’t be evangelists like Jesus, every one of us can at least be a witness like this woman, whose simple message was “Come and see.” In the final analysis, this is what evangelism is all about; sharing with others what Jesus has done for us, and inviting them to come and see for themselves. Canon Harold Percy is rector of Trinity Anglican Church in Streetsville, Ont., and the author of several books on evangelism.