August 18, 2013
If you’re anything like me, you struggle at being an effective witness for Jesus Christ. I’ve prayed about it for decades, I’ve read many books, gone to different training seminars, and even taken a seminary class in evangelism, but still I often fail at being a good witness. An hour or two after an opportunity, I think, “I should have said such and such,” but I didn’t think of it at the time.
Our text gives us some help in being the kind of witness that God uses from an unlikely source: A woman who is a brand new convert, who is still living with a man outside of marriage, who knows almost no sound doctrine, and who has not had a training course in how to share her faith. Yet she effectively evangelizes her entire village for Christ!
When Jesus tells her that He is the Messiah (4:26), she gets so excited that she leaves her waterpot, goes back to her village, and tells the men, who normally would have laughed at anything she said (4:29), “Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ, is it?” As a result, they streamed out of the city to meet Jesus. They invited Him to stay with them. He spent two days there, during which time many more Samaritans came to believe in Him. At the end of that time, they proclaimed (4:42b), “This One is indeed the Savior of the world.” This narrative teaches us that…
God uses witnesses who are excited about Jesus, have a harvest perspective, and invite others to come to Him.
When Jesus told this woman that He is the Messiah, she had to decide: Is He or isn’t He? Although a few commentators question whether she believed in Christ (John never states this explicitly), the great majority believe that she did. How do we know? We know because of her response to Jesus’ self-revelation and because of the result that came from her witness: She immediately went to tell others about Jesus resulting in their believing in Him. We learn three things about becoming more effective witnesses for Christ:
Just as (or after) Jesus told this woman that He was the Messiah, the disciples returned from the village with the food that they had bought for their lunch. John says (4:27) that “they were amazed that He had been speaking with a woman.” Their amazement stemmed from two sources: cultural conditioning and they didn’t understand Jesus’ mission (4:31-38).
Culturally, it was taboo for a Jewish man to speak with a woman in public, much less with a Samaritan woman, especially a Samaritan woman who had questionable morals. Some (not all) Jewish leaders taught that it was at best a waste of time to talk with a woman, even with your own wife, and at worst a diversion from the study of the Torah that could possibly lead one to hell. Some rabbis went so far as to suggest that teaching your daughter the Torah was as inappropriate as selling her into prostitution (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 227). To speak with a woman in public, even with your own wife, could lead to gossip and should be avoided. Some Jewish leaders taught that Samaritan women were perpetually unclean (Colin Kruse, John [IVP], p. 137). Thus the disciples were amazed to find Jesus speaking with this Samaritan woman by the well.
But in spite of their shock, the disciples did not question Jesus about why He was speaking to her. Some say that they were silent out of deference to Jesus, but at other times they didn’t hesitate to question Him. Maybe they were struck speechless by their shock and when that wore off, Jesus was already teaching them about His mission. But John tells us what they were thinking (4:27b): “What do You seek?” “Why do You speak with her?”
John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 167) offers two helpful insights on 4:27. First, he says that if the disciples marveled that Jesus spoke with such a sinner as this Samaritan woman, they should have looked at themselves and marveled. None of us are any more worthy of heaven than this sinful woman was. Second, the fact that they did not question Jesus should teach us that if anything in God’s Word is disagreeable or puzzling to us, we should not murmur against God, but rather wait in silence until He reveals the matter to us more clearly.
John continues (4:28-30), “So the woman left her waterpot, and went into the city and said to the men, ‘Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ, is it?’ They went out of the city, and were coming to Him.”
John does not tell us exactly why she left her waterpot, but I think that she was so excited that she couldn’t wait to tell her village about Jesus. She wanted her people to meet this remarkable man before He slipped away. Carrying a heavy waterpot would have slowed her down. So she rushed back to the village to tell everyone who would listen about her amazing encounter with this stranger who had uncovered her past. I think that her exaggeration, that Jesus had told her all the things that she had done, also reflects her excitement. Normally, she would never have brought up anything about her sordid past. But the encounter with Jesus had changed her. Now, she wanted everyone to meet Him, too.
We need to understand that in that culture, the testimony of a woman, much less a woman of ill repute, was disregarded. The Jews would not accept the testimony of a woman in court. This woman was notorious in such a small village for her string of divorces and her current live-in boyfriend. Most of the men in the village would have avoided having any contact with her at the risk of raising suspicions that they were wrongly involved with her. If word got back to their wives that they had spoken to this woman, they would be in trouble when they got home! Yet, they listened to her and responded to her invitation to go and see whether Jesus might be the Messiah.
With all of this against her, why was her witness so effective? I think that part of the answer lies in her careful way of speaking to these men. Her question (in Greek) implies a negative answer: “This is not the Christ, is it?” If she had stated boldly that she had met the Christ, they all would have had a good laugh and gotten back to their conversation. But her question, framed as a tentative suggestion, piqued their curiosity. She deferred to the self-assumed wisdom of the men by letting them come to their own conclusion (C. H. Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 18:305).
This teaches us that to be effective witnesses, it’s often good to ask questions rather than make pronouncements. Bill Fay (audio recording) suggests asking these questions: “(1) Do you have any kind of spiritual belief? (2) To you, who is Jesus? (3) Do you think that there is heaven or hell? (4) If you died, where are you going? (5) Why would God let you into heaven?” Then, after listening to the person’s answers, ask, “(6) If what you believe is not true, do you want me to tell you?” Fay says that in thousands of encounters, he’s never had a firm “no” to that last question. Then you can show the person the Bible verses that explain the gospel.
But I think the main reason that this woman’s witness was effective was that she was excited about Jesus and these men who knew her could see the change in her. Before, she would not have spoken to any of them. She didn’t even want to speak to the other women in the village, which is probably why she was getting water at noon, when no one else would be at the well. But here she was, willing to bring up her own notoriously sinful past, exuberantly telling about this man whom she had met. The change and her excitement about Jesus were evident.
Evangelism and sales have many differences, but there are some parallels. One common feature is that the most successful salesmen are those who are excited about their product. They think that what they’re selling will solve your problems. If a salesman is apathetic about his product, you’re not likely to buy it. But if he tells you how the product changed his life and he wants you to experience the same thing, you just might be interested.
So here we have a woman who knew far less than Nicodemus did and she had a far worse background than his. But she was far bolder and did far more good than he did because she was excited about Him as the Messiah and she testified about her own experience with Jesus. God will use your witness if you’ve had a genuine encounter with the Lord Jesus and you’re excited about Him. And if you’re not excited about Him, you need to figure out why not.
Verses 31-38 are a “meanwhile, back at the well” scene that shows us a second reason the disciples were amazed that Jesus was talking with this woman: they were clueless about Jesus’ mission. The disciples arrive back at the well with their Big Mac and fries for Jesus, but He isn’t interested in eating. They urge Him to eat, but He tells them (4:32), “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” They don’t get it! So they wonder among themselves (4:33), “No one brought Him anything to eat, did he?”
Chances are that they had passed this woman as they were going in to buy their lunch. Perhaps they took a wide path around her; surely, they did not speak to her. Now they come back to find Jesus speaking to her, much to their shock. She leaves, so they want to get on with their mission, namely, getting Jesus to eat lunch so that they can get back on their journey north. But Jesus clues them in on His mission (4:34): “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work.” Then as the villagers begin streaming out in their white robes to meet Jesus, He tells the disciples (4:35), “Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, and then comes the harvest’? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest.”
The disciples needed to develop a harvest mindset. They needed to understand what God was doing in this situation. I’ve often been just like these clueless disciples, focused on the natural when I should have been awake to what God was doing spiritually around me. Like them, I needed to develop a harvest mindset.
The disciples were focused on eating lunch; Jesus was focused on doing the Father’s will and accomplishing the work that the Father had sent Him to do. We don’t know whether Jesus ever got His drink of water or whether He ever ate the lunch that the disciples had brought back. But He saw a whole village of Samaritans come to faith in Him as they discovered that He is the Savior of the world. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). Food and drink were secondary; reaching lost people was primary. So in three short years, Jesus could pray (John 17:4), “I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do.”
So often we’re like the disciples, focused on the temporal, but clueless as to the spiritual and eternal. A neighbor kid annoys you by cutting across your yard and stepping on your flowers. Rather than seeing it as an opportunity to show this boy the love of Christ, you chew him out and tell him that if he does it again, you’ll tell his parents. You’ve just put your yard above God’s work. A person at work grates on you with her obnoxious personality. You avoid her and tell the boss how annoying she is. You’ve just put your comfort above God’s work. A harvest mindset puts the will of God and His work above everything else.
Jesus makes four points in this short lesson on sowing and reaping:
Jesus seems to be quoting a familiar saying that means something like, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” You don’t sow seed and expect to go out the next day and reap a harvest. It takes time for the crop to grow. But in this case, the spiritual harvest was instant.
This Samaritan woman was an unlikely prospect for evangelism if there ever was one! She wasn’t interested in spiritual things when Jesus turned the conversation in that direction. She had all kinds of mixed up ideas due to her Samaritan religious beliefs. She was an immoral woman, not a “key” person and potential leader, as Nicodemus was. But by crossing cultural taboos and taking the time to talk with this messed up Samaritan woman, Jesus ended up reaping a harvest with the entire village.
You never know how God may use your witness with someone whom you consider to be an unlikely prospect for the gospel. I would have zeroed in on Nicodemus, but he proved to be a bit slow in responding and we’re not told that he ever reached anyone else with the gospel. Like the disciples, I probably would have kept my distance from this immoral Samaritan woman, but she proved to be the key to reaching an entire village.
Jesus says (4:36), “Already he who reaps is receiving wages and is gathering fruit for life eternal; so that he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together.” Earthly wages are of no value after you die, but wages that pay rewards for eternity are worth working for! A billionaire on his deathbed who has not laid up treasure in heaven is like the man in Jesus’ parable who planned to build bigger barns, but was not rich toward God (Luke 12:15-21). He was a fool. But the one with a harvest mindset who labors for souls is storing up eternal joy. We don’t know for sure, by the way, to whom Jesus is referring when he mentions the one who sows. It could be the Old Testament prophets and John the Baptist. Or, it could be Jesus and the woman. But the fact that someone sowed before Jesus reaped leads to a third lesson:
John 4:37-38: “For in this case the saying is true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored and you have entered into their labor.” To state the obvious, there is no reaping without prior sowing. But we often forget this. We expect to reap without sowing. We wonder why we don’t see people coming to Christ. Often the answer is simple: Because I haven’t been sowing any seed! At the very least, begin praying for opportunities to share the gospel with others. Jot down a list of those that don’t know Christ with whom you regularly have contact and begin praying for their salvation and for God to give you an opportunity to talk to them about the Savior. To reap a harvest, we have to sow the seed.
“One sows and another reaps” (4:37). We need to keep in mind that we never labor alone. If you lead someone to Christ, probably you’re reaping where someone else has already sown. It’s rare for someone to come to faith the first time he hears the message. And, if you share the gospel and the person does not respond, don’t get discouraged. Pray that God would water the seed that you’ve sown and bring along someone else who may reap the fruit. As Paul said (1 Cor. 3:6), “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.” J. C. Ryle (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 3:246) observes:
Let it be noted, that in doing work for Christ, and laboring for souls, there are sowers as well as reapers. The work of the reaper makes far more show than the work of the sower. Yet it is perfectly clear that if there was no sowing there would be no reaping. It is of great importance to remember this. The Church is often disposed to give an excessive honor to Christ’s reapers, and to overlook the labors of Christ’s sowers.
Adoniram Judson labored his entire lifetime in Burma with much hardship, many disappointments, and little visible fruit in terms of converts. But today there are over a million Christians in Burma who trace their roots back to Judson’s labors. Your sowing is not in vain if others reap the fruit. Be faithful in sowing the seed!
Thus God uses the witness of those who are excited about Jesus, who have a harvest mindset. Finally,
John 4:39-42: “From that city many of the Samaritans believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, ‘He told me all the things that I have done.’ So when the Samaritans came to Jesus, they were asking Him to stay with them; and He stayed there two days. Many more believed because of His word; and they were saying to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world.’”
In light of the centuries of hostility between Samaritans and Jews, the Samaritans’ warm acceptance of Jesus is amazing. The Holy Spirit can break down barriers that the world has erected. Just as Nathanael had to “come and see” Jesus for himself (1:46), so now at the woman’s invitation to “come,” the Samaritans came to Jesus and came to believe that He is the Savior of the world. Note two things:
The woman came to know Jesus as the Messiah who could give her the living water of eternal life. She told the men of her village about Jesus as she had come to know Him. And, her statement, “He told me all the things I’ve done” showed Jesus to be at the very least a prophet, but we know, as the omniscient God.
After spending two days with Jesus (a privilege that no Jewish village ever had) the Samaritans came to know that Jesus is indeed more than any other prophet; He is “the Savior of the world.” He is not only the Savior of the Jews, but also of any person of any nationality who believes in Him. That He is Savior means that people are lost and need saving. They don’t just need a few helpful hints for happy living. They need to be raised from the dead and given eternal life. In your witness, focus on who Jesus is. Encourage people to read the gospels and answer Jesus’ crucial question (Matt. 16:15), “But who do you say that I am?”
The woman invited the men of the village (4:29), “Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done.” They went, they saw Jesus, and they believed in Him. Jesus invites those burdened with sin (Matt. 11:28), “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” The entire Bible ends on this same note (Rev. 22:17), “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost.”
That’s God’s invitation to you: “Come to Jesus!” Are you burdened with sin? Come! Are you thirsty for the water of life? Come! Jesus gives living water freely to unworthy sinners like this Samaritan woman who come and ask Him for it. Then when they have come, He uses them as effective witnesses, inviting others to come to Jesus and live.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation