The woman at the well offers a glimpse of how quickly a person can be transformed by turning to God—and how much a transformed life can transform the world.
God has never cared much about perceptions. He explained this to Samuel when He sent him searching for a king: “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). So God chose David, the runt of Jesse’s family, to be king of Israel; Esther, a Jewish girl from a foreign land, to be queen of Persia; Moses, a shepherd with a speech impediment, to make heaven’s case before the emperor of Egypt; and Paul, a persecutor of Christ, to spread the message of Jesus. Looks can be deceiving, especially when it comes to godly leaders.
Moving Beyond Outward Signs
To get a sense of just how different God’s definition of leadership can be from ours, let’s play a little game of “guess who.”
The Gospels tell us that there was a man who spent every day with Jesus. By all appearances, he lived right and did what was proper. He collected money to help the poor. He healed the sick and drove out demons. He fed the hungry. He preached the Good News. He literally walked with Jesus.
During one of those walks across Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, Jesus met a woman who never practiced such outward acts of piety. She didn’t worship the way he did or where he did; she may not have practiced much religion at all. In fact, John’s Gospel account tells us she had been divorced five times, and when she met Jesus she was living with a man who wasn’t her husband. As evidence of her spiritual denseness, she couldn’t figure out who Jesus was on her own. Jesus had to tell her.
So which of these people was a more godly influence? You may want to read a bit further before answering.
The man’s name was Judas, and he lived a lie. Sure, he did many good things in Jesus’ name. Like the rest of the Twelve, he followed Jesus, helping those in physical and spiritual need along the way. Judas looked like a Christian leader. But in Judas’ tragic life, we learn that even apostles can be frauds. Although he displayed all the outward signs of goodness and godliness, he was so empty inside that he betrayed Jesus for a handful of coins.
In fact, all along, as John explains—as if to help us understand the tragic betrayal—Judas was more interested in money than the Messiah, more interested in looking good than doing good. “As keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it” (John 12). He even tried to diminish how others expressed their love for Jesus. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” he sneered after Mary anointed Jesus. In other words, Judas was worse than a common thief. He stole from God and maintained the pretense of piety to make himself look better than everybody else.
The woman’s name remains one of Scripture’s mysteries. But we know she lived in the Samaritan town of Sychar. We know she heard the same message Judas must have heard a thousand times. But she heard it just once—and drank it in. Like cool water, it brought her back to life. Once Jesus told her who He was, once He shared the Good News, she was transformed.
In the last glimpse John provides us of the woman, we learn that she became an evangelist: “Many Samaritans believed in Jesus because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:39). She was, in her own way and in the circle of influence she’d been given, a Christian leader—without the three years of training Judas had.
Leaders Are Willing to Be Led
The stories of Judas and that nameless woman from Sychar are more than cautionary tales reminding us that looks can deceive. These stories—and the people who lived them—also remind us of several important truths.
There are certainly differences between followers of Christ and leaders for Christ. Matthew 10 tells us, “Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority.” As hard as it is to understand, that means he called Judas, who answered the call by following Christ.
Doubtless, he loved following Jesus in the good times—when Jesus fed the 5,000 or calmed the storms. In other words, being part of Jesus’ entourage had its high points. Judas loved following Christ’s command to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons” (Matthew 10). That kind of power gets you noticed. And if Judas was indeed a Zealot—something suggested by the surname Iscariot—he surely loved to hear Christ talk about justice for the oppressed and freedom for the captives. The Zealots were a fiercely anti-Rome, pro-independence religious group, and some advocated violence in pursuit of political ends. Hearing Jesus declare, “I have come to bring fire on the earth … not peace but division,” would have been music to a Zealot’s ears. Flanking Jesus as He rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, like a conquering hero, would have made Judas proud. It’s called “the triumphal entry” for a reason.
But there were limits to how far Judas would follow. The motivation for his betrayal of Jesus is open to debate. It could be as simple as money. It could be that he somehow thought, as some filmmakers have suggested sympathetically, that Jesus would persuade the Sanhedrin of His message and mission, if only the two parties could be brought together. It could be that Judas had struggled against his inner demons for all those years and finally surrendered to the enemy during the Passover meal. Indeed, Luke’s account tells us that “Satan entered Judas” at that hour (Luke 22).
Or it could be that Judas actually understood what Jesus was saying—deny yourself, take up your cross, die to self, serve others, forgive your enemies, turn the other cheek, take the last place rather than the first—and didn’t want any part of it. Judas was willing to follow a conquering king but not a suffering servant. As Paul explained, Jesus was “in very nature God” yet “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage. Rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2). Recall that in John 13, just before Judas left to betray Jesus, the Lord had performed the lowliest of all servant duties—washing His guests’ filthy feet—and explained that His true followers would follow His example.
Judas had other ideas. He wanted to be in front, in the place of honor, where “leaders” belong. And that meant he wasn’t cut out for Christian leadership. “If we have the world’s mentality of wanting the foremost place,” as Francis Schaeffer once observed, “we are not qualified for Christian leadership.”
That was not a problem for the woman at the well. After a lifetime of loveless relationships, after being used and tossed aside by every man in her life, she had no sense of entitlement. She didn’t pretend to be something she was not. “I have no husband,” she openly admitted, even though Jesus politely gave her a face-saving way to sidestep the issue (John 4). This calls to mind something C.S. Lewis once observed. The used and abused, the prostitutes and the prostrate, the broken and forgotten, people like the woman at the well, “are in no danger of finding their present life so satisfactory that they cannot turn to God. The proud, the avaricious, the self-righteous, are in that danger.”
The woman at the well offers a glimpse of how quickly a person can be transformed by turning to God—and how much a transformed life can transform the world. In a sense, her story captures a time-lapsed life cycle of what salvation can—and arguably should—do to a person.
Like Judas and the rest of the disciples, she encountered Christ. They talked for awhile, and He saw in her a heart that wanted to believe. He then revealed the Truth to her, and that was enough. She believed, returned to Sychar, and shared the Good News with anyone who would listen. In fact, her testimony and transformation were so dramatic that, as John reports, the people “came out of the town” and made their way toward Jesus (John 4). That’s right: She led people to Christ.
She was an unlikely leader, to be sure, but because she believed in Jesus and was humble enough to follow Him—or perhaps, to allow Him to lead her heart where it needed to go—she had all the attributes needed to influence others for the cause of Christ.
From Failure to Leader
That brings us to a second truth these intertwined stories tell: We all have the opportunity, the capacity, and a standing invitation to become leaders for Christ. The important thing to remember is that perfection isn’t part of the job description.
Consider Peter. Like Judas, he answered when Jesus called. And like Judas—like all of us—he failed. But the Gospels show us that Peter was different. Though, like Judas, he fell, Peter truly believed that Jesus was willing and able to forgive.
The operative word here is “believed.” At his core, Peter was not just a follower of Christ; he was a believer in Christ. In fact, he was perhaps the first person to publicly confess Jesus as his Savior. It is recorded in Matthew 16. When Jesus asked him, “Who do you say I am?” Peter’s answer was unequivocal: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus knew what was in Peter’s heart, of course, but He gave Peter a chance to tell the world. And Peter took that chance to announce that Jesus was the anointed one, the Messiah promised for centuries, the Son of God, the Savior.
But there were limits to how far Peter’s faith could carry him, at least at that point in his faith life. What happened on Good Friday—when Peter denied he even knew Jesus—was, in a sense, foreshadowed by what happened earlier in Peter’s relationship with Jesus.
Peter had a childlike impulsiveness that made him special to Jesus and yet also got him into trouble: He jumped out of the boat only to sink in fear; he confessed Christ as the Messiah only to rebuke Him and draw a comparison to Satan; he sliced off the guard’s ear only to run and hide, telling Jesus that he would never let Him down only to deny Him. These aren’t the characteristics of a Christian leader. They are rash and thoughtless, and they expose a heart that thinks Jesus needs help, a faith that is real but shallow.
The Peter of the Gospels trusted in his own strength. “Even if all fall away,” he boasted, “I will not” (Mark 14). We can relate: This time I won’t stretch the truth. This time I won’t back down. This time I won’t gossip. This time I won’t watch that movie or visit that website. This time I won’t eat too much or drink too much. This time I won’t steal the spotlight. This time I won’t get angry. This time I won’t fail my Savior.
When we do fail, we should learn from Peter.
He may have dropped his fishing nets and tagged along with Jesus, which is no small feat. He may have taken a risk and expressed his faith, which is no small feat. But he didn’t fully follow Jesus until he heard that the tomb was empty. And then, after running away from Jesus three days earlier, he ran to Jesus.
Before Resurrection Sunday, Peter lacked both the humility to follow and the courage to lead. But after the Resurrection, he became a leader for Christ and “stood up among the believers,” as Acts 1 says.
As Peter grew in wisdom and faith, he put some of what he learned as a follower, believer, and leader on paper. Not surprisingly, given his history of impulsiveness, one of the first things Peter teaches is to be self-controlled (1 Peter 1:13). He restates this several times in his letters, underscoring its importance. Yes, there is a time for action, Peter concedes, but don’t allow impulse and instinct and the tyranny of the moment to take over. Don’t forget that it is Christ—not our own strength—Who enables and empowers us to love, speak, serve, and lead. Even our ability to believe comes from Christ (1 Peter 1:21, 2 Peter 4:10-11).
Peter cautions us to lead in the right way and for the right reasons. “To the elders,” he writes, “be shepherds of God’s flock … as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:1-4). And he emphasizes one of the greatest traits of leadership: looking forward, always looking forward (2 Peter 3:11-14).
Like steel forged by fire, Peter knew how to lead because he first believed in something much bigger than himself—and had learned how to follow.
Perhaps that’s the key to godly leadership. No matter their station in life, godly leaders are followers who truly believe in Jesus, and believers who really follow Him.
Alan Dowd, a writer and researcher in Fishers, Ind., is the author of more than 400 articles covering everything from faith to philanthropy to foreign policy.