The famous dialog between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well is part of a series of beautifully crafted dialogs in the Fourth Gospel. Several themes appear repeatedly in this series.
Spiritual knowing or seeing is one theme. Jesus is operating on the highest spiritual plane and he works to lift others up—something that is successful only if people are open to learning from him.
Part of the advance in knowing is progression in identifying Jesus’ identity. Here he is a Jew, a giver of spiritual water, a possible Messiah, a prophet, the Savior of the world, and even the great “I am” as he declares, in vs. 26 that he is the coming Messiah with the words in Greek that are the same as the Greek Old Testament’s translation of “I am who I am” in Genesis.
Another theme of John’s Gospel is that Jesus serves despised people, such as women and Samaritans, by coming close to them. At one point it is said that his Jewish enemies think of Jesus as a demon-possessed Samaritan (8.48).
Perhaps the most problematic portion of this fascinating dialog is in verses 31-38 where the disciples urge Jesus to eat something but he replies that he has food they do not know about—the food of doing the Father’s will. Then he talks about sowing and harvest, urging the disciples to understand that the mission fields are already ripe for harvest and that he is sending them out “to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
I may be wrong, but I think Jesus is correcting the attitude not only of disciples, but of all in the life of the church who see themselves as laboring in the mission field. Time and again earnest church people have had to learn that they are indeed not God’s only hope. C.S. Lewis wrote somewhere that God can do it all without us. It is an “excellent absurdity” that God nonetheless lets us in on his works of love. So, in my years of ministry I have observed time and again that church people get it all wrong when they pretend that it is their fine doctrines, arguments, charisma and charm, their hard work or their very modern programs that are about to save the church from eradication from the face of the earth. We must save the church! We must save civilization!
But here Jesus is saying that the very most we can do is reap that for which we did not labor. The real work is going on while we are talking about other things and making other plans.
Life changing experiences sometimes happen in church as we know it, but more often not. City streets, offices, farm fields and wild forests all comprise God’s workshop. People are very often brought to their knees by the majesty and infinite love of God far away from formal prayers or candles and by things beyond the power of words or understanding. It is when people aren’t talking about God to others, but experiencing God face to face.
There are two hints in the Samaritan woman dialog as to the quality of such holy experiences: in verse 15 the woman, who still doesn’t fully understand what Jesus means by the water that gushes up to eternal life, pleads, “Sir, give me this water…” I think Jesus answers her plead when he speaks the truth about her life. He knows of the harshness of having had five husbands and now having to live with one who is not a husband. Surely a woman in such a predicament, in such a culture, would feel spiritually thirsty and without belonging.
I think this points to the fact that people thirst for honesty—for truthfulness—for understanding of their lives and their pain. This is one chief characteristic of the fundamental work that makes the harvest ripe.
Perhaps the ultimate characteristic is that of direct experience. The Samaritans from Sychar who heard the witness of the woman of the well ask Jesus to stay with them, which he does. We must remember that Jews and Samaritans don’t mix and don’t share things in common. But Jesus is laboring for a harvest.
The excellent absurdity is that then Jesus invites us to reap that for which we did not labor. Jesus, through the living, surprising Spirit, is meeting people all over the place. He empties himself of pride. He touches the pain. Through the Spirit he has direct and powerful experiences with people.
And so, when we speak of Jesus to people, we will not be able to explain him to them. We will not be able to make him real with our words of doctrine or liturgy or our very modern and powerful programs. People will have met him in surprising ways. Through Word and Sacrament, but, more certainly when they bump into generous grace and forgiveness–when they experience embodied mercy in the Church Invisible. And then they will recognize him in our words. It is then no longer because of what we say or do that they believe. It is when they experience Jesus for themselves that they will see he is the Savior of the world.
We should, of course, strive to un-programitize our ministry. We should make room for the unexpected. We should quit talking about the demise of the church and how it yearns for clever, modern people to make it work. We should keep our eyes open for those who are already thirsty and ripe for harvest. We should strive to point people to expect and make room for their own direct experience of Jesus.
And, by the way, we will be tempted to say that the water of eternal life is baptism. Wrong. The Baptism the church administers surely can point to it and it should do so if we administer it according to the Word of God. Let us now champion the sacraments by pointing not to the church’s work, but to God’s. To baptize the right way we see the ceremony as one moment in the baptizing saga of God, who carries that work forward, doing infinitely more in the life of the baptized than we can imagine. God gives the living, honest, healing, refreshing direct experience of Jesus that gushes up in all sorts of ineffable ways in a person’s life. The baptized then discovers that the Body of Christ itself much larger than any statistics will ever show or any walls or denominational structures can contain.
And so, all our baptizing and proselytizing, and all of our good work, is simply part of that excellent absurdity – the sheer grace of being let in on the deal and reaping that for which we did not labor.