St Michael’s 12th March 2017
Readings – Romans 4:1-15; John 4:27-42
We don’t know much about the woman who features in today’s reading. We don’t know her name. We don’t know how old she was, or what she looked like. What happened to her once our passage ends is lost in the mists of time. But the one thing we do know is that she had a life-changing encounter with Jesus.
Let me take you back to our reading last week. Jesus has arrived in a town called Sychar. He is tired and thirsty, and his disciples have gone off to buy food. It is the sixth hour, that is the middle of the day, when the sun is at its hottest, and most people are resting. Yet here is that same woman coming towards Jesus to draw water from the well. What’s she doing there? As we discover later on in the passage she has led a colourful life. She has had five husbands and the man she is living with now isn’t her husband. So she is coming out in the midday heat to avoid her neighbours. She’s the subject of all the village gossip and is fed up with other people talking about her.
This woman is what we would nowadays call a deeply damaged individual with complex needs. And she is certainly in no mood to talk with a stranger, especially a man who is also a Jew. So how Jesus break down all the barriers between Himself and her? As we saw last week, He doesn’t preach at her or attempt to win an argument. He tells her he is thirsty and asks for a drink. This leads to a conversation about water and Jesus earns the right to gently introduce the gospel. He tells her about his free gift of life-giving water, the Holy Spirit, that will satisfy every desire. Naturally the woman is interested and wants to know more.
But there’s still the history of all those broken relationships. Now again Jesus doesn’t preach at her and tell her how wicked she has been. He simply reveals the fact that He already knows everything there is to know about her. The woman becomes more defensive at this point and wants to deflect Jesus onto questions about religion. Jesus doesn’t get sidetracked however. He wants more than anything for this woman to realise she is standing in the presence of the Lord Himself, the promised Messiah. So their conversation ends with Jesus revealing with His true identity, and inviting the Samaritan woman to make a response.
We don’t know directly how the Samaritan woman responds to Jesus. We don’t have a record of her exact words. But we can see how her encounter with Jesus changed her when we look at verses 28-29:
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?”
The whole reason this woman came out in the midday heat was to draw water. But now she deliberately leaves her water jar behind. Not because she doesn’t need it any longer, but because from this point on she will no longer be coming out in the middle of the day. She has quite literally left her old way of life behind because she has met with Jesus. There will no more moving from one relationship to another to try and find happiness, because through Jesus she has found her deepest desires satisfied and her sins forgiven.
And instead of avoiding her neighbours, and possibly her ex-partners, she is now anxious to talk to as many people as possible. Why? Because she has discovered the joy and the peace Jesus has given her and she wants to share that joy and that peace with others. We can only imagine how the folk in the village reacted to her. But seeing this woman suddenly transformed and talking about her life-changing encounter certainly aroused the interest of many. She had a story to share that made people sit up and listen, and as we shall see, many came to faith through her.
So this morning the first question I want to ask you is quite simply this: Do you also have a story of how Jesus has changed your life? Now I realise that some people don’t come to faith through a sudden, direct encounter with Jesus. Some people come to faith over a period of many months or years. But in itself the timescale is unimportant. The question is: can you tell how through Jesus you left an old way of life behind? And have you discovered the joy and peace of knowing Him as your Lord and Saviour?
If the answer to that question is no, or you are not sure, then really the sermon finishes for you at this point this morning. Spend the next few minutes looking through the whole story of the Samaritan woman. She reached the point of understanding there was nothing she could hide from Jesus, and all she could do was simply give her whole life over to Him. If you are serious about following Jesus, then there is no better thing you can do than to stop and pray that Jesus might meet with you, and fill you with the joy and peace of knowing Him. And if Jesus does meet with you this morning, please do follow the example of the Samaritan woman and tell someone before you leave.
If on the other hand you do have a story of how Jesus changed your life, then however I’m going to keep going at this point. You can tell me later whether that is a good or a bad thing! Because between Jesus declaring that He is the Messiah in verse 26 and the woman leaving her water jar in verse 28, the disciples turn up in verse 27 and what is immediately clear is that they don’t understand what is going on.
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?”
In the culture of the day Jewish teachers weren’t supposed to waste their time teaching women. The fact Jesus was talking to a Samaritan woman was even worse. We don’t know whether they were too embarrassed or too polite to say anything. But they certainly hadn’t yet grasped the fact that the good news of Jesus isn’t limited to certain groups of people, to a particular gender or a particular background. We can assume at this stage Jesus hadn’t told them the exact details of this woman’s lifestyle, but if they had known, I imagine they would have been even more horrified.
Now the reason why the disciples had left Jesus at the beginning of the story was in order to go off and buy some food. So you can perhaps understand why once the woman exits stage left they urge him to have something to eat. But actually, as soon becomes apparent, the disciples’ fussing about food shows they haven’t really grasped the importance of the encounter Jesus has just had.
So Jesus tells them in verse 32: I have food to eat that you know nothing about. To us that may sound like a very strange thing to say, but the disciples should have immediately known what he was talking about. They would be very familiar with the books of Jewish law, and in particular these words from Deuteronomy 8:3 where the Lord tells the people of Israel: man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Jesus isn’t denying that He is hungry, or that He needs food – He is fully human. But He wants His followers to understand there is something more important than meeting your immediate physical needs, namely listening to what your Heavenly Father is telling you to do and then putting His words into action.
Yet for some reason the disciples cannot hear what Jesus is saying. They are so focused on the question of food that they completely miss the point. Verse 33: Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?” So Jesus with all His wonderful patience tells them again in verse 34: “My food… is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” That, you see, is His priority; that is focus, and the question of whether He ends up skipping a meal here or there really is quite secondary.
But the disciples still do not understand. And because they do not understand what Jesus is saying, they also do not understand the urgency of the task in hand. That’s why Jesus goes on to say in verse 35: 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. Because what He wants to teach them is that all this talk of doing the Father’s will is not some high-faluting abstract concept you can think about later. It’s about a real and urgent mission that requires action today.
Yes, in theory, Jesus could have gone with His disciples and got supplies, and come back to the well the following day. But tomorrow the Samaritan woman might not be there. Tomorrow the chance for her to receive eternal life would be over. That’s why He was prepared to wait out in the midday heat for her. It was the only opportunity for her to pass over from death to life, from darkness into light.
Whether the disciples get it at this point we do not know. But before we leave them, the second question I want to ask this morning is this: do we understand the task that Jesus has given us?
The more I have reflected on this passage, the more I see in the disciples the same characteristics reflected in a church that hasn’t “got” mission: a them and us attitude, between existing churchgoers, and those new to faith, particularly when those newcomers are very different to those already attending; a focus on the physical practicalities such as buildings or finances rather on listening to God’s word and doing God’s will; a lack of urgency to mission and evangelism, as something to be done once this or that other project has been completed. Maybe we aren’t that different from the disciples after all.
But the third point that comes out clearly from this passage is that being involved in God’s mission is not an optional extra. We can’t decide to follow Jesus and then work out whether we want to be involved in His work or not. Because whether we like it or not, God is constantly at work planting seeds in people’s heart, in a whole variety of ways. And He gives us as His people the responsibility of sowing, growing and reaping those selfsame seeds of faith. There really is no opt-out clause.
Now we know from Jesus’ parable of the sower that some seeds will fall on the path and never take root. Some will fall on stony ground and quickly wither. Some will be choked by weeds and the concerns of this world. But some seeds will take root and start growing. And as people find faith growing in their hearts, they will come to us. And that is exactly what has happened at St Michael’s. Over the past fifteen years the way the church has grown has most typically been through the simple fact the Lord keeps on sending people to us. Some have never set foot in a church before, but more than not often someone else has planted a seed of faith in their lives.
So in many ways Jesus words in verse 38 are, I believe, a direct word to us this morning: 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 labour. The challenge to us, and the final question I want to ask: are we indeed ready to reap the harvest Jesus give us?
Now at this point in the conversation the townspeople from Sychar turn up. They have heard the woman’s testimony and they are spiritually hungry. They want Jesus to stay with them, and to teach them the good news. So what does Jesus do? Well, he doesn’t consult Google calendar to find out when he is free. He doesn’t arrange a later date once he is finishes his travel plans. No, there and then he stays there two days. With what result? Verse 41: And because of his words many more became believers.
Jesus spent two days in an unfamiliar place, a Samaritan village, preaching the word of repentance and new life. Now we can have no doubt Jesus was an extremely busy person with all kinds of demands on his time. But he allowed his routine and his schedule to be disrupted. How willing are we to allow our routines and our schedules to be disrupted in order to share the good news with others? Are we willing to spend time in unfamiliar places learning how to communicate with those who may be very different from ourselves? Maybe if we really grasped how spiritually hungry and needy those around us are, we would be that much more willing to change our priorities and introduce them to Jesus.
Now the last time we hear anything about the Samaritan woman is in verse 42 when the townsfolk, who are presumably the same people she used to avoid, say to her: 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 Saviour of the world.
And that really is the conclusion of the story. One encounter in the heat of the day leads to the most unexpected person coming to faith. She tells her friends and neighbours. They ask Jesus to come and stay with them. They hear His word. And the result? They themselves come to understand that Jesus is the Saviour of the World. How I long that this morning similarly each of us go out from this place and invite others to discover Jesus for themselves.
But before that happens, we need to know how to answer the questions I have already set you this morning. So to recap, let me ask:
Do you have a story of how Jesus has changed your life?
Do we understand the task Jesus has given us?
Are we ready to reap the harvest Jesus gives us?
Jesus tells us: I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.