-from “The Old Evangelization” by Eric Sammons
Jesus Refuses to Tolerate Sin
Sometimes Intolerance is a Virtue
We are required to accept any lifestyle, any choice, and any depravity, all in the name of “tolerance.” This poses a problem when it comes to evangelization, for conversion involves rejecting certain lifestyles and choices; in other words, it involves being intolerant of sin.
We often fear that confronting someone about his sins will seem “un-Christian.” Yet Christ shows is that it is not, as we see from his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.
The encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-26)
“Now when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), he left Judea and departed again to Galilee. He had to pass through Samaria. So he came to a city of Samaria, called Sychar, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and so Jesus, wearied as he was with his journey, sat down beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.
There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. Jesus answered her, “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, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?” Jesus said to her, “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.”
Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.” The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when He comes, He will show us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I Who speak to you am He.”
Jesus and His disciples are passing through Samaria, whose inhabitants have a strained relationship with the Jews. They decide to take a break in the city of Sychar. As the disciples go off to refresh their supplies, Jesus rests next to Jacob’s well. A woman approaches the well, and Jesus asks her for a drink of water. As is typical for the Lord, he uses this ordinary sort of exchange as an opportunity to dive into deeper, spiritual realities. This tactic is itself a model for those who want to evangelize. We all have basic physical needs that everyone recognizes, but most people don’t recognize their great spiritual needs. So Jesus takes a physical need as an opportunity to launch into a more important discussion about spiritual needs:
Jesus said to her, “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.” (John 4:13-15)
Starting with a simple request for a drink, Jesus leads the woman to ask for something herself, something far better: the water that leads to eternal life. She might not yet fully understand Christ’s words, but her interest is piqued. Likewise, within our own circle of influence we shouldn’t browbeat people with theology, but rather use our ordinary interactions with them to lead them to ask us about eternal matters.
What is especially interesting for our purposes, however, is the response Jesus gives right when He has the Samaritan woman on the cusp of discipleship. Before we look at that, think of how most of us would respond to someone looking for spiritual answers. We would bend over backwards to welcome him, and do all we can to answer his questions in a way that satisfies his curiosity but without giving offense. In short, we would strive to do nothing that might turn the inquirer away.
But what does Jesus say to the inquiring Samaritan woman? “Go, call your husband, and come here” (John 4:16). At first glance, it may appear that Jesus wants to include the woman’s whole household in this path to salvation. But we find this was not his purpose. The woman answers, “I have no husband,” and Jesus responds, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly” (John 4:17-18).
Our Lord obviously knew that such a confrontation might lead her to reject Him, but His thirst for her salvation compelled Him to challenge her lifestyle.
Notice also that Jesus doesn’t over- or under-react to the woman’s immoral past. He confronts her regarding her marriage history, but He doesn’t launch into full-scale denunciations of it. He simply makes it clear that her lifestyle is not acceptable for one who would follow Him. This balanced approach is all too rare today.
In our evangelization efforts, we too often flee from confrontation. We are, frankly, horrified by the idea of pointing out another person’s faults. In a land where “Don’t judge me!” has become a mantra, we strive for a “live and let live” attitude towards all. This is, of course, legitimate in most cases. After all, if you’re attending your son’s Little League practice, you don’t turn to the parent sitting next to you and point out the spiritual dangers of adultery.
But if you’re guiding someone to a deeper knowledge and practice of the Catholic faith, his or her moral life must become a topic at some point. In the politically incorrect words of St. Paul, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10). If someone is living a life contrary to the gospel, he has erected a barrier to God which must be torn down, and as an evangelizer, you need to hand him the tools to begin the process. Gently and lovingly, you must help him confront and correct any lifestyle choices that block him from receiving God’s graces.
Of course, the same standard applies to us as well. If we do not acknowledge our own sins and bring them to confession, then we can’t confront others. This doesn’t mean we have to be perfect, but it does mean that we must recognize our faults and work to overcome them.
Confronting someone’s sins might lead to their immediate repentance—let’s call that the “Nineveh response”—or it might lead to repentance years or decades later—the “St. Augustine response”—or it might lead to no change in behavior—the “Sodom and Gomorrah response.” The response, however, is not our responsibility; we simply have a duty to show the way to eternal life. It’s up to each individual—my friend Leo or the Samaritan woman or your friend in a sinful lifestyle—to make the decisions necessary to take that path.”
“ Toleration has a negative value: error is considered and is permitted in order to avoid a greater evil. Or, worse, different errors are tolerated for lack of confidence in the possibility of achieving the truth. It is necessary instead to give attention to the human effort to reach the truth and to the different attempts which people make to achieve it, and to respect this effort in the dynamism which is proper to it. In the acknowledgement of religious freedom the right of error is not sanctioned but rather that of truth to be sought and achieved. The strict connection with Wojtyła’s (Pope St JPII) anthropological view is also evident here: the truth is an objective fact but at the same time a subjective experience, a true perfection of man through his free adherence to objective truth. From the objective point of view, Christian truth is protected whole and uncorrupted in the deposit of faith entrusted to the Catholic Church. From the existential point of view, it is necessary, however, that it become experience. In this respect the Catholic will have to learn much from the Separated Brethren [Protestants] as well as from all men who manifest many truths with an existential weight much greater than Catholics have been able to realize because of their personal and cultural limitations. This recognition permits a dialogue which is respectful and attentive to the truth of the other but that does not imply anything like systematic doubt about one’s own faith.“
-Buttiglione, Karol Wojtyła: The Thought of the Man Who Became Pope John Paul II (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), p. 191.