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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Christ gathers his church in surprising ways
Text:John 4:39-42 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Christ's gathering work

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 118:1,2,8

Hymn 63:4 (after the law)

Hymn 69

Hymn 52:1,2

Psalm 150

Scripture reading: Revelation 21

Text: John 4:39-42

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus,

Christ gathers his church in surprising ways and in some surprising places.  A few years ago, I was invited to speak at a conference for Reformed church leaders in Ukraine.  There I was, a Canadian at a conference with Ukrainian pastors organized by Dutch missionaries.  One of the Dutch missionaries told me afterwards that in the next month he was going to be speaking at a similar conference hosted for Reformed churches in Kazakhstan.  In case you don’t know where Kazakhstan is, it’s one of the central Asian countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union.  Now who knew that there were Reformed believers and Reformed churches in a place like Kazakhstan?  God is gathering his people even there, in a country you may not even have heard of before.  It’s pretty amazing.   

We confess that the church of Christ is Catholic.  By that, we don’t mean Roman Catholic.  We mean it in the biblical sense of the word.  The church of Christ is universal, found all over the world.  The church includes people from all kinds of different ethnic backgrounds.  From our perspective, the Church of Christ exists in some surprising places.  To God it’s not surprising, but to us it certainly can be. 

Christ’s surprising catholic church-gathering work really took off in the book of Acts.  Prior to that, the focus was mainly on the Jews.  However, especially after Peter’s vision and his encounter with Cornelius in Acts 10, the church really started to come to terms with God’s plan for the nations to be part of Christ’s church.  In our passage from John today, we see a preview of that in the ministry of Christ.  He’s in Samaria and something amazing happens.  There’s a large crowd of Samaritans that gets drawn by Christ into his church.  The surprising thing that happens here leaves us in awe of our Saviour.  It also leaves us expecting him to continue doing surprising things among all the nations of the world.

I preach to you God’s Word and we’ll see that Christ gathers his church in some surprising ways.  We’ll consider the Samaritans and their Saviour:

  1. Their peculiar request and his amazing response
  2. His powerful preaching and their amazing response

Earlier in John 4, Jesus and his disciples had to travel through Samaria on their way to Galilee.  It was a short-cut, but there was also a divine plan at work.  They took a rest-stop at a place called Sychar.  There our Lord Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman.  They had a spiritual conversation.  During their talk, he revealed that he knew stuff about her that he couldn’t possibly have normally known.  She saw that there was something different about Jesus.  At the end of their encounter, he told her straight up that he was the Christ.  She then went into Sychar and told everyone about him.  She said, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did.  Can this be the Christ?”  The way the question was asked showed that she had some doubts.  Yet her question was still instrumental in provoking the curiosity of the people of Sychar.  They made their way to the well to see and hear Jesus for themselves.

In the verses right before our text, it’s just Jesus and his disciples at the well.  The Samaritans are heading towards him.  Christ tells his disciples to look at the harvest right before their eyes.  He’s been sowing the seed, and now the reaping is already going to happen.  The harvest is right there.  Even though the seed has just been sown, already the crop has been produced and it’s ready for reaping.  That’s what happens in our text for this morning. 

The Holy Spirit says in verse 39 that many Samaritans from the town already believed in him because of what they heard from the woman.  Like John the Baptist had given his witness about Jesus, so also this woman.  She also testified to him and it had an impact, even though she herself wasn’t totally convinced.  These Samaritans found it remarkable that a Jewish stranger could know the intimate life history of their neighbour.  That led many of them to believe in him.

That brings about a peculiar request from them in verse 40.  When the Samaritans arrive at the well, they pester Jesus to stay with them.  The Greek grammar here tells us that they didn’t just ask him once, but they kept on asking him.  They bugged him to stay and they wouldn’t give up until he agreed.  They convinced him.  Amazingly, he responded by staying with them for two days. 

Why is all this remarkable?  You have to remember the way the Jews and Samaritans got along, or rather, didn’t get along.  The Jews and the Samaritans disdained one another.  From a Jewish perspective, the Samaritans were Gentiles and unclean.  They were not worshippers of the true God.  They were like mutts or mongrels.  From a Samaritan perspective, the Jews were disobedient to God.  The Samaritans had their own form of the Ten Commandments.  Their Tenth Commandment said that people were supposed to worship God on Mount Gerizim in Samaria.  The Jews worshipped God in Jerusalem.  So from both sides, there was a negative view of the other. 

Now there’s this Jewish rabbi at the well outside of Sychar.  The expected Samaritan reaction to this would be to hope that he would just move along as quickly as he could.  But instead, they ask him to stay.  In fact, they beg him to stay.  They’re inviting him to experience their hospitality.  Samaritans don’t normally do that with Jews.  But this is no ordinary Jew.  This is Jesus.

And an ordinary Jew would certainly not respond the way that Jesus did.  When Jesus stayed for two days, you have to understand what he was doing.  He would have slept in a Samaritan home.  He would have been eating and drinking with Samaritans.  Jewish people don’t do that sort of thing!  These Samaritans are unclean Gentiles.  Yet Jesus accepts their offer of hospitality.  He stays with them and ministers to them.  Christ doesn’t discriminate against them – instead, he sees lost people and an opportunity to bring them the gospel. 

We’ve got two sides here and on both sides we see something amazing.  There’s an unexpected offer of hospitality, and then the hospitality is accepted.  What’s really amazing here is the person of Jesus.  The Samaritans are impressed with Jesus and what he says and does.  They perceive something about him that’s different.  He’s not a regular Jewish rabbi.  He proves himself to be out of the ordinary not only with what he says, but also with what he does.  He proves himself to be special also by staying with them for two days.  He proves that he doesn’t discriminate when it comes to gathering his people.  That’s something surprising about our Saviour. 

That demonstrates his love for all people.  He was the one who truly fulfilled God’s commandment for us to love our neighbours.  He did it without picking and choosing whom he would love.  He did that as part of his obedience for us – we see gospel encouragement in what he’s doing here.  His obedience belongs to us, it’s part of our salvation.  It’s part of the basis for God’s declaration that we are righteous.  His fully obedient life of love is an essential part of our justification.  But his obedience also marks out a path for us to follow.     

Back in my student days, we had an evangelism project on our university campus.  We called it the Areopagus Project.  The Areopagus was the center for religious and intellectual discussion in Athens.  In Acts 17, Paul went to the Areopagus to preach the gospel.  We wanted to do the same thing at our university.  So, we started a university Bible study.  We put up posters all over the campus with evangelistic messages and invites to the Bible study.  We also had a table one day a week at a high traffic location on our campus.  We would take turns sitting at this table and handing out free Bibles and evangelistic tracts.  This was a university with over 30,000 students.  Though we handed out hundreds of Bibles and tracts, we saw little fruit from our efforts.  Sadly, there was little interest in the gospel in that place.  The ground was hard and rocky.  However, we did meet someone who did have an interest in the gospel.  Trevor was a jobless man who suffered with mental health issues.  He came by our table and we spoke with him about the gospel.  He appeared to be interested in the gospel and we eventually took him to church with us.  Unfortunately, later Trevor lost interest and we lost touch with him.  But what if we had said, “No, the gospel is not for you, Trevor.”?  What if we had said, “The gospel we’re sharing is only for university students, for intellectual people.  It’s not for unemployable people who wander the city looking for a friend who’ll listen to them.”  What if we had said that? 

No, loved ones, we all have to take our cue from Christ.  In his love, he doesn’t discriminate and neither should we.  We’re called to be a part of his church-gathering work and his surprising ways in doing that.  Oftentimes it’s the people who are down and out and disregarded who are the most open to hearing the gospel.  The people who have it all together, or think they have it all together, they’re not typically open to seeing their need for a Saviour.  After all, if you’re doing all right without God and without Jesus, why upset the status quo?  Why mess up a good thing?  Look, brothers and sisters, we have a Saviour who made an impression on the outcasts and rejects.  By his love and mercy, he won an invitation to minister to them for two days.  He accepted their hospitality, even if his disciples might have been uncomfortable with the situation.  He knew that this is what he came for.  This is who he came for.  This is our Master, and we’re his disciples.  We’re to follow him.  This is our vine, and we’re his branches.  His heart for the outcast should be our heart.

We’re now at verse 41.  Many believed because of the woman’s testimony, but now the Holy Spirit says that many more believed because of his word.  They believed because of his powerful preaching to them.  Christ first used the witness of the woman to bring people to himself, then he used his proclamation.  He used his words to cut to people’s hearts and get them to see their need for him, and bring them to trust in him. 

If you think about it, this too is surprising.  It’s just words.  It’s just a man speaking.  Yet what happens with those words determines where a listener is going to spend eternity, whether in heaven or hell.  From a human perspective, preaching might seem to be one of the worst ways to reach people.  So many churches have lost confidence in preaching.  Do you know why?  Because they look at it in a worldly way, in human terms.  In human terms, you need ways of reaching people that are more likely to get to people’s emotions and capture their interest.  People today are used to TV and being entertained with video clips from YouTube.  How are they going to have their hearts and lives changed by preaching, by just a man speaking?  Yet this is the God-ordained way that the church is to be both gathered and fed.  The Holy Spirit told Timothy (and the rest of the church) to “preach the Word” – 2 Timothy 4:2.  He didn’t say, “Put on drama productions.”  He didn’t say, “Have a dialogue or conversation.”  He didn’t say, “Make it all about the music.”  No, he said, “Preach the Word.”  That means authoritative proclamation from the Scriptures.  That was Jesus’ way of gathering his church, and that’s still to be the way today. 

Preaching, to human eyes, preaching might look weak and ineffective.  But God has a way of taking what appears weak and making it strong for his purposes.  He did it in a surprising way amongst the Samaritans.  I’ll tell you how.  First, they wanted to hear the message of this Jewish rabbi.  As we noted earlier, they pestered him to stay, they wanted to hear him so badly.  Now where did that desire to hear Jesus come from?  Where do we get the desire to hear the preaching of our Saviour today?   This is the work of the Holy Spirit.   The Holy Spirit gives people the desire to hear Jesus.  He did it with the Samaritans.  They didn’t come to Christ to hear him preach because they wanted to hear him out of their own natural hearts.  Paul writes in Ephesians 2:1 that unbelievers are dead in their trespasses and sins.  With the Samaritans, their own natural hearts were sinful and wouldn’t want to hear his preaching.  It would convict them and make them see their true state.  Hearts in their natural state resist the gospel and its preaching.   The Holy Spirit gave them the desire to come to Christ at the well and hear him out.  The Holy Spirit gave them the eagerness to have him stay and continue ministering to them. 

The Holy Spirit not only gave the desire to hear Christ’s preaching, he also gave the gift of faith in response to it.  There is an amazing response in verse 42.  The citizens of Sychar are overheard speaking to the woman.  They tell her that her witness was important, but even more important was hearing the preaching of Jesus himself.  Because of his preaching, they were led to see that he is the Saviour of the world. 

That tells us something about what Jesus was preaching.  He was preaching himself as the Saviour.  He was telling the Samaritans about their plight.  He was proclaiming that they were sinners who needed rescue.  They had sinned against the Holy God and earned his wrath for themselves, just like us.  He was the one who had come to deliver them from eternal death.  He would have preached their need to turn from their sins and place their trust in him. 

Now when they say that Jesus is the Saviour of the world, we have to be careful not to misunderstand.  They’re not saying that Christ is going to save every single person in the world.  We know from John 3 that there are those who are going to perish because they don’t believe in Christ.  John 3:36, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”  So this is not a statement about universal salvation, as if everyone will be saved in the end.  What it means that Jesus is the Saviour of the world is that he’s not just a Saviour for the Jews.  He’s a Jewish rabbi, but the surprising thing is that his message was not just for Jews.  It was for Samaritans.  He is a Saviour for all types of people.  He’s a Saviour for anyone who believes in him, regardless of their ethnicity or cultural background.  That stuff doesn’t matter.  He’ll save you when you believe in him.  Amazingly, that’s what the Samaritans did.

Their faith in him, like their desire to hear him, was not because of what was in their natural hearts.  It was because of the Holy Spirit.  First Corinthians 12:3 says that no one truly says that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.  Listen carefully.  When Paul wrote about Jesus being Lord, he included the idea of Jesus as our Master or Owner, but also the idea that Jesus is God.  In the Old Testament, God is the Lord.  If Jesus is Lord, Jesus is God.  Moreover, try to follow me here, God is also the Saviour of the world in the Old Testament.  So when you say Jesus is the Saviour of the world you’re also saying that he is God and Lord.  It all goes together.  And 1 Cor. 12:3 says that you can only say that by the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit puts those kinds of words on the lips of sinners.  He puts the words on the lips and he puts faith in the heart of the one who says it.  The Spirit-created faith is what leads to the words.  Ephesians 2:8 tells us that faith is a gift of God.  It’s something the Holy Spirit creates when the gospel is preached.  So when you have faith, when you believe that Christ is not only the Saviour of the world, but your Saviour, realize that this is not your own doing.  It’s the gracious gift of God.  Don’t pat yourself on the back.  Give him all the glory.  Give him the thanks.      

Surprisingly, our Saviour goes to Samaria and not only evangelizes a broken woman, but a whole town.  He goes to people whom his own countrymen would have regarded as losers, as people unworthy of any attention.  He preaches the gospel to them for two days and his Spirit works mightily in them to bring them to faith.  They’re brought into his people, into his Catholic Church, the church of all peoples, ages, and places.  That’s surprising. 

John Piper once wrote about how corporate singing is always beautiful.  It’s always enjoyable to hear a crowd singing together, whether a choir or the church in public worship.  But it gets even more beautiful when people are singing in parts, harmonizing and so on.  This is God’s plan for his Church.  We read from Revelation 21.  At the end, God will have a people in his presence from all sorts of different backgrounds.  We’re going to be surprised at who will be there.  There’ll be Samaritans, guaranteed.  There’ll be Kazakhs, Canadians, Australians, and Albanians.  There’ll be Indonesians and Indians, Bosnians and Brazilians.  All the ethnic diversity will astound you.  They’re going to make up a huge multi-ethnic choir.  They will all be singing praise to God.  All that diversity will be more beautiful for its diversity, for the singing in parts.  This is what God has planned for his Church.  In our text, Christ was starting that work.  In our day, Christ continues that work.  And some day, he’ll complete it.  AMEN. 


O God of glory and majesty,

We give thanks for your Son, our Saviour Jesus.  We praise you for his indiscriminate love and compassion.  We see that clearly in John 4 as he ministered to the Samaritans.  We thank you that he perfectly loved his neighbours and gave them what they needed most – he gave them himself and the preaching of the gospel.  We pray for your help in following him.  Please help us too to share the gospel with everyone we can, never discriminating, but showing love to all we can.  We also thank you for the work of your Spirit.  Thank you that he gives us the desire to hear the Word.  We pray that he would work that desire in the hearts of others, both here in our city, and further afield.  We thank you that the Spirit also works faith.  Thank you that he has given us the gift of faith.  We pray that the gift would be granted to all among us here, and all our neighbours and all whom we love.  We ask that for your glory through salvation granted to sinners.  Father, we also thank you for all the ethnic diversity of your Catholic Church.  Help us to see that and appreciate it.  We look forward to the day when we’ll stand side by side with people from every tribe, tongue and nation praising your Name together.  What joy we’ll have and what glory you’ll get!  Father God, please bring that day quickly. 


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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