Who needs Jesus more? The person who is religious and lives a moral life, or the person who lives according to this world, without regard for God’s commands?
John 3 and 4 contain describe two encounters Jesus had with two such people. These two encounters illustrate what Paul teaches us in Romans 1-3, that both the morally religious man and the unrighteous man are equally lost and separated from God.
Nicodemus (John 3) was a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews. While the Pharisees religion was rooted in the Old Testament Law given to Moses, it had expanded into an oral tradition of legalism and outward piety. According to BlueLetterBible.org, “Pharisees recognized in oral tradition a standard of belief and life. They sought for distinction and praise by outward observance of external rites and by outward forms of piety, and such as ceremonial washings, fasting, prayer, and alms giving. They held strenuously to a belief in the existence of good and evil angels, and to the expectation of a Messiah; and they cherished the hope that the dead, after a preliminary experience either of reward or of penalty in Hades, would be recalled to life by him, and be requited each according to his individual deeds.”
In other words, outwardly Nicodemus did everything right. He prayed, fasted, and helped the poor. He went to church. He believed in good and evil. His hope was that when he died, his good deeds would outweigh his bad deeds, and he would be rewarded with eternal bliss in heaven.
In contrast, the woman in John 4 was an outcast of society. She had been married five times and was currently living with a man without being married to him. It’s hard for us to imagine in our current culture of accepting any kind of sin as being “tolerant” and “non-judgmental,” but in her culture, she was so despised that instead of gathering at the well with the rest of the women in the community in the early morning hours, she waited until the hottest part of the day, when no one would be around. She was shocked and amazed that Jesus would speak to her, first because she was a woman, and second because she was a Samaritan, a people the Jews hated.
Two different stories.
Two different lives.
Yet, their need was exactly the same.
Jesus told Nicodemus that “you must be born again.” When Nicodemus questioned how this could possibly be done, Jesus explained that a person must be born of the Spirit. Physical birth and good deeds are not enough to merit heaven. Even being moral, religious and outwardly pious does not take care of the heart issue – a man’s sinful state before a holy God. Heaven is a spiritual place; immortality is a spirit realm. Thus, a man must be born again spiritually, and this can only happen when the Spirit of God acts upon us and brings our dead spirit to life (Ephesians 2).
Jesus told the woman the same thing, using a different analogy. He offered her “living water” that would become a “well of water springing up to eternal life.” What is this living water? We don’t have to guess; Jesus tells the crowds later in John 7:37-39:
Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture as said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
Spiritual life comes from the Spirit of God and is required for salvation. No one gets to heaven by good deeds, and the lack of good deeds is not what keeps us out of heaven. The Spirit of God is the only One who can save the morally religious man, and the unrighteous, willfully disobedient man.
How do we get the Spirit of God? What is the secret of salvation?
We find the answer to this, again, in Jesus’ message to both the woman and Nicodemus. He explained to the Samaritan woman that it didn’t matter if you worshipped at a certain mountain, or in a certain city, but that we must worship both “in Spirit and in truth.”
What is this truth?
Jesus told Nicodemus that whoever believes in Him will have eternal life.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. (Jesus speaking in John 3:16-17)
And a few verses later, John the Baptist says it even more clearly: He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him. (John 3:36)
The Samaritan woman, even though she was unrighteous, knew that a Messiah was coming. Jesus confronted her with the truth: I who speak to you am He.
The truth is, Jesus is the Messiah.
The truth is, Jesus is the only way of salvation.
The truth is, Jesus came into the world to save sinners – the morally religious person who doesn’t think they sin, and the one who knows they are sinning and doesn’t care.
Two different people from different walks of life. From the outside, they looked nothing like each other. Yet, inside, they were the same – both in need of a Savior, both needing the Spirit, and the truth.
Which are you? Are you a good person, doing good things? Would others look at you and say, “they surely will make it to heaven!” Or are you living the life, doing as you please, not believing or caring about God’s commands or opinion on your sin?
Unless you surrender to the truth of who Jesus is and ask God to give you new life – rivers of living water – through salvation by the Spirit, you are both in the same boat, headed in the same direction. And according to scripture, it’s not the direction you hope for.