The Seventh Man at the Well
By Dr. Delron Shirley
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The Seventh Man at the Well
We all know the story well. Jesus and His disciples stopped by a well on their journey one day. Because He was hot and tired, Jesus asked the rest of His team to go into the city and look for food while He sat by the well to rest and cool off. Shortly afterward, a woman came to draw water. When Jesus tried to strike up a conversation with her by requesting that she give Him a drink of water, she was shocked that a Jewish man would lower himself to talk with her and receive a cup of water from her hand. After a bit of back-and-forth between these two strangers, Jesus suggested that He could give her living water – an offer that really astounded her since He had nothing with which to draw water from the well. When He eventually asked her about her husband, she responded that she had no husband – invoking His reply that she had had five and was now living with a sixth man in a common-law relationship. This miraculous knowledge led the woman to run into the city and bring out a multitude to meet Jesus and hear Him preach.
In fact, we probably actually know the story too well. You see, when we are really familiar with things, we seem to take them for granted. We look at them with an I’ve-got-this attitude and think, “There’s nothing new here.” But let’s take a little test. Can you list all the streets between your house and your work? Probably not; yet, you transverse them every day. If you do remember the actual streets that you use, can you name the cross streets? Remember that you pass them every morning and every evening! What about your own neighborhood? Do you know exactly how many houses are on your street? Now let’s take this question all the way home. Can you tell me the colors of all the rooms in your own house? Once when my wife and I were in India, we ran across a little shop selling hand-loomed bedspreads. An intricately designed blue one caught my wife’s eye. When I tried to divert her attention to an equally exquisite green one, she insisted that it would not match the blue walls in our room. No matter how much I maintained that the room was green, she purchased the blue one and hauled it eight thousand miles back to Colorado only to find that it really didn’t go in our green bedroom. Score one for my partially color-blind eyes!
Imagination – a Journey out of the Ordinary
Before we go any further with the story of the woman at the well, let me make one suggestion about taking familiar things for granted. When we get too accustomed to things, we tend to lose our curiosity and imagination about them. I have to confess that I probably can’t tell you exactly how many houses are on my block, but I can tell you that there are a couple homes in my neighborhood that continue to pique my curiosity and fire up my imagination. One is the house with a life-size bronze statue of a giraffe in the front yard, appearing to nibble at leaves near the top of one of their trees. I constantly question if the home belongs to someone from our local zoo that boasts of having the largest herd of giraffes in North America or if the owner has some connection with Kenya. Another house ignites my imagination because the yard is filled with fishing nets, buoys, and all other sorts of other marine artifacts, including a miniature lighthouse – a really out-of-place motif halfway up a Colorado mountain. I can only imagine that these neighbors must originally be from New England and just can’t live without a little reminder of their heritage.
My point here is that when we take time to imagine, we begin to see possibilities that help make the ordinary come alive in us. Therefore, I want to take the time to muse a bit about who the first six men in the life of the woman at the well were and try to flesh out a little of the stories of what could have happened in their relationships with the poor woman. Of course, we know nothing about them; therefore, everything I am going to say will be totally conjecture. There may not be even a shred of truth to any of the scenarios that I am about to propose or the tales I will spin. But, one thing is for sure – these are the kinds of stories that happen in the lives of the broken people that we meet on a regular basis in our lives and ministries. Therefore, it is good for us to work through these stories so we can see how Jesus healed each wound in the woman’s life and how He can work through us to heal similar wounds of those in our lives.
Let’s begin our journey into the twilight zone of the imagination by giving the woman at the well a name. I propose Ruth after the young Moabite woman for whom the eighth book of the Old Testament was named. I chose her because she suffered some terrible disappointments yet had a wonderful turnaround after meeting a gracious man who cared for her – much like the plot in the story we are about to examine.
Let’s imagine that the first man – we can call him Abraham – to reject poor Ruth did so on the most common of grounds for divorce in biblical times – the discovery that she was not a virgin at the time of the marriage. When Jesus was confronted with the question if it was legal to divorce for any cause, the background of the query came from this very matter. (Matthew 19:3) The back story to that question was an argument between two of the leading rabbis of the day – Hillel and Shammai. Hillel, a very liberal scholar, insisted that a man could divorce his wife over anything that displeased him – even burning his breakfast. Shammai, a very conservative scholar, insisted that there was only one reason for divorce – the fact that she had failed the proof-of-virginity test. Deuteronomy 22:13-21 describes the scenario in which a man accuses his wife of not being a virgin and the analysis that was imposed to test his allegation. The necessary evidence of defense for the accused woman was the token of her virginity which the bride’s father was to present. This token was a cloth with a blood stain that was taken from the couple’s bed on their honeymoon night. If no such cloth could be produced, it was assumed that the bride had had an affair prior to the marriage. In this case, she was actually subject to being stoned to death. In Deuteronomy 24:1-4, the same issue is addressed in a more tolerant light where there is provision for a divorce rather than an execution. The terminology used here to describe the incident is, “she find no favor in his eyes,” the springboard from which Hillel made his flying leap to the conclusion that anything that displeased him was worthy of a divorce. Jesus’ answer that divorce was the product of hardness of the heart of the husband rather than the lack of purity of the bride, of course, unraveled their whole argument. But be that as it may, the easiest way to obtain a divorce and, therefore, the most frequently used approach was to accuse the wife of not having been a virgin at the time of the marriage.
Imagining that this might have been the case with this first marriage, we can easily relate this lesson to current day life. Most couples have a real problem with revealing who we really are before the marriage. We all have a tendency to “put our best foot forward” while we are dating. Guys are always polite with presenting little gifts, opening doors, and all sorts of acts of chivalry. But as soon as the honeymoon is over, they turn into slobs looking for a place to happen. I’ve known more cases than I wish to remember of Dr.-Jekyll-and-Mr.-Hyde stories of the perfect church-going saint turning into an abusive jerk as soon as the vows and rings were exchanged. I will always remember one particular woman who, after going through a very difficult divorce, lost almost a hundred pounds and had a total make-over before re-entering the dating scene. My first thought was, “If she had done that while she was married, she probably would never have gotten divorced.” That thought was quickly followed by the second one, “And I bet that she’ll go right back to her old self as soon as she gets another man.”
The truth is that we are all damaged goods in one way or another. But the more significant truth is that we generally recognize the fact and hypocritically try to cosmetically cover up the flaws. Such cover-up jobs are only temporary fixes, and the real people we are eventually reveal themselves. The result is usually rejection – adding insult to injury. Of course, we can’t fault those who reject us when they discover the real us that has been camouflaged behind the façade we have been wearing. In fact, we must realize that we have injured and insulted them just as grievously as we have been hurt.
And so Abraham walked away, leaving deep emotional scars in both Ruth’s life and in his own psyche.
The second man to happen into Ruth’s woeful life – let’s call him Benjamin – also wound up walking away. If my imagination is anywhere near accurate, I would suspect that he might have wound up running away rather than just walking out on her. The second easiest case to argue in order to obtain a legal divorce in biblical times was to prove that the wife had been unfaithful during the marriage. If this were the case, she deserved to be rejected and was worthy of any humiliation she would have to endure. After all, she had violated one of the “Big Ten”!
Maybe it wasn’t adultery, but all of us have broken – and likely continue to break – the “Big Ten” in one way or another. Jesus made it clear that there was much more to the Ten Commandments than was written in stone on the top of Mount Sinai. He insisted that lust is just as evil as actually having an affair and that uncontrolled anger is no less a violation than murder. (Matthew 5:19-22) Even the Ten Commandments themselves seem to put coveting and stealing on the same level. (Exodus 20:17, 15) So, we – and everyone we know, including our spouses – are all guilty of sins that are heinous in God’s eyes. And, unless we deal with these offenses before that fateful day, that will certainly play out in eternal judgment when we stand before the Lord. But it is how these sins are viewed in our own eyes and the eyes of those who know us that makes the real mark on our present-day lives. When we recognize our own waywardness, we condemn ourselves to a life of guilt. When others recognize those same faults, failures, flaws, and outright sins, they condemn us to a life of shame. Certainly, this is how the relationship with Benjamin ended – with guilt and shame.
As I continue to execute poetic license to flesh out this fantasy story upon the very sparse skeleton we have to work with, I wonder if Ruth may have actually been the one to initiate the divorce from her third husband – whom we can call Caleb. Even though women’s rights were severely limited in the days of the Bible, there were special provisions under which a woman could divorce her husband. (Mark 10:12) The most likely foundation for such a separation would be unfaithfulness on the husband’s part. Obviously, the decision to go through with the act of adultery would definitely be the husband’s choice; however, the cause behind that decision may or may not have been his fault. There is always the possibility that it was simply a grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side-of-the-fence scenario in which Caleb was chasing a younger, thinner, more alluring “trophy.” But it is just as likely that Ruth could have created an environment that was so intolerable that she drove him away. Perhaps she was a nag, a nitpicker, an extravagant spender who left him continually trying to cover her debts, a slob who left the house uninhabitable, or a gossip who was always stirring up trouble. Of course, we have no way of knowing, but there is one thing that is true regardless of the backstory. In either case, Ruth was forced to accept the label of an adulteress by deciding to file for a divorce and then remarrying. Here we get a significant glimpse into Ruth’s life. No matter what lay behind the decision to go through the process of divorcing her husband, she found herself in such a miserable situation that she was willing to accept the humiliation of public society above the misery of her private life.
Since we don’t have any real details to work with, any guess is as good as the next; so, let’s assume that the fourth marriage was one of those storybook romances in which the new husband – let’s call him Daniel – graciously overlooked all Ruth’s past faults and failures. He accepted her with loving, open arms and embraced her for who she really was rather than for what she had become and for what she had been through. His magnanimous grace and incredible love was like a giant eraser wiping out all her guilt, shame, sorrows, and disappointments. Her life was once again beginning to become meaningful, and for the first time in a long time she was able to walk through the city streets with her head held high. But then the unthinkable happened; the rug was yanked from under her feet as – through disease, an accident, perhaps as a casualty of war, or possibly even being eaten by a lion – Daniel, the one gleaming light in Ruth’s otherwise dark world, was brutally snatched away from her. Despondency flooded into her soul and engulfed her very being. How could God have played such a cruel joke on her by allowing her to finally see a light at the end of her long, dark tunnel – only to discover that it was a locomotive headed right at her?
Now comes husband number five – let’s call him Ethan. Again, we have no historical data to go on, but what we know from real life would suggest that this relationship was likely a co-dependent relationship marked by abuse – possibly physical, mental, verbal, sexual, or maybe simply neglect. By this time in Ruth’s life, she must have been feeling like she didn’t deserve any better. Yet she was willing to accept anything that Ethan would dish out because she just couldn’t face the idea of living without a man in her life. Perhaps there was a financial need that kept her dependent upon him – lowering her to little more than his slave, a possession with no rights or privileges. By the time that she had lived through the first four unfortunate relationships, Ruth must have been totally dehumanized – and that feeling of worthlessness was only intensified when yet one more man walked out on her. Speaking of walking out, perhaps that’s exactly what happened. After all, the Bible doesn’t tell us that all these marriages actually ended in divorce. Perhaps this one was a case of abandonment – Ethan simply walked out the door. Maybe he wanted another woman; maybe he moved to another place for a better life with a new job; maybe he just wanted to start a new life without all of Ruth’s baggage. In any case, when the door slammed, poor Ruth was engulfed with even more crippling rejection.
Eventually, another man entered her life – the one that Jesus pointed out was not her real husband – let’s call him Felix. If, indeed, the last husband had abandoned her, Ruth had no legal ability to remarry and had to enter into a common-law relationship if she was going to have a man in her life at all. Of course, we don’t know if Ethan had actually abandoned her; so, it is also likely that Felix was nothing more than a selfish user who lacked commitment and just wanted what he could get without having to give anything. Or possibly, he looked at Ruth’s track record and thought that he couldn’t trust her or that she wasn’t worth making any real investment in. Maybe she had children, and he didn’t want to become legally responsible. Maybe she had debts, and he didn’t want to become financially obligated. At any rate, the relationship between Ruth and Felix was simply one of convenience. They were friends “with benefits,” so to speak. Nonetheless, in this sixth relationship she found herself ashamed of who she had become and void of any self-respect.
The Seventh Man
And then came that incredible seventh man who stopped by the well!
At this point, let’s go back to our daily commute and take the time to look at all the signposts at every intersection to make sure that we don’t miss any of the details that make the ordinary, well-worn story come alive with truths that we have previously overlooked because we have just assumed that we already knew everything that there was to know about this heretofore commonplace narrative.
He (Jesus) left Judaea, and departed again into Galilee. And he must needs go through Samaria. Then cometh he to a city of Samaria, which is called Sychar, near to the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph.
The wording in this section seems to tell us that Jesus had no other alternative than to pass through Samaria; however, this was not the actual case. In fact, the extreme animosity between the Jews and the Samaritans dictated that most Jews traveling between Judaea and Galilee would actually avoid the road that led through Samaria in favor of the not-so-direct route from Jerusalem to Jericho and then up through the Jordan River Valley to Galilee. Since this was the case, why does Matthew record that the Master needed to go through Samaria? Obviously, there was something other than physical necessity at play here. Perhaps it was a spiritual directive that mandated His steps through Samaria. In much the same way that the Holy Spirit led Him into the wilderness to be tempted (Matthew 4:1, Luke 4:1), Jesus must have been internally prompted to make His journey along this specific route. If that were the case, then He was actually on a mission. He was a man on divine assignment – an assignment to seek out and save this particular woman and all the others who would respond after her. (Luke 19:10) The lesson here is that we must live our lives in exactly the same way – as ministers on assignment who, through the prompting of the Holy Spirit, will always be at the right place at the right time to meet the right person with the right message to bring about the right results! There are a couple extraordinary examples of this sort of divine leading in the the book of Acts. Chapter nine recounts the story of how Ananias was supernaturally directed to go minister to Saul of Tarsus who was to later become Paul the Apostle. The following chapter records the story of how the Apostle Peter had a vision that clearly indicated to him that he was to break Jewish tradition and go to a gentile home to minister to the Roman centurion Cornelius. In both of these cases, God was already at work on the other end preparing the hearts of Saul and Cornelius so that they could readily receive the gospel presentation from Ananias and Peter. Of course, these two examples are pretty much over-the-top illustrations of how these sorts of divine assignments occur; however, they do make the point that we should be obedient when we feel a direction from God to go a particular way, do a specific thing, say a special word, or meet a certain person. There is usually a divine appointment in motion. (John 6:44) And – as we can learn from the case of Peter’s visit to the Roman soldier’s home – we should go without doubt or hesitation. (Acts 10:20, 11:12)
My first personal experience of this nature happened when I was a college student back in the 1970s, during the hippie revolution when “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” was the mantra for the day. One day I picked up a young girl who was hitchhiking near the campus. She only needed a lift for a few blocks, but that short ride put her on the most exciting journey of her life – the road to heaven. When she got into my car, she made a comment about the “God loves you” decal on my dashboard. As I began to tell her about the plan of salvation, she shared her story. As an atheist, she had rejected everything anyone had ever shared with her about God or the need for her soul to be saved. However, while experimenting with LSD, she had remained “high” while all the others who were “tripping” with her had come “down.” In her drug-induced state, the only explanation she could imagine was that she was dead while all the others were still alive. When she did eventually come “down,” she said that something inside of her cried out, “Thank God, I’m alive.” At that moment, she knew that she must have a soul since there was something inside to cry out and that there must be a God since whatever it was inside of her recognized His existence. That divine encounter had prepared her for the conversation I was to share with her that day.
Another story from my college days has to do with a day when I was scheduled to be in the office of our campus fellowship in case someone came in for prayer. The office hours were publicized on campus, and many students did stop in during the posted times. On this particular day, however, I just felt an uneasiness in my spirit. Even though I didn’t want to neglect my responsibilities, I felt a stronger urge to stroll around campus; taking the longer way to the office and making a stop at the near-by post office. On my walk, I met a couple of students that I hadn’t seen for a while. I casually talked with them and invited them to our fellowship meeting that evening. I found out when they came that night that my steps had truly been ordered of the Lord. One young lady had been backslidden for about six months and was working as a dancer in a topless bar. She had been deliberately avoiding contact with Christians, but my words were all it took to draw her back to fellowship and the Lord. The other student had been going through a very serious temptation and just needed the encouragement of a brother. He wouldn’t have come to me in the office for prayer, but the Lord had led me to him.
And then there was the day that I turn off the freeway and headed for my friend’s Mexican restaurant thinking that my detour was just for an authentic burrito dinner. When I arrived, I found the shop being tended by her young son and no one in the kitchen. Looking around, I knew that he couldn’t possibly run the place single-handedly so I asked where everyone was. His reply was that his mom had gone home for a few minutes and left instructions for him to call if any customers came in. A few minutes later, my friend arrived, and the fixings of a great meal soon came together. As we chatted, I questioned her about how things were going. A tale of woe began to unravel as she related all her problems in the business, with her family, in their finances, and at the church that her husband pastored. “In fact,” she added, “I had just gotten to the point that I had walked out of the shop and gone home and locked myself in the bathroom to cry and pray. I had no sooner latched the door and called on the Lord to send someone to help me than the phone rang with my son’s message that you were here.” Her sanity was saved and her spirit encouraged as I pushed the plate aside and clasped her hands in prayer.
Now Jacob’s well was there. Jesus therefore, being wearied with his journey, sat thus on the well: and it was about the sixth hour.
There are two significant details etched on this particular signpost – first: Jesus was weary; second: it was the sixth hour, or noon. Both of these factors play a role in defining the rest of the events in the story. By specifically noting that Jesus was weary, John draws attention to the humanity of the Lord. Yes, He is going to have some supernatural revelations and produce some miraculous results in the following verses; however, the fact that He was tired as the story begins to unfold tells us that He was not operating as God (Isaiah 40:28), but as a human with the same physical limitations that all the rest of us experience (Hebrews 4:15). The significance of this detail is that it is an encouragement to us that we – in our own humanity – can have just as effective impact on the lives of the broken and bruised people that God orchestrates for our paths to cross. The second detail in this section is that it was the sixth hour; this fact is significant since the women of a village – both in biblical times and in developing nations today – avoid going to the well in the middle of the day. They collect water in the morning to cook and clean with during the day and then make a second trip in the evening to replenish their supply for washing before bed. Apparently Ruth had strategically planned her visit at a time when other women would not be there in order avoid being ridiculed, rejected, and slandered. At this point in her life, Ruth had absolutely no respect in the community, and wanted to carefully guard the very little bit of self-respect she had left. Thus, she felt it safest to simply avoid the glaring eyes, the gossiping tongues, and the pointing fingers of the other women in the village.
There cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water: Jesus saith unto her, Give me to drink. (For his disciples were gone away unto the city to buy meat.) 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.
In these verses, John gives us a clear window into Ruth’s soul. Rather than giving any consideration to the fact that a fellow human being had a need that she could easily supply, Ruth immediately responded to Jesus’ request for a drink of water with the retaliation embedded in prejudice and rejection. Certainly we all know the expression, “Hurt people hurt people,” meaning that people who have been hurt themselves respond by hurting others. Since Ruth was so accustomed to being rejected, she had no problem rejecting the stranger and refusing to alleviate his need. Instead, she accosted him with the same racial animosity that she anticipated from Him. Without knowing a thing about His motives or motivation, hurting Ruth seemed to want to hurt Jesus without even giving Him a chance.
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.
It is interesting that Jesus chose to frame His response to Ruth as, “If you knew who I am…” It is as if He already knew her track record of lack of discernment concerning the men she allowed into her life. Her repeated failure to see the deceptively evil nature of husband after husband had blinded her to the point that she couldn’t distinguish the sincerity and genuineness in the man with whom she was talking that day.
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? Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.
Certainly, there is an element of consideration of the physical well in the conversation recorded here, but it seems that Ruth may have quickly discerned that the true nature of this conversation was something beyond the ninety-foot-deep well that they were standing beside. Yes, Jacob had done a great service to many generations by providing a water source that supplied their immediate needs, but this man was saying something about a well that was not dug into the dirt but inside of the very human heart. Ruth had given everything from the very inside of herself to five husbands and a live-in boyfriend, and now she felt depleted with nothing left to give. It was impossible to imagine that there was still any vital resource inside her. Certainly, Ruth felt that any life-giving ability in her had dried up and all that could come out of her life at this point would be death, destruction, discontent, and disappointment. Yet, today someone greater than Jacob had entered her life – someone who claimed that He could dig deeply enough into her inner being to tap into living water inside her. When Jesus said that rivers of living waters would flow out of her, she must have been really amazed, but it was the hope and promise that she needed to believe that not only could her life be salvaged but that it would even become productive enough to give life and hope to others – a dream that she had apparently clung to even in the darkest hours of her life; otherwise, why would she continue seeking new relationships after so many failures, especially when it is likely that at least some of these catastrophes were her own fault?
You see, the well in this story is little more than a parabolic symbol of the true well – the emotional, psychological, and spiritual reservoir inside Ruth’s inner personality. Her relationships with the first six men in her life had exhausted all that she had and all that she was. But this seventh man offered her a promise of a new life – a rebirth, if you will – that would restore, replenish, and revitalize her so that life-giving resources could flow out of her, refreshing her and renewing others.
The woman saith unto him, Sir, give me this water, that I thirst not, neither come hither to draw.
Ruth’s appeal that Jesus would give her living water so that she would no longer thirst is a significant request in that it is an indication that she was already hungering and thirsting after righteousness. (Matthew 5:6) Unquestionably, her life was not one characterized by righteousness. But then, a thirsty or a hungry person is not one who already has plenty of water and food any more than the healthy need a doctor. (Matthew 9:12, Mark 2:17, Luke 5:31) The fact that Ruth recognized her spiritual hunger shows that God had already been working in her to prepare her for Jesus’ visit just as He did in the lives of Saul of Tarsus and Cornelius to prepare them for Ananias and Peter. And, I might add, in the same way that He will prepare those to whom you are sent.
Jesus saith unto her, Go, call thy husband, and come hither. The woman answered and said, I have no husband. Jesus said unto her, Thou hast well said, I have no husband: For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly. The woman saith unto him, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.
There are several significant points in this section of the story. The first obvious point comes from Jesus’ request that Ruth go bring her husband – suggesting that He wanted to bring hope, life, and salvation not only to her but to her whole household. In the same chapter with the story of Jesus’s visit at the Samaritan well, is another story about how Jesus healed a nobleman’s son resulting in the conversion of his whole family. (John 4:53) When the demoniac of Gadara was set free, Jesus sent him back to his own home and to his old friends. (Mark 5:19, Luke 8:38-39) When Cornelius accepted the gospel message, he was accompanied by his entire household. (Acts 10:24) When Lydia was baptized, her whole family followed her in the sacrament. (Acts 16:15) When the jailer at Philippi accepted Christ, his whole household also responded to the invitation. (Acts 16:31-34) One of the biggest obstacles among the unreached peoples of the world today is their fear that Christianity destroys families and social structure. Undoubtable, this fear has a real foundation in the way that Christian evangelists and missionaries have approached them in the past – with an emphasis on individual salvation rather than an approach that could engage entire families at a time. Certainly a new approach that embraces a whole family or even a community rather than splintering off individuals would prove more effective in resistant cultures. In that we are studying a story about a well, perhaps it would be appropriate to consider one simple scenario in which a well can become an inroad into a whole society that would otherwise refuse the gospel.
One of the images that will never escape my memory was a scene that I witnessed on my first trip to India. I was riding a bus through the streets of Madras (now Chennai) when I noticed an old man with a little tin cup scooping water out of a pothole in the street. Since then, my travels around the world have taken me to many places where I would see the people hauling water from wells or creeks long distances from their homes. The scarcity of water meant that they had to use it very sparingly – foregoing regular bathing and drinking far less than what is necessary for proper hydration. With their immune systems compromised due to minimalized hydration, they were subject to diseases and ailments that could have otherwise been easily avoided. Due to the lack of access to clean water, the people frequently turn to polluted sources – like the pothole in the street in Madras. The tragic result is waterborne diseases that take close to two million lives each year. However, there is much more. Having a source of clean water right in the community affords the people much more than better health. It allows the children free time to go to school. If a family is faced with the decision to send their child to get water from the well that is two miles away or to send him to school, they are going to be hard pressed to take the second option. Additionally, it stops conflicts over water access among tribes – a potentially deadly reality when the well is in an open area between villages rather than in the village itself. Further, some nomadic groups decide to settle down near the water source and start raising herds and crops, producing better health. Next, the government usually opts to build schools and clinics at population centers that have developed around the well. Most importantly, missionaries are able to interact because people are no longer transient and busy searching for water for personal and agricultural use. The bottom line is that the well actually becomes the well of salvation. (Isaiah 12:3)
Please don’t get me wrong; I am in no way advocating humanitarian work over evangelistic efforts. My point is that providing clean water, opening schools, and building medical clinics are excellent ways to let a whole community know that you care about them as a whole and want to help them as a unit rather than splintering off individual converts who become isolated, alienated, or even ostracized from the community. Although this example does not exactly relate to evangelistic work, we find a great model in the Roman centurion who built a synagogue for the local Jewish community. Although he was an outsider – and even a member of the enemy occupation force – he won respect and acceptance in the community through his act of gracious generosity. (Luke 7:2-5) In the same way that the elders of Israel identified this man as one who loved them, we can establish a rapport and reputation through humanitarian deeds.
Of course, this is not the only avenue through which we can demonstrate our love – and the love of God – to a whole community. Permit me to share another story from that first visit to India. After a conference in which I introduced leaders of a traditional church to the reality of being led by and empowered by the Holy Spirit in their ministry, one little white-haired Indian man came back to me to me report how he had been trying year after year to evangelize his remote village; yet, his Hindu neighbors’ hearts and ears were closed. After learning the principle that signs and wonders should accompany the proclamation of the kingdom, he returned to his village with a new power from his new relationship with the Holy Spirit. When he found that an old lady in the village had been gored by a water buffalo, he asked her permission to lay his hands on her and pray in Jesus’ name. Instantly, her crippled legs received strength and her mangled body was straightened. Since the whole village had seen the woman’s condition after the attack and then saw her miraculous recovery, everyone suddenly believed that the old man’s message was real. The village that had rejected his testimony for so many years was converted overnight. His persistence in sharing the gospel with them and his concern for the physical needs of a member of the community convinced them that he sincerely had a heart for the whole community rather than for just starting a church that could unravel the fabric of their social structure.
Empathy, Not Exposure
The most notable thing in the whole story was Jesus’ response when Ruth contested that she didn’t have a husband. Jesus’ miraculous revelation concerning the litany of men in her life amazes readers even to this day – and we can only imagine how startling it must have been to Ruth. Unfortunately, we have likely been misreading the whole account for centuries. We generally think of this disclosure as a condemning exposure of Ruth’s sinful life. However, if there is any validity to most of the imaginary story that I have constructed, we can see that it was not so much an expose on her sinfulness as it was a commentary on the heartbreak, disappointment, rejection, humiliation, shame, and despair that had characterized her life. Notice that Ruth didn’t respond with the resistance we would expect had the Master’s word been intended to heap more guilt upon her already overloaded conscience. Rather, she responded with the acknowledgement that He was obviously a prophet. And even if there was an element of acknowledgment of her sins, it was couched in a setting of acceptance. He had initiated a conversation with her when it would have been just as easy to have given her the cold shoulder like everyone else. He spoke to her with dignity rather than looking down His nose at her as she had become accustomed to in every other encounter. Certainly, the revelation about Ruth’s past did not come spontaneously in the middle of their conversation; more reasonably, He had discerned her life all along – yet He still felt that she was an individual worthy of conversing with and rescuing from her fallen state. It is often said that love is not “because of,” but “in spite of.” In this encounter at the well, we see a fleshed-out demonstration of true love. Jesus offered Ruth living water even though He knew her past because He was more interested in her future. He revealed her past not to condemn her for anything that she had done but as a way of helping her to acknowledge His acceptance in spite of everything that He knew about her.
This kind of “in spite of” love could also be labeled “Hosea love” after the story of the prophet who rescued his wife from the brothels of the sex slave trade and showed her an unconditional love regardless of how she had disgraced him and herself. To graphically illustrate God’s “in spite of” love for us, the Lord directed Hosea to take a prostitute as his wife – knowing full well that she would not remain loyal to him but would soon slip back into her old lifestyle. Before long, Gomer did, indeed, begin to follow her former ways, but her waywardness was even more debasing this time in that she actually found herself being enslaved as a literal slave in the hands of her brothel master. Illustrating God’s redeeming love, Hosea searched until he found her and began to bargain for her. Eventually, a figure was agreed upon, and Hosea paid half the price of a slave – fifteen pieces of silver (Hosea 3:2) rather than the usual thirty (Exodus 21:32, Leviticus 27:4, Zechariah 11:12-13, Matthew 26:15). However, Hosea also made an “in kind” payment in barley. I can only imagine the scenario that must have played out that day. When the prophet finally found his wife, he began to negotiate with the brothel owner – who was demanding the full price of a slave. Unfortunately, the prophet didn’t have that much in cash; so, he used all the silver he had and then had to barter the rest of the price with whatever else he could get his hands on. He essentially had to empty his bank account and his storage shed in order to satisfy the brothel owner’s demands. If this is the case, it is a demonstration of his great love in that he was willing to give everything that he had – not just surplus money that he had lying around in a bank account – to buy his wife back. What a perfect symbol of our redemption. Jesus gave everything for us! The lesson here is that we as the ministers of Christ need to be able to make such no-holes-barred love evident to the Gomers and Ruths that we are led to in our lives.
Religion of the Heart
One other significant element of this section of the story is the question that Ruth raised as soon as she understood that Jesus was more than any other person she had ever encountered – by her evaluation, a prophet. She launched into a discussion of the difference between the forms of worship practiced by the Samaritans and the Jews. The historical background to her question has to do with a temple that had been erected on Mount Gerizim as an alternative to going to Jerusalem for worship. But the spiritual background that precipitated her question is much more significant than the historical facts behind it. Her query had to do with what is right and acceptable religious activity. This question about religion, performance, and following the right rules in the proper manner was especially significant in that it came from a woman who had broken all the rules and had suffered at the hands of all the rule enforcers. In essence, this enquiry had to do with trying to find a religious answer to her moral problems. Jesus’ response was that the matter had nothing to do with rituals, performances, regulations, or ordinances but rather with a heart relationship with God. Without telling the story, the Master communicated the life lesson from the testimony of King David. He was chosen by God, not because of any physical ability or performance, but because God saw something in his heart. (I Samuel 16:7) Even when he failed miserably by committing adultery – an episode that Ruth could certainly relate to – God supported and restored him because he determined to keep his heart relationship intact. (Psalm 51:10) The eternal testimony that God spoke over him was that he was a man after His own heart. (Acts 13:22) This new take on religion and faith invoked an instant liberation and an immediate response from Ruth.
The woman saith unto him, I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things. Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he.
Suddenly, she took her evaluation of this seventh man at the well to a whole new level – messiah rather than prophet! Interestingly, she gives the same reason for seeing Him as messiah as the one that prompted her to think of Him as a prophet – that He revealed all her secrets. So what made the difference? It is likely that His message about the heart relationship overruled the simple fact that He could pull “skeletons out of her closet” and expose the “dust under her carpet.” Essentially, Jesus had demonstrated the nature of God in that He not only exposed her secrets but He did so in a liberating manner. He knew all the ABCs (Abraham, Benjamin, Caleb…) of Ruth’s history; yet, none of that mattered as long as her heart was toward the seventh man at the well.
And upon this came his disciples, and marvelled that he talked with the woman: yet no man said, What seekest thou? or, Why talkest thou with her?
The disciples returned and interrupted the conversation between Jesus and Ruth at a strategic point. When they began to question why Jesus had accepted the outcast woman, they actually dramatized the relationship even more poignantly. Even though they actually said nothing with their lips, their heart attitudes must have been obvious. Essentially, there was a bigger-than-life illustration being played out with the disciples demonstrating serious heart issues as they discriminated against the woman because of her race, gender, and social standing while the ostracized woman was actually stepping into the role of the acceptable ones who worship God in spirit and in truth from their hearts.
The woman then left her waterpot, and went her way into the city, and saith to the men, Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ? Then they went out of the city, and came unto him.
Did you catch that? Ruth ran off and left her water pot behind? Okay, that may not seem like a significant point; but the very fact that it is recorded in the divinely inspired Word of God should suggest differently. As far as we can read in the text, Ruth never got around to actually drawing water for either Jesus or herself. Instead, she is rushing into the city bubbling over with good news to share with the whole population – remember that these are the same people who have shunned her up to this point. So what’s the significance of leaving the water pot? Simply that Ruth had indeed become the well – and actually an artesian well overflowing with life-giving water that was so fresh and effervescent that it caught the attention of even those who opposed and despised her and motivated them to follow her to the physical well to meet the One who released the spiritual well in Ruth.
At this point in the story, we see the demonstration of one of the most important principles in mission work and, actually, in any form of ministry – the person of peace principle. The scriptural basis for this principle is found in the directive that Jesus gave His disciples when He sent them out on their first mission experience.
After these things the Lord appointed other seventy also, and sent them two and two before his face into every city and place, whither he himself would come. Therefore said he unto them, The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest. Go your ways: behold, I send you forth as lambs among wolves. Carry neither purse, nor scrip, nor shoes: and salute no man by the way. And into whatsoever house ye enter, first say, Peace be to this house. And if the son of peace be there, your peace shall rest upon it: if not, it shall turn to you again. And in the same house remain, eating and drinking such things as they give: for the labourer is worthy of his hire. Go not from house to house. (Luke 10:1-7)
Notice that the passage we so often quote in context of raising up missionaries and evangelists, “The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest,” is right in the center of Jesus’ directive for the disciples to go out on their mission. He was not sending them to the churches where they could recruit evangelists and missionaries, but to places where He had not yet been – to the mission field itself. Perhaps we have too often isolated this message from its context and have, therefore, missed the major emphasis of Jesus’ words. As the disciples were to go out to minister, they were directed to be in constant prayer for someone else to be raised up to continue the ministry. The disciples were not to go out with the anticipation of bringing in the harvest singlehandedly; rather, they were to go out with the anticipation of seeing other harvesters raised up. In other words, they were to expect that they would duplicate themselves through their mission. Next they were not to anticipate bringing in huge harvests as much as they were to look for some specific individuals whom Jesus labeled as the “sons of peace” in each community. Once they found these specific individuals, they were to enter into their homes and not wander around the neighborhood. In essence, they were to settle in on one individual household and invest in that home the way Jesus had invested in them – eating, sleeping, working, playing, laughing, and crying with them – until the knowledge of the kingdom of God that was inside those individuals was brought to full fruition. I’m certain that this approach did not preclude the disciples from doing mass evangelism any more than Jesus had to give up ministering to the multitudes in order to disciple His chosen twelve. If we look into the life of Paul, we see this pattern at work when he focused on Lydia’s household while ministering to the whole city of Philippi and when he joined in with Aquila and Priscilla in their tent making business while ministering to the whole city of Corinth. When Paul entered Corinth, the Lord spoke to him that He had “much people” in the city. (Acts 18:10) This revelation came before the city was evangelized, indicating that there were many sons and daughters of peace in the city waiting to be revealed.
In essence, a son or daughter of peace is the individual within a society who becomes the catalyst to bring the whole community to an acceptance of the gospel. Interestingly, it is often the least expected person like the outcast woman at the well. An even more unexpected example can be seen in Legion, the demoniac of Gadara whom Jesus sent back to catalyze his community. When the local people realized that Jesus had just knocked the bottom out of their local economy by allowing the demonic spirits to go into the herd of swine that immediately drowned themselves, the residents of the community ran Him out of town. As the Lord was leaving town, Legion ran after Him, asking to become part of His entourage. (Mark 5:17) Jesus responded with another proposal – that Legion stay at home and share the story of all that had happened to and in him with his own friends and family. (Mark 5:19) Mark records that he did just that and that the news of his deliverance soon spread through all of Decapolis. (Mark 5:20) A few weeks later when Jesus returned to the same region, the people welcomed Him with open arms. (Mark 7:31, see also Luke 8:38-40) In fact, the meeting that followed was likely the second largest crowd in the entire ministry of Jesus – a congregation of four thousand men plus women and children, with the largest gathering being five thousand men plus women and children. (Mark 8:9) What caused this incredible reversal – from being chased out of town to receiving such a warm reception? Legion’s testimony.
Of course, not all sons and daughters of peace are the social outcasts and off scouring of society. Take Publius, the chief ruler of the island where Paul was shipwrecked, for example. (Acts 28:7-10) When Publius’ ailing father was healed as a result of Paul’s prayers, the ruler opened the entire island to Paul’s ministry and bestowed much honor upon him.
The bottom line is that God has a strategy for winning the world to Himself. Sometimes, His plans don’t look logical at first because He chooses to work His strategy through individuals whom we might not choose. Other times, He picks individuals and techniques that fit exactly into our human logic. The key is to always be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit because He is the only one who knows the explicit mind of God (Romans 8:27) and to always be sensitive to the hurts of humanity because this is the exact point where the heart of God intersects the lives of men (Matthew 6:8).
An Alternative Ending
Before we leave the well at Sychar, let’s take one more trip into fantasy land. What if Ethan had not abandoned Ruth as we first imagined. Let’s pick an alternative ending to his story and assume that he was struck with leprosy and was ostracized from society. (Leviticus 13:45-46) As in the scenario that we have already imagined for Ethan, Ruth would not have been able to marry again since her husband was still alive. If I were a script writer for a made-for-TV romance movie, I would depict Ethan as the lone Samaritan leper who came back to Jesus and thanked Him for his healing with the result of being the only one who went home totally healed that day (Luke 17:12-16) – the final restoration in Ruth’s life. But even if this is too much of a storybook ending, Ruth did live happily ever after because she now had the seventh man at the well in her life.
If you can bear just one more bit of creative history, let’s imagine that Ruth was even one of the “many women” who came to Jerusalem with Jesus at the time of the crucifixion. (Matthew 27:55, Mark 15:41) Granted, the Bible identifies these women as being from Galilee; however, it does not say that they came exclusively from that region – leaving the door at least partially cracked open to the idea that a Samaritan could have been among their number. If so, she was granted the wonderful privilege of being there in Jesus’ darkest hour just as He had been there for her in the dark hour of her soul. What a wonderful full-circle completion to the story! But even if Ruth was not privileged to be one of the consoling women at Jesus’ death, it is interesting that in telling the story of Mary Magdalene’s presence at the crucifixion Mark makes the point that she had one time been possessed by seven demons (Mark 16:9), suggesting that just as Jesus had been there for her, she now had the privilege to be there for Him. What a fitting conclusion this would have also been for the story of the woman at the well!