In the first place, it should be noted that Jesus asked the woman at the well for a drink of water in order to teach her about her own spiritual thirst and His ability to quench that thirst by means of His redemption. Jesus didn’t simply care about “sharing a drink with her.” He wasn’t on a night out on the town. In the second place–and vastly more significant–is the fact that Jesus cared deeply about speaking to the woman about her “sexual choices.”
“I am the woman at the well,
I am the harlot
I am the scattered seed that fell along the path
I am the son that ran away
And I am the bitter son that stayed
My God, my God, why hast Thou accepted me
When all my love was vinegar to a thirsty King?
My God, my God, why hast Thou accepted me?
It’s a mystery of mercy and the song, the song that I sing.” (Caedmon’s Call)
As a young believer–having been redeemed by God out of a prodigal lifestyle–I wept nearly every time that I listened to Caedmon’s Call song, “Mystery of Mercy.” Having been redeemed by God out of a prodigal lifestyle, I found myself in solidarity with the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, the prodigal son, Zacchaeus and the thief on the cross. I came to see, by the conviction of the Holy Spirit, that I was no better than any of them. In fact, I saw that I was worse than they were. I came to realize that convicting His people of their sin and making them aware of the judgment they deserve because of it is one of the greatest gifts of God’s grace.
I also quickly came to realize that many Christian authors used aspects of biblical passages about Jesus’ mercy to the undeserving in order to promote an antinomian understanding of the Gospel. For instance, Brennan Manning emphatically stated–with regard to the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11)–that Jesus “didn’t demand a firm purpose of amendment” and “didn’t seem too concerned that she might dash back into the arms of her lover” (The Ragamuffin Gospel, p. 167). Manning also suggested the following:
“I don’t think that anyone reading this would have approved of throwing rocks at the poor woman in adultery, but we would have made darn sure she presented a detailed act of contrition and was firm in her purpose of amendment. Because if we let her off without saying she was sorry, wouldn’t she be back in adultery before sunset?” (The Ragamuffin Gospel, p. 173).
At the outset, I want to be clear that I stand firmly against those who teach that legal repentance and reformation is necessary in order for someone to come to Jesus–as if one needed to clean himself or herself up to make oneself acceptable to Christ. However, what Manning taught (from a disputed passage of Scripture, I would add) is not in keeping with the details of the text or the general manner of Christ’s saving work in the lives of sinners. After telling the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you,” Jesus says to her, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Having forgiven this woman of disrepute, Jesus called her to live out a godly life in keeping with the redemption that she had experienced by His grace.
Of a somewhat different nature than Manning’s misrepresentation of the woman caught in adultery is Sammy Rhodes’ recent apology to members of the LGBTQ movement–in which he references Jesus’ dealing with the woman at the well (John 4:1-30). While presumably seeking to draw attention to what a loving posture should be towards those who are engaged in sexual sin, Rhodes goes so far as to insist that Jesus “cared far more about sharing a drink with her than he did about her sexual choices.” In doing so, Rhodes presents an inadequate picture of the Savior at the well. Additionally, by saying “We’re all the woman at the well,” Rhodes–perhaps inadvertently–leads us to believe that we are acting self-righteously, rather than in love, if we speak out against sexually sinful lifestyles.
The Savior at the Well
In the first place, it should be noted that Jesus asked the woman at the well for a drink of water in order to teach her about her own spiritual thirst and His ability to quench that thirst by means of His redemption. Jesus didn’t simply care about “sharing a drink with her.” He wasn’t on a night out on the town. In the second place–and vastly more significant–is the fact that Jesus cared deeply about speaking to the woman about her “sexual choices.” This is clear from the fact that he told her to call her husband, told her that He knew that she had previously been married five times and that He knew that she was currently committing adultery with the man with whom she was now living (John 4:16-18). Uncovering the sinful hearts of men and women is one of the chief ways in which the Savior works in the lives of those He is redeeming in order to draw them to Himself. To downplay Jesus’ use of the Law with the woman at the well is to diminish the way in which the Gospel works in the lives of believers; it is to present a Jesus who is less than determined to save His people from their sin (Matt. 1:21). Jesus loved the woman at the well enough to tell her about her sexual sin so that she might see her need for Him. The most loving thing that we can do for others is to tell them about the Savior and about the sin from which they need to be redeemed by the Him.