The Tragic Cost of Her Cavernous Thirst
There is something true about the whole Bible that is especially true about the Gospel of John. God’s design in the Bible is that we come to know him and that we come to know ourselves. In John’s Gospel — especially in this story of the woman at the well — we see Jesus revealing his greatness, and we learn about ourselves from this woman. And what we learn about ourselves is some of the subtle reasons why our understanding and love for Jesus is so small. And the reason he exposes our sin in this way is to help us see our great need, and how he alone can meet it.
So keep your eyes on two things: Who is this man, Jesus? And who are we, as we see ourselves in this woman in John 4:16–26?
Wild Goose Chase
It seems at one level like she is leading Jesus on a wild goose chase from one issue to the next. It is a chase. But she’s not a wild goose but a destined worshipper, and Jesus is not confused or lost. He knows what he is doing. There is a progression in this passage.
“Jesus reveals sins to expose the thirst that we don’t even know we have.”
- In verses 1–15, Jesus is the living water.
- In verses 16–19, Jesus is the prophet.
- In verses 20–24, Jesus is the Savior who makes true spiritual worship possible
- In verses 25–26, Jesus is the Messiah.
Today we are simply going to deal with verses 16–19 because, as this prophet does his work, we meet so much here about ourselves. Jesus is the master-prophet and more than a prophet, but these verses are amazingly revealing when it comes to what happens to our hearts because of sin.
Out of the Blue
Last time, we looked at verses 1–15, where Jesus said in verse 10 that he has living water to give to this woman. She is like Nicodemus and doesn’t see the spiritual meaning of what he says. So in verse 15 she says, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water” (John 4:15). All that this water means to her is that it would save her the trouble of coming to the well in the heat of the day. Then comes a stunning twist in verse 16 — seemingly out of the blue.
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.” (John 4:16–19)
So we move from Jesus, revealed in verses 1–15 as the living water, to Jesus revealed in verses 16–19 as a prophet — at least that’s as far as she can go in explaining what Jesus had just said. He knows her public past, and he knows her secret present. Verse 18: “You have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband.”
Jesus Takes a Different Angle
The most natural question to ask is “Why did Jesus leave the imagery of living water and move so abruptly to say in verse 16, ‘Go call your husband, and come here’”? He never returns to the image of living water. He has made that point. For now, it produced nothing. He comes to her now from a very different angle. Why this angle?
Consider a few clues. Notice the word “here” near the end of verse 15 and at the end of verse 16. Verse 15: “Give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” Verse 16: “Go, call your husband, and come here.”
Now that seems very incidental. It might be. It wouldn’t have even stuck out to me except that these are the same word in Greek (enthade), and it is only used in John here in these two places. Could it be that when Jesus hears her say, “I don’t want to come here every day,” that he detects something in her voice more than the inconvenience of drawing water? Does he hear: “I don’t like coming out in public like this? If I could avoid this scene every day, I would be very glad.”
In fact, Jesus knows there is something in her life that makes it painful for her to come to the place where all the women gather and talk. So he means something like: “You don’t like to come here? You feel conspicuous. Vulnerable. Perhaps, you should bring your husband with you. He could stand with you and protect you, and you could be proud of him like an elder at the city gates.”
So the first clue why he may have gone in this direction is what Jesus may have heard in the word “here.” “I’ll take your living water so I don’t have to come here every day.”
Jesus Already Knew
The second clue why Jesus may have taken this turn is the fact that he knew already that she did not have a husband and was living with her boyfriend. Verse 18: “The one you now have is not your husband.” He knew that when he asked her to go get her husband. That means Jesus is intentionally exposing her sin. Not to everybody at the well, but to herself and to him.
He is moving into her inner life. He is forcing her to deal with the inside — the secret places — of her life. The living water that he had offered is for the inner person. This is not water you drink with your mouth; it’s water you drink with your heart. He was dealing with her deep, inner life and need, and she wouldn’t let him. It may be that she couldn’t go there. It was locked and sealed. So he puts a prophetic key in this door.
Too Painful and Too Dirty
Do you recall what Jesus said in John 3:20? “For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” She cannot open herself to the living water because her inner life is locked up against everything that might expose it. It is too painful and too dirty.
Jesus knows that her blindness and hardness to the inner spiritual meaning of living water is compounded by the effect of years of sexual and relational sin. So he is intentionally exposing her inner life. God means to have this woman as a worshiper in spirit and truth. But in her present condition, she doesn’t even have a living spirit. She is dead and hard and blind. And Jesus understands this condition perfectly. He will not stay on the surface of things.
What Small Groups Are For
This, by the way, is what small groups are for in the church. I can preach, and God often opens hearts to the gospel through preaching. But I can’t come down from the pulpit for every one of you and say, “Go, bring your husband.” But you can. Or you could speak a hundred other prophetically penetrating applications of the sermon. If you seek the wisdom and the gifts and the power of the Holy Spirit, this is what will happen in our small groups. Would you partner with me in this way? The elders and I need your help to shepherd this flock.
To Expose Her Thirst
Here’s a third clue as to why Jesus took the turn he did from living water to “Go get your husband.” There is no follow-through on this issue. He exposes her sin in verse 17–18, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband.” She says in verse 19, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.” And then she changes the subject to worship.
Jesus never comes back to this issue of her adultery. He doesn’t go anywhere with it. This means that he didn’t bring it up to get closure. He didn’t bring it up to condemn her. He didn’t bring it up to rehearse the details. He brought it up to expose the thirst that she doesn’t even know she has.
Her Cavernous Void
He had offered her living water — water that if she drank it in her heart by faith would become a well of water springing up to eternal life and joy and satisfaction. This water is for her soul, not her body. It’s her soul that’s thirsty. And she doesn’t know it. So Jesus is going to show her.
“One person in the universe knows you completely — the most important person.”
No woman goes through sexual relationships with six men without either starting desperately thirsty or ending desperately thirsty. What happened with these six relationships? Five marriages! Five! There is in this woman, it seems, a cavernous void of longing, thirsting. Either she can’t find in a man what she craves — and so moves from the one to the other, desperately believing men are the water she is thirsty for — or they can’t find what they are craving in her and one after the other drops her. Or both. In either case, she is left with a deep, deep emptiness and sinfulness that is so painful and so rebellious that she seals it up. And there is no entrance to her heart at all. It is locked in darkness. That is what Jesus knows. And so he moves into that inner darkness.
Learning About Jesus — And Ourselves
Here we are learning about Jesus, and we are learning about ourselves. He is compassionate and aggressive and surgical and relentless in his love. He knows all your past and all your present. Nothing is hidden from him. One person in the universe knows you completely — the most important person. He is indeed a prophet, and more than a prophet, as we will see more clearly next week.
And you are meeting yourself in this woman. One of the evidences that we have not drunk the water of life, or that we are quenching its spring, is that we are unstable like this woman, and always moving from one thing to the next seeking to fill the void that Jesus promises to fill.
Movement in Life: Faith or Frustration?
You may move through sexual partners like she did, or through friends, or jobs, or churches, or hobbies, or hairstyles, or wardrobes, or cars, or locations. Never able to settle with a kind of deeply contented identity in Christ, satisfied daily with the ever-springing water of his fellowship.
I don’t mean that the Christian life is static. But there is a difference between the confident movement of faith and the craving movement of frustration. On the one hand, there is restless movement from one thing to the next because we have no solid, satisfied identity in Christ. And on the other hand, we have Christ as our fountain of life and we move with purposefulness and creativity in the life and power that this living water gives. There is a difference between the jumping from one thing to the next out of frustration and the moving purposefully out of faith.
Jesus is teaching us about ourselves as well as about his glorious sufficiency as water, prophet, savior, and Messiah.
Jesus Employs Irony
Here is one more clue, the fourth, as to why Jesus took the direction he did in asking about her husband. Does it surprise you that Jesus says not just once, but twice, that the woman has spoken the truth? Verses 17–18: “The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right [or well] in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. *What you have said is true.”
I find that very strange at first glance. What is he doing? Sandwiched between “You are right” in verse 17 and “What you have said is true” in verse 18 is a statement that is devious. She is using the truth to hide something. “I have no husband.” Jesus says, “You have spoken well in saying you have no husband. You’ve had five. And you are right, you don’t have a husband, but you are living with a man, and he is not your husband.” You really know how to use the truth to mislead people.
I think this is irony. “Well said. You are a real truth-teller.” What is being exposed here is something that almost always goes hand in hand with secret sin, namely, a devious, subtle, manipulation of language to conceal the truth by saying true things. Devious people don’t usually lie. It’s too risky. They deceive by the way they use the truth.
Deviousness in Our Day
This is incredibly prevalent in our own day. Some people know they are doing it, and others are so conformed to the spirit of the age that they don’t know they are doing it — and may not even know there is such a thing as a use of language that has integrity (2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:2). People that don’t have a deep, secure, satisfied, rest of soul in the living water of Jesus’s holy fellowship tend to slide toward subtle uses of language designed to cloud truth with words, even true words.
What Sin Does to the Heart and Mind
Jesus is not only exposing this woman’s cavernous thirst, which she is trying to satisfy with men; he is also exposing some of the subtle devices she has developed to hide the truth, even from herself. She doesn’t know that her need is for Jesus.
In fact, it’s this slippery use of language that creates the transition to the next section in this text and the next part of this story. We’ll save the rest of this text for next time, but we need to see the transition because of how it continues to illuminate what sin does to the heart and mind — and how wise and compassionate and relentless Jesus is.
The woman says in verses 19–20, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you [plural, that is, Jews] say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”
Chewing Off a Leg
An animal will chew off his own leg to escape from a trap. And a trapped sinner, about to be exposed, will mangle her own reason to escape: “Jesus, as long as we on the subject of my adultery, where do you think we should worship, this mountain or Jerusalem?”
“Devious people don’t usually lie. It’s too risky. They deceive by the way they use the truth.”
How many times have you been trying to explain to someone about how Jesus died for sinners and rose again to provide forgiveness and reconciliation and have the persons say, “What about the hate speech of right-wing fanatics?” Or “What about gay rights?” Or “What about the people who have never heard about Jesus?”
The remarkable thing about Jesus here is that he does not say, “Let’s stay on the subject, ma’am. We are talking about your adultery.” But neither does he let her define exactly where they are going next.
To Her Topic — But Not Her Issue
Jesus is willing to go with her to her topic, but not to her issue. Her issue is: “Where do we worship?” Her whole life is one of externals. She is dead on the inside, and all she can relate to now are superficial externals. Her distracting question only deals with geography (verse 20): “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”
Jesus won’t deal at that level. He has gone into her heart, and that is what he will deal with. Verse 21: Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.” In other words, “We are at a juncture in history when the place of worship will simply be irrelevant.” Verse 23: “The hour is coming, and is now here [because I am here!], when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” The issue is not in this mountain or that mountain, but spirit and truth. What you need, ma’am, is a spirit that is alive and a mind in love with truth. But more on that next week.
Jesus Is After Her — And You
What we have seen today mainly through the penetrating words of this prophet, who is more than a prophet, is that the reason this woman cannot grasp the living water that Jesus is offering is that she cannot see the cavernous thirst in her own soul for Jesus. She is desperately trying to fill up the void by moving from one man to the next and, in the process, is becoming more and more hard and blind to her own real need — the need for living water, for Jesus.
Jesus is after her. He intends to break through and give life and light in the core of her being. And he is pursuing that with you as well. Has he awakened you by his word and his Spirit to see your own need? Do you see the addictive substitutes that keep you from drinking the living water?
I say with Revelation 22:17, “Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.”