Jesus, a Pharisee, and the Woman at the Well (John 3 & 4)

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We are now in week 3 of this series, or rather this quest we are on as a church body, of Pursuing Christ. This is more than a message series. That is why we are also doing it in the groups. This is more than just another bible study. At least not in my mind. This is a quest to get back to the whole reason church even exists. It’s a quest to get our eyes and hearts fixed back on our Lord and King – Jesus Christ. It’s a quest to become more like him, which is the whole reason we are saved. And it’s a quest to know him intimately, and thus grow more deeply in love with him – which Jesus says actually IS eternal life.
Let us not forget why we are doing this. It’s not just head knowledge. It’s not just another series of messages on the same topic. It’s a journey toward knowing and becoming like our Savior.
And to that aim, I am approaching what we read in the Gospels trying to look at Jesus the person. What was he like? How did he do things? Why did he do what he did? And so on… both so we can grow more impressed and enamored with Him and so we can emulate His character in our own lives.
And so, today, it is with that as our goal, as we look at how Jesus interacts with two very different people in John 3 & 4.
So, let’s pray and get into it.
John 3 records a late night discussion Jesus had with the prominent religious leader, Nicodemus, and John 4 records the encounter Jesus had at a well with a woman who was an outcast among outcasts. Two people couldn’t be much more different from each other, but as you will see, Jesus knows just how to deal with each of them.
Let’s begin with Nicodemus in John 3. For the sake of time, I’ll just comment as we go along rather than read the whole thing first. The basic premise is that Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again, and Nicodemus doesn’t seem to understand. Then Jesus spells it out for him.
John 3
1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
So, quickly a little background on Nicodemus based on what John tells us here. He is a Pharisee –  Pharisees were religious leaders that prided themselves on their keeping of the Law – and by Law, I mean the inflated version they themselves had created. In the Gospels we see them as the main enemies of Jesus who ultimately have him killed.
Now, John says that Nicodemus was not only a Pharisee, but part of the ruling council. In other words, he was a big deal in the eyes of the people and probably in his own eyes as well. And he’s coming to talk with Jesus at night.
Remember that in the last chapter, the last thing Jesus did was wreak havoc in the temple and then do a bunch of healing. This is only a few days later, and as Nicodemus points out, word about him had spread rapidly. Now, why Nicodemus wanted to meet with Jesus is not stated. Perhaps he was curious. Perhaps he was starting to believe. Perhaps he wanted to ridicule him. But the coming at night indicates he didn’t want any of his Pharisee brothers to know he was doing it, so he was probably at least curious. And he leads off the conversation with a little bit of flattery. And he probably was honest in what he said. He and probably some others could not explain how Jesus could do what he was doing except that God had to be with him, so he was probably coming to find out who this Jesus really was.
And then Jesus responds to this flattery with what seems like a statement out of nowhere.
John 3
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
As  you read the Gospels you will find that Jesus often responds to people with the answer to a question that they didn’t ask out loud… That’s because, as we saw at the end of chapter 2, Jesus knows what is in a person’s heart, and so he cuts to the chase and responds to that instead.
John doesn’t say how long Nick sat there stunned and wondering what Jesus was talking about…but I suspect it was at least a few awkward moments.  Then he responds in confusion.
John 3
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
So, Jesus responds with some not-so-clarifying remarks.
John 3
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
To which Nicodemus responds again, flabbergasted.
John 3
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
Then Jesus goes on a long monologue for an answer and we don’t hear from Nicodemus again.
So, why does Jesus respond this way? Does he just like to pick on people? To make them feel uncomfortable? To confuse them? Is he some kind of bully?
Of course not. What he’s doing is speaking right to the heart.
What you and I can’t readily see in this quick interchange is all the background mindset of that time and in that culture that Jesus is speaking to.
On the one hand, Jesus knew that this Pharisee had spent his entire life trying to earn salvation through his strict adherence to an impossible set of laws that man had created. Jesus also knew that deep in the heart of each HONEST Pharisee, they knew it wasn’t going to work. Which is likely what drove Nicodemus to risk even talking to Jesus. And so, Jesus points out that his deepest fear is indeed correct. All that work and effort and sacrifice have earned him nothing. You will never even see the kingdom unless you are born again.
But, despite Nick’s response, this is not news to him. And it’s not even a new concept.
Commentator William Barclay fills us in on some of the background culture that pertains to this…
Being born again was not an idea which was in the least bit strange to the people who heard it in New Testament times. The Jew knew all about rebirth. When a man from another faith became a Jew and had been accepted into Judaism by prayer and sacrifice and baptism, he was regarded as being reborn. “A proselyte who embraces Judaism,” said the rabbis, “is like a new-born child.” So radical was the change that the sins he had committed before his reception were all done away with, for now he was a different person. The Jew knew the idea of rebirth.
The Greek also knew the idea of rebirth and knew it well. By far the most real religion of the Greeks at this time was the faith of the mystery religions. The mystery religions were all founded on the story of some god suffering and dying and rising again. And those that wished to be in said religion would go through lengthy courses of preparation, instruction, asceticism, and fasting. And finally a ritual in which the person somehow becomes one with the god and thus becomes a new person. When that union was achieved the initiate was, in the language of the Mysteries, a twice-born.
And so, the ancient world knew all about rebirth and regeneration. It longed for it and searched for it everywhere. The most famous of all Mystery ceremonies was the taurobolium. The candidate was put into a pit. On the top of the pit there was a lattice-work cover. On the cover a bull was slain by having its throat cut. The blood poured down and the initiate lifted up his head and bathed himself in the blood; and when he came out of the pit he was renatus in aeternum, reborn for all eternity. When Christianity came to the world with a message of rebirth, it came with precisely that for which all the world was seeking.
Fascinating stuff, right? And so, Nicodemus, a seasoned Pharisee who knew the Old Testament by heart and understood religiosity better than anyone…he knew exactly what being born again was, and he wanted it badly, but had no idea how to get it, so in his frustration he resorts to talking of it in physical form to emphasize it’s seeming impossibility.
It’s as if to say, “I know I need this rebirth but I’ve tried my whole life and I’ve found that it can’t be done any more than a grown man can go back into his mother’s womb…”
Jesus’ response is deep and full of interesting word play that we miss reading it in English.
John 3
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Born of water and the Spirit is not talking about a physical birth (water) and a spiritual birth (Spirit). Nor is the water referring to baptism. Jesus is most likely referencing something Nicodemus would have been intimately familiar with from the OT, found in several places including the prophecy of Ezekiel.
Ezekiel 36
24 “‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28 Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.
For those that remember my Revelation series, this is Ezekiel referring to what God is going to do with the remnant of Israel at the very end.  He is going to cleanse them with water and put a new heart in them.  Water is for cleansing. To be Born Again is to be cleansed of your sin though the power of the cross, and then you become a new creation that is now owned and controlled by the Holy Spirit rather than your sinful flesh.
And so, given all this background, it makes sense that Jesus says to Nicodemus that he should not be surprised at the statement “you must be born again.”
And indeed he wasn’t, but he still lacked the understanding of HOW it is done. “How can this be?!?”
An interesting thing about the Greek in the phrase “born again” is that the Greek word behind “again” has three meanings.
Original Word: ἄνωθεν
Transliteration: anóthen
Short Definition: from above (heaven), from the beginning, again
To be “born again” is, spiritually speaking, to start over again, but this time from above. It’s a total renewal of person. It’s a total transformation that will not only change you on the inside, but will have obvious and visible results on the outside.  That’s what Jesus is talking about when he says…
8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Another interesting thing in the Greek is that the word for Spirit and Wind are the same word: Pneuma. He’s saying the Holy Spirit is like the wind. You and I can’t control it or even predict it, but you can see the effects of it. Likewise someone who is truly born again in the Spirit will have the signs all over them. Paul later refers to them as the fruit of the Spirit.
And, of course, Jesus points out later in John that the ONLY way to bear said fruit is to believe and abide in Him – the vine.
Which is the answer to Nicodemus’ question – “How can this be?”
To which Jesus responds with a teaching moment…
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.
Jesus was just referencing an incident from the OT where the Israelite camp was infested with poisonous snakes and Moses was instructed to make a bronze snake and carry it around on top of a pole. Everyone who had been bitten by a snake need only look at the bronze snake and they would be healed. Jesus is saying that he himself would also be lifted up (on the cross) and likewise those who look upon him with faith would be healed of their sin problem and given eternal life.
He continues…
16 For God so (meaning “in this way”) loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”
And so, Jesus answers the question that Nicodemus didn’t ask out loud but his heart was screaming – how am I to be saved? How am I to be born again and have this new life? The answer is Jesus himself, the Son of God.
I don’t have time to expound on the rest of what Jesus says here (I’ll let you talk about in your life groups), but it seems that his words must have made an impact on Nicodemus because we later see him helping to bury Jesus after his death. I suspect he became a believer.

Now, let’s shift gears and go to the next chapter where Jesus has another heart to heart with someone quite different.
In the interest of time, I’m going to comment as we read it instead of reading it all first and going back. Most of you probably know the story. If you don’t, I recommend you read it again later today.
A short synopsis goes like this…Jesus, while traveling, stops at a well in Samaria. His disciples go get some food. Meanwhile a woman comes to draw water. He starts talking to her and ultimately reveals to her that he is the Messiah. She runs back to her town and tells them. They come back to see for themselves and many become believers.
Now, let’s look at the details.
John 4
1 Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John—2 although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. 3 So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.
4 Now he had to go through Samaria.
Judea, Galilee, and Samaria are all regions that contain several towns. You could think of them as counties. Judea is in the south, with Galilee in the north, and Samaria in the middle.  Jesus “had to” go through Samaria, but not for the reason you may be thinking.
This “had to” is a phrase John uses repeatedly to refer to something that must be done by divine direction rather than just physical necessity. This time is no different. Believe it or not, the Jews hated the Samaritans so much that they would usually go around Samaria (a longer distance) to get from one side to the other. But not Jesus. He had a God-scheduled appointment to keep.
 5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
Jesus was really human, and so after walking for half a day, he probably really was tired. But that’s not really why he stopped.
7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)
The hatred between the Jews and Samaritans rivaled that between the blacks and the whites of the south in the 50’s and 60’s in our country. They hated each other. And more specifically, the Jews hated the Samaritans. Their hatred dated back hundreds of years to the time when the nation of Israel split with the tribe/land of Judah staying loyal to the house of David (Jerusalem is in Judah) and all the other tribes deciding to revolt. Most of Kings and Chronicles in the OT talks of the history of the split kingdom. The Jews came from Judah (hence their name) and the Samaritans resulted from the rest of Israel intermarrying with the nations that conquered them and becoming a “mixed” race. And so their hatred was partly a racism kind of hatred. The Samaritans were an abomination in the eyes of the Jews.
And so, this woman is shocked and surprised that this Jewish man would one, even talk to her (men didn’t talk to women in public in such a way), and two, ask her for a drink. The Jews considered anything touched by a Samaritan as unclean, and certainly would not drink out of one of their cups. So, this whole situation was rather scandalous for those times. And so, her skepticism is not unwarranted – “How can you ask me for a drink?”
And like he did for Nicodemus, Jesus answers the question she didn’t ask out loud but that her heart was screaming.
10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
This woman, as we learn a little later in the story, is not just here getting water. She is hiding from the people of her village. Normally the women would get water in the cool of the evening, but she is here in the heat of the day. Also, this well is about a mile from her town and there are water sources closer. She doesn’t come here because the water is better. She comes here in the heat of the day because she is ashamed of her life and does not want to face the judging eyes of her neighbors. She, unlike the Pharisee, is not proud and self-righteous. She knows what a wretch she is and would give anything to be rescued from that life.
No doubt Jesus’ response about living water made her deepest soul stir, though she may not have known why. So she keeps up her guard and tries to change the subject.
11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
Like Nicodemus, she keeps the conversation on the physical rather than the spiritual. But Jesus cuts through her smoke screen.
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
No doubt her soul is burning at this point.
15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
She’s not only interested in easy water. The hope a new life, the hope of eternal life, a shame-free life, is creeping in. And then Jesus brings her back to earth.
16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
This must have been a serious emotional swing. From dreaming of a new life, to being reminded of the sad state of her real life.
17 “I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
That must have hurt. Surely whatever hope she had built up a moment ago was shattered when Jesus revealed he knew all about her sorted past and her current sinful state. So, she puts her guard up again and tries to change the subject.
19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
Here she brings up another point of contention between the Jews and Samaritans. The Samaritans only considered the books of Moses to be Scripture. And that, plus a few other things, resulted in them rejecting Jerusalem as God’s place for worship and designating Mount Gerizim instead. They also attached a bunch of biblical history to that mountain that wasn’t necessarily true. And so this religious difference only deepened the hatred between the groups.
But now Jesus has her right where he wants her, and instead of condemning her, he gives her the privilege of knowing a bit about the future.
21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
This is big news, and news that the Jews won’t like, which is probably why he told a Samaritan. The temple was about to become obsolete because Jesus was moving the temple of his Holy Spirit into the hearts of believers. Where we worship Him in the spirit, not in a place.
At this point, the woman is probably an emotional mess, confused, and just tired of getting her hopes up. So, she throws out what she probably hopes is a conversation ender.
25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
The Samaritan picture of the Messiah was different than their Jewish counterparts. They simply expected another prophet and leader like Moses as predicted in Deuteronomy, not the conquering king that the Jews wanted. Her comment here is similar to how we today could say when we don’t know what else to say, “Well, I know that Jesus is going to come back some day, and when He comes he’ll sort everything out.”
But instead of leaving her with a vague hope of someday…Jesus gives her the ultimate gift.
26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
And the Holy Spirit must have also intervened, because in that moment she believed, and then ran back home to tell everyone  about this man that “told me everything I ever did…could he be the Messiah?”  And apparently the town was ready to believe, so they came running to meet him themselves. They were so impressed they asked him to stay a few days and pretty much the whole town became believers.
A pretty awesome story! Would love to see something like that happen here and now.

And so, zooming back out, what can we learn about Jesus from these two encounters?
He is no respecter of persons. He was not intimidated or impressed with the highfalutin Pharisee on the ruling council. Nor was he judgmental or dismissive of the sinful, mixed-race, outcast, Samaritan woman. He treated both with the same kind of love and compassion.
He was kind but honest. Gentle but firm. He did not let Nicodemus off the hook for not understanding how to be born again, and he didn’t let the woman off the hook for her sinful lifestyle. Yet in both cases he was not condemning in his convicting, but rather loving and healing.
He can see into our souls. In both cases, he answered the questions they did not ask out loud. He looked into their hearts and cut through all their masks and gave them what they really needed rather than what they thought they wanted.
As it says in…
Hebrews 4
12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
And remember that Jesus IS the word. The LOGOS.
Judging is not always bad, but it is always honest. And in the case of both Nicodemus and the Woman at the Well, that judgment saved them, as it brought to the surface their deepest need and then Jesus gave them both the only thing that can meet that need – himself.
And he does the same for us today!
Oh what a wonderful savior we have!
Just like in both of these stories, Jesus has a divine appointment with each of us. Some, like Nicodemus, go in search of him after hearing about him as the Spirit stirs their curiosity. Others, like the Woman, know nothing about him and yet He comes to them and offers them the living water.
And though His words will cut you, they are for your own good. If you let Him, he will answer the questions you are too afraid to ask out loud. Even the ones you don’t know how to ask out loud.
There is only one thing that is needed from you. It’s the same thing that both Nicodemus and the Woman had that others that Jesus was not so kind to did not have. They had humility.
1 Peter 5:5
God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.
The woman was clearly humble. Her shame and disgrace made it hard for her not to be, though she put up a good front. And so were the rest of the town. They were ready to believe in a savior because they knew they could not save themselves.
Nicodemus on the other hand had tried his whole life to earn salvation, and though some commentators don’t do this, I give him the benefit of the doubt that he showed at least a modicum of humility by the fact that he even attempted to have a civil conversation with Jesus. And though it did not immediately result the same as the Woman’s story, like I said, he was later one of the two people that took charge of Jesus’ body to put it in the tomb after he died.
And so, I would argue that Jesus treated these two the way he did because they both showed humility. They both realized their own inability to save themselves and were open to learning what Jesus taught them. And they both became believers and their lives would never be the same.
And he will do the same for you and me.
As 1 Peter continues…
1 Peter 5
6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. 7 Casting all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
Let’s pray.

What is the question of your heart that you cannot ask out loud?
Are you Nicodemus? You’ve been trying to earn favor with God by what you do? Maybe you’ve even built up a respectable amount of status and clout. Maybe on the outside you are the model Christian, but the real question of your heart is “how can I be born again?” How can I start over from above with a new heart and a new life? Maybe you’re afraid of giving up the sand castle you’ve been building all this time. Let Jesus knock it down so He can start building a new castle in you on the solid rock of who HE is, not who you are. But you have to let go.
Are you the woman at the well? You don’t even feel worthy to talk to Jesus, much less ask him for anything. You know your past and you’d rather that no one else did. Well Jesus does and he loves you anyway. He wants to give you the living water so you don’t have to keep going to that well of addiction you’ve been going to trying to fill the hole inside your heart. Jesus is the only one who can fill it. And he wants to.
Church, do you know that Jesus loves you? Do you know that he will meet you right where you are? Do you know that he can see into the deepest place in your heart and he is not angry or upset with you, but he does want to heal you. If you will let him.