Have you seen the sign that is held up at sports events quoting the biblical verse, John 3:16,” which states; “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” It is a timeless message for Christians all over the world. It is so well known that it might be easy to overlook what the verse really means. Look at the verse again and slowly read the words carefully. It says that God loved the world so much that He came to earth in Jesus to be one of us, live like us and have the same experiences and challenges as us. Then God’s only Son died and rose for us so that whoever believes in God will spend all of eternity with Him. See that word- whoever? Do we really believe that whoever believes in God no matter what denomination, color, creed, and gender or faith practices gets to spend eternity with God? Too often it seems the as long as people look like us, believe like us and practice their faith just like us, “they” will be saved. Too often it feels more like a competition of “us” verse “them” or who is right or wrong when it comes to faith.
A few years ago, a high school friend and I were discussing the small-town life, our faith and how our beliefs were informed by our experiences growing up. His family owned and operated the largest café in town. Throughout the week, people, sat together to discuss topics like farming, the price of corn, politics and sports regardless of their occupations, socioeconomic status or faith. Growing up he loved to listen to all of the different views, jokes and laughter that unfolded all day long. But my friend noticed a change in the atmosphere on Sundays. His family’s café was the place to go for coffee when church services were done. He said the Catholics had the earliest mass so they were the first to arrive. It did not take long for him notice that they cleared out just in time for the second wave, which were from the Reformed Church. The place bustled with people then suddenly, like the Catholics, the Reformers cleared out for the third wave of people, the Lutherans. Through the years he said that unlike the weekdays, on Sundays the three faiths did not mingle together. That was news to me however I was not shocked either. Honestly, I don’t believe my family was the only family in town with the beliefs that I described above. These prejudices were beginning to change even before I graduated from high school starting with joint ecumenical serves for Good Friday and Easter Sunrise services. For that time it was a huge step in the right direction.
If we read the text again, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” it occurs to me that one of the most important words of the text is, “Whoever” or growing up we said “whosoever.” It promises that whoever believes in Him (God-Jesus) will have eternal life. The verse does not say, only the Reformed, Catholic or Lutheran or other denominations have eternal life. God’s Son Jesus cared for people without prejudice. This was a good reminder to me when I was reading the story of Jesus and the woman at the well in the fourth chapter of John. This was an extraordinary conversation by two people who were completely different in so many ways and yet they discussed living water that would quench the woman’s spiritual thirst. She went on to discover his prophetic power and had a lively back and forth about religious practices. Being different never stopped Jesus from loving the least, the lowly and the lost. Did you know that she was the first person, in John’s Gospel, to hear Jesus call himself by God’s name, I AM. And she was the first missionary who brought the Samaritans to meet Jesus the Savior. This woman was the “whoever!” This woman did not look like a follower of Jesus especially in the first-century world. She was the wrong gender, from the wrong culture, and was ostracized from the people around her yet she discovered Jesus and his gift of “living water.” My professor and John scholar Karoline Lewis, says it like this, “This entire story of Jesus in Samaria is an embodied presentation of what this verse means. Jesus, the Samaritan woman at the well, and her villagers have acted out what God loving the world looks like.” This is a promise and an opportunity to see the uniqueness of others who embody Jesus differently than you and me. Christians often use the term, WWJD, (What Would Jesus Do), and I think we have a clear picture of what Jesus did and continues to do in offering living water and eternity to “whosoever” believes in Him.