At the well: one sows another reaps

SamaritanWomanAtTheWellArrival of the disciples and departure of the woman.  27 At that moment his disciples returned, and were amazed that he was talking with a woman, but still no one said, “What are you looking for?” or “Why are you talking with her?” 28 The woman left her water jar and went into the town and said to the people, 29 “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Messiah?” 30 They went out of the town and came to him. 31 Meanwhile, the disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” 33 So the disciples said to one another, “Could someone have brought him something to eat?” 34 Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work. 35 Do you not say, ‘In four months the harvest will be here’? I tell you, look up and see the fields ripe for the harvest. 36 The reaper is already receiving his payment and gathering crops for eternal life, so that the sower and reaper can rejoice together. 37 For here the saying is verified that ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38 I sent you to reap what you have not worked for; others have done the work, and you are sharing the fruits of their work.”

39 Many of the Samaritans of that town began to believe in him because of the word of the woman who testified, “He told me everything I have done.” 40 When the Samaritans came to him, they invited him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41 Many more began to believe in him because of his word, 42 and they said to the woman, “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.”

This passage provides a bridge be­tween Jesus’ conversations with the woman and with his disciples (vv.31-38). The disciples’ reac­tion to Jesus is similar to the woman’s initial response to him (v.9): shock that Jesus would violate social conventions. Unlike the woman, However, the disciples keep their questions to themselves.

The woman makes no response to Jesus’ bold self-revelation, perhaps because of the dis­ciples’ return. She departs from the well, leaving her water jar behind. Like much narrative detail in the Fourth Gospel (e.g., 1:37-39), the detail about the jar works on two levels simultaneously. On the level of the plot line, the abandoned water jar provides a link between the two conversations at the well. The woman’s jar will stand before Jesus and his disciples as they speak. Yet the detail also has meaning on a more theological level. The abandoned jar suggests that the woman’s concern of v.15, the desire for miraculous water, has been superseded by the revelation of Jesus’ identity.

In response to her conversation with Jesus, the woman goes into town and bears wit­ness to what she has heard. Her witness is three­fold. First, she invites her fellow townspeople to “come and see.” This invitation is crucial in the Fourth Gospel (cf. 1:37-39, 46). It is an invitation to participate in the life of faith, to experience Jesus for oneself. Second, the woman offers her own experience as the basis of her witness, which here may build on the Samaritan expectation of a teaching Messiah (cf. v.25). Third, she broaches the question of whether Jesus might be the Mes­siah. The translation accurately captures the tenta­tiveness of the woman’s words. (The question begins with the negative particle (meti) in the Greek, a construction that anticipates a negative or contradicting response.) She cannot quite believe that Jesus is the Messiah, since he chal­lenges her conventional messianic expectations (vv.23-25), but her lack of certitude does not stand in the way of her witness. The woman’s behavior stands in marked contrast to many characters in the Fourth Gospel who will insist on their own certitudes (e.g., Nicodemus, 3:9; the crowds, 6:25-34; the Pharisees, 9:24-34} and hence close themselves to what Jesus offers. The woman’s witness brings the townspeople to Jesus (v.30). Their movement toward him provides the backdrop for Jesus’ conversation with his disciples.

Conversation between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus’ conversation with his disciples follows a similar pattern to his conversation with the woman, albeit abbreviated. It opens with a dialogue that revolves around a misunderstanding about the meaning of “food” (brōsis, vv.31-33; cf. the misunderstanding about “living water” in vv.10-15). This dialogue is followed by a longer speech by Jesus (vv.34-38; cf. vv.21-24) in which he offers a new way of thinking to his conversation partners. Both of these final speeches by Jesus have an eschatological orientation.

The disciples ask Jesus to eat the food that they have brought from town (v.31; cf. v.8), but Jesus does not accede to their request (v.32). The disciples are confused by Jesus’ words and assume that he must be referring to food that someone else had brought him (v.33; cf. vv.11-12). In v.34, Jesus makes clear that the food that sustains him is his vocation: to do the will of the one who sent him and complete God’s work. God is frequently described in the Fourth Gospel as the one who sent Jesus (e.g., 5:23-24, 30) and Jesus’ mission is often characterized as doing the will and the work of God (5:30, 36; 6:38; 10:37-38). Jesus’ description of his food is thus a crystallization of Johannine christology; food is the metaphor for Jesus’ divine commission and the enactment of the relationship between Jesus and God. Verse 34 underscores that any discussion of Jesus’ identity is meaningless apart from a discussion of his vocation. The necessity of Jesus’ Samaritan sojourn (4:4) and his conver­sation with the woman (4:7-26) can be under­stood as examples of Jesus’ “food,” of doing the will and work of God, which sustains him.

The focus of Jesus’ words now shifts slightly. Jesus has just spoken of his role in com­pleting the work of the one who sent him; he then turns to a traditional biblical image of com­pletion—the harvest (e.g., Isa 27:12; Joel 3:13). Harvest imagery is also found in the synoptic tradition (e.g., Matt 13:30, 39; Mark 4:29). Verses 35-38 are structured around two agricultural prov­erbs (vv.35a, 37).

In v.35a, Jesus draws his disciples’ attention to a common agricultural saying (“Do you not say . . . “). This proverb has not been attested outside the Fourth Gospel, but it reflects agricul­tural life in ancient Palestine; there is a waiting period between seedtime and harvest. In v.35b, Jesus informs his disciples that the waiting is over. Twice in v.35b, Jesus exhorts his disciples to look around them: “look up and see the fields.” Jesus asks his disciples to attend carefully to the situation in which they find themselves, to read the data of their own experience instead of trusting in conventional wisdom (cf. 9:28-33, where the blind man’s trust in his own experience is superior to conventional teachings). In their immediate context, Jesus’ words draw the disci­ples’ attention to the Samaritans who are coming to him (v.30). The “crop” of Samaritan believers is proof that the harvest is ready.

Jesus’ words in v.35b are a metaphorical equiva­lent of what he said earlier to the Samaritan woman: “The hour is coming, and is now here” (v.23). The conventional understanding is that one must wait for the Messiah/harvest (vv.25, 35a). In reality, they are here now. Jesus’ presence and his doing the will and work of the one who sent him makes the harvest of eschatological fulfillment a present reality (cf. the discussion of vv.21-24).

Verse 36 continues the imagery of the imme­diacy of the harvest. The reaper is already at work, receiving wages, gathering fruit. Sower and reaper now share in the joy of the harvest (cf. Psalm 126; Isa 9:3). Interpreters are tempted to read v.36 allegorically—that is, to establish the identity of the sower and the reaper. While such allegori­cal interpretations are often suggestive (e.g., God is the sower, Jesus the reaper), all of them find the real meaning of v.36 outside the context of the Samaria narrative. Instead of reading v.36 as allegory, it is more helpful to read it reflectively. That is, v.36 does not point to specific sower and reaper figures outside the text, but reflects upon the text to offer a narrative illustration of the realized eschatology of which Jesus speaks in v.35b. John the Baptist told the parable of the bridegroom and his friend to illustrate joy (3:29); Jesus now tells the parable of the sower and the reaper to illustrate the arrival of the eschatological present.

The second agricultural proverb occurs in v.37. As with v.36, interpreters get into difficulty when they try to establish the identities of the sower and the reaper. It is in the very nature of proverbial language to be suggestive of many applications. The primary function of v.37, then, is also parabolic, not allegorical. The eschatological immediacy of the harvest does not mean an end to the distinct roles of sower and reaper. Verse 38 illustrates this reality from the disciples’ own experience. The disciples share in a harvest of which they are not the primary workers. Verse 38 seems to point to the disciples’ future, when they will be “sent” (apostellō) by Jesus to continue his work (e.g., 17:18; 20:21). The immediate context of v.38 suggests the Samaritan woman as one example of the “others” from whose work the disciples benefit.

In vv.35-38, Jesus draws on traditional OT imagery of eschatological fulfillment, the harvest, and relates that harvest to the Samaritan mission. In 12:20-24, the beginning of the Gentile mission is also imbued with eschatological significance and illustrated with agricultural imagery. In John, un­like the Synoptics, the mission to outsiders does not wait until after Jesus’ death. It is part of Jesus own ministry. The Samaritan mission thus serves as a concrete example of Johannine realized es­chatology. John 4 is the only NT evidence of a Samaritan mission during Jesus’ ministry, although Acts corroborates the Samaritan mission of the early church (Acts 8:4-24).

Jesus and the Samaritan townspeople. John brings the Samaria narrative to a close by focusing on the success of the Samaritan mission. Verse 39 notes the faith in Jesus of mane Samaritans and explicitly attributes the people’s faith to the woman’s “testimony” (martyria). She, like John the Baptist, is a witness who brings people to faith in Jesus. Also like John the Baptist (3:30), the woman’s witness diminishes in importance when the Samaritans have their own experience of Jesus (vv.40-42). The Samaritans invite Jesus to stay with them, and he stays for two days (if. 40). The use of the verb for “stay” (menō) recalls 1:38 and Jesus’ meeting with his first disciples. To stay with Jesus is to enter into relationship with him (cf. 15:4, 7). Many more persons come to faith in Jesus as a result of this stay (v.41), and in v.42 those who believe acknowledge that their own encounter with Jesus supplants the woman’s word. This is the model of witness and faith in the Fourth Gospel: The witness that leads to Jesus is replaced by one’s own experience of Jesus.

The Samaritans’ acclamation of Jesus as the savior of the world (v.42) is the most sweeping christological confession yet encountered in the Gospel. Salvation may be from the Jews (v.22 b), but it is not limited to the Jews. Ethnic and religious distinctions that figured promi­nently in this text (vv.9, 20-22) are dissolved in this recognition of the universality of salva­tion available in Jesus (cf. 3:17). The Samari­tans’ confession evidences the truth of Jesus’ words in vv.21-24; the hour has indeed come when neither this mountain nor Jerusalem will define the worship of God.12


John 4:39 believe in him because of the word of the woman: The woman is presented as a missionary, described in virtually the same words as the disciples are in Jesus’ prayer (John 17:20).


  • Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, vol. 29a in The Anchor Bible, eds. William Albright and David Freeman (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966) 166-85
  • Gail R. O’Day, John in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 9, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996) 561-73
  • Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970

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