March 20, 1994
“Do you not say, “Four months more and then comes the harvest”? I tell you, open your eyes and look on the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying, “One sows and another reaps” is true. 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 labor.” John 4:35-38
It was a hot day in Palestine, and the sun beat down on the man’s head. The sweat was pouring off his brow. It was probably mid to late-July when the temperature can top out at over 105 degrees. To make matters worse, he had been traveling with his friends since sunrise. Now the sun was directly overhead. They were hurrying to make their way through this part of the country as quickly as possible.
He came to a well with a rock edge built up above the ground in the typical manner of the Middle East. He sat on the lip and wished to himself, “O, if only I could have a drink of water.”
At precisely that moment, the woman came along. It wasn’t the normal time, and it was unusual for a woman to come to a well alone. But this woman was different. The Bible says she came from the tiny village of Sychar. We know basically where Sychar was. It was in Samaritan territory, nestled between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. Sychar was built at the confluence of two trade routes, one which came up from Jerusalem on its way to Capernaum, and one which came west from the Jericho region toward the Mediterranean Sea. Sychar was thus located at a very strategic point in central Palestine.
The well was about one-half mile from a town near the point where the two trade routes came together. It was called Jacob’s Well, after the patriarch who had first dug it some 2000 years earlier. Weary travelers from throughout Israel knew it as a place where they might drink from the spring flowing some 150 feet below the surface.
When Jesus saw the woman coming, he said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” The woman was shocked because she was a Samaritan and she recognized that he was a Jew. In that day, the Samaritans and the Jews didn’t have anything to do with each other. It would not be too much to say they hated each other. The Jews looked down on the Samaritans as half-breeds. The Samaritans returned the favor and couldn’t stand the Jews. For a Jew to talk to a Samaritan was quite a breach of etiquette. For a Jewish man to talk to a Samaritan woman was even worse. For a Jewish man like Jesus who obviously had some education to talk with a Samaritan woman who obviously came from the wrong side of the tracks—that was a total breach of everything that was good and proper, and the woman was shocked.
But Jesus struck up a conversation with her anyway. He said, “If you knew who I am, you would ask me and I would give you living water.” That led to a discussion about what he meant by “living water.” At length, the woman said, “Sir, I would like you to give me some living water?” At which point Jesus said, “Go call your husband and come back.” He wasn’t being flippant or evasive. His question was a double-edged question meant to touch her at the point of her need. Jesus knew (with the supernatural knowing that comes from being the Son of God) that the woman had no husband, which fact she readily admitted. But she wasn’t prepared for what he was about to say next. “You are right when you say you have no husband. In fact, you have had five husbands, and the man with whom you are living is not your husband.”
Boom! It was a direct hit on her heart. Jesus knew all about her past, had known even before he spoke the first word to her. Now she knows that he knows.
With two sentences, the Lord Jesus revealed the sickness in her life.
Her great desire for love and affection and security had caused her to go from one man to another desperately seeking something, anything to fill the emptiness within. She has many 20th-century brothers and sisters who do the same thing, hopping from one relationship to another, hoping that this one will be the one.
I pause to say that this woman must have been beautiful or at least possessed of some native charm to have attracted the attention of six men. She must have been witty and fun to be with, the kind of woman who makes a man feel at home. I do not think it unfair to suggest that she had known many men in her time, or to suggest that many men knew her.
That fact may explain why she comes alone to the well at noontime. Perhaps the other women knew all about her and wanted nothing to do with her. It wouldn’t be the first time that has happened.
The conversation moved to a discussion of true worship. Finally the moment comes when she is about to leave. Her final comment is, “When the Messiah comes, he will explain all these things to us.” Jesus said, “I who speak to you am he.” With that she put her waterpot down and began the journey back to Sychar, changed forever by the words of Jesus Christ.
The Woman Who Knew Every Man
When she got back into town, she found the men of the town and told them, “Come meet a man who told me everything I ever did.” Given this woman’s checkered past, that comment must have stirred much interest. You will not be surprised to know that the men of the town knew this woman very well. Every man knew this woman, or knew of her reputation.
“Could this man be the Messiah?” The Greek expression implies a negative answer while hoping for a positive. We might translate it, “Could this man, perhaps, be the Messiah?” She thinks so, she hopes so, she’s not sure. She doesn’t fully understand who Jesus is. But she knows that he is completely different from all the other men in her life. He wasn’t out to use her and then throw her away. He was different. That much she knew. And in her heart, she suspects the truth. She has met the Messiah!
Meanwhile, as this woman is talking to the men and bringing them back to meet Jesus, at that very moment, the disciples, who had been in Sychar buying bread, and who no doubt passed her on the road as she made her way back into town, return to the well. They see the waterpot, but the woman is gone, so they have no inkling of the conversation that took place.
So the disciples have a discussion with Jesus about food. While Jesus is talking with his men about food, the woman has rounded up her men friends and is even now bringing them back to Jacob’s Well to meet Jesus. As the men from Sychar make their way, they pass fields of ripening corn on either side of the road. Harvest time is almost here.
Waiting for the Harvest
Thus the scene is set for the words of our text. Jesus said to his disciples, “Do you not say, ’Four months more and then the harvest.’” Evidently Jesus was referring to some proverbial expression that was common in those days. It was a rural saying the farmers would use as they waited for the crops to ripen.
If you’ve ever done any planting or gardening, you understand this saying immediately. It takes a long time to get from the planting to the harvesting.
You don’t plant today and harvest tomorrow. Things have to happen in a certain order.
First you plow the field, then you dig up the weeds, then you pull out the rocks, then you prepare the soil, then you plant the seed, then you water, then you fertilize, then you water some more. Finally, you wait. That’s the hardest part of farming. The waiting. At first it seems as if nothing is happening. Then after a few days a little green shoot pokes its head through the soil. Then the real battle begins as you fight off drought, bugs, insects, hail, marauding animals, and little children who want to play in the garden. You do all that, and still you wait. A week, two weeks, three weeks, four weeks, one month, two months, three months, four months. Then the harvest finally comes.
That’s what Jesus is talking about. In the natural realm, things follow a certain course. You plant, you wait, you harvest. You plant, you wait, you harvest. You plant, you wait, you harvest. Waiting is a part of farming. If you can’t wait, you can’t be a good farmer.
That explains this saying Jesus refers to. The farmers knew all about waiting, so they would say among them-selves, “Four months ‘til harvest time.” It was just a tip of the hat to the annual cycle of planting, waiting and harvesting. It really meant, “Harvest comes in four months, and there is really nothing we can do to hurry the process along. We’ve planted, we’ve watered, now all we can do is wait. If we wait long enough, the harvest will come in.”
Now that’s not a bad philosophy of life if you are a farmer. In fact, you probably won’t survive unless you look at life that way. Farming calls out all the best qualities in a man, not the least of which is patience.
You plant … you wait … you harvest. It’s a fundamental rule of farming.
And Jesus said no. In the spiritual realm, that is not the way it works. You don’t sit around waiting for the harvest to come in. You open your eyes, you look on the fields, and you see that the fields are ripe already for harvest.
Now the picture. Here’s Jacob’s Well. Jesus and his men are gathered around it talking about food. Up the road, just a quarter-mile away, comes a whole group of people. It’s the woman from Sychar and the men she met in town. There’s a big group of men. Maybe 50 or 60 in all. Most of the men in town are following her.
When Jesus says, “The fields are white for harvest,” he wasn’t looking at the corn fields. He was watching that group of Samaritan men making their way up the road, their robes and turbans glistening while in the sun. They were the fields white for harvest. Not the wheat or the grain. Sychar was the harvest field and the men of Sychar were ready to be harvested for the kingdom of God.
At first the disciples were baffled. Their minds were moving on a lower track. They thought Jesus was talking about crops of grain—like corn or wheat. At first they couldn’t make the connection. They didn’t see that when Jesus was talking about the harvest he was talking about a harvest of men coming into the kingdom of God.
Get the picture. The world is like a giant harvest field and the cities and town of the world are filled with men and women who need to be harvested for the kingdom. As the white-turbaned men of Sychar come closer and closer, the message sinks in. Don’t say, “Four months and then the harvest comes.” Open your eyes! The harvest is walking up the road.
The fields of humanity are ripe to be harvested.
Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not next month. Not next year. But today! Right here! Right now!
No Time to Whittle
If you’ve ever worked on a farm, you know that when the harvest comes, you’ve got to get busy. When the harvest comes, if you’re doing something else, you’ve got to put that something else aside. When the harvest comes, if you’re messing with the chickens, you’ve got to forget the chickens and get out into the harvest field. If you’re sitting around whittling, you’ve got to put your whittling aside. If you’re trying to put together your budget for next year, you’ve got to put your figures aside and get the grain into the barn. When the harvest comes, if you’re just sitting around watching football on TV, you’ve got to turn off the TV, pick up your sickle and head for the fields.
When harvest time comes, everything else must be set aside. Nothing else matters at that point. Nothing else is as urgent, as necessary, as getting to the harvest fields while they are white for harvest. Why? Because harvest time doesn’t last forever. The wheat ripens, the corn matures, the vegetables swell to their full adult size. But if you don’t get out into the fields while they are white, the crop rots on the vine.
Jesus said, “The fields are white for harvest.” He was talking about men and women who need to be reached for his kingdom.
They Brought Back the Bread She Brought Back the Men
Let me make two observations about this text. First, the woman of Sychar saw something the disciples completely missed. Where did the disciples go to get bread? They went to Sychar, of course. It was the nearest village, about one-half mile from Jacob’s Well. Those men who had been with Jesus went into Sychar to buy bread because they were hungry. They didn’t see the harvest at all. All they saw was the bread. Their eyes were in their stomachs so they walked right past the harvest without ever seeing it. They went to Sychar to fill their empty stomachs. When they got their bread, they left the village, never dreaming that they were walking through a harvest field of men ready to enter the kingdom of God. Their appetites had blinded them to the greater spiritual reality.
These men who knew so much missed the harvest altogether because they weren’t looking for it. All they could see was bread for their tummies. Nothing else mattered. They went to Sychar and came back with bread. They got their bread and went back to their business.
But this forgotten, fallen woman—this woman who lived a life of brokenness and despair, this woman with whom we would not want to have very much contact, this woman who wouldn’t fit into upper class society—this woman went into the very same town. While they brought back the bread, she brought back the men.
She saw the harvest, and the theologically astute disciples missed it altogether.
In life you go after what you can see. If bread is what you see, then that’s what you’re going to go after. If money is what you see, that’s what you’re going to go after. If career advancement is what you see, then that’s what you’re going to go after. If climbing the ladder is what you see, then that’s what you are going to go after.
But if you see the harvest of men and women ready to come to Jesus, then that is what you are going to go after. It is an unvarying rule of life: What you see is what you pursue.
The disciples didn’t see the harvest, so they didn’t bother going after it. This unlikely woman saw the harvest, and she brought it back to the Savior.
“Let’s Skip Sychar”
Second, this story shows us that spiritual receptivity is not always apparent on the surface. Suppose the disciples had decided to take a mission survey of Sychar. What do you suppose they would have found? What if Peter and John had decided to appoint a Samaria Mission Survey Team. They would say to themselves, “Before we spend too much time in Samaria, let’s find out how receptive these people are. After all, we don’t want Jesus spending time in places where he is not appreciated.” So they appoint Bartholomew, Thaddeus, James the Less, and Matthew to go into Sychar to do some preliminary work. They say, “Go and get the data and then we’ll make a decision about the proper strategy for Sychar.” So off they go to Sychar. They talk to people, take some surveys, ask a few key questions, and then compile their data. What do you suppose their report would say? Easy. It would say, “Forget it! Don’t waste time in Sychar. These people are a bunch of knuckleheads. They don’t even use the right kind of Bible. They don’t even worship on the right mountain. They really are a bunch of half-breeds. Besides, they hate Jews and since the Boss is a Jew, it just won’t work out. We’d better wait for awhile. We’d better pray and look for a better opportunity.”
That’s what the survey would have said. And humanly speaking, that would be correct. On the outside, there was no reason to think that Sychar was ready for the gospel.
But Jesus knew otherwise! He says, “Fellows, you’ve missed the whole point. This woman understands something you’ve never figured out. There’s a harvest in that town, and that woman is bringing the harvest in.” Jesus is saying, “There are some people I love in Sychar. There are some people I’m going to die for. There are people in Sychar who are going to hell, and I can’t let that happen. I won’t just stand here and let the people of Sychar go to hell. While you guys are filling your stomachs, this woman has figured out what is closest to my heart. And I didn’t even have to tell her.”
Where are the White Fields?
Jesus told the disciples, “My food is to do the will of my Father and to finish the work he gave me to do.” And one big part of finishing that work is going out into the Sychars of this world, to the forgotten and hopeless places, to the broken people we pass by everyday, and bringing back men and women for Jesus Christ.
The message for today is simple: The fields are white already for harvest. Our greatest problem is that we don’t believe what Jesus said is true. When we look around, we don’t see any white fields. We see fields filled with weeds and overgrown with vines. We see the depravity of man on every hand. We see killing and hatred and broken vows. We see violence and greed and corruption in high places. We see selfish people. We see man’s inhumanity to man. But we don’t see the fields white for harvest. We see the world as a spiritually hopeless place. To us, the world looks like Sychar.
We look at the world around us, and we find that it’s hard to witness for Christ. People aren’t spiritually receptive. We reach out to our neighbors and they turn us away. We speak up at work and get in trouble for it. We try to share the gospel with our loved ones but they want no part of it. We invite our friends to Crossroads but they aren’t interested. The conclusion is clear: There are no white fields anywhere near us. No wonder we say, “Four months and then comes the harvest.”
We don’t understand that the fields are as white today as they have ever been.
The harvest is coming in all around us, and we are completely blind to it, because our eyes are focused on other things.
The “Cut-Flower” Generation
Please understand. I’m not suggesting that the world is rushing to find the Lord. Quite the opposite is true. We live in a morally bankrupt generation. Right after World War II, Elton Trueblood, the Quaker philosopher, said that Western society has become like a “cut flower.” When you see a cut flower, the bloom at the top looks beautiful. But if you follow the stem, you’ll discover that the flower has been cut off from its roots. And in just a few days, that flower will begin to wither and die.
That’s what has happened in Western society. We have been cut off from our Christian roots. We have the flower but we don’t have the roots. What Elton Trueblood said in 1946 has come true. He predicted that a generation would arise with no biblical roots at all, and because of it, American moral values would begin to wither and die. It began to happen with the revolutionary decade of the 60s, continued into the Me Decade of the 70s and the Greed Decade of the 80s. What do we have in the 1990s? Strangely enough, we have a generation that is returning to many traditional forms.
It’s called Neatraditionalism. The current issue of Insight (October 14, 1991) magazine has a cover story called “The Neotrads.” The Neotrads are Baby Boomers who are returning to some practices of former generations. What is Neotraditionalism?
It has another name: getting back to basics. Back to religion. Back to the land. Back to the family. Back to simplicity. Back to gracious living. Back to home cooking. No more materialism. No more ostentation. No more me-generation. (p. 11)
That sounds good. But listen to the rest of the story. “It’s about having it all and giving up nothing.” Neotrads want a condo in the city and a house in the country. They want a two-income family and two or three children. They want big weddings but they don’t want a lifetime marriage.
In short, they want the form without the substance, the style without the reality. They want the trappings of an older way of life without the moral values that go with it. For instance, “they can set up a ’traditional’ family for their child that actually consists of Mom and her lesbian lover during the week and Dad, his new wife and her kids by her first husband on alternate weekends.” (p. 15) Or, they can “affiliate with a ’traditional’ religion while rejecting doctrines and moral precepts that seem too fanciful or onerous for the nineties.” (p. 15)
We’re living in an age where conspicuous consumption has been joined with a return to traditional forms. That’s what Neotraditionalism is all about. You really can have it all.
Liz Ties the Knot—Again!
By the way, do you know who is getting married today? That’s right. Elizabeth Taylor is getting married for the 8th time today. Later this afternoon she will marry former construction worker Larry Fortensky in a huge ceremony at Michael Jackson’s ranch in Southern California. All the beautiful people will be there—at least the lucky ones who have been able to wrangle an invitation. The tabloids are calling it the “social event of the decade,” which is significant considering the decade is not yet two years old. Turn on any of those “infotainment” shows like Entertainment Tonight and Inside Edition, and Liz’s wedding is all they can talk about. It’s the hottest story in years.
Liz met Mr. Fortensky at the Betty Ford Clinic in Palm Springs. I hate to be a pessimist, but if I were him, I wouldn’t be making plans for my fifth anniversary. The London bookmakers agree. They’ve posted 15:8 odds against the wedding lasting 3 years, 12:1 odds that the marriage won’t last 10 years, and 33:1 odds against the wedding lasting 25 years.
There are many unique aspects to this wedding: They say that Bubbles, Michael Jackson’s pet chimpanzee, will dress up in a tux and act as the ring-bearer. A former Israeli commando leader will be in charge of security. Listen to how much Michael Jackson is spending on the wedding:
Food and Wine $150,000
Five-tier cake $2,000
Silver wedding bells $150,000
Ballroom antiques $125,000
Tropical garden $200,000
(Figures from USA Today, Friday, October 4, 1991, p. 6D)
That’s a lot of money to spend on a wedding, especially on an 8th wedding.
But that shouldn’t surprise us. It fits with the mood of the times. It’s conspicuous consumption joined with a return to traditional forms. What Liz Taylor is doing is just an exaggerated version of what all modern couples do nowadays.
Big Weddings Are Back
Did you know that big weddings are back in style? According to Bride’s magazine, the average American wedding in 1990 cost $16,144. That’s more than half the median income of the American family. The trend is toward “the enormous wedding whose size and expense seem to be in inverse proportion to the life expectancy of the marriage itself.” In the words of Judith Martin, the syndicated Miss Manners, “there’s a show business mentality. People want a spectacle to end all spectacles.” (Insight, p. 13)
But that’s not the worst of it. If the marriage does not last, then they can do what Liz has done. Repeat it until you get it right. And if it takes eight times, that’s okay because then you can have eight huge weddings, each one bigger than the last.
Weddings are “in” today. Big, splashy weddings are “in” today. What Liz Taylor is doing is “in.” That’s the trend of things in the 90s.
Form Without Substance
What does it mean? Elton Trueblood is right. We have become a “cut-flower” generation. We have the form but not the substance, the outward trappings without the inward reality. We have the style down cold, but we’ve missed the meaning altogether. We do great weddings; we don’t do so good at marriage. Big weddings would be okay if they produced lasting marriages, but they don’t. They’re not even intended to.
Which is why some people are getting married three or four or even five times. Form without substance.
The Children Pay the Price
And what has it produced? This week I ran across a report called “One Day in the Lives of America’s Children.” Here is a part of that report:
Every day in the USA:
•2,995 teens get pregnant
•372 teens miscarry
•1,106 teens have abortions
•1,295 teens give birth
•27 children die from poverty
•10 children are killed by guns
•30 children are wounded by guns
•6 teenagers commit suicide
•135,000 children bring a gun to school
•7,742 teenagers become sexually active
•625 teenagers get syphilis or gonorrhea
•211 children are arrested for drug abuse
•437 children are arrested for drinking or for drunken driving
•1,512 teens drop out of school
•1,849 children are abused or neglected
•3,288 children run away from home
•1,629 children are in adult jails
•2,556 children are born out of wedlock
•2,989 children see their parents divorced
(Statistics from The Almanac of the Christian World, 1991-1992 edition, p.779)
We have the form today, but we don’t have the substance.
We’re good at big weddings; we’re lousy at good marriages. We know how to get married; we don’t have a clue about how to stay married.
And our children pay the price.
Do you know why we’re spending so much on weddings today. It’s not just for show. There’s an emptiness within, and we hope that by doing the form right, perhaps we will find the substance we desperately seek.
This generation is thirsty for deep spiritual reality.
People are turning back to the forms of the past, even though they don’t have the meaning that attaches to the forms, because they are thirsty for ultimate reality in their lives. They are empty, and they are trying to find a way to fill the void within.
All over this land there are men and women who appear to be unreachable. But they are just like the woman at the well. Thirsty for that which they know not of. Desperately hoping they can meet someone who will fill the aching void within. They are dying of thirst, not knowing that what they need is Living Water. How happy they would be if someone would offer them Living Water so they would never thirst again.
Think of it. Jesus loved this woman who had married five men and was living with a sixth. Would he love Elizabeth Taylor any less because she’s been married eight times? No, he loves Elizabeth Taylor and Larry Fortensky and Michael Jackson and all the “beautiful” people of the world. He loves them whether they know it or not. They need the Living Water whether they know it or not.
No Hopeless People
When we look at our generation, throw up our hands and say, “Hopeless,” we’re just like those disciples who walked right past the harvest because they never saw it.
Jesus said, “Open your eyes. Look around. The world is filled with hurting, broken people who have the form but not the substance. They’ve got the money but they’ve missed the meaning. Rich on the outside, they’re empty on the inside.”
What do you see when you go to work? Do you just see your co-workers and your boss? What do you see when you go to school? Do you just see your students or your teachers? Is that all you see? What do you see when you look at your neighbors? All around you are thirsty people, men and women literally dying of thirst. Desperately searching for that which they know not of—the water of life. And we’ve got the water. For too long we’ve been keeping the water to ourselves.
Open your eyes this morning. Look around you. There are men and women who are thirsty.
Lift your eyes from the trivial pursuits of life, and you will see a world filled with people who are dying of thirst. They’re empty. They’re broken. They’re lonely. They’re confused. They’re misled by a million false voices. And they are all around you. Waiting, hoping, praying that someone will show them a better way.
Behold, the fields are white for harvest in Oak Park, in River Forest, in Cicero, in Berwyn, in Chicago, and to the ends of the earth. There is no place so hopeless that the gospel of Jesus Christ cannot make a difference.
The only question that makes a difference is this: If the fields are white for harvest, what are you going to do about it? Are you going to get involved in the harvest, or you are going to make excuses why it can’t be done?
The question is not, What are the missionaries going to do? That’s not the issue. The only question that matters is, What are you going to do about the whitened fields all around you?
Go out from here in Jesus’ name and take the Living Water with you. You’ll find people who will run to the water of life once they know that you are willing to give it away.