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Sunday, October 25, 2009

White for Harvest (John 4.27-42)

October 25, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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Last week we looked at this same story, about Jesus revealing the Father to a Samaritan woman through words and acts of grace and truth. We saw how starting with grace opened the door to the woman asking questions about truth. From there we saw God transform her and even use her in ministry to point a whole village toward Jesus.

We return to that story this week and back up slightly from the end, to the point where the disciples return from going to get food in the city. We’re going to look again at what happened, more from their perspective this time. Then I’d like to share some stories of what has been going on Wednesday nights the past few weeks, because I see many parallels to this passage. Finally I want to challenge you from this text to OBEY and PARTICIPATE in what God is doing – or as Jesus describes it, God’s harvest.

What’s Going On Here?

Let’s look first at the text. Near the end of the conversation, the disciples returned from getting food. Verse 27 acknowledges just how unusual it was for Jesus to be speaking to a Samaritan woman (and one outcast from her own people). John, narrating the story names the questions on their mind: “What are you doing? Why are you talking to her?” But none of them say it out loud. It is, perhaps, an additional small grace to her that they do not challenge her then and there, but go along with Jesus’ actions of grace. Who knows if that didn’t also play a part in prompting her to go into the city?! Verse 28 begins with the word “so,” which could imply some link between their tacit approval and her going.

Last week we saw what happened with the woman. She went into town, against all social pressure to keep her distance, and she pointed everyone back to Jesus as the Messiah, using his knowledge of her sin as proof of his divinity. And as we read on, we see that the whole city turned out to see Jesus, and many believed on the strength of her testimony!

Today I want to focus on the disciples. As we’ve seen, they return and at least participate minimally in what Jesus is doing by not challenging or running off the woman. Once she’s gone, Jesus goes on to have a teaching moment with them. They press on to an eerily parallel conversation to the one the woman had. She had asked about thirst; they ask about hunger (v. 31), urging him to eat something. The whole reason they had gone into town was to get food; and now Jesus didn’t seem interested. Just as he had living water the woman didn’t know about, he tells the disciples that he has food that they do not know about (v. 32). I can just picture their faces now! Jesus goes on to say, in verse 34, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to accomplish His work.”

He presses on into the teaching moment, extending this analogy by adding another: the work of God is like planting, cultivating, and harvesting a crop. And his point to the disciples, no doubt tying all this in to what has just happened with the woman, is that obedience to God means taking part in that very work of God – planting, cultivating, and harvesting faith in others’ lives. Even Jesus only intersected with part of the woman’s life story. Surely someone had planted seeds of faith before she met Jesus, because she knew part of God’s story, including the expectation of a promised Messiah. And surely her story went on after the two days Jesus and the disciples stayed in the area.

The disciples overlapped in a slightly different way. Jesus had showed grace and truth and experienced a transforming moment with the woman, which is when the disciples showed up. But then they were on hand to encourage her further and then receive the townspeople when they came back in great numbers to see Jesus. No doubt the disciples then had their hands full with the work of God and with harvesting the outpouring of faith that followed.

Jesus’ point to them travels well into our context: God is at work in the world and invites our OBEDIENCE and PARTICIPATION in that work. We may just intersect with another person for a few years, an hour, or even a few minutes; but we can either be a part of what God is doing or stay uninvolved and miss out. Or we can insist on focusing on lunch when spiritually hungry people are all around. It is a quite compelling teaching rooted in an experience that unfolded right before the disciples’ eyes. And Jesus declared what is still true today: God’s mission field is white or ripe for harvest – the need and opportunity are great, and God is already working.

Let’s consider this teaching in our own context…

Wednesday Nights Out

For some time now we have been wrestling with God's calling to be a lighthouse/searchlight church - that is, intentional salt and light in our community and near neighborhood. Another metaphor for this activity would be participating in God’s harvest – whether sowing, reaping, or gathering.

You have responded positively to this challenge! I have observed, however, that it remains difficult to change patterns of thinking and being. One result of the twin lighthouse (inviting) and searchlight (sending) challenge has been ever-increasing and effective approaches to inviting folks in to the church community. And that is wonderful!! But, I am also convinced that our growing edge continues to be the searchlight part of our identity in Christ. And while embracing that mission requires head, heart, and feet, one tangible way to start in that direction is literally to "get up and get out" - i.e., leave our church property. So, on Wednesday nights, instead of traditional church Bible study in the building and on the grounds, we have been getting up and getting out.

The first week we had about 15 people go out in groups of 3-5. I gave them several simple questions to discuss (with each other) during the hour out. The questions were something like the following: 1) Where did you see or experience God's presence in your life this past week? 2) Is church important to you? Why? 3) Can we pray about anything in your life?

So here was my VISIONARY HOPE: after 6-8 weeks of this, we might have met a few regulars and the staff wherever we are and perhaps God might open a door or two to more significant spiritual conversation. We would be going to where people are, building relationships, and pointing people to God.

Here's what has happened so far:

WEEK ONE: as my group was leaving Caribou, I went to meet the manager/barista and see if there was any possibility of bringing my guitar the following week and providing an hour of live (non-religious) music in the outside eating area. The manager, Desiree, got a strange look on her face and said, "Live music?" She went on to tell me that at her previous store a co-manager had started live music and it was wildly successful. The other managers at this present store wanted her to start the same thing (because she had been at the store where it worked), but she had no idea how to get it going. She told me she had to Google "acoustic music" to see what it even was (no drums or amps, if you didn't know). I realized the strange look on her face was shock that live music had dropped into her lap. I was shocked to find there was already a desire and need and the door was already open! So, another friend and I started up the next week and are now talking to her about possible regular weekend gigs. On top of that, she suggested that we put out a tip jar as live musicians often do. I'm already thinking we might do that, but have it go to a recognizable local mission like "Loaves and Fishes" or "Crisis Assistance." Unbelievable!! We just ventured off the church property and the need was waiting for us. (I also think God thought we could use some encouragement!!)

WEEK TWO: We have been praying for some time about ways to connect with the group home for men across Swan’s Run. We have had some contact over the past few years, but nothing deep. When we started back up this Fall, two of the guys from the home came over to ask if they could participate. The first week we paired an adult and our high school guys with them to shoot a little basketball in the parking lot. Between that first week and the second, a second adult volunteered to help out and the high school guys and youth advisor decided to meet with the group home guys to study the book of James and pray for each other's needs. Since then we’ve met all the guys from the home, their primary house manager, and five of the six guys in the home are involved and our high school guys are engaging in ministry and discipleship!

WEEK THREE: Between the second and third Wednesday night, one of members shared with me that a boy in her son's 6th grade class (and who had attended some church events a few years ago) was struggling academically. He lives in Brighton Place. We have been praying for an open door to connect with families and children in Brighton Place.

This Good Shepherd mom said she had been challenged by the sermons and Wednesday night vision to reach out to this boy and offer to lead a study group with him during the hour-long Wednesday night out. So, starting the third week, she and another member went to Brighton place to meet with this young man, who ended up bringing one of his friends along. By the time they were done, several other friends had gathered to see what was going on and it looks like a serious study group is forming. In the process, we also got to meet the manager of Brighton Place and initiate some conversation with her about using facilities for this purpose.

WEEK FOUR: On the fourth Wednesday, one of the group that goes to Barnes and Noble in the Arboretum shared with me about what has happened there. They have met two of the folks that work at the Starbucks there. One they just asked his name, and he responded, noting that his name was in the Bible. Another they shared that they were sharing prayer requests with each other and was there anything they could pray about for her – and she opened up with them, asking for prayer.

We could have had another Wednesday night study – same content, but here in the Katibah room amongst ourselves. And we would have missed out on all these connections. But we got up and got involved with our neighbors – with the people God loves and for whom Christ came into this world. And look what God has already done! It has far exceeded my expectations. It has also illustrated what Jesus taught: we have not seen any of these people move from complete lostness to baptism or church membership or a prayer of salvation. But we surely have been a part of what God is doing in their lives. Clearly in some cases God has been working before us to plant seeds, and we were part of the watering process. Hopefully we are planting some seeds. If we persevere, we may also see part of the harvest or some fruit. The point is not the product, however, but being willing to OBEY and PARTICIPATE in what God is doing. That is what Jesus modeled and taught the disciples, and I believe it is God’s instruction and challenge to us.

White for Harvest

So here is the question this passage raises for us:

How will you obey and participate in what God is doing all around?

How can you take what you are hearing in here and live out grace and truth out there? Who has God put in your path and how can you take part in God showing Himself to them?

We are practicing this in a very low-key and enjoyable way on Wednesday nights. If you want a taste of that, come join us! My hope is that what we are doing there will translate well and easily into our personal lives every day of the week.

It starts with a kind word or action: being interested, getting involved, bearing grace. Prayer is a great way to keep that person in your mind, on your heart, and before the Lord. Wednesday nights have proven that sometimes all it takes is just putting yourself out there for God to use you. You don’t have to be an evangelist or Bible teacher or expert; if anything, that would put most people off. Just be there. Be a friend. Be full of grace. God is at work all around.

The fields are white for harvest; but the laborers are few. Come, obey and share in what God is doing. Amen.

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