Dr. Michael Milton, President and Professor of Practical Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NCA Sermon given at First Presbyterian Church, Chattanooga, Tennessee and scheduled to be included in a new book called Sacred Assembly: A Biblical Vision for the Church Today. This message includes Questions for Discussion and a prayer following, written by an elder or assistant minister at the church.
Introduction to the Reading
Do not give up hope for any sinner. Pray to God to savethem. Let not any conversion astonish you; be astonished rather, that anyoneshould possibly remain unconverted. – David Martyn Lloyd-Jones
Recently, my son and I went to the IMAX Theatre to see themovie “Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure,” the story of Sir Earnest Shackleton who went to the Antarctic. He truly went where no other man dared to go. InJohn 4, Jesus does the same. He goes to Samaria. As he goes, he surprises his disciples, the Samaritans, and maybe even you. If you are feeling like your life is a lost cause, or if you know someone who seems to be a lost cause, this Scripture is for you. Therefore, when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heardthat Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John (though Jesus Himself didnot baptize, but His disciples), He left Judea and departed again to Galilee. But He needed to go through Samaria. So He came to a city of Samaria which iscalled Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. NowJacob’s well was there. Jesus therefore, being wearied from His journey, sat thus by the well. It wasabout the sixth hour. A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her,”Give Me a drink.” For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.Then the woman of Samaria said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask adrink from me, a Samaritan woman?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is whosays to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” The woman said to Him, “Sir, You have nothing to drawwith, and the well is deep. Where then do You get that living water? Are You greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself,as well as his sons and his livestock?” Jesus answered and said to her, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that Ishall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.” The woman said to Him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor comehere to draw” (John 4:1-15). And at this point Hisdisciples came, and they marveled that He talked with a woman; yet no one said,”What do You seek?” or, “Why are You talking with her?” The woman then left herwaterpot, went her way into the city, and said to the men, “Come, see a Man whotold me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” Then they wentout of the city and came to Him. In the meantime His disciples urged Him,saying, “Rabbi, eat.” But He said to them, “I have food to eat of which you donot know.” Therefore the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought Himanything to eat?” Jesus said to them,”My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work. Do you not say, “There are still four months and thencomes the harvest’? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at thefields, for they are already white for harvest! (John 4:27-35). And many of the Samaritans of that city believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, “He told me all that I ever did.” When the Samaritans had come to Him, they urged Him to stay with them; and He stayed there two days. And many more believed because of His own word. Then they said to the woman, “Now we believe, not because of what you said, for we ourselves have heard Him and we know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world” (John 4:39-42).
God delights in bringing life from death.When I first moved to Kansas as a young adult, it waswinter. I looked across the expanse of that great state and saw nothing buthard, cold fields, and I wondered, With such conditions, how could this be thebreadbasket of America? I did not yet know the agricultural principles that produced enough bread to feed the world. One farmer told me about winter wheat.He said that under that land, there were seeds-seemingly dead, but possessinglife that was germinating under the blankets of snow-which would soon burst forth into a glorious golden field of grain.God brings life from death. God brings seeds to life under frozen fields.This is the way with souls. We write off as unreachable,unconvertible, those whose lives look the most dead. I did it myself when Iconsidered Albania to be a more biblical place to go than cold, dead, materialistic America.But God delights in bringing life from death. Since Godhas placed us in a unique time of unbelief, we may be prone to write off ournation. Therefore, we need to go to John 4 where Jesus brings new life to awoman at a well who has had a checkered past. But even more, the woman is a Samaritan; that is, she is part of that Northern Kingdom of Jews who had apostatized by mingling with the Gentiles. She is a half-breed, a misfit. Therewas as much racial and class prejudice then as there is now and as there always is wherever humans are. The disciples seem to dismiss the area and the woman.But Jesus sees what others miss, and in doing so, a woman is converted and acommunity is changed.What would happen with us and with those around us if wesaw things the way Jesus saw them? When we write people off as unreachable,aren’t we really selling the gospel short? We need to see that it is harvest time right now, that the post-Christian mind of our neighbors does not intimidate Almighty God. We need the gospel attitude that embraces the romance of the gospel-that anyone can be saved anytime and delivered from a life of sin and shame and their lives dramatically changed.How might we develop this attitude?
John 4:1-42 provides(1) a likeness to our own day as well as (2) lessons for our own lives.
The Likeness to Our Own Day
- The area is like America.
Sychar was once an area rich in biblical literacy. Note Jacob’s well in John 4:6. There were landmarks that pointed to a vibrant faith.Yet the people had, through sin, sunk into spiritual illiteracy. The other discipleswere not very interested in that area. But Sychar was of great interest to Jesus. He knew it was harvest time in that land. This is exactly the case in America today. Our landscapeis resplendent with the remnants of a once vital faith. Paul Johnson, in hisrecent History of the American People, reminds us that the record of America is open for all to read and that it is undeniablethat Christians founded this nation for the propagation of the gospel.Whether or not you agree with Paul Johnson, you surelycan’t deny that churches mark the very landscape of our nation. We are, as De Tocqueville wrote, a nation with the soul of achurch. America is a land teeming with remnants of a great faith and that faithis in Jesus Christ. If we approach our friends and our fellow countrymen withsympathy and with eyes of faith, maybe we will engage some in a discussion ofthe deeper things of life as Jesus did with the woman at the well.
- The main character in Sychar is like so many Americans.
She was a woman in sin, ignorant of true religion and ofthe great heritage of faith all around her, but she possessed some residualtruth about Messiah. Again, I say, this is the picture of our people. George Barna has polled Americans and found some veryinteresting but conflicting information. A great majority of Americans believein the divinity of Jesus Christ but do not follow Him. A great number know theGod words but lack saving faith. How can this be? It is because our people areso much like the woman at the well-living in sin, amassing a portfolio of painthrough broken relationships, bad decisions, and living life in a rut without God. But they know something. They have heard about Jesus and many of thempossess some decided ideas about Him, albeit far from the testimony ofScripture. We must reach these. We must engage them with the language they have and point to the truth of Jesus, the claims of Jesus, and the demand of Jesus to be Lord of all.
- The spiritually benumbed disciples are, sadly, like toomany Christians today.
Seemingly incapable of discerning the amazing harvest tobe had in this “frozen over” land, the disciples first go into the city to buyfood.When they find Jesus dialoging with this woman, they are amazed that he shouldbe speaking with “a woman yet, no onesaid, ‘What do You seek? Or, ‘Why are You talking with her?'”All of this underscores the thick-headed attitudes of the disciples toward thiscase.We, too, may be guilty of this. It is possible forChristians today, like the disciples of yesterday, to draw lines betweenChristians and others-as if this is the unalterable case in life. We have drawnfinely crafted lines between them and us, and too often we have withdraw into our own evangelical ghettos to the neglect of the souls of those around us.Years ago, I recall D. James Kennedy telling how he firstcame to share the gospel with someone. He was out on visitation with a layman.They went to the home of a fellow whose language and demeanor shouted that hewas an unbeliever. Kennedy nudged his companion and motioned that they shouldgo. The layman asked the young minister if he could continue to talk with theman. Within a few moments Kennedy witnessed the layman leading the rough-cutfellow to Christ. Kennedy learned that even those who appear the most unlikelyare candidates for God’s gracious salvation. He also learned the joy of beingGod’s instrument to lead them into eternal life.This was the way our Lord ministered to this woman at thewell. He went where no one else ventured. He saw through the pain, theheartache, and the problems of people’s lives. His gospel was more optimisticthan the religion of even his disciples.Oh beloved, it was harvest time with Jesus in Samaria, andit just may be harvest time today.
The Lessons for Our Own Day
- Christians should never become spiritually desensitizedto the plight of even the most hardened people!
…they marveled that He talked with a woman… (John 4:27).The disciples had done so,but Jesus optimistically seized the opportunity before Him! Jacob’s well led toa needy woman indicative of the people there, and her conversion led to revival in Sychar.Marcus Dods said, “They must have been ashamed to find how much more capable an apostle the woman [at the well] was than they.”How do you know when you become desensitized?¨ You become unable to discern divine opportunities when they are presented to you!…yet no one asked… (John 4:27).¨ You become unable to discern spiritual things and are satisfied with worldly food.In the meantime His disciples urged Him, saying, “Rabbi,eat.” But He said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know” (John4:31-32).I will never forget Dr. J.K. Pierce. Dr. Pierce was my boyhood pastor. His example, his teaching, and his commitment will last for mylifetime; and when God saved my soul, the savor of his memory was stronger than ever. My little church was a very desensitized place to be. There was not much happening. But then came Dr. Pierce, with his Christ-like vision of seeing what we couldn’t see. I recall that he addressed the church and said that if we wereto see genuine revival, we would have to go out to the hard places and the hard cases of our little rural community. That meant going to people like Dolly. Dolly lived way back in the woods. In her younger days, she was quite a rounder with the men; but as she grew older, she grew meaner. She lived in a place where IRS agents were rumored to have gone without ever returning. So, when Dr.Pierce asked a few deacons to join him on a trip to see Dolly, he didn’t get many takers. But some went, and they invited Dolly to church. I remember that Dolly sat next to Aunt Eva and me. I could sense her presence with my nostrils,if you know what I mean. But that Sunday, as the church was filled with broken,backward, hurting, sinful people, Dr. Pierce preached a glorious Christ whose life was offered to any who would receive Him and whose death on a cruel crosswould atone for any sin. That day Dolly was saved. And it was like a logjambreaking loose in a river. After that day God visited our little church, and many, many more people came to know the joy of forgiveness. Dr. Pierce moved on; but today there are many men in pulpits, many happy homes still in that community, a congregation of two hundred has turned into a church of two thousand,and there are countless souls in heaven praising God.
This leads me to ask you a question: Have you becomespiritually desensitized to the plight of the lost in your community? Could itbe that in you there might be just a little unbelief about what God can do? Ifso, confess it, get rid of it, and awaken to the glory of the gospel. There areDolly-like people everywhere. Find Dolly, tell Dolly, and let God do His glorious work.
- Christians should never forget the powerful capacity ofthe gospel message!
The disciples had seen Jesus transform water into wine at Cana but didn’t understand that transformed lives would be the greater miracle!But a woman at Sychar had encountered Jesus Christ, and she told others of her changed life.A.T. Robertson, the great Baptist expositor, wrote of this passage:
“So, he remained in Sychar in a continuous revival, a most unexpected experience when one recalls the feeling between the Jews and the Samaritans.The whole of the text teaches us some important lessons¨
The Gospel has the capacity to transform lives. And many of the Samaritans of that city believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, “He told me all that I ever did” (John 4:39). The Holy Spirit will take His own Word and find His target. He will move in places you never dreamed of. He will stir and prod and find those souls marked out by God’s great love and transform the hardest of hearts.¨ The Gospel has the capacity to transform communities and bring revival. When the Samaritans had come to Him, they urged Him to staywith them; and He stayed there two days. And many more believed because of Hisown word. Then they said to the woman, “Now we believe, not because of what you said, for we ourselves have heard Him and we know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world” (John4:40-42). In 1536, John Calvin had written his Institutes of the Christian Religion and knew the power ofthe gospel, but he still lacked a personal vision to see the gospel take hold of communities. It took a persistent William Farel to draw him to Geneva and put his faith where the rubber meets the road. It was then that Geneva enjoyed great revival.I want us to dream together…to dream about a church that is on fire with the reality of the risen Lord, that tells others about the power of God’s transforming grace, and that unleashes the stories of that grace in our community.I believe that we will reap a harvest when we againbelieve in a powerful and glorious Christ to save sinful men, even our own countrymen, in this Samaria of today!
- We must enter the harvest field with passion andexpectation!
Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work. Do you not say, ‘There are still four months and then comes the harvest’? Behold, Isay to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest!” (John 4:34-35). Robertson shows how Jesus’ passion is seen here: “The Messianic consciousness of Jesus is clear and steady in verse 34. He never doubted that the father had sent Him.”Jesus had a passionate understanding of his mission. The disciples did not have a passion for the lost like the Savior. They couldn’t see what He saw because they lacked His vision, His love, and His heart for the lost.When Jesus told His disciples, “Do you not say: ‘There are still four months and then comes the harvest?'” He was drawing a distinction between the material and the spiritual. Jesus said there was a harvest before them at that very moment. Did the whitened fields perhaps mean white-robed Sycharians coming to learn more about this Jesus who changed the woman at the well, as some have suggested? The Lord invites us to see past the ordinary, past the expected, beyond the natural, to the possibility that God will break in at anytime and change everything.While I interned at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, I was visiting a lady at a VA hospital in Miami. As I read the Bible to that lady, Ichose Romans 8:28, “All things work together for the good to those who love the Lord…”, I had noticed a lady in the bed next to my parishioner. She was cursing under her breath, seemed confused, and not at all capable of right thinking.She seemed near death and unable to reason through the gospel, so like a hardened disciple, I dismissed her. Then she popped up and said something that startled me. “Do you have anything in that book that can tell me how to die?” I regained my composure and said, “Yes…and how to live now and forever, too!” Tomake a long story short, the woman whom I had dismissed came to Christ. She changed right there in front of me. She became calm and happy-even radiant. She said, “Now what do I do?” I asked her, “Have you ever been baptized?” She said,”No. Do I need that?” About that time, the VA chaplain walked in. I immediately told him about this woman and her need of baptism. He announced, “Well, I am a PCA minister. Can I be of help?” The woman was saved, baptized, discipled, and soon afterwards died, a Christian woman with a great testimony.I had entered that hospital room with no passion for that woman and no expectation for her soul, and look what happened! My beloved, God is powerful and His plans are immutable.Believe. Then, go with a passion for the lost and with an expectation for whatGod can do.
We have learned in John 4 that we must:
Never become spiritually desensitized to the plight of sinners. Never forget the powerful capacity of the gospel to transform even the hardest of human souls. Enter the harvest field with passion and expectation.
²Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones summed up the power of this passage as well as I have ever read when he preached these words:
“We tend to regard certain people as being ‘beyond hope’,and assume that they must of necessity continue in their grooves as they areand die unrepentant and unredeemed. We just shake our heads over them and sorrow. We have talked to them and tried to persuade them. We have them and preached to them. Everything that human agency can possibly do has been tried and has failed. We cannot get them to come our way, so we feel that their case is hopeless and desperate. Ah! What lack of faith all that reveals! How different from what we find here in the New Testament and always during days of revival and true faith! If you and I are to save men , then indeed the case is hopeless. All our efforts will most surely fail . But that is not our Gospel. It is Jesus Christ who saves! There is no limit to what He can do! His methods are not confined as ours are. There are no set and definite ways where He is concerned. Ah! What a shock those Jews must have had when they found those gentiles suddenly converted! And what glorious shocks do we also get here from time to time! Straight from paganism to Christ! Yes, quite easily, for there is no limit at all. He creates anew. His power is endless. Do not give up hope for any sinner. Pray to God to save them. Let not their conversions astonish you; be astonished rather, that anyone should remain unconverted.”²
It’s harvest time-now and always-since the Lord Jesus has ascended into Heaven and until He comes again. There are some imperatives for you and me because of it: Don’t leave until you are certain that your attitudes about the power of the Gospel are biblical. If you are here and you have never truly tasted of the living waters of Jesus Christ, repent and believe and receive the miracle of His gospel into your own life. He knows your past, your pain, and offers you a prospect of a future youonly dreamed existed. If you are a Christian, be comforted in that your lost loved ones are not that our great God and Savior cannot save them.Pray for the harvest of souls in this community and in our nation.
Questions for Reflection
1. In what ways did this hardened Samaritan woman have more insight than Jesus’ own disciples?
2. Are you astonished that anyone would remain unconverted? How does that square with your theology?
3. Think of someone whom you are tempted to dismiss as unreachable by the gospel. Begin to pray that God might use you to reach them.
4. How can God use unplanned encounters with people as opportunities to share the Gospel? Are you looking for these opportunities or are you spiritually desensitized to them?
5. Have you ever felt that you were a lost cause? How does the Samaritan woman’s encounter with Jesus encourage you?
Jesus, you love lost people. Thank you for loving a sinner like me and reaching out to me when I did not deserve it. Help me believe one is beyond the reach of your gospel. Give me a sense of enthusiasm forlost causes. Help me love people like you do by telling them your Good News.Thank you that I matter to you. May I, too, love lost causes. Amen.
 John 4:8 John 4:27 John 4:27, 31, 33 John 4:40 Marcus Dods,The Expositor’s Bible, vol 1, “TheGospel of St. John,” (London: Hodder and Stoughton) 102. Iain H.Murray, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The First Forty Years 1899-1939, (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982)226-227.