“Ye shall be witnesses unto Me.”
The holy Epiphany Season is traditionally that time on our Christian church calendar during which we focus particularly on mission work. Jesus, our Divine Prophet, is of course our perfect example in this effort as we witness in the Gospels His epiphany or manifestation of Himself to men by His preaching and by His miracles. During His public ministry here on earth in His State of Humiliation, He testified and demonstrated irrefutably that He is the Son of God and the Redeemer of the world. However, also in His State of Exaltation at the right hand of God, Christ continues to function as our Divine Prophet as He sends men, as incumbents of the Pastoral Office, to proclaim and to teach His Word — as His mouthpieces (Luke 10:16), as His ambassadors (II Corinthians 5:20), as His stewards (I Corinthians 4:1), and as undershepherds and bishops over His local flocks (Acts 20:28; I Peter 5:2-4).
But mission work is not only the task and privilege of Christian pastors. “Getting the Word out” — “the Word of Reconciliation” (II Corinthians 5:19) that God “in Christ” —in view of, that is, in consideration of, Christ’s perfect and all-sufficient vicarious atonement (Isaiah 53:4-6; II Corinthians 5:21) which satisfied God’s justice with respect to sinful mankind (Romans 3:25; I John 2:2)— forgave the sins of the whole world, no longer charging to sinners their trespasses but declaring all men righteous in His sight— getting that “Word” out requires no specialized theological training. But it does require, on the part of those who would spread it faithfully and sincerely, true faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, as the Redeemer of the world, and as the Propitiation for the sins of all mankind. It does require childlike confidence of the heart in His merits alone for salvation and in the blessings of forgiveness and everlasting life as God’s free gift for Jesus’ sake. And it does require humble gratitude to the God of all grace for thus manifesting His love and mercy to all the world in His only-begotten Son (I John 4:9). For it is “the love of Christ [that] constraineth us” (II Corinthians 5:14) to speak up boldly about Him; “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh,” Jesus says (Matthew 12:34); and the Savior Himself makes confession of Him before men both the evidence and a test of true faith (Matthew 10:32). And so we ask ourselves with the hymnwriter:
“Can we whose souls are lighted with wisdom from on high,
can we to men benighted the Lamp of Life deny??”
(TLH 495, 3)
And then we gladly answer that obviously rhetorical question with the apostles in Acts 4:20, “We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard!” The grateful shepherds did it (Luke 2:17)! The early Christians did it (Acts 8:4)! And we too, motivated by the precious Gospel “both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13), can be witnesses unto our Savior, offering our voices, our gifts, our talents, and even our funds in the cause of Christian mission work, saying with Isaiah, “Here am I; send me!” (Isaiah 6:8).
Jesus Himself is, of course, our perfect example in this noble cause; and He gives us in John chapter four, in a marvelous Epiphany narrative, the record of His own personal mission work as a sort of prototype after which to pattern our efforts. He shows us how to “break the ice” with a prospective mission target, opening the door, as it were, to a potentially fruitful “conversation.” He shows us how to direct that conversation from the temporal to the spiritual. He shows us how to “create the need” for salvation in the mind of an otherwise secure soul by showing in the mirror of God’s Law the sinner’s wretchedness in the sight of God and his helplessness to save himself. He shows us how to deal effectively with objections from those who are quite satisfied with a “religion of their own.” And He shows us how to demonstrate the superiority and surety of justification by God’s grace over the futility and impossibility of justification by the Law. But that is as far as our mission work can go. We “plant;” we “water;” but God gives “the increase” (I Corinthians 3:6).
If we want to get any mission work done (which, after all, is our priority task as His disciples according to our title-text), we have to be up-and-doing, not just sitting back and waiting for prospects to come to us. Jesus was constantly “on the move” as our Good Shepherd, seeking the lost and retrieving them for His flock. Mission work is no easy job, of course, even on a one-to-one basis; and Jesus Himself, in His State of Humiliation, often became weary and worn out from preaching and teaching, from exhorting and beseeching. In John 4, where we find Jesus “on the road again,” en route from Judea to Galilee, He takes a break at noontime, sits down on the edge of Jacob’s well just outside the city of Sychar in Samaria, and waits for His disciples, who had gone into town to pick up something for lunch. Having no pitcher with which to draw water, He puts His thirst on “hold” and just rests (vv. 4-6, 8).
Soon the solitude is broken, however, as “there cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus saith unto her: ‘Give me to drink’” (v. 7). Jesus uses both His own thirst and the woman’s obvious ability to help Him out as a sort of “ice-breaker” by which to engage her in conversation— a technique that you and I can easily learn from His example as we set out to be missionaries for Him. It doesn’t require a lot of talent and special training to talk even to a stranger about the ordinary things of life, does it? And so that’s often a good place to start. We rather easily talk about the weather, road conditions, our children, economic conditions in our country, sports, and even health situations. And we can make use of any of those things — and even many more — as starting points for a conversation that we eventually want to turn into a discussion about what is most important to us in our lives and what makes us truly happy and content in time and for eternity.
“Then saith the woman of Samaria unto Him: ‘How is it that Thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? For the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans’” (v. 9). The conversation is barely off the ground, and they hit a snag! And what is it, but plain old prejudice — historical prejudice, social prejudice, ethnic and racial prejudice! “You Jews think that we Samaritans are the scum of the earth, unclean, not worth a second glance —just because five-hundred years ago many of our people escaped the Babylonian Captivity, intermarried with heathen tribes round about us, and now have both a mixed race and a mixed religion. Normally speaking, you wouldn’t even touch my pitcher, much less drink out of it! And you ask me to pour you a cup of water?? What’s with you anyway?” That is exactly where the conversation stops for many people. They avoid confrontation “at any cost,” and they’d rather just go on their way than take up the challenge of engaging a person with an “attitude problem.” But is that what Jesus did?? —Is that what He did, is that what He does, in your case and mine??
Here indeed was a lost soul —a five-time loser in marriage, as we learn later on in this chapter, now living with a sixth man in an adulterous relationship (vv. 17-18). She was a “slut” by reputation —the women of the city had nothing to do with her, just the men (v. 28)— and her religion was a hodgepodge of truth and error, of faith and superstition, of Messianic Old Testament Christianity and plain paganism (vv. 20-26)! No one who valued his good name in the community and in the church would have anything to do with the lady! (Perhaps even we today, in our fleshly arrogance, would give such a person the “cold shoulder” and look for a more up and coming prospect.)
But the Lord Jesus, who, as the omniscient Son of God, knew all those things about the woman and even more, was interested in her, just as He is interested in you and me, who, by the perfect standards of God’s holy Law, are certainly no better! “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” the Bible tells us (Romans 3:23). “There is NONE that doeth good, no, NOT ONE!” (v. 12; also Ecclesiastes 7:20). Indeed, if we were judged according to our worth by nature and by the deeds we do, we would have more “heat” coming from God than the scorching heat of the Middle East at noon time! For the Bible says: “The wages of sin [what we have earned as sinners) is death” —everlasting death in the fire of hell! Yes, it is our guilt, as we see ourselves in the mirror of God’s law, that parches our spiritual throats with the searing heat of God’s anger and makes us thirst for even one drop of cooling, soothing water to relieve our anguish (cf. Luke 16:24)! And Jesus did not hesitate to show the woman her sins, to embarrass her with His knowledge of them, and to create the thirst of guilt in her heart!
“Jesus answered and said unto her: ‘If thou knewest the gift of God and who it is that saith to thee, ‘Give Me to drink,’ thou wouldest have asked of Him, and He would have given thee living water’” (John 4:10). Jesus knew just what this poor wretched sinner needed: The pure and “living water” of His Gospel —the good news of salvation for helpless good-for-nothings —the glad tidings of the Christmas angels that the “Savior, Christ the Lord,” had made peace between man and God —that by His perfect life in our place and by His innocent suffering and death in our stead, Christ paid the ransom price demanded by His father in heaven, so that God’s anger is now stilled for Jesus’ sake, and He has now declared His “good will toward men” (Luke 2:14). In other words, God has given us a pardon— as His free gift, undeserved by us. And that’s how Jesus identified it to the Samaritan woman: “The GIFT of GOD,” free for the taking! “Living water,” life-giving, thirst-quenching water poured out by Jesus, the Fountain of Salvation!
But the woman was skeptical —as are so many in our world today, who mistakenly think that they can and somehow must earn their way to heaven, and that salvation is NOT “the gift of God.” “The woman saith unto Him, ‘Sir, Thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep. From whence then hast Thou that living water? Art Thou greater than our father, Jacob, which gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle?’” (vv. 11-12). She’s looking for the wrong water, isn’t she? She’s looking for water she can see, water she has to draw with her pitcher, water from the well that Jacob dug by his own works and drank out of as the result of his own labor! —And, oh, how close she is to the truth when she asks Jesus: “Art Thou greater than our father, Jacob?” Why, it was the patriarch, Jacob, who confessed to the Lord, Genesis 32:10, “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth which Thou hast showed unto Thy servant.” He himself was saved not by his works but by the mercy of God in Christ.
“Jesus answered and said unto her: ‘Whosoever drinketh of this water [this earthly water] shall thirst again; but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst’” (vv. 13-14). Spiritual thirst brought about by guilt before God cannot be relieved by water dug by men, drawn by men. It gives only temporary relief, false relief, as sinners look away from the mirror of God’s law to themselves. But when sinners are forced to look back and face their corrupt reflection, they “thirst again,” Jesus says,—and again! Only the perfect refreshment of the Gospel of salvation by God’s grace, God’s gift in Christ, can relieve the thirst —as long as one drinks it and it doesn’t just look at it — as long as one accepts that Gospel by faith, by real confidence of the heart. For then, no one, not even Satan himself, can any longer successfully accuse the sinner to God and bring back that awful thirst of guilt (Romans 8:1). For Jesus promised the woman of Samaria, and promises you and me: “Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him in no wise shall thirst forever” (v. 14a), the Greek original says, shall not suffer the eternal thirst, the shame and contempt and everlasting estrangement from God in the fire of hell (Cf. Matthew 25:41; Luke 16:24; Isaiah 66:24; Mark 9:43-44).
And Jesus, our Fountain of living water, will not dry up on us like the wells of this world —will not let us down like the assurances of this world in which people trust day by day — the assurances of God’s favor for those who live “on the level and the square,” who “do a good turn daily,” who are “downright upright” in their dealings, and who serve the “social gospel” of philanthropy by their humanitarian and altruistic deeds. For Jesus tells the woman concerning His precious Gospel: “The water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water [or better from the original language, “a fountain of water”] springing up into everlasting life” (v. 14). The perfect refreshment for sin-parched souls will never run out (Romans 5:20-21; Psalm 118:1). That water is not lying stagnant, as it were, at the bottom of some hole in the ground, with a limit on how much of it can be drawn off in a period of “spiritual drought.” For, while that is often the case with shallow, hand-dug wells here this world, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, is the eternal, unchangeable, almighty Son of God —a veritably inexhaustible supply of “living water,” as from an active artesian well, bubbling up and overflowing in abundance “into everlasting life” —a supply that will last until we have crossed over the barren wilderness of this sin-ridden world to the very gates of heaven itself!
Earthly comforts and assurances can’t make and stand behind such a claim! We talk about these things every day: The value of money fluctuates on a daily basis, stocks go up and down, companies fail —even insurance companies— health declines, friends desert us at the drop of a hat, and the “good times” are gone —dried up, evaporated into thin air like a shallow pool of water in the desert! And people who cling to such things for comfort, and live for such things their whole life long, will find themselves with parched, burning throats when they stand one day at death’s door; and their dry, brittle voices will be unable to make one “peep” in their own defense before the judgment throne of God! That’s the “hard news” that we need to share with people in order to make them long for something more, something better, something more valuable than temporal relief, something that lasts into eternity!
Unbelievers will not have the “gift of God” (cf. also Ephesians 2:8) to rely on, because they rejected it in unbelief; they will not have Christ’s “living water” to quench their burning guilt, because they refused to drink of it when it was offered to them; they will not have “everlasting life” to look forward to, because they despised it in favor of the here-and-now. Oh, how foolish such people are who ignore the indictment of God’s Law and then wantonly cast aside the free pardon offered by Him in the Gospel! And how doubly tragic the day of reckoning will be for those who once tasted the “water of life,” bathed their parched souls in its blissful refreshment, rejoiced in its comfort and assurance, and then, for the sake of some carnal gain or satisfaction, spued it out of their mouths, as if it had not been worth drinking in the first place! For “unto whomsoever much is given,” says Jesus, “of him shall be much required” (Luke 12:48).
And how about you and me, beloved fellow-sinners, wandering yet for an undetermined time in the wilderness of this wicked and perverse world? Are our spiritual canteens filled to the top with living, life-giving, and life-sustaining water? Do we drink from them regularly to keep up our vital spiritual strength? Do we fill them up at every opportunity at the bubbling fountain of our Savior’s precious Word? Are we constantly on the alert against those who would snatch those canteens from our hands and turn us on to other refreshment? Do we call out to fellow travelers and point them to the Fountain of Grace, so that they too can drink of the “living water” of the Savior’s Gospel? —Oh, my dear brethren, that sounds like a mighty long list of questions, doesn’t it? Sure it is! But it’s the ongoing inventory we must take of ourselves every day of our lives —without let-up— as we plod along as pilgrims in a barren land on our way to the heavenly Canaan above, where our citizenship, bought and paid for by our Savior, is received alone by faith in Him as our Redeemer. Continuance in His precious Word of life is crucial to our spiritual survival! Sacrificing it for any earthly consideration is spiritual suicide, more deadly than tossing away a full canteen on a Death Valley crossing!
Let us therefore implore our Lord and Savior to keep the fountain of His precious grace freely bubbling among us in the years to come, that, holding fast to His Word, we may never thirst but find in it enduring comfort and refreshment for our souls unto everlasting life and also share with others its saving message, “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Corinthians 4:6)! To that end we pray:
Preserve Thy Word and preaching, the truth that makes us whole,
the mirror of Thy glory, the power that saves the soul.
Oh, may this living water, this dew of heavenly grace,
sustain us while here living until we see Thy face!
(TLH 264, 5)
— D. T. M.