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Evangelize Like You’re a Sinner

“Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (John 4:29)

When was the last time you heard the Samaritan woman at the well presented as a model for anything, let alone apologetics? I’m guessing the answer is not lately, if ever. Yet there may be no better model of witness in the Gospels than her.

Most teaching about the Samaritan woman centers on her past rather than her preaching. Interpretations of her encounter with Jesus easily focus on speculation or label her simply as a prostitute or adulteress. But speculation can be blinding. It can obscure what’s explicit in John’s narrative: her witness led to a city-wide harvest (John 4:30–42). The Samaritan woman led more people to Christ in a day than most of us will in a lifetime. This shouldn’t shame us but instead encourage us to learn from her as a powerful example of apologetics in exile.

Exile is both a theological and a lived reality, one the world has known since Adam plunged humanity into sin and ruin, separating us from fellowship with our Creator. But we can also experience a lesser form of exile, cultural exile, when we’re ostracized or opposed by others. Just as Daniel lived in a Babylonian society opposed to the ways of God, so too the church today faces cultural exile. In such a context, Christians and the gospel message are viewed with deep skepticism or outright hostility.

In one sense, these conditions don’t matter; the task of Christian witness remains the same. Christians in exile aren’t meant simply to survive or retreat but to proclaim the gospel. On the other hand, we can’t ignore the deep cultural shifts in the West that have left Christianity distasteful and implausible to many. Recognizing these challenges, Joshua Chatraw writes, “People have so many misunderstandings, critiques, and fears about Christianity, it’s hard to even know where to begin.”

What if we began with a woman who was herself misunderstood and on the fringes of society, living as a cultural exile? As we’ll see, her transforming encounter with Jesus at the well became a powerful apologetic of hope and joy in her community.

Apologetics Begins with Jesus

When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman, she’s alone at the well in the middle of the day. Why did she show up at the hottest time of day? We can’t be sure, but she was probably avoiding the townsfolk who treated her with disdain. As Jesus gently reveals, she had five previous husbands and was likely viewed as a person of ill repute.

Whether her succession of marriages was the result of divorce, death, adultery, or a mix of these, we can’t know for certain. We do know the Samaritan woman had weathered the hard winds of pain, sin, and suffering. She knew exile’s effects. But when Jesus greets her, by his presence he shifts the trajectory of her whole life toward God’s astounding love.

Christians in exile aren’t meant simply to survive or retreat but to proclaim the gospel.

John’s narrative demonstrates the power of this encounter first through the deep significance of its setting—it all happens at a well. Multiple biblical patriarchs (or their messengers) met their future brides at a well in a foreign land. Those women often returned home to their families and towns with the good news of their encounters (Gen. 24:28; 29:12; Ex. 2:18–19). John boldly presents Jesus as the true Bridegroom who comes to an unfaithful, scandalized woman at a well in a foreign place and meets her with saving grace, bringing her into fellowship with God “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). This is a picture of our salvation.

John shows Jesus crossing boundaries to meet this woman. While they’re alone at the well, Jesus speaks to her, which crosses two cultural fault lines: her gender as a woman and his as a man, and her ethnicity as Samaritan and his as a Jew.

Samaritans believed themselves to be true worshipers of the God of Abraham, but Jews saw them as heretical half-breeds. To call the groups divided would earn you a doctoral degree in understatement. The hostility ran deep. And the hate flowed in both directions (Luke 9:51–54). But Jesus was different. To this Samaritan woman, Jesus speaks, and he even enters her state: he too is thirsty.

As Jesus moved toward her in mercy, the Samaritan woman received him as the long-awaited Messiah. It’s easy for Christians to become familiar with this movement of grace. In our brokenness, Jesus knows us and seeks us. With the cultural winds blowing fiercely against us, we must not lose this Christian instinct of mercy. Jesus dignified the Samaritan woman in deep conversation, showing her his love.

This encounter with Jesus then leads to her daring apologetic: “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (John 4:29). Such bold, public proclamation would be unorthodox for a first-century woman, let alone a woman likely maligned by her neighbors. The Samaritan woman’s bold witness teaches us a truth sometimes deemed too simplistic: the key to apologetics isn’t pithy answers or irrefutable arguments but a sense of awe in Jesus that can’t be silenced.

Apologetics and Exposure

Encounters with Jesus bring not only dignity and mercy but also exposure. Painful as it may be, we know such exposure is a subset of divine mercy. Like a doctor who doesn’t downplay our diagnosis, Jesus reveals our brokenness and sin for the express purpose of forgiving and healing us. How exposed did the Samaritan woman feel when Jesus revealed his knowledge of her deep secrets? John 4:16–18 captures the moment:

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.”

Whatever the reasons for her serial marriages, the point of exposure stands, as does the fact that Jesus declares the man she’s with now is not her husband (v. 18). Jesus gazes deep into her heart and history. Then he brings her wounds and transgressions into his merciful light.

Will we let Jesus gaze on us in this way? You can’t be a witness apart from such mercy, and you can’t experience grace apart from such vulnerability. The result of Christ’s merciful exposure isn’t condemnation but conversation on the nature of salvation (vv. 19–24).

Jesus leads this woman to the growing comprehension that he’s the Messiah whom both Jews and Samaritans await (vv. 25–26), culminating in conversion for the woman and for the many who hear her apologetic appeal (v. 39). It’s Christ’s mercy through his exposure of her sin that leads her to grasp his identity as Savior. The result isn’t fear but joyful excitement. She leaves her water jar and rushes to invite the town to come see Jesus.

In a brokenhearted world, G. K. Chesterton reminded God’s people that “joy . . . is the gigantic secret of the Christian.” Considering the Samaritan woman as a practitioner of faithful apologetics, I might suggest a remix to Chesterton’s maxim: joy is the gigantic secret of the Christian apologetic. The early church father John Chrysostom described the source of the Samaritan woman’s powerful witness this way: “Excited by joy, she performed the work of the evangelists.” Her encounter with Jesus, in which his truth and grace became real to her, empowered her to become his witness, a joyful laborer in the harvest. Where shame once silenced her voice, gospel joy unleashed it.

Authenticity in a Skeptical Age

In our age, there’s little room for the truth but ample space for my truth. This shift hasn’t resulted in the removal of absolutes but their relocation. Truth is now a matter of authenticity. Truth isn’t found outside us; it comes from within when we express what seems good to us. Such a view is troubling and ultimately damaging. But Christians, especially those ready to learn from the Samaritan woman, need not panic. For when societies begin to abandon objective truth and enshrine subjective authenticity, Christians still have something to say. Because Jesus is both objectively true and personally real.

To do apologetics faithfully and fruitfully in this cultural moment requires Christians to remember both the objective and personal aspects of our faith. When cultures and societies or friends and family enshrine authenticity, we can speak from our authentic experience of the One who is Truth and Grace for us each day (John 1:14). Peter calls exiles to evangelize through the exaltation of the One who called them from darkness to light (1 Pet. 2:9). This is the sort of apologetic needed in exile: a witness who speaks the objective and subjective reality of God’s saving power.

The Samaritan woman is a stellar model of this exilic exaltation. Her witness is potent and simple: “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did” (John 4:29). This is her personal experience. It’s authentic and rooted in awe. Hers is a testimony that cannot be refuted: a man told me all I ever did. Not only is it the truth, but it’s also her truth. Christians must speak both. In hostile situations or skeptical relationships, we should start with the angle of authenticity: “Let me tell you what Jesus has done, and is doing, in, to, and for me.”

In our age, there’s little room for the truth but ample space for my truth.

In an age where non-Christians are deeply skeptical of Christianity’s goodness and trueness, our apologetics should have this Me-You shape. We can connect people to Christ by telling them what he’s done in our lives, calling them to consider what he can do in theirs. Like the Samaritan woman, we’d be wise to major in the language of personal experience birthed from fresh encounters with Jesus, the type of encounters that leave our voices quaking with tremors of hope, surprise, humility, and awe.

This Me-You shape of the Samaritan woman’s apologetics is a bit like the floors of a home. Unless you have some sort of superhuman leaping ability, you enter a house on the first floor then take the stairs to the second floor. Speaking the truth of our encounters with Jesus is like inviting people into the first floor of a home. “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did” is incarnational testimony; it’s the truth of Jesus manifested in the life of a human. It’s the proclamation of why Jesus matters and how the gospel is good, true, and meaningful.

Sometimes we get the miracle of starting on the second floor—a friend asks, “Tell me again why you think Christianity is so good?” Or as in Paul’s case, someone asks, “What must I do to be saved?” But the first floor is first for a reason; things usually start at step one.

There are several challenges to this type of apologetics. This “first-floor testimony” or a Me-You-shaped apologetic requires vital and ongoing dependence on Jesus. Pride is the great barrier here. This type of apologetics is inescapably personal, which means it’s inescapably vulnerable. The Samaritan woman’s testimony about Jesus is simultaneously self-incrimination and Christ-exaltation: “Come, see this Jesus! You know all the problems, sins, and rumors of my life? He knew it all, embraced me still, and made himself known to me!” To say, “He told me all I ever did” is to put your moral business out there for all to see.

To learn from the model of the Samaritan woman, our apologetics must be tinged with the flavor of humiliation, with the willingness to say, “Here’s the difference Jesus makes in my life. Because apart from his healing grace, I have flaws, needs, and sins that might make your face turn red.” This way of apologetics means the crucifixion of our performative personas so we can exalt the crucified Savior who redeems and transforms our lives.

Several years ago, while in graduate school, a close friend agreed to read with me Tim Keller’s apologetic classic The Reason for God. I was thrilled and hopeful. As we discussed the book, we had some good conversations. Then the topic turned to grace, and my friend mentioned he and I didn’t need forgiveness as much as some people.

I felt the air in the room thicken. In my heart, I knew I needed in that moment to move from vague Christian generalities—“I’m a sinner”—to real-world particulars. I needed to tell him exactly how I’ve messed things up, exactly how I’ve hurt people, exactly how I’ve thought unthinkable thoughts. The moment called for the specifics of my sinfulness in a way that would leave me embarrassed and God’s grace exalted.

Instead, pride tightened my throat, and no words came out—except for a few generic platitudes. Unlike the Samaritan woman, I couldn’t point to the “all I ever did” nature of my brokenness. I spoke the truth generically rather than flavoring it with my truth specifically, and my witness suffered.

Embrace an Apologetic Spirituality

When we follow the pattern of witness presented by the Samaritan woman, we embrace an apologetic spirituality imbued with the joy, humility, and authenticity of encountering Jesus. These personal experiences with the living Christ fuel us to point others to him. In directing our friends and family to Christ, we’re implicitly calling them to consider him, inviting them up the stairs to the second floor. We’re joining the Samaritan woman in her broadcasted command to “Come, and see.”

Her invitation is an echo of Jesus’s call to the first disciples (John 1:39), which they imitate in calling others to follow Christ (v. 46). By issuing a joyful, first-floor invitation to consider Jesus, we stand in the apologetic tradition of the first disciples and of our Lord himself.

When we follow the pattern of witness presented by the Samaritan woman, we embrace an apologetic spirituality imbued with the joy, humility, and authenticity of encountering Jesus.

The second step of the Samaritan woman’s witness ventures from a personal testimony to its all-encompassing implication: “Can this be the Christ?” (4:29). We too can make the turn from “my truth” and its Me-You shape to helping others consider “the Truth,” a Me-You-Christ movement. This movement to the second floor happens through open questions that follow on the heels of our spoken experience of Jesus.

When I share with a friend how through prayer Christ is helping me endure a brutal stretch of work, I can add a question that not only leaves my friend interested in my experience but invites him to consider his relationship to the truth that has shaped me: “Have you ever thought if God might help you with your problem?” or “Would you ever be open to learning to pray as Jesus taught?” Such questions present the reality of Christ to our friends, offering them a simple way to “take a step” toward the truth of the gospel. This allows them to “come and see” on the journey to trusting and believing.

There are two levels to the Samaritan woman’s apologetic witness, and the order matters. In a skeptical age, many will close themselves off from Christ, humanly speaking, apart from an authentic gospel witness from a trusted friend. Thus we must often start at the first floor. This doesn’t mean we always slow-play the call for others to consider Christ, only that we recognize the importance of a personal apologetic as a starting place.

But just as there are two levels to our witness, there are also two levels to people’s responses. Those we witness to must not only believe our experience but venture on to embrace Christ themselves. Initially, the Samaritans believe because of the woman’s authentic, joyful, and vulnerable testimony (v. 39). Then they ultimately believe for themselves from their own encounters with Jesus (v. 42). What begins at the first floor ends at the second; what starts with a joyful testimony ends in the joy of salvation.

When we speak of what Jesus is doing in us, it opens the door for people to consider Jesus for themselves. This isn’t argumentative apologetics; it’s an apologetic spirituality rooted in encountering Christ. Our witness, our apologetics, will have no pulse and no power apart from a life-giving experience with Christ that shapes us day after day. This is what we learn from the woman who came to the well an exile, encountered Life, and with great joy spoke of being known and loved.

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