Faith comes to the Samaritans as a result of the woman's testimony. Jesus gives a mission masterclass. The analogy of sowing and reaping is explored. We can all be sowers.
Faith comes to the Samaritans as a result of the woman's testimony. Jesus gives a mission masterclass. The analogy of sowing and reaping is explored. We can all be sowers.
Hello and welcome to Series 2 and Episode 11: ‘The Samaritans Believe in Jesus.’
Introduction and Recap
We're in John 4 for this episode and it's part two of a story that covers the whole of the chapter. The previous episode (Series 2, Episode 10) is directly connected to this one and in that episode I described and discussed the extraordinary meeting that took place between Jesus and a Samaritan woman while he was travelling north, from Jerusalem to get back to his home district of Galilee. You may remember that in earlier episodes we discussed the fact that after Jesus' baptism he spent quite a lot of time in the southern part of the country, called Judea, in and around Jerusalem. A number of events had happened: the cleansing of the Temple, the conversation with Nicodemus and events relating to John the Baptist.
At the beginning of this chapter, it says quite clearly that Jesus decided to return home to Galilee and he took the route through Samaria. In the last episode, I described how the Samaritan people, in that district, were racially and culturally different from the Jews, both in Judea in the south and Galilee in the north, and that there was a lot of ethnic and racial tension between these groups. They didn't like each other; they didn't trust each other and they had a different form of the Jewish religion - the Samaritans forming a separate branch, the Samaritan faith, with their own temple on their own mountain, called Mount Gerasi.
That's some of the background and in the last episode we saw that Jesus travelled north with his disciples, probably the five disciples that John mentions earlier on as having joined Jesus - maybe a few others, just a handful of people. They're travelling north along the main road through Samaria and they come to a well on the side of the road with a nearby town. As I described, the disciples go off to buy some food and Jesus rests at the well and a Samaritan woman comes to the well in order to draw some water to take back to her home. That becomes the circumstance in which Jesus has a remarkable and surprising conversation with this Samaritan woman in which he describes the distinction between natural water and spiritual water. He prophetically looks into her life and he sees that she's had a very complex relational history (five husbands and she's now living with a man who she is not officially married to). She realises he's a prophet: he tells you about worship and what God is doing in the world, drawing people to worship ‘in spirit and truth’ and then she concludes by saying the Messiah is coming and Jesus said, “Well, actually I am he.” That's how we left the story and we continue now in the narrative to see what happens next.
The story widens out. We started last time with a discussion between Jesus and this woman, two people in the story, but now we have all this: the group of disciples coming back into the story, having bought their food, and we find that the whole nearby community becomes engaged with everything that happened as Jesus discussed spiritual things with this woman beside the well. The story expands and then Jesus gives some very helpful teaching about evangelism and the spreading of God's Word that I'm going to spend time talking about at the end of this study. Let's read the text, it's John 4: 27 - 42:
‘Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” 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. Could this be the Messiah?” They came out of the town and made their way toward him. Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?” “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. Don't you have a saying, ‘It's still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.” Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers. They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; (we now have seen) for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”’John 4:27-42, NIV
This story is full of surprises. The biggest surprise, of course, is that faith comes alive amongst the Samaritans before we've seen extended faith amongst the Jewish people. The story starts with a moment of tension between Jesus and his disciples - they saw him talking to a woman. As I said in the last episode, public discussion between men and women in public places was at a very minimal level in those societies; it was considered potentially disrespectful, or even immoral, for men and women to talk publicly if they weren't in the same family group - and especially if they were alone. There is that kind of moment of tension between the disciples and Jesus when they wondered, “What on earth is going on?” Very quickly, the woman goes back to the village and she clearly intends to tell her story and to encourage people to engage with Jesus. She says to them, “Maybe this is the Messiah! I've just been up to the well, I've just been getting water. I've met somebody there you'd never expect to see. He was a Jewish man, he's obviously a prophet - he told me everything about my life. He told me all the things I'd done wrong and where I was at in life and I think he's the Messiah! He could be the Messiah! Come see!” She tells the story, and the villagers come to the well to find out who this man is. Who is this Jewish man who's stopped nearby? Some of them will have seen the disciples in the village buying food. They asked him to stay and it's interesting that Jesus stays for two days - it's quite a long time to stay. He was in a hurry to get back to Galilee. He clearly knew what he was going to do next and we'll find that out in the next series, but he's stopping for these two days.
An Unlikely Opportunity
He realises there's an opportunity here, so he and his disciples are put up in the village and Jesus tells them much, much more about himself. He talks to them, no doubt, about the Old Testament, about prophecies, about the Messiahship of Jesus, about the sacrificial system being completed through him. We don't know of all the other things he might have said but if he spent two days, there must have been a lot of conversation. He probably performed a few miracles - we don't know for certain - but by the end, remarkably, because of his words, many more became believers. Some believed initially, some believed after two days. This village, in the middle of Samaria, not a particularly significant place, suddenly becomes a place where there are people following Jesus and believing in him. It's such an unlikely social circumstance: Jesus didn't come from Samaria, normally the hostility between Jews and Samaritans would mean that deep conversations like this wouldn't take place and it all started in such an unexpected manner - by his conversation with the woman at the well.
A Mission Masterclass
It is a very remarkable story and John pauses to tell us the story in some considerable detail. He gives a lot of space to this particular story which isn't referenced in the other three Gospels. It is important for a number of reasons. Perhaps the greatest thing we can reflect on, is the way that Jesus uses this circumstance to teach his disciples about mission and about evangelism because they can see happening before them something they could not possibly have expected. All they wanted to do was to pass through this area, buy some food and move on. They were heading for Galilee; they were heading for home. They were heading for the next stage of Jesus' ministry - which he must have spoken to them about and yet, suddenly, they stop in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of Samaria, in a situation where they don't feel very comfortable socially. They stay, for a couple of days, right in the heart of a Samaritan village where they watch before their own eyes a whole community coming to respect Jesus - many coming to active faith through Jesus speaking to them and teaching them and communicating his identity to them. Amazing! It really is an amazing story, right at the beginning of Jesus' ministry.
Sowing and Reaping
Verses 34 to 38 are what I want to concentrate on in my consideration of this passage, because here there's a lot of things being said. I'm going to go through them slowly and reflect on some of the truths. They're about evangelism and mission. If you are an established Christian, and if you're interested in mission, this is a very important passage for you. Verse 34, Jesus said,
“My food... is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. Don't you have a saying, ‘It's still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.”John 4:34-35, NIV
This verse is helpful for us, first of all, in explaining that a very good analogy of the Christian mission is concerning harvest - sowing and reaping God's Word. We find this comes up again later, in a different context, where Jesus teaches the Parable of the Sower and there the word is sown into the ground and we see whether it's going to be fruitful or not. Verse 36,
‘“Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”’John 4:36-38, NIV
Here's an analogy of sowing and reaping. Spreading the Christian message is described in two phases: sowing and reaping. He says to the disciples, “You are reaping where others have sown.” But who are the others? Does it actually mean to say that? We can get some interesting insight into this by just considering the historical context because the receptiveness of the Samaritans, according to Jesus, was because other people had prepared the way. The one obvious person who has prepared the way for these Samaritans is John the Baptist. His baptism sites along the River Jordan weren't very far away from Samaria. We hear from the accounts of John the Baptist that people came from large distances to be baptised by him, or to hear him preach, and it's very likely that a significant number of Samaritans would have come to hear John the Baptist. John the Baptist's ministry was to prepare the way for Jesus: he was awakening people's expectation that the Messiah might be coming; he was telling the people that now was the time; and he was pointing to Jesus as the Lamb of God. It's very likely that some Samaritans went to John the Baptist and actually heard the message and some of those people could even have been from this village, or if not from this village from neighbouring communities. The word was getting out that there was a prophet around - a Jewish prophet - who was proclaiming that the Messiah was coming. It's possible the Samaritans were influenced by everything that John the Baptist was doing because he was very well-known at the time. He had become very well-known quickly. He was famous, some might say infamous - so he was popular and unpopular. Some people didn't like what he was doing; other people were enthralled by it and came to be baptised, confessing their sins. Crowds kept coming down to the River Jordan. This may have changed the way people felt and thought about religion and may have opened them up to the possibility of Jesus coming. Bear in mind that the Samaritans shared with the Jews the same basic faith in the God of Israel, Yahweh, and they had as their scriptures the first five books of the Bible and they had a sacrificial system. They didn't have everything in Judaism, but they had enough to understand, roughly, what John the Baptist was talking about.
The second possible meaning here, is that it's Jesus who sowed the seed by his conversation with the Samaritan woman and the disciples were onlookers - they weren't involved actively in this process. Jesus explained things to her, she then drew in the community, Jesus then communicated directly with the community and they became believers in him. It's possible to understand that phrase meaningfully in the historical context. The principle is fundamental to all forms of mission: some people sow and some people reap. I remember occasions when I've been at mission events and I've been called to be available to speak to people after an evangelist has spoken. I remember doing that once with a Billy Graham event in the UK. I spoke to a man I'd never met before who came to the front and wanted to give his life to Christ and explained how certain people had influenced him to come to the event and how the evangelist, Billy Graham, had influenced him to respond to the Gospel and all I had to do was to lead him to faith. So I was the ‘reaper’ but I didn't sow. I didn't invest anything in that man, I'd never met him before. He came from a different town. It was the one and only time that I ever met him but he wanted to go through and become a believer in Jesus Christ. Maybe you've had this experience where sometimes you are the person who is enabled to bring someone to Jesus Christ. Most of us, most of the time, are sowing.
What does sowing actually mean? How do we sow the seed? We live a consistent life. We share our story of faith. We let it be known that we are Christians. Perhaps we participate in church mission campaigns, or events, or methods, and then we're sowing. Perhaps we distribute Christian literature, or Gospel tracts, or parts of the Bible. Perhaps we're involved, a few of us perhaps, with the media or social media communication about Christian faith - if that's appropriate and possible in the culture that we live in. There are many, many ways that we can sow the seed. We can preach directly at people but mostly it's telling our story, drawing alongside people and explaining what Jesus has done for us - that is our sowing.
Evangelism is always an active process but you'll notice that there's another ingredient in the agricultural analogy: you can sow a seed and you can reap the harvest, but in the middle there has to be good soil conditions and sufficient rain. Where do those come from? It's God who gives us the soil; it's God who gives us the rain, and all the other conditions that are necessary for a fruitful crop. We know perfectly well that just putting a seed into the ground is not enough, something has to happen: it has to germinate; it has to be protected; it has to be watered; and it has to be nurtured, until we can reap the crop at the end of the season. To use the words of Paul the Apostle, ‘it's God who gives the growth.’ ‘One person sows, another person reaps, but it's God who gives the growth.’ 1 Corinthians 3:7
It's actually God the Holy Spirit who turns our testimony, our mission endeavours, our literature that we distribute, our talking about Jesus and our consistent life, into an effective means of winning other people for Christ. It's a miraculous process - there's no two ways about it - and there is no alternative way of thinking about it. That miraculous process, generally operates in conjunction with a very active process on the behalf of the Church sharing the Word, appropriately, in any way that we can. We're sowing the seed. Jesus is saying, in the case of the Samaritans, the seed had been sown. John the Baptist had an influence; Jesus had a decisive influence. There could even have been other influences mentioned there that we don't know and can't identify but it's God who miraculously works in people's lives and causes them to come to faith.
Many of us reading this will identify that in our own lives. Some of you may feel, “Well I'm enquiring about the Christian faith and I feel that miracle going on for me right now.” Can I encourage you? Somebody has sown the Word for you and you need to respond and you need to become a believer in Jesus Christ. This was a surprise harvest in Samaria. No one could have predicted it. It was in the wrong place. Culturally, the Jews didn't like the Samaritans; they didn't imagine they would be responsive to Jesus but it turns out that they were.
Here's just a few concluding reflections as I bring this study to its end. This is the first example of a large group of people believing in Jesus in the Gospels, so it is significant. Following this time, there will be many other examples and many of them will be in Galilee, Jesus' home area, where he spent most of his time preaching, teaching and living. This is also a great example of the power of testimony - telling your story. I'm a great believer in each person telling their story. Your story of faith may be very dramatic. Your story may be very ordinary - maybe you grew up in a Christian home and you only gradually realised your faith as you grew up and then there came a time when you adopted it and it isn't particularly dramatic. That doesn't matter. Maybe your story is incredibly dramatic and that doesn't matter either. Whatever the story is, it's valuable. The testimony of a changed life is always used by God. We can ‘sow’ that testimony, to use that analogy; we can give that testimony freely to people - tell them our story, and God can use it. I want to encourage you, whoever you are, to think positively about your story. Learn to tell it, simply and easily, to strangers, friends, family members, work colleagues. Think of a way of telling your story in three or four minutes - as well as telling it in a longer version where you give all the details. Think of all the changes that have happened in your life. Describe them specifically and try and make it easy to share that with other people. You'll find it's a great blessing. This woman went to the whole village and she shared her testimony - that she had met someone who she thought, by the end of the conversation, was probably the Messiah - who told her everything about her own life.
Another reflection is that this passage tells us, overwhelmingly, that the Gospel is for all people. In the previous passage we heard that salvation is ‘from the Jews.’ It originates from the Jewish people because God chose them for that function but they are to be ‘a light to the Gentiles’ (to quote Isaiah 49: 6). This Gospel message is for all people even, and perhaps particularly, we should emphasise for socially deprived people - poorer people, marginalised communities. To some extent that's what the Samaritans were and yet they received the word gladly and many of them became believers and followers of Jesus. This is happening all the way round the world today in marginalised, vulnerable and poor communities - sometimes very poor communities. The Christian Gospel is spreading because it's for everybody and you don't need anything more than an open heart and a clear understanding of what Jesus did on his death: an awareness of your sins and a willingness to take responsibility for your life. You don't need anything more than that to believe in Jesus, to find salvation and to receive that same Holy Spirit that we've been talking about in a number of our episodes recently. We can start worshipping ‘in spirit and in truth’ to use the words that Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman in the last episode, just before the events that we've described in this particular episode.
Concerning evangelism, God is sovereign. We don't know when there's going to be a breakthrough. We don't know which village, or community, or nation is going to be more receptive, which is going to be less receptive. It is not our responsibility. Our responsibility is to be faithful: to sow the seed of the Word of God wherever we can and then, sometimes, to reap the harvest whenever the opportunity comes. Overwhelmingly importantly, our responsibility is to sow the seed. In some ways this project, telling the life of Jesus, is sowing that Word of God and making it available to you, wherever you are in the world and whatever your questions are. Whatever your status is, you are welcome to receive as an act of sowing in the spirit of the words of John 4, ‘one sows and another reaps.’