As a young missionary candidate about 40 years ago, I considered various countries as possible destinations for my future ministry. One of the main criteria I used was receptivity. I wanted to go to a place where the church was growing rapidly. I was attracted to the harvest. In a harvest field, I reasoned, there would be a greater need for training of national workers, which was the area of missions I was most interested in. So, I chose the Philippines and the lowland work among Roman Catholics in particular.
Experiencing the harvest
Given that I was still in my early 20’s when I arrived in the Philippines, I realized that I first needed some experience and credibility before I could begin training others. My wife and I enjoyed ten years of wonderfully fruitful years in church planting and training in the Philippines. We were part of the harvest. The Filipino people are amazingly hospitable and very receptive to the Gospel. The evangelical churches were growing so quickly that within a few years, I realized that the percentage of evangelicals in this country was going to surpass the percentage of evangelicals in my home country of Canada. I also came to understand that the Filipino church in the lowlands soon might not need expatriate trainers like myself.
In this journey, I came to understand the urgency and importance of going to those that are least reached. But it also became apparent to me that those who were least-reached were also most often the people groups that were not as receptive to the Gospel, at least not initially. It would not be as rewarding or fulfilling to serve in the places where the harvest had not yet begun. Working in places where there is limited receptivity can be very wearying and discouraging. Although our next ten years of serving in Far East Russia were also fulfilling in many ways, I experienced discouragement and a loss of heart there that was quite different from what I experienced in the Philippines.
Jesus’ experience with the harvest
Thus, when I reflected on Jesus’ experience in John 4, I find much that speaks to my experience. In this chapter, we see Jesus moving from a frustrating ministry in Judea, then to the harvest field in Samaria, and finally on to some more frustrating ministry in Galilee.
Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John—although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee. Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.John 4:3-6
Why did Jesus have to go through Samaria?
Why did Jesus have to go through Samaria? Was this the shortest route to Galilee? Or was Jesus compelled to go through Samaria because his heavenly Father instructed him to do so?
We do not know where Jesus was located when he began his journey back to Galilee. According to John 4:1-2, Jesus and his disciples were baptizing people prior to his departure. So they must have been close to a body of water. But it is not necessary to conclude that they were baptizing along the Jordan River, although that is where John the Baptist baptized Jesus.
If Jesus and his disciples were baptizing people near the Jordan River, then their trip to Galilee would have been easier and no further if they had gone straight north up the Jordan River. If they were baptizing further inland in the Judean hills, then it is quite possible that the shortest route back to Galilee would take him through the village of Sychar in Samaria.
The Father’s will
But regardless of Jesus’ starting point, I believe the main reason he had to go through Samaria was that the Father wanted him to go on this route.1 “Popular commentators have sometimes insisted that the longer route through the Transjordan was the customary route for Jewish travellers, so great was their aversion to Samaritans; this in turn suggests that the ‘had to’ language (edei) reflects the compulsion of divine appointment, not geography. Josephus, however, provides ample assurance not only that the antipathy between Jews and Samaritans was strong, but also that Jews passing from Judea to Galilee or back nevertheless preferred the shorter route through Samaria.” D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, p. 216. But why did the Father send him there? After all, was he not sent only to the lost sheep of Israel (Matt 15:24)?
Why was Jesus tired?
I have also wondered why Jesus was wearied by the journey (John 4:6). Apparently, his disciples were not as weary, for they all had the strength to go and find food (John 4:8). The word “wearied” can mean to lose heart, to be emotionally fatigued and discouraged (as in Matt 11:28 and Rev 2:3). Jesus was physically tired, but he may have also been discouraged by the type of responses he was experiencing among the Jews. He didn’t trust the faith of the people in Jerusalem.2 John 2:23-24 Furthermore, his baptizing of people in the countryside was creating unwanted attention and the impression that he was in competition with John the Baptist.3 John 4:1-2
So, he left his ministry in Judea and headed north. First, he decided to leave Jerusalem, and then he left their baptizing ministry in the Judean countryside. He may have been wondering if there was any lasting fruit from his efforts in Judea.
A satisfying harvest
But in Sychar, Jesus is greatly encouraged. People recognize him for who he is. Jesus sees a different mindset in the Samaritans, a receptivity to the Good News. This is different from what he has experienced in Judea. He sees a harvest.
Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.John 4:35
This responsiveness is deeply satisfying (John 4:32-36), and provides encouragement for the long journey ahead.
But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”John 4:32
In fact, Jesus is no longer hungry, and apparently, he is no longer weary. He is enthusiastic about what has just happened in his conversation with the Samaritan woman and anticipates a great harvest in this town.
Jesus had experienced amazing success and receptivity in Samaria. Even more significantly, this response to his message did not depend on miracles. This was deeply satisfying for him.
Why did Jesus leave the receptive?
So it is very surprising that after only two days, Jesus left Sychar.4 John 4:43 Instead of enjoying his newfound success, he went to a place where he would not be welcomed as the Saviour of the world. He traveled to Galilee and immediately encounters a request for miracles (John 4:46-47). Just a few verses later, we hear his frustration when he responds to the official who comes to ask for his son’s healing.
“Unless you people see signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.”John 4:48
How much easier it would have been if he had just stayed in Sychar or developed his ministry in other villages and towns in Samaria!
Back to the less receptive
But Jesus chose to return to the Jews. That was his calling. Only through the rejection of his own people (John 1:11) would he fulfill his purpose of becoming the Saviour of the world.
Our Lord desires faith that is not based on receiving help through miracles. See John 6:26 and John 12:37. In fact, he questioned the genuineness of people’s devotion in Jerusalem when he recognized that they were “believing” in him simply because they witnessed his miracles.5 John 2:23-25 In contrast in Samaria, he saw ample demonstration of genuine faith and true discipleship. The residents of Sychar accepted him as Saviour, not just as miracle worker.
But nevertheless, he did not focus his ministry on those who were most receptive but rather went where his Father had told him to go. Neither did he send his disciples to the Samaritans during his lifetime.6 Matt 10: 5-6 (See my blog post on why Jesus did not send his disciples to the Samaritans.) He left the harvest in Samaria to a later time, to Philip and others (Acts 8:5-8).
Jesus will not always send us to the most receptive
From John 4, we must conclude that our Lord will not always send us to the most receptive people. He knows from personal experience that seeing a great harvest is deeply satisfying. But his Good News is for all people and often the people to whom he sends us are not receptive. Our definition of success must not be based on how many come to faith, but on how faithfully we are proclaiming Christ to those to whom he has sent us.
Of course, this does not give us license to mindlessly continue preaching the Gospel in ways that offend and are unintelligible to the cultures in which we work. We need to understand how to contextualize our message so as to remove unnecessary barriers to comprehension. But contextualization, no matter how thorough, will never guarantee receptivity. Some of us will end up sowing the Word on the path, the rocky soil, or among the thorns (Matt 13:1-8). Some, like those to whom Isaiah preached, will be ever hearing but never understanding (Matt 13:14-15).
Sometimes we get to see the harvest
Nevertheless, Jesus does allow us to see the harvest occasionally to encourage us. As our great High Priest, he can empathize with our discouragement when we see very little lasting fruit. He knows that this lack of receptivity can discourage and weary us. He experienced it himself. So sometimes, we have the joy and privilege of witnessing the harvest, even though it may not be our regular experience.
May he grant us eyes to see the harvest when it is before us and the faithfulness to continue to proclaim the Word when people are not receptive.