I wonder what Jesus’ personality must have been like. I like to picture him laughing. I wonder what kind of pranks he pulled on the apostles (If you think pranking is beneath the Son of God, I beg you to reconsider. Jesus was fully man and hung out with 12 other men. Anytime there are 13 dudes together, pranks happen.) There’s a mysterious clue to Jesus’ personality in John 4. That’s the passage where Jesus speaks with the woman at the well. They talk about religion and politics; where to worship and who gets along with whom. So, right away, we see that Jesus isn’t afraid of a little awkwardness or embarrassment. Or maybe Joseph and Mary just never told him that you’re not supposed to talk about politics and religion in polite company. But even if we can excuse that as cultural or idiosyncratic, what Jesus does next is not so easily dismissed. He gets personal. He brings up something that is, very likely, the most painful thing in the woman’s life. He raises an embarrassing topic. He talks about her sin.
“The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband."
Pause right there.
Let’s imagine another scene. Let’s imagine that I’m minding my own business one day. I’m in my office at church preparing a lesson, when Shannon at the receptionist desk calls me to say that someone has wandered in and asked to speak with a pastor. This actually happens pretty routinely. So I go out to the lobby area and meet a troubled-looking lady who is asking for prayer and asking lots of questions about minor points of doctrine that, as far as I can see, will probably have very little effect on whatever is troubling her. And now let’s say that I happen to know who this lady is. Perhaps she’s related to someone I know or she has been involved in one of the ministries I oversee. I know a little about her life. So far, all this is pretty believable, right? Standard fare.
Now let’s imagine I stop the flow of conversation with this lady and I say this: “Look, we can talk theology until we’re blue in the face. I think we should talk about your personal life. You’ve had five failed marriages and you’re working on a sixth. Let’s talk about that."
What a jerk, right?
I can’t help but imagine the next scene in this story involving defensiveness, accusations of slander, and the phrase “none of your business” used liberally.
But that’s not what happened with Jesus. He brings up this woman’s deepest shame and you know what happens next? She’s happy about it! She turns into Jesus’ biggest fan.
Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did.”
This is where Jesus’ personality confounds me. Somehow he managed to touch the most tender part of this woman’s heart without leaving her feeling injured. Somehow she went from “I don’t want to talk about my past” to “Come see a man who knows all about my past.” Somehow Jesus was both convicting and winsome. Intrusive and inviting. Unseemly and irresistible. Grace and truth.
I don’t think it was a balance between saying hard things and kind things. There’s no part of the text where Jesus softens the blow with “Well, I understand about the first guy; he was a jerk. And the second guy left on his own. And the third guy…” This isn’t the sandwich method for giving constructive feedback: something positive, the real message, then another positive. What Jesus is doing here is something else. Something deeper than tactics and more loving than platitudes.
Jesus is saying to the woman at the well, and to all of us,
I see you, and you can trust me.
I know what you’ve done, and I love you.
Your past has shaped you, but it doesn’t define you.
Your sin matters, but my grace is sufficient.
Have you heard him say that lately? Whatever Jesus seems to embody for you — whatever baggage comes with words like “church” and “religion” — whatever husbands you’ve had or habits you’re hiding or shame you’re covering — whether you picture Jesus laughing or scowling or pulling pranks — this is always what he is whispering.
“Drop your bucket. Let’s talk about what’s troubling you. I have just the personality for it."