“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water…The woman said to Him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.'” – John 4:10, 15
My favorite pastor from all of church history is John Newton. Most people know of Newton because of his famous hymn “Amazing Grace.” For Newton, writing about God’s grace was not just some religious sentiment of his newfound faith. No, for him, God’s grace was truly amazing and overwhelming. You see, though most people know of John Newton as a hymn writer and pastor, fewer people know of his life before his conversion. For much of his life, Newton was actually a sailor, a slave-trader, and eventually the captain of a slave ship. During his last winter as a captain and a slave-trader, Newton was actually a Christian. However, he had not yet realized the immoral nature of slavery and slave trading. In fact, later in life, as he reflected upon his time as a slave-trader, Newton wrote, “During the time I was engaged in the slave trade I never had the least scruple as to its lawfulness. I was upon the whole satisfied with it.”
However, the longer Newton walked with the Lord, the more he came to realize the heinous nature of slavery and came to loathe and regret his involvement in the slave trade. He felt deep shame about the part he played in the salve trade and wrote, “I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” Newton’s own personal testimony serves as the background for his hymn “Amazing Grace.” The once famous ship captain and slave-trader had experienced God’s amazing grace, a grace greater than all his shame.
This is the same picture we see in John 4. Jesus comes to the well in a Samaritan town and sat beside the well at noon. A woman came to the well, which was uncommon at this time of the day. Most women would come in the early morning before the heat of the day in order to collect water for their families for the day. The fact that this woman came to the well at noon is our first indication that she wanted to avoid others. Jesus told this woman about the living water that He offered to people. He said that those who drink from the living water that He gives people “will never be thirsty again” (4:14). This water sounded great to the woman. Listen to her response to Jesus, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water” (4:15).
Did you notice her reasons for wanting the water was twofold? The first reason was practical: she doesn’t want to be thirsty ever again. The second reason was personal though: she doesn’t want to have to come to this well ever again. Why? Why doesn’t she want to come back to this well? It’s because she’s ashamed. She is overwhelmed with shame. She’s ashamed of her life and what she has done in her past, and Jesus knows it.
He responds to the woman’s request for living water by saying, “Go, call your husband, and come here” (4:16). This is a sore subject for the woman, so she replies, “I have no husband” (4:17). Jesus knows. Jesus doesn’t avoid the hard subjects, the ones that make us feel uncomfortable. He addresses them head-on. He says, “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” (4:17-18). Ouch. Do you have things from your past that you still feel shame about? Topics, subjects, or events that you hope people won’t bring up, that you hope they’ll just forget? I know I do, and this woman did too. This was the one subject that she was hoping to avoid. She already felt so much shame about it that she made a routine of going to the well during the heat of the day just to avoid others, and now Jesus had just addressed the subject directly.
Here’s the question: Did her past sins, even shameful sins, disqualify her from the grace of God? Absolutely not! Remember, Jesus had already said to her that if she would just ask Him, He would give her living water. Jesus goes on to tell the woman that “true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship Him” (4:23). Get that: The Father is actively seeking such people to worship Him, and He sent Jesus to this exact well at this exact time. Is that a coincidence? Of course not. Jesus came seeking this woman. This woman with the shameful past. This woman who was burdened by shame and guilt. This woman who felt worthless. Jesus, the Messiah, came looking for her. He came to address her sin and overcome her sin with His grace. You see, Jesus’ grace is greater than our shame. His grace is amazing. He knows all of our sins. Nothing is hidden from His sight. He knows all of our reasons for guilt and shame, and none of them deter Him from extending His grace. His grace is greater than our guilt and shame.
What we see consistently throughout the Bible is that God takes broken people, redeems them, cleans them up, and uses them to do great things. For instance, after Jesus revealed Himself as the Christ to the woman at the well (4:25-26), she goes back into the town, telling people about Jesus (4:29). Her message about Jesus had a great impact: “Many Samaritans from that town believed in Him because of the woman’s testimony” (4:39). Jesus had redeemed this woman and overcome her sin and shame with His grace.
God did something similar with John Newton as well. As Newton was advancing in age, a young politician had come to faith in Christ and thought about giving up politics in order to become a minister. However, Newton reached out to the young man and became his mentor and encouraged him to serve the Lord through politics. Newton knew that the young man could make a profound difference in the world for the Lord through his political position and influence. The young politician fought hard to have the slave trade abolished and slavery made illegal, but before that was accomplished, he considered retiring. Again, it was Newton who encouraged him not to retire, even compared the politician to Daniel, and implored him to stay the course. The politician was none other than William Wilberforce, the man who did eventually succeed in having the slave trade abolished and slavery made illegal in the British Empire. If it had not been for Newton, Wilberforce might not have stayed in politics and might have retired early, but because of Newton, Wilberforce remained in politics and stayed the course until slavery was abolished. God used the former captain of a slave ship and slave-trader to help abolish slavery and the slave trade throughout the entire British Empire. God takes broken, sinful people and makes them new and uses them for great purposes.
Let us remember today that God’s grace is greater than our shame. The enemy likes to bring up our past, all our former sins, all of our failures, all of our shame, but God’s grace is greater. Jesus came to call the sinners, not the righteous. Our past does not disqualify us from salvation. Our sins do not disqualify us from being used by God for great things. Our shame is not too great for God. God’s grace is greater. Let’s remember that today, and praise Jesus for His amazing grace!