(by Ray Van Neste)
In discussing Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well (John 4) John Piper in his book Desiring God described Jesus as the Great Soul Hunter. That description has stuck with me, and recently in my class at Union University on John’s gospel we had a good discussion on what we can learn from Jesus’ dealings with both Nicodemus (John 3) and the woman at the well. Here are a few things I see.
Perhaps most obviously we see Jesus addressing people at opposite ends of the spectrum: the upstanding and the outcast, the orthodox and the heretical, a man and a woman. The call goes out to all. All people need the same gospel, and we must share it with them. Jesus is not more interested to share with Nicodemus in order to acquire the support of this respectable leader. Neither does he shy away from speaking with an immoral Samaritan woman even though she could in no way enhance His social standing- in fact this conversation with her would be a PR liability! We are not allowed to choose what group we want to reach. We are simply to preach the gospel to all people.
Second, Jesus treated both of them as real people. He did not merely launch into a prefabricated sales pitch. He approached them differently though he spoke the same truth. Too often we think of evangelism as a preset list of statements. It is helpful to have key points in mind, but we must listen to and speak to others as real people. What issue in this person’s life most clearly shows the need for the gospel? At one Southern Baptist Convention a cab driver told a friend of mine, “If you’re wanting to get me saved, I’ve already prayed that prayer twice today.” People had sought to share the gospel with this man, but it came across as just some mantra to him. People are not objects for us to “get” but bearers of the image of God with whom we must personally engage in order to properly introduce them to their Maker.
Third, with the woman at the well in particular we see Jesus moving eventually to the key point of pain in her life- her series of husbands and current live-in boyfriend. Along the way Jesus spoke of the gospel and theological debates of the day, but he was driving at her heart. The big issues people have with the claims of the gospel are usually not intellectual or academic. Most often they stem from personal experiences of pain, confusion, disillusionment, and the like. If we take time to listen to people we can find these points and apply the gospel directly to their situation. This will be much more helpful than simply dropping a line on them.
This came home to me again in a fairly recent conversation I had with a young woman on a plane trip. Early on in conversation she said candidly that though she was a student at a Baptist college she was not a believer. She raised several intellectual arguments against the faith. I listened and responded, all the while thinking, “These aren’t her real issues.” The woman at the well came directly to mind. Eventually this young woman disclosed that the real issue in her life at the moment was disillusionment with her live-in boyfriend. He had seemed so nice when they met, but since she had moved in with him and made herself responsible for some of his bills, he was not the same person. Here was the real wound. I had the chance to speak to this issue and point to the gospel.
Fourth, Jesus calls for response but is willing to leave a person to stew on what has been said. How the conversation with Nicodemus concludes is not clear. Later in the gospel it appears he has come to believe in Jesus. The conversation with the Samaritan woman was interrupted, but she clearly came to faith as did many in her town. We must be earnest in sharing the gospel, but we need not intimidate or manipulate to get a confession on the spot. Our responsibility is to speak the gospel. It is the Holy Spirit who does the convicting and converting (John 16:8). As Jesus said to Nicodemus, they must be “born of the Spirit” (3:6-7).
Many other things could be listed, but the last I will mention is that the individual’s lack of understanding did not prevent Jesus from speaking the gospel. We must not let fear of the other person misunderstanding keep us from speaking the gospel. Lost people need to hear the gospel in order to be saved. Therefore we must share the gospel. We can paralyze ourselves by waiting for just the right time with just the right words. God will bless His word, and it is He who will break through confusion and save souls (2 Cor 4:1-6). He is, after all, the Great Soul Hunter.
(Originally published in The Baptist and Reflector, March 2007)