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Lesson 22: Coming to Salvation (John 4:15-26)

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August 4, 2013

If I were to ask each of you, “How did you come to Christ?” the stories would probably be as varied as each of you are. We’re unique individuals with different personalities and backgrounds. Each of us would have a slightly different story to tell about how we met the Savior.

But probably after we’d heard all the stories, we could identify some common elements in each one. We all came to a point of sensing our need for the Lord. We all recognized that we are sinners and that our sin has separated us from the holy God. We realized that we could not play games with God, who looks on our hearts. We had to deal with Him on the heart level. And, we had to believe in Jesus as the One who died to save us from our sins.

The story of Jesus’ encounter with this unnamed Samaritan woman by Jacob’s well and how she came to believe in Jesus is unique in all the Bible. And yet it has some common elements with all who come to salvation. This woman moves from the beginning of her encounter with Jesus, where she seems to have no interest in spiritual things, through a gradual process to the point of believing in Him as the promised Messiah. By studying these verses we can learn how to help others come to salvation. And, if you’ve never tasted the living water that Jesus offers, I hope that you will see how you can do so.

To drink the living water of salvation, acknowledge your need, confess your sin to God, bow before Him on the heart level, and believe in Jesus for who He is.

As we saw last time, the living water that Jesus offers to give this woman (and all who thirst for God) is symbolic of the eternal life that the Holy Spirit imparts to all that believe in Jesus Christ. In John 4:13-14, Jesus tells this woman, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” The world and the things in the world might quench your thirst for a short time, but you’ll get thirsty again. But when you drink of the water of salvation that Jesus gives, you’re satisfied! I didn’t mention it last time, but verse 14 also shows that the salvation that Jesus gives is not temporary. Jesus says that it will permanently satisfy your spiritual thirst, which would not be true if you could lose your salvation. Let’s work our way through this story:

1. To drink the living water of salvation, acknowledge your need to God: “Give me this water” (4:15).

There is a subjective element in interpreting this woman’s request (4:15), “Sir, give me this water, so I will not be thirsty nor come all the way here to draw.” Some think that she was being sarcastic. She has just pointed out that Jesus has nothing to draw with and the well is deep. She has expressed her doubt that He is greater than Jacob. So perhaps now she is taunting Him or viewing His offer as amusing, but not serious. Others think that she was only thinking in material terms. She was interested in the living water if it would spare her the trouble of coming each day to draw and haul water from this well.

I understand her response to reflect sincere interest in what Jesus is offering, but she’s still confused. I think that she recognizes that this unusual Jewish stranger might be talking about something more than physical water, but she’s still thinking on too literal of a plane, like Nicodemus when he equated the new birth with returning to his mother’s womb (3:4). She was a woman looking for love, but she had failed in her relationships with men. She probably had a vague discontent with her Samaritan worship, which had not satisfied her spiritual thirst. So she responds to Jesus’ invitation to ask for the living water, but she’s still mixed up in thinking that it will also satisfy her physical thirst.

J. C. Ryle (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 3:217) observes wisely that it is useless to analyze too closely the first imperfect desires in the hearts of those in whom the Spirit is beginning to move. We should not demand that a person’s early motives in coming to Christ must be free from all imperfection. He says (ibid.),

Material water was not out of her thoughts, and yet she had probably some desires after everlasting life. Enough for us to know, that she asked and received, she sought and found. Our great aim must be to persuade sinners to apply to Jesus, and to say to Him, “Give me to drink.” If we forbid them to ask anything until they can prove that they ask in a perfect spirit, we should do no good at all. It would be as foolish to scrutinize the grammatical construction of an infant’s cries, as to analyze the precise motives of a soul’s first breathings after God. If it breathes at all and says, “Give,” we ought to be thankful.

The point is, this woman recognized some sort of inner need for the living water that Jesus offered, even if she didn’t completely understand what that living water was. If you want to drink the living water of salvation, you have to acknowledge your need for God, even if you’re not totally clear about what salvation means. Being self-sufficient will not bring you to Jesus. You have to recognize that you have needs that only God can satisfy.

2. To drink the living water of salvation, confess your sin to God (4:16-19).

The woman has asked Jesus to give her this living water, even though she is still thinking too much on a material level. If Jesus had led her in a prayer to receive the living water at this point, she would have been a false convert, because something crucial was missing. So Jesus abruptly changes direction (4:16-19):

He said to her, “Go, call your husband and come here.” The woman answered and said, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly.” The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet.”

This is an example of Jesus, the Light, shining in the darkness and exposing the evil deeds of this woman (1:5; 3:19-20). Jesus shows her that He supernaturally knows all about her past and present. Jesus knew about Nathanael even before He met him (1:48). He knew what was in the hearts of the superficial believers in Jerusalem, so that He did not entrust Himself to them (2:24-25). We will see Jesus’ omniscience on other occasions in John’s Gospel (6:6; 6:64; 11:14; 13:38; 18:4).

It would be more than a little unnerving to have a perfect stranger uncover the sins of your past and present! But Jesus wasn’t doing it to be mean. He did it to show her that her real need was spiritual, not material. He was helping her come to terms with the nature of the gift that He was offering (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 221). As Ryle observes (p. 218), “No one values the physician until he feels the disease.”

It’s possible, but not likely, that this woman’s first five husbands had died. Jesus would not have needed to mention that, since there is nothing wrong with a widow remarrying. Jesus could have simply pointed out her current live-in boyfriend to zero in on her sin. Since divorce in that culture was usually not done just for incompatibility, it’s likely that this woman had been unfaithful to her previous husbands, which caused them to divorce her. In her current situation, she hadn’t bothered to make it official. Perhaps at this point, she didn’t expect this one to last, either.

I’ve had couples tell me that the fact that they were living together or having sexual relations meant that they were married in God’s sight. They didn’t “need a piece of paper” to be married. But Jesus makes it clear that living together is not the same thing as being married in God’s sight. Marriage is a formal covenant commitment before God and witnesses to be faithful to one another until death (Mal. 2:14). Moving in together or sleeping together is not biblical marriage. Even our State views marriage as a legal contract and we are to be subject to the laws of our land.

I read about a young man whose father did not approve of the fact that he was living with his girlfriend. But the young man argued that marriage was “just a piece of paper.” His father went to a file drawer, pulled out his will, and told his son that he had willed his entire estate to him. Then, to the young man’s horror, his father tore up the will. The boy shrieked, “Dad, what are you doing?” The dad shrugged and said, “It’s just a piece of paper.”

But to come back to the point: Before you can drink the living water of salvation, you have to acknowledge or confess to God that you’re a sinner. He knows that, of course, so there’s no point in trying to hide it. But he wants you to admit it. Jesus didn’t die on the cross just to give you some helpful hints for happier living. He died on the cross to pay the penalty for your sins. To come to Him for salvation, you must realize that you are a guilty sinner. Like the prodigal son, you have to say (Luke 15:21), “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight!”

Granted, this woman did not explicitly confess her sin to Jesus, but I think it may be implicit in her droll reply (4:19), “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet.” She was admitting that His analysis of her life was accurate!

At this point (4:20), she brings up a point of tension between the Samaritans and the Jews regarding whether people should worship at Mount Gerazim or in Jerusalem. As with verse 15, so here commentators differ in interpreting the woman’s reason for bringing this into the conversation. Some say that she was trying to divert the conversation from her sins, which made her uncomfortable, to a safer topic: “Let’s talk about the religious controversy between the Samaritans and the Jews.” Others argue that Jesus’ exposing her sin made her realize that He truly was a great prophet, so she brought up to Him a sincere, nagging question about the proper way to worship God. Ryle (p. 221) goes so far as to say that her words are just another form of the Philippian jailor’s question, “What must I do to be saved?”

I think that the truth is somewhere in the middle. She probably was uncomfortable with Jesus’ penetrating gaze into her secret life, as we all would be. So perhaps she was trying to divert the conversation to a safer topic. But also, she probably was sincerely confused about whether the Samaritan or the Jewish way of worship was correct. So the issue she raises in 4:20 was not insincere. She wanted to know from this prophet which way was right. Jesus’ reply leads to the third aspect of coming to salvation:

3. To drink the living water of salvation, bow before God on the heart level (4:20-24).

John 4:20-24:

Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in 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 an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

These are important verses that merit an entire sermon! In the context, Jesus is making the point that outward religious rituals and ceremonies are not at the heart of salvation. Eternal life is a matter of knowing and worshiping the living God on the heart level. As Jesus told Nicodemus (John 3:6), “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” We must be born of the Spirit to worship God in spirit. But at the same time, worship is not just an internal matter based on your own feelings. Worship also must be in line with the truth.

The issue that the woman brings up focuses on the externals of this centuries-old controversy (4:20): “Our fathers worshiped in this mountain [Gerazim], and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” But Jesus cuts through the external aspects of that controversy to say that very soon neither place will be the official place to worship. Both places will be surpassed by those who worship God truly in spirit. He is referring to the new age of the Spirit, based on His finished work on the cross. The woman had talked about the worship of her fathers, but Jesus directs her to the worship of the Father, which suggests a personal relationship as opposed to ritualistic ceremonies.

Note that Jesus does not gloss over the errors of Samaritan religion. It is false to say that every religion is equally valid and that we should not judge other religions as false! Jesus bluntly states that the Samaritans worshiped what they did not know. They were spiritually ignorant and wrong. The Jews worshiped what they knew, because “salvation is from the Jews.” Jesus does not mean that all Jews were saved or worshiped properly by virtue of being Jews. Rather, He is pointing out the historical fact, revealed in the Pentateuch (which the Samaritans accepted), that God chose Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and promised to bring the Messiah and Savior through their descendants. God promised to bless all nations through the seed of Abraham, which is Christ (Gal. 3:8, 16).

When Jesus states (4:23, italics mine), “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth,” He is referring to Himself as the catalyst for this dramatic shift in focus. Through His death on the cross and His sending the Holy Spirit to dwell in His church, the Jewish system of worship would become obsolete (Heb. 8:13). Jesus is the new temple (2:19) that would replace the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.

To explain why we must worship God in spirit, Jesus states (4:24), “God is spirit.” While it is true that God is a spirit, Jesus does not mean here that God is one spirit among many. Rather, He is emphasizing the kind of being God is: He is spirit. He is not material. He does not exist in a body that can be seen or touched, like our bodies. Any physical representation of God, whether by an idol or by a picture (as a white-haired old man), is a misrepresentation of God. While the Bible sometimes uses human terms to refer to God (the eyes of the Lord, the arm of the Lord, etc.), these are only analogies to help our limited ability to grasp what God is like. As Paul describes Him (1 Tim. 1:17), He is “the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God.” Or, again (1 Tim. 6:15-16), He “is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see.” God is spirit.

Therefore, Jesus twice repeats, true worshipers must worship the Father “in spirit and in truth.” “Spirit” here refers to the human spirit, which is the immaterial part of our being. Of course, we worship through the Holy Spirit, who imparts new life to us (John 3:6) and dwells within us. We can only worship God in spirit when the Holy Spirit has caused us to be born again.

But here Jesus is referring to the human spirit. Sometimes the Bible distinguishes “spirit” from “soul” (1 Thess. 5:23; Heb. 4:12); but sometimes they are used interchangeably to mean the same thing (Luke 1:46-47). The Bible uses “heart” and “soul” and “spirit” to refer to our innermost being (Ps. 51:17). Here Jesus means that true worship must come from the depths of our being, as opposed to just going through external rituals or ceremonies. To worship God in spirit means to worship Him with complete sincerity, not with outward show or profession when our hearts are far from Him (Mark 7:6-7).

To worship God in truth means to worship Him as He has revealed Himself to us in His Word. If you worship God as you conceive Him to be, apart from the truth of His Word, you are worshiping an idol, a figment of your imagination. We cannot know the invisible God except as He has chosen to reveal Himself, and we have that revelation in His written Word. Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of God made flesh, is the supreme revelation of God to us (John 1:1, 14; Heb. 1:1-2; Luke 10:22). He is the way, the truth, and the life; no one can come to the Father, except through Him (John 14:6). If we have seen Him, we have seen the Father (John 14:9). To worship God in truth is to worship Him in accord with how He has revealed Himself in His Word.

Charles Spurgeon (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 12:333) describes true worship: “True worship lies in your heart paying reverence to him, your soul obeying him, and your inner nature coming into conformity to his own nature, by the work of his Spirit in your soul.” So to drink the living water of salvation, you must deal with God on the heart level. As He opens your eyes to see who He really is and to see your own desperate need as a sinner before Him, you must bow in submission to Him.

Thus, to drink the living water of salvation, acknowledge your need to God; confess your sin to Him; bow before Him on the heart level. Finally,

4. To drink the living water of salvation, believe in Jesus for who He is, the Christ of God (4:25-26).

John 4:25-26: “The woman said to Him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I who speak to you am He.’” Some think that the woman is still trying to divert the conversation from her own sin to a safer theological topic. But it may be that she was legitimately confused over the matters that Jesus has just stated. But she recognized that when the Messiah came, He would resolve all these issues. The Samaritans believed that the coming Prophet would declare all things (Deut. 18:15).

Jesus, who concealed His identity as Messiah from the politically-oriented Jews, declares openly to this Samaritan woman, “I who speak to you am He.” He has been added by the translators. Literally, Jesus said, “I who speak to you am.” Some argue that Jesus is not here referring to Himself in the language of Exodus 3:14, where God identifies Himself to Moses as “I am.” But John may intend for his readers to pick up on that reference, which is clearly behind Jesus’ declaration in John 8:58, “Before Abraham was born, I am.” As Jesus confounds the Pharisees (Matt. 22:42-45), the Messiah is both David’s son and David’s Lord. He is God.

The point is, we must believe in Jesus as the Bible reveals Him: He is the eternal God, creator of all that is, who took on human flesh and died as the supreme and final sacrifice for our sins. He is risen from the dead and exalted on high. To deny either His true deity or humanity is to believe in a false Christ.


Jesus told this woman that the Father is seeking those who will worship Him in spirit and in truth. Jesus was seeking this sinful, confused, emotionally wounded woman so that she would become one who would worship the Father in spirit and in truth. He is seeking you, too, as one who will worship Him in spirit and in truth. To drink the living water of salvation, acknowledge your need to God; confess your sin to Him; bow before Him on the heart level; and believe in Jesus for who He is, the only Savior, the Christ of God.

Application Questions

  1. How can we help lost people to sense their desperate need for God when they seem to be oblivious to that need?
  2. Must a person experience deep conviction for sin before he believes in Christ, or can such conviction come afterwards?
  3. What are some practical ways for us as believers to grow in worshiping God in spirit and in truth?
  4. Must a person believe in Jesus as God to be saved? To what extent should we emphasize this when we witness?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Faith, Hamartiology (Sin), Soteriology (Salvation)

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