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 deeply connected to 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’ journey into Samaritan territory and his conversation with the woman can be understood as examples of Jesus’ “food,” of doing the will and work of God; true food 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 structured around two agricultural proverbs.
In v.35, Jesus draws his disciples’ attention to a common agricultural saying (“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 “). 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. At the end of v.35, Jesus informs his disciples that the waiting is over. 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 (this motif will appear again in 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. The “crop” of Samaritan believers is proof that the harvest is ready.
Jesus’ words echo 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, both are here now – again echoing the earlier conversation with the woman.
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 echoing Psalm 126 and Isaiah 9:3). It is tempting to suggest God as the sower and Jesus the reaper – and perhaps rightly so. But rather than looking outside the Johannine text. 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 and its attending joy.
The second agricultural proverb occurs in v.37: One sows and another reaps. The reality of the saying is playing out in real time: 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. Point being that the woman has done the sowing and they will reap the harvest of her efforts. This 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 latter part of this account is a foreshadowing of the mission of the early church (Acts 8:4-24).
Image credit: Samaritan Woman at the Well, Rudall30 | Dreamstime.com -ID 191658499