In this chapter, Keller takes us to two different encounters with Jesus, one with Nicodemus in John chapter 3 and the other with the woman at the well in John chapter 4. While these encounters with Jesus are two of the most familiar and commonly preached upon, they are often talked about in isolation. Keller suggests that these encounters are intentionally consecutive in the gospel of John and are best understood together. As Keller works through these two encounters, first the woman at the well (the outcast) and then Nicodemus (the insider), he aims to highlight how these encounters illustrate the biblical answer to the question of “What’s wrong with the world the way it is?” The answer is the sinful hearts of humanity and the brokenness it creates. There is none righteous, no not one (Romans 3:10-12).
Keller begins with Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well because she fits our stereotypical description of a sinner. She was an outcast. She was a Samaritan (a religious heretic in the eyes of the Jews), an adulterous woman (had five husbands and was living with a sixth man to whom she was not married), and a social disgrace (visiting the well in the middle of the day to avoid being shamed by others in her community). Jesus went out of his way, crossing all manner of cultural and religious boundaries to connect with this outcast. Jesus’ encounter with her was gentle and patient, but intentionally aimed at her heart. Jesus leveraged his own real need for physical water to address her deeper need for spiritual water. Like a drink of cool water quenches thirst and brings physical rest, Jesus offered her spiritual water that would quench her thirsty soul. He offered her deep soul rest that flowed from the inside out, where she would never spiritually thirst again regardless of her circumstances.
Keller argues that we so often miss the depth of this need for spiritual rest because we cling so tightly to our personal goals and achievements. These tend to distract us time and again from reaching the root of the emptiness that remains in our hearts. There is an emptiness in life that is impossible to fill with anything but God himself. Jesus pointed this out to the woman, gently but directly telling her that what she was seeking in her husbands would never be satisfied apart from Him.
Next, Keller considers Jesus’s encounter with Nicodemus, who in virtually every way was different than the woman at the well. Nicodemus was a Jewish man, respected and honorable, and a devout student and keeper of the law. When Nicodemus asks Jesus “What must I do to be saved?” Keller argues that what he is really asking is “What more must I do to earn salvation?” Jesus very directly and abruptly responds “You must be born again.” Keller points out that what Jesus is clearly communicating to Nicodemus is that he can’t earn his salvation. Just like physical birth is a free gift of life that cannot be planned and executed, so it is with spiritual birth.
While Nicodemus may have appeared more righteous and put together than the woman at the well, they both were enemies of God in their hearts. Both the outsider and the insider were starting from the same place. They were both sinners, in need of God’s grace. They both needed to be born again, made new from the inside out through Jesus’s atoning work. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone (Eph. 2:8-9).
(!) Something Helpful
Sin is looking to something else besides God for your salvation. It is putting yourself in the place of God, becoming your own savior and Lord, as it were. That’s the biblical definition of sin, the first of the Ten Commandments.
(Keller, p. 35)
This statement was a helpful reminder for me. It can be so easy for me to minimize the weight of my own sin and therefore lessen my sense of desperate need for the gospel every day. The truth about sin is that regardless of how visible and apparent it may be, we all are born sinners and live our lives enslaved to our sins apart from the redeeming work of Jesus on our behalf (Romans 6). This chapter reminded me of this simple but critically profound biblical truth. Keller argued that all sin ultimately has its root in the first commandment “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Whether our false gods are many and on full public display like the adultery of woman at the well, or they are singular and private like the smug self-satisfaction of Nicodemus, we all sin by forsaking the one true God and propping up some other pseudo-savior in His rightful place in our hearts.
(?) Something to Think About
This chapter left me thinking about the deceptive nature of sin, especially in the life of a religious or “moral” person. In my own heart, I am left pondering the patterns of sin in my life, both before and after experiencing regeneration through the gospel. What sin was I enslaved to before I encountered Jesus? Was I chasing hard after passions and pleasures to fill the void in my heart? Or was I enslaved to my own pride and sense of self-reliance through accomplishments and the pursuit of fame and power? Now that I am a child of God and no longer a slave to sin, with which sins am I tempted now? Which false gods and pseudo-saviors entice me back into sin?
(.) Something to Do
You owe God far more than a morally decent life. He deserves to be at the center of your life. Even if you are a “good” person but you are not letting God be God to you, you are just as guilty of sin as Nicodemus or the Samaritan woman. You are being your own savior and lord. (Keller, p. 37)
This chapter challenged me to take action against sin in my life. While I know that I am no longer a slave to sin (Romans 5 & 6), I recognize that sin is always lurking at the door of my heart (1 Peter 5). Here are a few specific actions I am taking in response to the truths I encountered and the questions I wrestled with in this chapter.
Prayerfully stand guard against sin and ask God to protect my heart from propping up pseudo-saviors in His place.
Protect time in my life to spend with Jesus in the Scriptures and in prayer.
Cultivate humility and gratitude by reminding myself of the free gift of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, not by my works.
Live like Jesus, being willing to go out of my way to connect with sinners in my life, both the insiders and the outcasts, and lovingly point them to the root of their sin and the hope of the gospel.
Questions to Ask Your Cell Group
What sins are you fighting in this season of your life? How can I come alongside you with prayer and accountability?
How are you protecting time in your busy schedule to spend with Jesus? How can we challenge and encourage each other in this area this week?
Who are the insiders and the outcasts in your life right now? How have you pursued gospel conversations with them so far? What are some steps you can take this week to build those relationships and point them to Jesus?