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John 4:27-42

Text Comment

v.27     Generally speaking, the Judaism of the Lord’s day had a low view of the intellectual capacities of women. For a rabbi to spend time talking with a woman was widely regarded as a waste of his time. A passage in the Mishnah reports Rabbi Eliezar as teaching that to give a girl the knowledge of the Torah is as bad as teaching her lechery. It was also widely held that it was inappropriate and immodest for a man to have a conversation alone with a woman. An ancient Jewish prayer runs, “Blessed art thou, O Lord…who hast not made me a woman.” It is worth our remembering that the same Christianity that strongly upheld the sacred significance of and the distinction of genders, a point so controversial today, was the force that emancipated women in the ancient world. The Lord cultivated the minds and hearts of the women around him and, following his example, the church did the same.

v.28     Leaving the water jar is an eye-witness touch. Why she left it, whether so the men might use it or in forgetful haste, is not said.

v.29     An exaggeration, of course, but perhaps an indication of how much her messy private life lay at the center of her view of herself.

v.30     The tense of the verb “made their way” is descriptive. It suggests a column of people walking out to the well to meet Jesus. As the news spread, more people made their way to him.

v.31     The narrative now reverts to what was going on at the well after the woman departed for town.

v.32     As with the woman and the drink of water, the Lord now turns his disciples interest in his physical hunger into an occasion to teach a spiritual lesson.

v.33     Just like the Jews and the Lord’s remark about destroying the temple; just like Nicodemus and the Lord’s remark about the new birth; just like the Samaritan woman and the Lord’s remark about living water, his disciples misunderstand because they take his words in a literal and materialistic fashion. They think he is talking about physical food.

v.34     The Lord got more satisfaction from doing his Father’s will than he could ever get from food! Obedience to God and to his mission was his central concern.

The “one who sent me” is a characteristic reference to God the Father in the Gospel of John. The Lord often speaks in this Gospel of doing the work and fulfilling the mission of the one who sent him into the world, his Father. As we have said, the unity of life, of heart, and of purpose between the Father and the Son, and later in the Gospel, between them and the Holy Spirit, lies at the bottom of everything in Christ’s work and our salvation.

v.35     It isn’t easy to know precisely how to take what seems to be a proverbial saying the Lord is quoting, but the gist is clear enough. It takes time to get from seed to harvest and no one can hurry that process. One must wait. But, the Lord says, the kingdom of God is not now like that. He had an urgent sense of mission himself, the days of gathering had arrived – at least in Samaria – and now was not the time to relax and wait, but to work hard at reaping.

v.36     In Amos 9:13 the promise of unheard of blessing in the age of consummation is expressed this way: “’The days are coming,’ says the Lord, “when the reaper will be overtaken by the ploughman and the planter by the one treading grapes…” The image is of unprecedented fertility in which the reapers are coming right behind the sowers and the sowers again right behind the reapers. There are no months of waiting between planting and harvesting. As soon as the seed is planted the crop is ready for harvest.

v.37     The NIV’s ‘Thus” is one interpretation of the Greek phrase that begins the verse, but is harder to make sense of. For v. 37 doesn’t naturally summarize or complete the thought of vv. 35-36. But the phrase more often in John refers forward not backward. And the saying in v. 37 does explain and summarize the point the Lord makes in v. 38. V. 38 is an explanation or the application of that familiar saying to the present circumstances.

v.38     Who are the others who have done the hard work? Well, in all likelihood the reference is to John the Baptist and his disciples who had been working in the area of Samaria as 3:23 has indicated. They did the sowing and now Jesus and his disciples will do the reaping. John’s ministry among these people had prepared them for the appearance of the Messiah.

v.39     Once again, a person gives “testimony” about Jesus, personal knowledge they have of him. The Gospel of John is a collection of such testimonies by eyewitnesses.

v.42     A title to go with 3:17 where we read that the Lord Jesus came into the world to save the world. It is perhaps especially important on the tongue of Samaritans who realized that they, and not only the Jews, were the objects of the saving work of God and the Messiah, and it hearkens back to all that OT teaching about the day coming when all the nations would see the salvation of God and the knowledge of the Lord would cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.

The Lord took the occasion of his conversation with the woman at the well, her response to him, and, perhaps, his sense of what was to come in the response of other inhabitants of that town, to speak to his disciples about the advance of the kingdom of God. And we encounter here, in the Lord’s remarks and their vindication in the number of Samaritans who believed in him over the next few days, a classic instance of the problem of the kingdom of God. I say “problem” because I am referring to a characteristic difficulty in interpreting the Lord’s remarks here (and in other places). Let me tell you what I mean.

The commentaries on this text seem to take it as a matter of course that Jesus, in vv. 34-38 is talking about the situation of the new age that has dawned with his appearing in the world. This is now the time of consummation, the time when the harvesters will catch up with the sowers, and the promises of the OT about the nations of the world streaming into the kingdom of God will be fulfilled.

And there is certainly a sense in which that is true. Jesus began his ministry in Galilee, the other Gospel writers tell us, by announcing that “the kingdom of God is near.” His first sermon in the synagogue of his home town in Nazareth was on the text, Isaiah 61:1-2 – a text that speaks of the dawning of the year of the Lord’s favor – and in that sermon tells his hearers that “today this text is fulfilled in your hearing.” There is a great deal of that kind of language in the Gospels. And Paul, in 1 Corinthians 10:11, describes those Christians living in his day as those “on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.” And here we have some Samaritans, non-Jews, being brought joyfully into the kingdom of God. All of that is clear and wonderful.

But, it is also the fact, and the Bible makes no effort to hide this, that the kingdom of God has not and does not advance in such spectacular ways most of the time in this new era introduced by Jesus and his apostles. It has not ordinarily been anything like this particular moment at the well of Sychar. The history of God’s kingdom in the world since Pentecost has, in many important respects, been like its history in the age of Moses. It advances, it reaches a plateau, it recedes, sometimes precipitously, it may languish in spiritual darkness for a long time, and then it is revived again. These cycles can stretch over hundreds of years. The situation in medieval Christianity before the Reformation was, in principle, as bad as it had been in the days of Jeremiah. The situation of Christianity in Europe today is worse than it was in the days of Jeremiah! The church is as heretical, as worldly, as outright pagan, and the true believers in it are as small a remnant, as was the case when God sent the Babylonians to Jerusalem. We cannot predict the future, of course, but Christianity in the USA has been in decline numerically for some years.

Who could possibly disagree with this observation by Charles Spurgeon which applies as well to the long sweep of Christian history as to the case of individual congregations?

“Churches have summers, like our gardens, and then all things are full; but then come their winters, and, alas, what emptyings are seen! Have we not all seen the flood when the tide has come up far upon the beach, and have we not all marked the ebb when every wave has seemed to fall short of that which preceded it? Such ebbs and floods there are in the history of the kingdom of Christ. One day, ‘The kingdom of God suffereth violence, and every man presses into it’; at another time men seem to be ashamed of the Christian faith and they wander off into a thousand delusions, and the church is [di]minished and brought low by heresy, by worldliness, by lukewarmness, and by all sorts of evil.” [28:110; cited in Murray, Forgotten Spurgeon, 138]

And the Lord spoke in no uncertain terms about this himself. He once asked, “When the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on the earth?” And he spoke of the wide gate and the broad way that leads to death and the many that walk it and the comparative few who find the narrow gate and the narrow way that leads to life and who walk that way. He spoke of many being called and few being chosen. And the Gospels leave us in no doubt that most of the enthusiasm for Jesus generated by his ministry – that very ministry heralded by the announcement that the kingdom of God had come near – was temporary and superficial. He was crucified, on a Friday, at the insistence of many of the same people who had been so wildly enthusiastic at his arrival in Jerusalem on the previous Sunday.

It could not honestly be said that through the entire three years of the Lord’s public ministry the sowers and the reapers were glad together. There have been many times in the ages since, indeed most of the time through the ages since, when it has not been true that the sower and the reaper were glad together or that the sowers were being overtaken by the reapers. Usually there has been time enough between sowing and reaping.

But, then, what did the Lord mean when he spoke of fields ripe for harvest in v. 35 and of the sowers and reapers being glad at the same moment in v. 36?

The problem is posed for us at other places in the Gospels. The Gospel of Luke (10:1ff.) reports a similar remark of the Lord before sending out seventy-two of his disciples on a preaching and healing tour. “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.”

But, if one looks at that text in Luke 10 and then again at this one in John 4, one finds a striking similarity. In both cases the fields were ripe unto harvest. There was a great reaping to be done. Many were brought to faith. Here in Sychar, we read in v. 41, many more became believers. In this particular case the sowing that had been done by John the Baptist and his disciples and produced a harvest that needed to be reaped. There were many who had been made ready to believe who needed to brought into the kingdom of God.

In Luke 10, similarly, there was a great response. Indeed the Lord’s disciples – being sent out to preach –  were given such instructions as “Do not take a purse, or bag, or sandals, and do not greet anyone on the road.” In other words, there is much ripe fruit ready to be picked, don’t waste your time on anything else, not even on people, if they are not immediately interested in the gospel, because there are plenty of folk who are.

Interestingly, however, in Luke 22:36, preparing his disciples for the long stretch of ministry after his departure from the world, he gives very different instructions. “…now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.”

Which is to say that the Lord seems for us to understand that the fields are not always ripe for harvest, only sometimes are they ripe. Only sometimes will we find the harvester stepping on the heels of the sower in front of him. Indeed, even in the three years of the greatest gospel ministry in the history of the world, only a few times were the fields ripe for harvest.

So we find these two notes being sounded in the Gospels and the rest of the NT. There is indeed the coming of the kingdom of God in the life and ministry of Jesus, on the one hand, the dawning of the new age of the Spirit’s power. It is certainly true that the age of consummation has arrived in principle in the ministry of Jesus Christ, that his life and work, his death and resurrection have guaranteed the certain fulfillment of the many promises of the gospel’s world-wide triumph that we find in the Bible. But, cheek to jowl with that announcement, there is the honest confession that the progress of the gospel in the coming age will be, as it was in the former epoch, slow and sporadic, only sometimes will salvation leap forward in the world, and that the day of true and final consummation, the ingathering of the nations, the day when the knowledge of the Lord shall cover the earth lies some distance before us still, even after these two thousand years.

It is very interesting that you find Christians, according to their theology and often, I think, according to their personality, lining up behind one of these emphases or the other. There are Christians who are triumphalist in tendency and are always talking about the progress of the gospel and the great ingathering of the elect that is just around the next bend in the road. You hear this note being sounded all the time in the Christian media perhaps because it is much easier to generate gifts from Christians if you promise them great results from their investment. I heard our own Jim Kennedy, of Coral Ridge PCA and the Coral Ridge television ministry, not long ago, say that he was confident the greatest ingathering of believers in the history of America would occur in the early years of this new century.

But then you have others who find it more natural to speak of the decline and fall of the church in our day, point out the shrinking numbers per capita of Christians in Europe and North America, and who find it much easier to anticipate a new dark ages than a new period of gospel triumph.

And my point is that both groups have their texts! Both can point to texts that seem to support their anticipation of the gospel’s progress in the world over these next years. Things do not look very good in Europe and North America. No one knows what the Lord may do, but the church has been weakening in our land. Surely the Lord did not say a truer word about European and North American Christianity than when he predicted that in the ages following his ministry in the world “the love of many would grow cold.” But that is not the case elsewhere. A new report on the burgeoning church in Nepal, for example, indicates that it is growing faster than almost any other Asian Christian church: from 15,000 Christians in 1970 to 400,000 thirty years later.

Everywhere in the Bible there are these two messages: the triumph of the gospel in the world and the long, difficult, halting, sporadic progress to that great and wonderful day of the Lord. You have the Samaritans here joyfully proclaiming that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world, but, still today, ages later, there are large parts of the world that have not received him and other parts of the world that once received him and do no more.

Take Samaria as an example. It has long been wondered whether Sychar was “the unnamed city in Samaria” mentioned in Acts 8:4-8, the city where Philip preached and did miracles and a great many in the city responded joyfully to the gospel. In that case Philip too would have been reaping what others before him had sown, both John the Baptist and his disciples and Jesus and his disciples. But it has been a very long time since the fields were ripe for harvest in the area that was once Samaria and that was for centuries a Muslim territory and is now part of Israel. A very long time, indeed.

But, you see, the fact that before John and Jesus came there, Samaria had for centuries lay in the darkness of unbelief, but through their ministries light had broken into the darkness is the proof that it can happen again, and will whenever the Almighty and Merciful God wills it. When God has willed it, nothing could stop the advance of the gospel in the world. Africa had no Christians in it at the beginning of the 19th century. There are more Christians in Africa today than the adherents of any other faith.

And so we live on in the world, doing our Heavenly Father’s work, and, we hope, finding it our food to do his will and finish his work. We bear our witness to the Lord Jesus to whomever we can, whenever we can, wherever we can. And, along the way, folk, who had been unbelievers, are brought to believe in Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world. And, every so often, we find that the fields have been made ripe for harvest and the reapers run up the back of the sowers. Such was the fifteen years or so from the late 1960s to the early 1980s when a good number of the people who are now adults in this congregation came to faith in Jesus Christ, the time now remembered as the “Jesus Movement.” We pray on for another such time, but work faithfully in the meantime knowing full well that times and seasons are the Lord’s business, not ours. And, he is gracious, he never leaves himself without some witness to the power of his grace to transform lives.

But, all the while, in the back of our minds is this thought: he who has made the harvest ripe from time to time, has demonstrated his power to send the gospel into whole populations with terrible and wonderful power, to cause multitudes to stream into the kingdom of God all at once – we think of early Christianity, of the Reformation, of the Great Awakening, of the Great Century of Missions through the 1800s, of smaller scale revivals dotted here and there through the ages and around the world – , I say, we think of him who has proven over and over again his power to make the harvest ripe whenever and wherever he pleases and of the impotence of the Devil, of the unbelieving human will, of even centuries of abject spiritual darkness, in the face of God’s saving purpose, and we realize that we have, this world has something spectacularly wonderful to look forward to in due time. For Jesus Christ is the Savior of the world, as the Samaritan converts said, and the Bible tells us plainly that the day is coming when the whole world will know it as surely as they did when they joyfully put their faith in Jesus Christ.

Can you imagine that? China and India with their billions streaming into the kingdom of God; Africa and South America adding their vast populations; Europe and North American reborn to God. And all those vast multitudes rejoicing in new life and in the love of God as these Samaritans did! The ripe harvest in Samaria is demonstration enough that it will happen when God wills. To see the kingdom of darkness fall; that will be something past wonderful to see. To see the knowledge of the Lord cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. That will be heaven itself to see.

I had a dream the other night. And in that dream I found myself in conversation with Bill Gates. And by the end of the conversation I had prevailed on him to promise me that he would read a copy of William Dembski’s book, Intelligent Design. I would not want any of you to attribute too much significance to that dream, as if it were a sign of things to come. For, later in the same night I had another dream. And in this dream, Tam Gronewold was coaching the Heritage Christian School basketball team, and had eight players on the floor against the other team’s five, and some of those players were adults in street clothes. Dick Hannula made a lay-up at the end of the first half after missing it several times, but he always got his rebound because he was so much taller than the middle school boys he was playing against! The injustice of this really bothered me! So, I wouldn’t attribute much to my dream about Bill Gates except this. The day will come, the Bible says, when the nations stream into the kingdom of God and their kings and great men at their head. And when that time comes, all the unbelief, all the contempt for the gospel and for the law of God, all the years of undisguised indifference to the Christian faith will matter no more than did the hostility of Samaritans for Jews when Jesus the Jew sat down at the well in Sychar.

The Lord will make even the least likely willing in the day of his power! It is not ours to make the fields ripe for harvest. It is ours to work faithfully in the meantime, perhaps we are sowing for a great day of reaping soon to come. It is ours to pray for the day of the Lord and the drawing near of the kingdom of God. And it is ours to remember that, even in a day of small things, the Lord Christ can be honored and the lost can be saved, if only in ones and twos, by Christians bearing their witness as faithfully as did this good Samaritan woman. “Come; see a man who told me everything I ever did!”