See what can come out of a brief, but powerful, conversation with a stranger?
After meeting Jesus and realizing he’s a prophet, this Samaritan woman he met at Jacob’s Well tried to get him to settle a theological dispute—namely which temple was the correct one, the one at Shechem or the one at Jerusalem.
But since Jesus appeared to side with the Judeans,
John 4.25 KWL
- The woman told Jesus, “I know Messiah comes, who’s called Christ.
- Whenever he comes, he’ll explain everything to us.”
As I’ve said previously, Samaritans didn’t believe in a Judean-style Messiah. Their bible only went up to Deuteronomy, so no Messianic prophecies. They believed in the Tahéb/“coming one,” a prophet-like-Moses
Her response was a bit apathetic. “Till Messiah/Taheb comes to explain God to us, meh: Who’s to say who’s right?”
Hence Jesus’s response.
John 4.26 KWL
- Jesus told her, “I am the one speaking to you.”
Yeah, various skeptics insist Jesus never called himself Messiah. That it was an idea added to Christianity decades later by overzealous Christians. Probably Paul; they like to blame Paul for all the parts of Christianity they don’t like. Ignoring the fact Paul’s letters were written first—if Paul hadn’t spread Christianity in the first place, they’d have nothing to nitpick, redefine, and reshape to suit themselves. Can’t have Christ without his Christians.
True, Jesus doesn’t flat-out say, “I’m Messiah.” You say that in that day and age, you get killed for treason. Instead Jesus makes it as clear as he can while having plausible deniability (not that he ever denied it
John 4.27-30 KWL
- 27 At this point, Jesus’s students came back.
- They were wondering why he was speaking with a woman.
- Yet nobody said, “What’re you asking?” or “Why are you speaking with her?”
- 28 So the Samaritan left her jar and went back into the town.
- She told the people, “Come see a person who told me everything I’ve done!
- It’s not Christ, is it?”
- 30 They came out of the town, and were coming to him.
Like I said, saying “Messiah” might get you killed for treason. So maybe the Samaritan used that word (which John translated “Christ”), and maybe she said Tahéb (which John likewise translated “Christ.”) Can’t say for certain. Again, doesn’t matter. It got the Samaritans’ attention, and they came to check him out for themselves.
The students return.
As John related, at the point Jesus indicated who he was to the Samaritan, his kids came back from getting food in town.
Commentators like to point out they didn’t ask the woman. They presume the students were, like most Pharisees, bigoted against Samaritans: Pharisees, who wanted to stay in a state of constant ritual cleanliness, steered clear of gentiles—lest they touch them, and render them unclean. And most of ’em also steered clear of women, because you never knew when a woman was suffering her time of the month, which also rendered them ritually unclean.
Commentators often forget to point out they didn’t ask Jesus either. ’Cause both the questions John posits—“What’re you asking?” and “Why are you speaking with her?”—were directed to Jesus. Not the woman. They didn’t question Jesus. And that’s a bigger deal, because it has to do with the way rabbis taught students.
In our schools, usually teachers lecture and students listen. Shouldn’t be usual, ’cause it’s not the most effective learning method. But it requires the least effort of a teacher—and it’s traditional. So, overworked teachers use it as their go-to method. Pastors too.
But in first-century synagogues, rabbis would bring up the topic, then have the students ask him the questions. After all, he had all the answers; they didn’t. Students were expected to come up with questions. Especially when the rabbi did something out of the ordinary: It’s an old teaching trick to do something outrageous, or out of the ordinary, to prompt discussion. Rabbis would pull such stunts all the time—like violate proper decorum—thus prompting their students to ask why they were acting like a heel. Thus the rabbi could instruct ’em on why they ought to behave that way.
But here, Jesus’s students had no questions for their rabbi. Four possible reasons.
- They were embarrassed. This one’s popular with commentators: The students, seeing Jesus ignore tradition, found it shocking… and decided to “politely” pretend nothing was happening, let the moment pass, and never speak of it again. The reason I don’t buy it is because it implies Jesus’s students had never seen him pull such a stunt before—and true, he hadn’t yet in John. But Jesus was hardly the first rabbi they’d ever met. And I expect they did know him well enough to recognize this behavior. Which leads us to reason number #2:
- This was nothing new. Y’see, Jesus followed the Law so well, he never, ever sinned.
He 4.15But obviously Jesus didn’t give a wet slap about Pharisee traditions. He broke their customs all the time. Right in front of ’em. Made ’em crazy, too. So Jesus interacting with inappropriate people was hardly new behavior. The students would’ve been used to it by now, and may not have realized Jesus would follow up with a new lesson.
- They weren’t gonna accuse him. “What’re you asking?” and “Why are you speaking with her?” can be interpreted, not as curious inquiries, but accusations. As we see elsewhere in the gospels, accusations were a pretty common Pharisee behavior: Whenever they saw someone behave “inappropriately,” they challenged them. Challenged Jesus a bunch of times. Ostensibly to nudge him away from sin, but really to show off how they’d never do such things. You know, that uniquely hypocritical mixture of pretending to be concerned, but actually being self-righteous. In comparison, Jesus’s kids didn’t do such a thing, ’cause they knew their Master. If Jesus flouted Pharisee custom, it was because Jesus rightly thought the customs were stupid—and in some cases, the customs even violated the Law.
- They were tired. It was the middle of the day, they’d just haggled for lunch, and they didn’t want a lesson right then. They wanted to sit, drink some water, eat some falafel, take a big fat nap till the heat died down, then get back on the road to Galilee. If they realized a lesson was coming, they possibly thought—as kids will—“If we just keep quiet, maybe he’ll drop it, and we’ll get out of it.” Yeah right.
Either way, questions began—as we’ll see in verse 31—as soon as the woman was out of earshot.
Planting and harvesting a crop in an hour.
In between the Samaritan leaving, and the Samaritan returning with a big crowd of gawkers, this happened.
John 4.31-38 KWL
- 31 The students were saying, between questions, “Rabbi, eat.”
- 32 Jesus told them, “You don’t realize I have food to eat.”
- 33 So the students asked one another, “Nobody brought him food, right?”
- 34 Jesus told them, “My food is I can do my Sender’s will, and finish his work.
- 35 Don’t you say, ‘The harvest is coming in four more months’?
- Look, I tell you. Raise your eyes and see the land. It’s white with harvest.
- 36 Reapers are already earning their pay, and gather fruit
- for life in the age to come, where planters can rejoice together with harvesters.
- 37 Hence the saying is true: ‘One is the planter; another is the harvester.’
- 38 I sent you to harvest where you hadn’t worked.
- Another had worked. And you entered into their work.”
Initially the students took, “I have food to eat” literally—did someone bring the Master food? But of course Jesus meant it metaphorically. He does love his metaphors.
His food is to do his Sender’s will—by whom he means his Father.
A lot of interpreters (who’re just as foolish as the kids in the story) take Jesus’s “Four more months” literally and assume he meant the time of year, four months before harvest time. Of course it’s not what he meant. He was quoting a common saying among barley-growers. See, for many grains, planting and harvesting are six months apart. For barley it was only four. In four months—two months sooner than expected—the stalks were no longer green, but “white.” (Well, whiter than green.) So barley farmers would remind one another: Four more months. Not six.
With the Samaritans, there wouldn’t even be a four-month wait. They were coming. Jesus’s seeds were bearing fruit immediately.
Now, contrast this event with what popular Christian culture insists on claiming: Sometimes it takes years before the “seeds” we plant ever come to anything.
This is not something the gospels, nor Acts, nor any of the apostles teach us. When Jesus or the apostles proclaimed the gospel, they either got converts immediately, or within the time-period they were gonna minister or preach there. And if they didn’t, they shook the dust off their feet and moved on. They weren’t gonna wait years for people to finally wake up and change their minds. ’Cause (in the apostles’ case) Jesus could return at any time. Don’t put off the time of salvation. Save yourself from this corrupt generation.
So why do we insist it’ll take years? ’Cause we hate the idea our preaching has fallen on deaf ears. We hate the thought we’ve just thrown pearls to pigs.
No, I’m not trying to make you give up hope. By all means, keep sharing Jesus with the holdouts. But the scriptures demonstrate that what we should usually see are instant harvests. Not longtime fertilizing, pruning, tending, and waiting for fruit. After a point, we gotta move on.
In this story, we have yet another instant harvest. One conversation with the right person evangelized a whole town. What we gotta do is not be so narrow-minded, we dismiss the right person—in this case, some weird, hapless, half-gentile heretic who was using an odd well at an odd time of day. The students missed her. Jesus didn’t, and never does.
In farming cultures, if you planted it, you usually expected to harvest it. You didn’t expect someone else to—unless some disaster overtook you,
Replace secondhand experiences with firsthand experiences.
The Samaritans of Sykhár came to see Jesus for themselves, and concurred—he was Christ. (“Christ”
John 4.39-42 KWL
- 39 Many Samaritans from that town believed in Jesus
- due to the message the woman shared: “He told me everything I’ve done.”
- 40 The Samaritans came to Jesus, asking him to stay with them.
- He stayed there two days, 41 and many more believed because of his message.
- 42 They told the woman, “We no longer believe because of your say-so; we’ve heard him.
- We realize this is truly the Christ, the one who saves the world.”
Most Christians commend the Samaritans for coming to check out Jesus for themselves. They like the idea it wasn’t enough for the Samaritans to just take the woman’s word for it; they needed to encounter Jesus personally, and base their belief on that. Not that the woman’s testimony was irrelevant. (It did get ’em to the well!) It’s just it’d been superseded by personal experience.
Funny thing, though: Even though they like how the Samaritans went about it, many of these very same Christians turn round and object to people who aren’t satisfied with taking the scriptures’ word for it, and wanna pursue their own personal experiences with Jesus.
“Personal experience?” they object. “No, no! Devil will trick you and lead you astray! Personal experience is too subjective, too insubstantial, too open to interpretation. Don’t base your faith on that. Base it on scripture. Only the bible is concrete and safe. We can’t trust personal experience.” You know… the opposite of what we commend the Samaritans for doing.
No, I’m not bashing nor dismissing the bible. But it is a secondhand experience. A totally reliable secondhand experience, tested over centuries by generations of Christians. But it serves the same purpose as the Samaritan woman: It informs us, “There’s a man who healed the sick, defeated dark forces, and preached good news to the poor. It’s not Christ, is it?”
And then we come to him, and see for ourselves, and tell the bible, “We no longer believe because of your say-so; we’ve heard him.”
This is not a rejection of the bible. ’Cause the Samaritans didn’t reject the woman! They appreciated her—and we appreciate the scriptures. When we lack experiences, we look to the scriptures. We see what’s possible. (And correct where we’ve gone off track.) Then we try it—and learn from Jesus himself, and continue to pursue those firsthand experiences.
Christians who reject the firsthand experience, who shoo fellow Christians away from them, are just like those Samaritans in Sykhár who didn’t come see Jesus for themselves. ’Cause John doesn’t say the entire town came to see him, and doesn’t say the entire town believed. Many believed. Others didn’t care. Or doubted the Tahéb would be from Judea or the Galilee.
So what’s our excuse?
The one who saves the world.
It took the first Christians a while to realize Messiah wasn’t gonna only save Israel. He came for the entire world.
Even though both John the baptist and Jesus said so several times. The Lamb takes away the world’s sin.
But the Samaritans got it. Jesus flat-out told them so. Remember, he told the Samaritan woman it wasn’t relevant where God was worshiped, but how—in spirit and truth.
When you’re from an outcast tribe or caste or lifestyle, and God comes near, you tend to see how truly worldwide the gospel, and the kingdom, is. When you’re not, it’s a little too easy to grow that blind spot. Happened to Jews in the first century; happens to Americans in the 21st. We assume, like the pagans do, God only cares about good people—however we define good. Good behavior, good ancestry, good theology—all the stuff God doesn’t care about, for we only expect God to save those we consider worthy. He considers the world worthy.
God’s kingdom is way more diverse than our own little clique. Let’s stop being so provincial about it.