After leaving Jesus at the well, the woman in John 4 returned with her fellow townspeople, eager to introduce them to Him. The disciples, though, were distracted by their felt needs and missed their mission of feeding the people spiritually instead of just physically. Like them, we need to be reminded to open up our eyes and see the harvest, reaching out to the lost around us. As Alistair Begg reminds us, Jesus never wavered from His purpose, and He continues to seek and save sinners even today.
I invite you to turn to the Bible, to John chapter 4, and the greater part of John chapter 4 involves the dialogue between Jesus and this woman that he meets at the well. And we’re going to pick up the account at verse 27.
“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 Christ?’ 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. Do you not say, “Four months more and then the harvest”? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the 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[’ve] 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; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.’”
You may want to just keep a mark there in your Bible, as we’ll turn to that in a moment or two.
Before we look at the Bible, we pause and ask for God to help us:
Father, what we know not, teach us; and what we have not, give us; and what we are not, make us. For your Son’s sake. Amen.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that the turning point in this conversation between Jesus and the woman at the well is in verse 16, because it is there that it is recorded for us that Jesus asked her to go and call her husband and come back. And of course, she’s honest enough to say that she doesn’t have a husband, and then Jesus fills in the background for her and explains to her that he knows that she’s had five husbands and she now has a man in her company who is not her husband at all.
We’re looking, for those of you who are visiting, for a second time this morning at what proves to be a life-changing encounter between this no-named woman from Samaria and Jesus of Nazareth. It’s the intimate awareness of her details shown by Jesus that has caused this woman to be profoundly impacted by Jesus’ words. After his statement there in verse 18, her perspective on him shifts dramatically. If your Bible is open, you will see that in verse 9, in the opening gambit, she says, “How can you ask me for a drink? You’re a Jew, and I am a Samaritan woman.” That was his identity: a Jew. Now, in verse 19, she says, “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet.” It’s going to advance beyond this; she’s going to ask the question, “I think, perhaps, this is actually the Messiah, the Christ.” And the chapter—the section of the chapter—is going to end with the declaration, “Surely, this man is the Savior of the world.”
Now, in this conversation, as we noted before—and it is worth reiterating this fact—Jesus treats this woman with courtesy, with respect, and with dignity. Although it was not customary for the Jewish people to treat women with this kind of respect—indeed, Jewish law had a number of things to say that certainly did not advance the cause of women—Jesus is here breaking the bounds of the sort of par politesse factor of gender, and at the same time of race, because he is displaying for us the universality of the gospel message.
She is able to say that since she understands him to be a prophet, she thinks he can perhaps deal with the question that has been in her mind. We’re not going to tackle that question just now. Jesus simply explains to her that if she thinks in geographical or territorial terms when it comes to worshipping God, she’s thinking along the wrong lines. In fact, “[The] time is coming and has now come,” he says, “when [people] will worship [God] in spirit and in truth.” To which the lady says, in verse 25, “‘I know that Messiah’ ([that is] called Christ) ‘is coming. [And] when he comes, he will explain everything to us.’” And then imagine—imagine being there to process the response of Jesus: “I am Christ. I am the Messiah, speaking to you now,” Jesus said. “I am the Messiah, speaking to you now.”
And as she sits, presumably processing that information, verse 27 tells us that the disciples make their return. This is not The Return of the Jedi; this is the return of the disciples. They had gone off, as we discovered in verse 8, to pick up food for lunch. It was an important assignment; they took it seriously, they had made the journey, and they had now returned.
If we were editing a film, we would be cutting between these various scenes as the narrative progresses, and I’ll do that with you, hopefully in a way that helps to settle it in our minds. All we really need to notice in verse 27 is that these disciples, upon their return, were surprised but at the same time silent. They, for whatever reason, chose not to enter into a dialogue with Jesus. They chose not to ask him, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with this woman?” That in itself is quite remarkable, given what we know of the disciples: some of the questions they asked—questions that Phillip asked, and certainly the kind of things that Peter was prone to blurt out, both for good or for ill. But on this occasion, they remain silent. Perhaps it is simply that they themselves are very interested in lunch and that anything that they asked would only delay the time for them to get into the food, and so, perhaps on a very pragmatic basis, they decide not to get involved in conversation.
We now cut, and the scene cuts to the picture of the water jar left behind, and we see the back of the woman as she proceeds into town. Incidentally, a lot of ink has been spilt over why the water jar was left there, and I commend that to you if you’re interested in those kinds of things. I need to remind you that the main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things, and those who get elaborate explanations out of the leaving of the water jar, I admire but do not desire to emulate. It may well be that she left it behind so that Jesus could finally get the drink of water that he hasn’t had to this point. It may be that in her haste she just ran off and forgot it. It may be that because she had planned on coming back, they could use it, and she would be back later on. We really don’t know, and yet people spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out all about the water pot.
So, leaving the water pot aside, notice the main emphasis of the verse: she left her water pot, went back into the town, and said to the people, “Come out and see the man who told me everything I’ve ever done.” “Who told me everything I have ever done.”
“Who do you think you are? Told you everything you’ve ever done?”
“Yes, told me everything I’ve ever done. Me! Little messed-up me. Little ‘go to the well by yourself’ me. Little ‘no-name woman from Samaria’ me. Little friendless me. Can this be the Messiah, do you think?”
Now, look at verse 30. It’s dramatic, isn’t it? “They came out of the town” and started to come to Jesus. On the strength of this? On the strength of this particular lady, issuing this particular invitation. It’s wonderful really, isn’t it? Should be an encouragement to all of us who think we’re no good at issuing invitations—certainly when it comes to explaining to people what has happened to us in terms of our Christian experience. Not all of us, of course, have a story to tell, but some who are here this morning, like this woman, have been picked up and set on the right way, and as a result of that, we have something to say. But we’re often very diffident. And it may well be because we think, “Really, why would anyone want to listen to me? I don’t think I should speak, because if I say, ‘Why don’t you come to the patio?’ or ‘Why don’t you come and attend this Bible study with me?’ or ‘Why don’t we have coffee and let me tell you about this?’ the chances are no one’ll pay any attention to me at all.”
But listen: when God is at work, you’ll be amazed at what happens. I’m sure this lady must have been amazed. “Why don’t you come out and see the man who told me everything I ever did?” And the people said, “Yeah, that’s okay, we’ll do that.”
So we have two camera angles now: we have a camera angle shooting them as they come, and then we have another camera angle shooting them as they leave. We cut between them. And as we have that scene in our minds, then we cut right back to the disciples. “Meanwhile…” Verse 31. “Meanwhile,” back at the well. And the disciples are urging Jesus to eat. You catch that, don’t you? “Rabbi, eat something.” And then this little dialogue that follows borders on the humorous, doesn’t it? Jesus said to them, verse 32, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”
I wonder if he said it with a twinkle in his eye? I don’t know. But he seems to love these things, doesn’t he? There’s a tenderness in this. There’s a wistfulness in this. There’s a touch in this. There’s a communication factor in this that Jesus is masterful in.
“Rabbi, come on. Let’s have the lunch!”
“Hey, I actually have food to eat that you don’t know anything about.”
And the disciples began to look at one another and say, “Did somebody bring him food when we were away?”
In other words, they respond literally. They respond physically. And once again, the drama is about to unfold on the strength of misunderstanding. It bears repetition, doesn’t it? Jesus has been employing this methodology. Back in chapter 2, he says to the people, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it again.” The response of the people is, “It took forty-six years to build the temple, and you’re going to raise it in three days?” The point is, “I’m not talking about the temple. I’m talking about my body.”
“Oh, we didn’t know that.”
“I know you didn’t know that. That’s why I said that: so I could tell you that.”
Chapter 3: “You must be born again, Nicodemus.”
“How can a man be born again when he’s old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb?”
“I’m not talking about that, Nicodemus. I’m talking about being spiritually born—being born from above, a heavenly birth.”
To the woman at the well, in the earlier part of the chapter: “If you knew who it was who was asking you for a drink of water, you would ask him for a drink of water, and he would give you water, and you’d never be thirsty again.” Whew!
She said, “Well then, give me this water so that I will not be thirsty again, and I won’t have to keep coming to the well.”
Jesus says, “That’s not what I’m talking about.”
And once again: “Rabbi, can… will you eat your lunch now?”
“I have food to eat that you know not of.”
“Did somebody bring him food?”
Now, look at the disclosure. Verse 34. The disciples’ complete misunderstanding opens up the way for Jesus to teach them this vitally important lesson: “‘My food,’ said Jesus, ‘is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.’”
Now, this is a theme which runs throughout the Gospels—certainly throughout the Gospel of John. Let me just give you three references; you only need to turn a couple of pages, and the third one you needn’t turn to. But if you turn one page on into chapter 5 and look at verse 30, you find the same emphasis: “By myself,” says Jesus, “I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.” In other words, he is a man with a mission. He is a man on a mission. You go into 6:38: “For I have come down from heaven,” says Jesus, “not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.” You go back to 4:34: “‘My food,’ said Jesus, ‘is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.’”
Now, keep that word “finish” in mind. Because it is the same root that you will find if you read all the way to chapter 19, and you find Jesus upon the cross. And from the cross, remember one of the things he says: “It is finished.” Not a cry of despair, but a declaration of the fact that he has completed what he set out to do—namely, to die in the place of sinners so that those who deserve God’s judgment and his wrath may not experience that judgment and wrath, because by grace, through faith, they have come to believe in the sacrifice of Jesus, who in this moment is explaining to these disciples that food and meat and drink for him was simply to do what his Father had sent him to do.
And that becomes the occasion of him saying, “And I’d like you to wake up and see the harvest.” “Wake up and see the harvest.” I think the very first time I heard somebody say “Wake up and smell the coffee” was 1972, in Michigan, coming from the lips of my late father-in-law, trying to rouse his sleeping daughters, and perhaps his sleeping wife, so that we might go to church on a Sunday morning. And I remember him coming down the upstairs corridor, hitting one door after another: “Wake up and smell the coffee! Wake up and smell the coffee!” I thought it was a wonderful thing. I’d never heard it in my life, and I promptly did as I was told—and was not disappointed!
Well, that’s what Jesus is saying here. He says, “Wake up and see the harvest, fellows, would you? Wake up. Your eyes are dull. You need to open your eyes.” Isn’t that the phrase there, in verse 35? “I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields!” This is a wake-up call, not just to these fellows on that day, but it is a wake-up call to all who are the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. Because it is a reminder to us that very easily, like these fellows, we can become preoccupied with what is mundane and miss the overarching mission to which we’re called. We can actually get preoccupied with the doing of church, and the way everything works and fits together, and who’s where and why and when, and forget the fact that Jesus is saying to us, “I want you to wake up and see the harvest. I want you to open your eyes, not simply when you’re in here, in order that you might read the Bible, but when you’re out of here, in order that you might see the people.”
And what he’s saying here is that the seed that is sown—the seed sown in this woman’s life—is already bearing fruit in the harvest of the advancing Samaritans. And it would seem only likely that Jesus, when he says, “Lift up your eyes; open your eyes and see the harvest,” that he turns his disciples’ gaze to the people who are now coming, at the behest of the woman, out of the town of Sychar towards the well. And as their headdresses bob in the sunlight of the day, it may even actually look like a field of corn.
Now, this parable of one sowing and another reaping is capable of all kinds of interpretations. Some have said that Jesus is referencing John the Baptist and his preparatory work, and now his disciples are entering into the benefits of reaping what John himself had sown. There are all kinds of legitimate ways, I think, in which we might make application of this, but it’s hard not to see, ultimately, John 12:24 in Jesus’ statement—and for this, you’re going to have to turn to it; otherwise, it will make no sense at all.
John 12:23. And the people had come and wanted to see Jesus. Verse 23: on hearing this, “Jesus replied, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a [grain] of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.’” Now, Jesus is predicting his death, isn’t he? It is only as the seed of the life of the Lord Jesus is sown in death—the death of the cross—that the fruit of eternal life may be reaped by anyone.
And in an ultimate sense, it is Jesus who has done the hard work. It is Jesus who has finished the work, so that we might enter into the benefits of that for which we did not sow. For we have reaped from his work eternal life. And when that takes hold of our lives, then we will understand that he intends for those who have been so changed to be the agents for change and for reaping in the lives of others. That’s why last time we tried to anchor chapter 4 in chapter 3—and I invite you just to turn back one page to 3:16 all over again. We said it was the most famous verse, probably, in John, maybe in the Bible. Look at it 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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
Now, there’s a sense in which, when you go into chapter 4—it’s true in chapter 3, but it seems more graphic in chapter 4—chapter 4, if you like, begins to give us an immediate portrait of what that means in action. What does it mean that God has loved the world? Well, it means that the message of the good news is not restricted to the Jew. It breaks the boundaries of that and bleeds over into the Samaritan world. And indeed, the harvest amongst these Samaritans is the indication—the first indication in John’s Gospel—of the fact of the inclusive nature of the gospel, of the universal nature of the gospel’s appeal, that it is for all men and all women everywhere: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” And that there is eternal life, as we saw in 3:15, for all who believe.
Now, let’s just underline this: God is a seeking and a saving God. That gives the lie to the notion that in actual fact, men are seeking for God and God somehow is hiding from them. No, that’s not true. Men and women today may be seeking for peace, they may be seeking for fulfillment, they may be seeking for all kinds of things, but they are not seeking God. But God is seeking them. He is the God who comes to Adam and Eve in the garden and says, “Where are you?” If we were to believe the way it is told to us by anthropologists and sociologists, it is the absolute reverse of that, isn’t it? That God is away hiding somewhere, and Adam and Eve are going round the garden going, “Where are you? Where are you? I’m looking for you.” No, Adam and Eve are hiding.
Look at John chapter 3. What does it say? “This is the verdict.” Nineteen: “Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” So you have these two things set side by side: men and women hiding in the darkness, and the Light of the World coming to penetrate that darkness.
Here the darkness is represented in the actual experience of this no-named woman at the well. And into the darkness of her life comes the light of Jesus—which, first of all, is a painful light, in that it shows up her dark spots. But it is a purifying light, insofar as it shows her condition in order that it might radically change her condition. That’s why we said last time that the work of the gospel is not simply to expose our search for satisfaction but is to expose our need of a Savior. And God’s great purpose for a world that is rebellious and lost is a purpose of grace and salvation. He seeks out all kinds of people—religious fellows with a background and an intelligence, as in chapter 3, and disenfranchised women, as in chapter 4.
I’m so very grateful for parents—and I reiterate this as an encouragement to other parents; I want to do it always and vigorously. I’m so grateful for parents who did not listen to my nonsense when it came to my desire to remove myself from the teaching of the Bible in every shape and opportunity. I’m glad that they put me places I didn’t want to go in order that today I might be in a place I never planned to be. And on a Sunday afternoon, having already been out in the morning, and getting ready, when I finished this, to go and sing in the junior choir—which was a great punishment to the choir teacher—and that, for an hour before the evening service began, I spent the time between two-thirty and three-thirty in the afternoon in a boys’ Bible class. It was there I learned this song:
He did not come to judge the world,
He did not come to blame,
He did not only come to seek;
It was to save he came.
And when we call him Savior,
And when we call him Savior,
And when we call him Savior,
Then we call him by his name.
“And you will give him the name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus does not sit at this well as an example to this woman of how she could live her life if she could only sort herself out. He does not stand before her as an example that she may begin to approximate to. What a sorry, hopeless charge that would be!
For those of you who play golf and play in the company of those who are good at golf, you realize that the example that you have of those who are very, very good is so paralyzing, ultimately. Because we can see what they do, but we cannot do what they do. Because it takes them to do what they do! But, of course, if their genius could come and inhabit me, then I could do what they do, but if it’s only a picture or a pattern, I can’t do it. The message of the gospel is that Jesus comes to live within a person, so that the pattern that he has established is a pattern that is fulfilled in the power that he provides as we live in the presence that he grants. Saves people from evil and from helplessness. Saving people from the chains that tie us to our past. Providing what is necessary to live as he demands.
Well, what’s the point? Well, there may be a number of points, but this is the one I want to make: since God is a seeking and saving God, those who are God’s children should be about the business of seeking too. That’s why he turns to these fellows and he says, “Wake up and see the harvest. Open your eyes. I know the standard thing is four months,” he says, “but I’m telling you, it’s now.”
It’s hard for me not to apply this, however illegitimately, and say some of us are waiting to get serious about this business until we get through this next phase, you know: “Well, when I complete my studies.” “When I sell my company.” “When I marry my fiancée.” “When my children are gone.” “When I graduate.” All of these things that we think somehow or another are legitimate excuses, allowing us to sidestep the implications of simply doing whatever we do every day to the end that unbelieving people might become the committed followers of Jesus Christ. It’s not necessarily that our circumstances are about to be radically altered. Perhaps it is simply that the way in which we engage in what we do is radically changed because of our perspective. “Oh, look at all these lonely people. Where do they all come from? Look at all these lonely people. Where do they all belong?” “That’s it,” he says. “That’s what I’m on about. That’s what I’m on about.”
If we’re going to take such a commission seriously, then it will mean that we emulate Jesus in this respect: Jesus does not come with a prepackaged formula to Nicodemus or to the woman at the well—or, indeed, to anyone. He gets everybody ultimately to the same place, but he is masterful in the way he reaches his destination. He doesn’t use prepackaged language, and he doesn’t have some kind of standard shtick that he always uses as his introduction. He starts with this lady where she is.
Where’s this lady? This lady has got a thing about relationships, and this lady’s probably got a thing about sex. This lady is a contemporary lady; she’s been “lookin’ for love in all the wrong places.” She’s had five husbands; we don’t know the details. She has a live-in lover. Jesus treats her with courtesy, with respect, with dignity, but he does not sidestep the issue: “Go, call your husband and come back.”
“I don’t have a husband.”
“Good. Now we’re going to talk about what we really need to talk about.”
If you and I are going to take seriously the commission, then we’re gonna have to be prepared to talk to people about the areas that are represented in their lives—relationships, sex, whatever it might be—and to tread the narrow path between the idolization of sex and the denigration of sex, neither of which is biblical, but to recognize that there isn’t a magazine in the checkout that doesn’t sell something on the basis of human sexuality; to recognize that there’s hardly a day passes whereby all of the imagery that is confronting us vis-à-vis advertising is directly related to all of these things. And we live in that world.
How are you going to handle this kind of woman? “Well, I can’t believe that you’ve had five husbands. I mean, that’s absolutely disgraceful. I can’t… Goodness gracious, one is bad enough! I’d hate to think what five would be like. And I would think after you’ve had five, what do you got another guy in the house for? Goodness gracious!” What are we to do with the fellow who by his choices has taken himself completely outside the bounds of God’s pattern and plan, and he’s here today, and he is wrestling with a homosexual lifestyle? He says he’s very pleased, but he isn’t. You see the tragic events in San Francisco this week, of the woman president of the University of California? Threw herself from the building. Are we brave enough to exhibit love rather than hostility or to retreat in fear?
You see, we can learn from Jesus’ love. “There is no love like the love of Jesus.” There’s no love like Jesus’ love. Father, your love is a faithful love, expressed in Jesus. And we can learn from Jesus’ language, can’t we? No tribal language, no pious language, no technical language, not a bunch of jargon laid on the lady, nothing that is disdainful, nothing that is embattled. None of that at all!
I don’t know, but I would imagine this lady was on a quest for freedom. If you saw the New York Times yesterday, you would see that there’s a wonderful event taking place—I say “wonderful” in the sense of it is a wonder to behold—but there’s a picture of a lady there, a hippie. I didn’t know there were hardly any left. But she was there, and she was under a rainbow, and it was the rainbow day, or the rainbow weekend, or whatever it was, and they were all out there, and it described all these people from I don’t know where—Santa Cruz or wherever—and they had all got together. I looked at it and I thought, “It looks pretty good to me, in one sense. You can go there and be yourself. You might even go there and find yourself.” I would think this lady would have liked that event. Looking for freedom, looking for authenticity—actually, maybe trying to find out what it meant for her to be her. And in that respect, she’s a very contemporary woman.
And these are our friends, and these are our neighbors, and to them we go with the good news that only in Christ is there true freedom to be found without being enslaved, and only, ultimately, in Jesus is there a kind of acceptance and community that will allow you to be who you really are under God while living in the discovery of his plan for your purity.
And that was the woman’s discovery, and with that we end. I ended by putting down my Bible, and I just sat for a moment or two, and I said to myself, “I wonder… I wonder if this woman ever made it to Jerusalem on the day that the sun turned dark. I wonder if this woman ever snuggled in with the rest of the brave women around the cross.” It’s pure conjecture on my part.
But if she did, and she looked up to the cross with the women there, she would have been present to hear the end of the story, if you like. She would have heard Jesus say, “Tetelestai,” “It is finished.” And she might have said to herself, “When I told him all the sins I’d ever done, and he said, ‘I’ve got you covered,’ maybe this is what he meant. Can it possibly be,” she would have said, “that this Jesus is hanging there in shame so that I might stand here in glory?”
Because that’s the gospel. He takes what he doesn’t deserve—our sins—so that he might grant what we don’t deserve: salvation, forgiveness, freedom, hope. And it all starts with “Could I have a drink of water, please?” and advances profoundly with this statement: “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did.”
I may be wrong, but I think this lady would really sing this closing song. Because it’s her testimony. And it’s the testimony of some of you—but not all. But it may be! Because everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.
 John 4:26 (paraphrased).
 John 2:19–21 (paraphrased).
 John 3:3–5 (paraphrased).
 John 4:10–15 (paraphrased).
 John 19:30 (NIV 1984).
 Genesis 3:9 (NIV 1984).
 Dora Greenwell, “A Good Confession,” in Songs of Salvation (London: 1874), 27. Paraphrased.
 Matthew 1:21 (paraphrased).
 John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “Eleanor Rigby” (1966). Lyrics lightly altered.
 W. E. Littlewood, “There Is No Love Like the Love of Jesus” (1857).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.