Sermon, January 31, 2021 | Grace Reformed Church
Last week, when we were meditating on worshipping “in spirit and in truth,” I mentioned briefly, as a side point, the revival in preaching that took place during the Reformation. Before the Reformation, the church had almost abandoned exposition of the words of scripture, and had turned their focus toward ritual and formalism, really distracting from what the people needed, which was to hear the gospel, hear the Word. I think that’s something we need to keep standing up for, with vigilance, because I think we have a similar problem today. Not that people are distracted by ritual, as was the case 500 years ago, but that the American church has allowed many pastors to merely deliver sermons that are little more than moralistic pep-talks. Instead of digging into the Word and delivering what it says to their congregations, as it is very often challenging and convicting, some stay more focused on meeting the earthly psychological needs of their congregations. Don’t want to offend, don’t want to scare people off. It’s a tragic thing, and has something to do with our passage today.
I was struck by that tragedy of preaching as I was doing the reading for this sermon, because I was marveling at some of the beautiful things that have been written about this passage by people from long ago. And it made me think about what the moralistic pop-psychology preacher is missing by not bothering to read these works, standing on the shoulders of great men of faith in the past. For these sermons in John, I’m reading two commentaries written in the last 20 years, but also one by J.C. Ryle that’s about 200 years old; Matthew Henry, about 300 years old; Calvin’s, almost 500 years old. That struck me a bit about what a heritage we are a part of here as we open the Word this morning, that we get to benefit, just like we do with music in our hymnal, get to benefit from hundreds of years of the work of the Holy Spirit. Throw that away, and you are definitely missing out, quite possibly on the gospel itself. It’s an encouragement again, to think bigger, as I’ve said many times, and as our passage will instruct us to do again today. Let’s turn there now, to John’s gospel, chapter 4, and read the conclusion of the story of the conversion of the woman at the well. John chapter 4, beginning in verse 27. Listen, this is God’s Holy Word.
Just then his disciples came back. They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you seek?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” 28 So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” 30 They went out of the town and were coming to him.
31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work. 35 Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. 36 Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
39 Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”
The Word of the Lord.
Well here we come to the close of this story, and there are multiple parts to it, quite a few things happen, and they may on the surface seem only loosely related, but in fact they are all pointing together towards one purpose, communicating one command from God to the people in the story and to us today. All of these things point to our task as Christians to be the hands and feet that Jesus uses to build his church, the bride he is preparing for the end of all things. There are of course many lessons here, but that is the one overarching message that we will hear as we walk through the end of this story. The story began with many lessons about evangelism—how and when and to whom—and continued as we saw last week to the conversion of this one woman and her desire to worship, and now it closes with this call, the call to all of us to eagerly, actively work to bring people to faith and grow with them together in the church.
So that’s the broad message, but let’s see how this is expressed in its various ways in the story itself. IN verse 27, it says “Just then his disciples came back.” Just then—so the disciples returned immediately after what took place before, and we remember that what took place before was the conversation between Jesus and the woman about whether the Jews were right to worship in Jerusalem or the Samaritans were right to worship at Mount Gerezim, to which Jesus responded, “pretty soon, even right now, where you worship is irrelevant, because it’s really a matter of heart. God wants people to worship in spirit and in truth.” And when Jesus finishes this exposition about worship, there’s one more exchange that we didn’t actually touch on last week, the last exchange before the sudden return of the disciples. And it’s rather shocking—the woman responds to this discourse on worship by saying, “well, the Messiah is coming and he will tell us for sure.” And then there’s the shocking part, Jesus admits to her unequivocally that he is the Messiah.
Reading the gospels, such a frank admission from Jesus that he is the Messiah is not something that we see often. In fact, it’s the only time that we see him take on that specific title until his trial before the cross, so the fact that he claims it here is a surprise. And it is disclosed only to the woman. We see from the text that the disciples clearly saw that he was talking to a woman, because it surprised them, but it appears they did not hear this admission from Jesus to the woman, that he was the Messiah.
In fact, Jesus took many titles on himself, especially the “Son of Man” and “Lamb of God,” even “Son of God,” as we’ve seen before, but the title of Messiah or Christ are ones that he holds tighter and does not explicitly reveal to the public. The signs and miracles that he performs point to him being the Messiah, but most of the time he only allows people to come to that conclusion, he doesn’t say it directly. In fact, he has thus far allowed his disciples to only come to the conclusion without him saying it. The disciples do believe that he is the Messiah, we read that in chapter 1 when Andrew gets his brother Peter, but it is quite a bit later that Jesus finally does ask his disciples to confess who they believe him to be. In Mark chapter 8 we read Peter’s confession:
27 And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” 29 And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”
And now that he admits it freely with his disciples, what does Jesus tell them to do with that information?
30 And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.
So in a way this is a stunning admission that we read here to set up the rest of the conversation, “I who you speak to am he.” And that, reserved for the Samaritan woman.
So the disciples arrive as the text says, “Just then.” They had been gone buying food we’re told, which was an appropriate and customary thing for them to be doing for their rabbi, and they return. And we see some humility in how they come to this situation.
They marveled that he was talking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you seek?” or, “Why are you talking with her?”
John tells us what questions were likely running through their minds as they saw Jesus talking to a woman, and we would typically expect these things to be verbalized. It was actually forbidden under rabbinical law for Jesus to talk with a woman in public, one of the many extra-biblical rules that the Jews had devised. So his disciples would have been quite surprised at this, but they show respect and humility by saying nothing. They may not have heard him just claim it, but they believe that he is in fact the long-awaited Messiah, and so they humbly assume that he had his reasons, and his understanding certainly supersedes rabbinical law.
But ultimately, that is background, and we then come to the first part of the story that teaches us about our task of evangelism. We see from the woman here how the life of a newly converted person is not just adjusted or fixed, but completely transformed.
So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” 30 They went out of the town and were coming to him.
This woman has been completely transformed, and not just in the fact that she has faith and is now saved in eternity, here we see the character of a saved person. The water she came to draw, she leaves, and she didn’t just forget the water pot, the words used here indicate that she left it intentionally. She may still get thirsty, but her priorities have completely changed—she has the living water and all that she was planning to do has now fallen far down the list of priorities. No, the first fruit that she bears as a believer is fruit that we should all bear as believers. Her primary aim at this moment is not to sit, but to go—go and tell others about Jesus. And look, she does so with confidence! Five minutes ago this was a woman who intentionally drew water at a time when she knew she wouldn’t have to face people, and now she is going into the middle of the town and telling everyone, come with me, I have found the Christ. And her words have power, her testimony bears fruit, we read in verse 39:
39 Many Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.”
That is the attitude of the saved person, to share their testimony, boldly with others, as she does here. And a whole crowd follows this outcast out of the town to come meet Jesus. But like it says here in verse 39, for some, they believed even based on the woman’s testimony, even before this crowd of people reached Jesus. And when they reached Jesus, their belief was confirmed, and many others believed too. The story of the crowd of Samaritans continues in verse 40:
40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them, and he stayed there two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”
Jesus used the testimony of the woman to save many people. She brought them to Jesus, and they believed. This is a beautiful picture of how Jesus builds his church through people. I remember this past spring when we were studying Reformed Theology more systematically and we rebutted the challenge that our view of the Eternal Decree and predestination—that the entire story of history was decreed before the world began and it will not change—that that view kills the purpose of evangelism, because every person who will be saved was decided before time began. That is true, the number of the elect is and always has been a definite number. But, in his mercy and grace, God has seen fit to use us, lowly people as we are, to use us to be his instruments in bringing the many to him. We get the privilege of being the woman, running to the town and bringing the people to see Jesus. That is an unbelievable privilege to be Jesus’s hands and feet in the world, acting as his agents to build the church.
Do we always relish that as a privilege? Or do we allow fear and doubt to keep us from figuratively running into the town telling all the people about Jesus, and leading the crowd to him? And of course, this is not a one and done process. The telling about Jesus, bringing people closer to him is a lifelong process, will we ever be done? That’s the beautiful thing about the church, it is a family that grows in faith together. We evangelize to people who don’t yet believe, but we come here to strengthen each other to grow in our faith, we are here to continually evangelize each other, support each other in drawing closer to Jesus, even though we already believe in him.
And let’s not forget our nearest mission field, our immediate family. Are we constantly preaching Jesus to our children, our grandchildren, our parents, our brothers, sisters? Are we doing the work of bringing them to Jesus? And like we were just talking about in the church family, that is a lifelong process. We bring them to saving faith and then continue to bring them to Jesus, bring them to Jesus, bring them to Jesus, testify to them about Jesus, testify to them about Jesus. It never ends, it is the work of the Christian. Because Jesus did not command us to go and make converts, he told us to go and make disciples. We don’t lead our family or our friends or our neighbors, we don’t just lead them to Jesus once, we continue to testify to them about the work he is doing. And it is the work of all Christians, the weakest and the strongest—we support each other as we bring each other to Jesus. I bring you Jesus, you bring me Jesus, MH brings Kim Jesus and then Kim brings Mike Jesus and Mike brings Cara Jesus and Cara brings Ray Jesus and round and round it goes. That’s beautiful, isn’t it? Full-time evangelism, bringing people to Jesus. The joyful work of the Christian.
In between the verses that we just looked at—the ones that deal with the story of the Samaritans, since they are talked about at the beginning and the end of today’s passage—in between there we have the record of a discussion between Jesus and his surprised grocery-shopping disciples. And it is a conversation that supports excellently the scene that surrounds it and what we were just talking about.
31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.
The woman has left, presumably in a hurry because she is a brand new Christian, so zealous to tell others about Christ, and this is what happens “meanwhile.” The disciples tell Jesus to eat, and he says he has food that they don’t know about.” Once again, Jesus turning a conversation about the physical into one about the spiritual, taking a physical need and using it to point to a spiritual truth. Does this mean that Jesus is not hungry anymore? Of course not, at the outset of all this we’re told that Jesus was wearied from the journey, he was thirsty, and the disciples were getting food because he and they needed food. So Jesus is hungry, but he points to something that fills him even more than regular food. More than for food when he is hungry, does Jesus yearn to do the will of God the Father. It is a desire, a need that supplants all others, to do the will of God.
And food, just like water, is an excellent metaphor for how we should feel about doing the work of God. What does food teach us? First, we need it, constantly. We miss one meal, and we notice it. It doesn’t take more than a few hours without food to make us hunt for more. And the longer we don’t have it, the more it focuses our attention and crowds out any other needs until we get it. That is the appropriate posture of the Christian towards doing the work of God, doing his will—it should be something we can’t live without thinking about constantly.
The second property of food that instructs us is not just that we need it incessantly, but that when we have it, it fills us and we are satisfied. It fills us and gives us life. Doing the work of God, in an ultimate sense, is not a burden, not a sacrifice, not a submission to something lesser. It is life-giving. It may bring you burdens and sacrifices right now, in this life, of course. It’s not easy, day to day, looking at impending suffering. Especially right now at this point in history. But this food that we eat, doing the will of the Father, all of its life-giving rewards are waiting for us, if we will just look to the future. What good is anything of this world in the end? Dust. Money? Dust. Power? Dust. All of it.
Look at the one who is giving us this metaphor—Jesus himself! Is there any greater example of thinking bigger, keeping the whole story in focus rather than the daily struggles? There was a man who lost everything that this world has to offer, to the point that it ended with him beaten and hanging on a cross, deserted by almost everyone he knew. His treasure wasn’t here, it was beyond. His food wasn’t on a plate, his sustenance, his food was to do exactly what he was doing there, the will of the Father.
And so here, Jesus tells the disciples again what’s really important. Picture the whole scene for a second. Jesus is talking with his disciples, telling them that the food they should most want to eat is to do the will of God, be in his service, and at the very same time there is a crowd of people on the road coming toward them, coming to see Jesus, probably a dust cloud growing about them as they approach, and as they approach Jesus says to his disciples:
Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.
Look! There are soon-to-be-believers approaching even now, and they’re ready to be harvested! He’s talking both of the crowd approaching right there in the story, and also speaking to the entire age that we live in now. The age where King Jesus sits on the throne and gets to watch over us as we, the people of his church go out and harvest the world and bring it to him. And there are some really amazing, wonderful things about this harvest. Jesus reminds them
35 Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’?
But this harvest is not one that you have to wait four months for. This is a different kind of harvest. It is there for the reaping already. He goes on to say
36 Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
The reaper and the sower are rejoicing together. This is a reference to the prophecy in Amos that we read earlier, from Amos 9:
“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when the plowman shall overtake the reaper
and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
and all the hills shall flow with it.
The plowman shall overtake the reaper—the sowing and the reaping happening at the same time, an immediate harvest. Jesus says “this is the time, when your harvest will be immediate, when you will have the joy of going out and harvesting the world as I have sown it.” This goes back to the joyful work of the Christian, bringing people to Jesus. We can have confidence that the Word of God will be effective on those whom he has called. We don’t need to worry that we individually screwed up in bringing the gospel to someone because it is ultimately God who opens their eyes. We can and should aim to share the gospel as effectively, convincingly, and artfully as we can, but we don’t need to worry that it would be because of us, and our words that someone did not believe! We’re not the ones sowing, we’re the ones reaping!
This is the beautiful plan of salvation that we see at work in the life of every true believer. When God plants his seed of regeneration in someone, it gives them life and it cannot be resisted. We refer to it as Irresistible Grace in Reformed circles. And God cares for and grows that seed of regeneration by surrounding that regenerate person with faithful servants that help that person grow to a saving faith. It may be parents, it may be teachers, it may be pastors, or friends, or someone that the person met only once, but through that constant work of Christians bringing others to Jesus, showing that person Jesus they come to faith. God sows, and we get to do the joyous work of bringing in the harvest for Jesus. What a privilege! He sent us to reap for that which we did not labor.
Here we are at the time of the harvest. This is our attitude toward sharing the gospel. It isn’t a burden, it’s a joy. It’s the food we live on. It may be earthly difficult, but it is heavenly joyful. I preach Jesus to you, you preach Jesus to me, we preach Jesus to each other, and we preach Jesus to others, and round and round it goes. The harvest is here, and we have the promise that no matter the difficulty here, we will return with joy, as it says in Psalm 126:
He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him.
Amen, let’s pray.
Dear Heavenly Father,
We welcome the harvest. What a blessing that you have bestowed on us the task of building your church here on earth, harvesting for your church souls for which we did not labor, but you did. Help us to be ever mindful of our spiritual food, help us to yearn for it and seek it with joy. And when we feel burdened with the things of the world, afraid to do your work, give us boldness to preach your name and discernment to see the work you have put before us. In the name of Jesus we pray, amen.