One warm, dusty midday, Jesus sat alone near Jacob’s well outside the Samaritan town of Sychar. His disciples had gone into town to buy food, but he had planned a different meal for himself (John 4:34). Soon a solitary woman arrived at the well with a large clay jar and began to draw water. Jesus asked her for a drink.
So began one of the most famous evangelistic conversations in history.
And this conversation is remarkably relevant to us twenty-first-century Christians. Because in it, Jesus demonstrates that hidden in the human heart are secret evangelistic allies, as Scottish preacher James Stewart once observed (Heralds of God, 53). These secret allies are deep-seated intuitions and longings that can help a person recognize the truth of the gospel. And like Jesus, if we listen carefully and prayerfully, both to the person and the Holy Spirit, we can engage these allies in the pursuit of that person’s ultimate joy.
Obstacles to Evangelism
In numerous ways, this woman would have appeared to most of us as an unlikely candidate for conversion.
“Hidden in the human heart are secret evangelistic allies.”
First, she was a Samaritan, which meant she was viewed and hated by most Jews as a member of a heretical, idolatrous religion. We would have assumed she reciprocated the hatred. She was a woman, which meant (according to ancient Near Eastern social norms) that she would have been reticent to enter into such a conversation alone with a strange man. And given the odd, hot time of day she chose to fetch water, we might have intuited some social estrangement from her own townspeople.
In other words, there were layers of complex awkwardness about the whole situation — the kind of awkwardness most of us want to avoid, the kind we tend to assume will make fruitfulness unlikely. But Jesus, alert to the Holy Spirit and lovingly eager for this woman to experience grace and forgiveness and liberation and joy, stepped into the awkwardness. And notice how he navigated this conversation, engaging several secret allies along the way.
Secret Allies in an Unlikely Convert
It began with a mundane-sounding yet provocative request: “Give me a drink” (John 4:7). This simple question caught the woman off guard. Not only was a man addressing an unaccompanied woman, but a Jew was addressing a Samaritan. In doing so, however, Jesus acknowledged her as an image-bearer of God, according her the dignity due such a creation. Her deep, intuitive knowledge of the rightness of this became one secret ally in helping prepare her to receive the grace and mercy he offers.
Then, given the immediate context of their conversation, Jesus used the metaphor of thirst to raise the issue of the woman’s deep, inconsolable longing for lasting hope, joy, meaning, and love — a longing she shared with all fallen humanity (John 4:10–15). He wasn’t put off by her skepticism and derogatory comments. He was after her joy, not defending himself. What he did was engage her soul-thirst as a secret gospel ally for her highest good.
Then he gently stepped into another very awkward place: the woman’s sinful, painful past littered with the ruins of broken relational cisterns that had only left her more parched (Jeremiah 2:13; John 4:16–18). And he offered her the only water that could quench her thirst: the gracious, merciful love of God. Her pain proved to be the pivotal gospel ally in her heart (John 4:39), because she had an undeniable desire and need for God’s forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption.
But there was one more massive issue to deal with: What about the deep, bitter, complex, hostile, centuries-old ethno-religious disagreements between the Jews and the Samaritans (John 4:19–22)? Notice where in the conversation Jesus chose to address this (he ignored the controversy in verse 9). Jesus discerned that this woman needed to taste God’s care and kindness toward her before she would be open to hearing that she and her ancestors had worshiped in ignorance (John 4:22). So, he did deploy the ally of the truth she already knew from Jewish Scriptures, but not until he had developed some initial trust first.
Having glimpsed the Great Well and tasted the living water (John 4:23–24), this woman forgot her jar by Jacob’s well and ran back to town to share the good news she had received (John 4:28–30). And her testimony resonated with the secret allies in the hearts of many of her neighbors in Sychar.
Common Secret Allies
This evangelistic conversation is admittedly exceptional because Jesus is exceptional. We rarely receive such supernatural insight into someone else’s life — though such gifts sometimes are given to believers by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 14:24–25). But we can still learn from how Jesus engaged secret evangelistic allies in the hearts of his hearers. And while we may not be able to discern all he discerned as the God-man, we can still ask good questions, listen carefully, and pray for the Spirit to help us identify allies in each conversation.
Certain allies are specific to particular people, like the Samaritan woman’s painful past. But there are allies that God has implanted in the hearts of every person. Here are some of them:
- We all instinctively recognize design in creation (Romans 1:19–20).
- We all are irresistibly drawn to transcendent glory (Psalm 8:1–4).
- We all have an intuitive knowledge of providence — that there is a purposeful intent to the created world, the events in it, and our own lives (Acts 17:22–31).
- We all know deep down that nihilism (ultimate meaninglessness implicit in metaphysical naturalism) is not true (Ecclesiastes 3:1–14).
- We all know we must have hope to keep going (Psalm 43:5; Lamentations 3:20–24; Romans 15:13).
- We all have an irrepressible longing for joy (Psalm 16:11; 43:4; Ecclesiastes 3:12; John 15:11; 1 Peter 1:8).
- We all intuitively recognize the moral law (Romans 2:14–15).
- We all know that we have transgressed the moral law and to some degree long to be free from guilt (Romans 3:23–26).
- We all at various times experience an undeniable desire for justice to prevail (Deuteronomy 16:19–20; Job 19:7–11; Proverbs 17:23; Micah 6:8; Matthew 12:18–21).
- We all have a sense of eternity in our hearts — we instinctively know death is not our ultimate end (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
- We all recognize the supreme beauty of love (Matthew 22:36–40; John 15:13; 1 Corinthians 13:13; 1 John 4:7–8).
In claiming that we all know these things, I don’t mean that we all admit them, recognize them to the same degree, or explain them in the same way, but they are all part of the universal human experience. And the fact that we continually discuss and debate them is evidence of their presence. They are internal witnesses and pointers to the existence and nature of God, and in that way they become allies in our evangelism.
Take Them to the Well
On that warm, dusty day, on the slope of Mount Gerizim, the Lord himself became one massive, momentous fulfillment of the words of the old prophet:
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” (Isaiah 52:7)
“We all have eternity in our hearts — we instinctively know death is not our ultimate end.”
He employed gospel allies already residing secretly in the heart of an unlikely convert to lead her to the living water she so desperately needed and longed for. Isn’t that essentially our story too?
When it comes to evangelism, we can be too easily intimidated, especially when someone looks unlikely to respond well. It can appear to us like the ground isn’t level, like we occupy the less defendable ground because our hearer is likely to judge our gospel as foolish or weak (1 Corinthians 1:22–25).
In truth, the ground is often not level, but not in the way we might fear. Often, we have the advantage because, as with Jesus that day outside Sychar, we have unseen gospel allies residing in the hearts of our hearers. And if we listen carefully and prayerfully to our hearers, the Holy Spirit can show us how to employ them. Because when it comes to the power of God in evangelism (1 Corinthians 1:18), “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25).
We don’t need to be experts in apologetics or trained theologians to share the good news with others, even with the most resistant and entrenched. Often, we simply need to care more about helping them find the living water they so desperately need than about protecting our reputation or demonstrating how right we are. And if we do, we will find that we have secret allies in the pursuit of that person’s highest joy.