Evangelism. Some Christians love it. Some hate it. The problem isn’t with Jesus. It’s with the expectations and methods that we’ve been taught. In Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well, we learn from the first recorded evangelist. What we see is rather different than what we’ve often been taught.
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A woman meets Jesus at the well. They have a conversation. It moves her. She rushes back to town to tell others what just happened.
Today we’re going to look at that last part — the running back to town and telling others. This is the part where I mentioned that this woman became the first ever recorded Christian evangelist.
Now, take that word “evangelist.” Stop. Turn it around in your head for a moment. Take stock. What comes up for you when you hear that word, “Evangelist?” What pictures come to mind? What emotional response do you have?
I grew up in a church where “the Evangelist” was a professional title. There were guys, well-dressed, charismatic guys with big RVs, and multi-media presentations and brought touring musicians along with them. They swept into town for a few weeks, and we did everything we could to support them:
- They shared the work they were doing. We cheered them on and prayed for God to work through them.
- They held meetings. We invited people to come.
- If everything went well, some of those people we invited would become Christian. The evangelist would baptize them on the last night of the meetings.
- If we had been friendly enough, those people would start attending our church. That meant new people! New people to pitch in. New people for the church committees. New people to keep our little church thriving.
Then at the end of the campaign, the evangelist would tell us all about the great need he saw in the next town. We’d pray, and we’d give our money, so that he could drive off and do it all again at another little church.
Growing up, that was my picture of what it meant to be an evangelist. This experience created a problem for me. See, The Bible seemed clear that evangelism was something I was supposed to be up to.
- In the Great Commission, Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus tells his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations.” I’m a follower of Jesus, so this instruction is for. Go make disciples.
- In Acts 1:8 the church was told, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and the world.” I was meant to be a witness—right where I lived, and out into the world.
- 2nd Corinthians 5:20 gave us our job description. We are “ambassadors for Christ.” We represent Him, his message, his kingdom, and God wants to make his appeal through us.
- Romans 10:17 set up the need. It says that “faith comes from hearing.” That means that people aren’t going to believe in Jesus, unless we tell them, right?
So, I’ve got Biblical direction that evangelism is something I’m supposed to be doing, as a follower of Jesus. But the picture of evangelism that I had? A professional. Charismatic. The right presentation. A program with music and media and compelling arguments. That wasn’t something I could do. It wasn’t something that made sense for my friends.
I was left in this bind. I want to follow Jesus well. Part of following Jesus is evangelism. But I couldn’t do it. So, I felt guilty and ineffective. Do you relate to that?
The First Evangelist
The passage we’re studying talks about evangelism, but shares a much different picture. Let’s go through the passage together. John 4, starting with verse 27. John 4:27
Just then His disciples arrived, and they were amazed that He was talking with a woman. Yet no one said, “What do You want?” or “Why are You talking with her?” – John 4:27
The disciples still saw the world with their Us vs. Them filter. Jesus is talking to a woman. A Samaritan. An outsider. They noticed this. Jesus had a ways to go in changing their hearts.
Then the woman left her water jar, went into town, and told the men, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did! Could this be the Messiah?” They left the town and made their way to Him. – John 4:28-30
Here’s the moment we know this conversation with Jesus mattered to her. She was moved. She abandoned her water jar, ran back to town and started telling people what had happened to her.
Her story was amazing. This guy knew all about her. He was a Jew, yet he treated her with respect. He treated her like her spiritual questions mattered. Could it be—she wondered—that he was the Promised One? The Messiah?
This woman has a face-to-face encounter with Jesus that meets a deep internal need. The result? She’s moved. The original task that she was there for—getting water—suddenly didn’t seem so important. She runs back to town. She tells her story. In response, the people are intrigued. They come to the well to check things out for themselves. When she ran back to tell her story, she became the first recorded Christian evangelist.
Varieties of Evangelism
That is so different from the models of evangelism that we’ve so often experienced in church.
Some churches didn’t have the professional evangelist model that I grew up with. Instead, they had a particular method of evangelism that you—the good church member—were supposed to learn.
In some churches, that means knowing the Old Testament prophecies really well so that you could prove beyond reasonable doubt that the Bible is true about history, and thus must be true about God.
In other churches, this meant knowing a certain set of scripture verses by heart so that you could guide people down a road explaining how they are sinful, how they need a savior, and how Jesus is the one who can save them from their sins, if they just say the right prayer.
In both of these cases, the formula is the same. You (the church person who is supposed to evangelize) learn and memorize certain information. Then you engineer conversations with people where you can use this memorized information to try and convince them of what you know.
In some churches, the expectation that you (the church person) must participate in this is constantly pushed through training, seminars, notebooks and handouts. Some churches even keep track of how many of these “convincing conversations” people are having.
Of course, the people who don’t memorize well, or who feel vaguely uneasy about this whole endeavor, are left to feel guilty and ineffective. Maybe they just aren’t that committed to Jesus. This set of expectations has created a lot of guilt and shame for people.
In one view, evangelism is undoable for most of us because we aren’t charismatic professionals with the right equipment and memorized presentation. In the other view, evangelism is distasteful to many of us, because it’s essentially about convincing other people of something, arguing them into truth, compelling them to believe, pummeling them with proof-texts until the collapse under the evident truth of the Bible. It just feels like we’re trying to sell something.
Now, in other churches—this by far the most common view these days—the leaders have just given up pushing this expectation. Instead, they’ve traded it for another one.
They make a deal with the congregation. If you (the church person) will do the single task of inviting people you know to church, we (the leader people) will do our very best to plan and create events that will knock their socks off. We’ll invest in state of the art media. We’ll produce the highest quality music (modern or classical, doesn’t matter. It’s the same game with different outfits). We’ll put together messages that are compelling and relevant. Your job (church person) is just to bring people to church. We’re letting you off the hook for evangelism entirely. You bring them, and we (the leaders) will do the convincing.
In this version, the burden of guilt is shifted from the congregation to the leaders. If the people we invite aren’t convinced, is it the worship leader’s fault for not having the right blend of authenticity and professionalism? Is it the media team’s fault for a video segment that fell flat? Is it speaker’s fault? Was the speaker just not passionate enough? Or relevant enough? Or convincing enough? Maybe it’s the children’s ministry department for not being fun enough that the kids want to come back!
The Good News was her Story!
All these pictures of evangelism, and none of them are what we see in this story! She wasn’t a trained professional. She didn’t wrap up her conversation with Jesus by taking an evangelism training class. She didn’t run back to town and set up a prophecy seminar. She didn’t sit everyone down and draw a diagram for them on a napkin. She didn’t even seem all that focused on convincing people of anything.
What did she do? She had an experience with Jesus. It moved her. She ran back to town and told her story. “This is what happened to me.” “Come see this guy who knew everything about me.” And then she asked one question, “Could it be that he’s the messiah?”
She went into her world.
She shared her experience.
She invited them to look for themselves.
The scripture tells us what happened next. Verse 39.
Now many Samaritans from that town believed in Him because of what the woman said when she testified, “He told me everything I ever did.” Therefore, when the Samaritans came to Him, they asked Him to stay with them, and He stayed there two days. Many more believed because of what He said. And they told the woman, “We no longer believe because of what you said, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this really is the Savior of the world.” – John 4:39-42
She told her story. Her story was real, it was authentic, and because it was real, it was intriguing to the people who knew her. They came out to see for themselves. It wasn’t her job to convince them of anything. They came out, they listened, they had their own experience of Jesus. Their final words are telling:
And they told the woman, “We no longer believe because of what you said, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this really is the Savior of the world.” – John 4:42
They didn’t say, “We believe in Jesus now because you put on such a good show. Or because you did such a good job convincing us. Or because you showed us all the scriptures in a row.” No. They said, “We believe in Jesus because we saw for ourselves. We had our own experience.”
A model for us.
So here’s the picture of evangelism we see in this passage.
First, have your own experience of Jesus.
That’s where it starts. In the information-driven model of evangelism, you can evangelize without ever knowing or being moved by Jesus. You just memorize the presentation.
That’s not what this woman did. She had an authentic face-to-face encounter with Jesus. Jesus saw her truth, her real vulnerable, broken truth. Jesus loved her. Respected her. Treated her like her spiritual journey mattered. In that interchange, Jesus revealed himself to her. That’s what she had. She had this experience. And that—your experience with Jesus—is what you have to offer.
Why does Jesus matter to you? Why are you one of Jesus’ followers? Why do you invest time in growing spiritually, in hanging out with Jesus’ people, in prayer and worship and service? Why? If you don’t know, that’s where you need to start. You have nothing credible to offer except your own story. So, why does Jesus matter to you?
The way that Jesus started mattering to me was about being included. I’ve always felt on the outside in my life. I’ve always felt like I had to perform, I had to be good enough, I had to impress. If I couldn’t do that, I wouldn’t be included. But I had an encounter with Jesus, and I believed for the first time that I was included just the way I am. That changed everything for me. That’s my story. What’s yours?
Second, share your own Jesus story.
The woman ran back to town and told everyone, “This is what happened for me.” This is so different from the kind of evangelism I grew up with. That was about reciting something I’d memorized. It was about trying to prove that my team had the truth. It was about convincing someone of something.
But when you share your story, you’re not trying to convince anyone of anything. You’re just being known. You’re relating. You’re sharing a part of who you are. That’s something you are the expert in. You know your story.
We have different stories — and that’s good. Some of us have the story that Jesus saved us from addiction. Some of us have the story that Jesus saved us from arrogance and self-righteousness. Some of us have the story that Jesus healed us. Some of us have the story that Jesus taught us to love others. We all have different stories which allows us to relate to and connect with a wide variety of people! Whatever your story is, that is what you have to share.
Third, let the outcome be God’s business.
When evangelism meant that I had to share the memorized presentation, my job was to do a good job. My effectiveness was measured in whether you were convinced. Did I have all the answers to your objections? The outcome mattered because the outcome told how well I was doing.
Well, in this story the woman doesn’t seem that wrapped up in the outcome. She told her story. Then she asked a question, “Could this man be the Messiah?” And that was it. She didn’t proof text them. She didn’t draw charts. She let them investigate. Her part of the process of over. She shared her story. She pointed to where she had her encounter with Jesus. Then she left it up to them and Jesus.
Some of the people went out to the well and met Jesus for themselves. They decided for themselves if he made sense to them. They decided for themselves if they would believe in Him and follow. Some of the people probably didn’t. Some folks in town probably weren’t interested enough in her story to go to the well. Some of the people may have gone to the well, and just weren’t that compelled by Jesus. But it didn’t matter because that wasn’t her business. That was their journey. Their story.
In this process, there’s no guilt. You’re not becoming a Bible prophecy expert obligated to present the information just so. You’re not having to explain or defend every aspect of theology. You’re not having to learn some artificial presentation. You’re invited to have an experience with Jesus. If that experience moves you, you’re invited to share it.
What’s your role? Have an experience with Jesus. Learn what it means to follow Jesus yourself. Let Jesus’ life shape yours. Experience Jesus’ grace—when your full truth comes to light and Jesus accepts you anyway. What is that like for you? Being known? Being loved? Being included? Does that move you? However, it is that Jesus moves you, that’s what you have to share.
Look — If studying Biblical prophecy wasn’t compelling to you, how could you possibly share it in a way that will engage others? Or maybe it did move you. Great. That’s the key. You share your experience of God. You share what moved you.
The people of Sychar came out to see Jesus because the woman told her story. But it wasn’t ultimately her story that made them believers. Her story was a catalyst for them to seek Jesus themselves. When they had their own experience of Jesus, then they believed.
You and I are followers of Jesus. We have been commissioned to share the gospel. This is one of the ways we participate in what God is up to in the world. But you and I aren’t on the hook for convincing people. That is the Holy Spirit’s job. Our job is not to compel, or convince or prove anything.
Have an encounter with Jesus. Share your story with the people in your world. That’s it. You may not be a Biblical expert. You may not have the “evangelism script” down. That doesn’t matter. You are the expert on the one thing that matters — your own experience of Jesus.
Who is Jesus to you? In what ways did Jesus reach down into your life? If Jesus has moved you, that’s what you have that’s worth sharing.
You are not responsible to convert people. People decide for themselves what they will believe. People don’t need to be argued or proved into faith. You are only responsible to seek your own encounter with Jesus, and tell YOUR OWN story.