have a friend with whom I hesitate to be seen. It’s not because of potential embarrassments, but because of how painful it can be to see how people treat her.
Her circumstances have shaped a public face that often repels others because she hasn’t developed the social graces that help people talk to strangers. Lunch at a restaurant means navigating a field of social landmines. She doesn’t know how to order politely, she talks too gruffly, and eats her food too heartily. By the time the check arrives, the manager has strolled by to make sure that she isn’t a “problem.” I try my best to smooth things over with open smiles, sympathetic looks, and nonverbal messages that convey my hope that they will treat her well.
I think that’s why I’m so intrigued by Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well in John 4. I can’t help but see my friend in the woman approaching an exhausted Jesus, who’s unable to take another step as his disciples search for lunch.
If ever there were someone who should have repelled Jesus, it was this woman—a despised member of her village, from a despised people and a despised gender. Yet Jesus’ simple request for water leads her from skepticism and confusion through curiosity and wonder to faith.
When Jesus seemingly changes their conversation in midstream by asking her to fetch her husband, he’s really looking beyond her public face to her heart. It’s not about how many husbands she has had or why, but that her life has been unstable and insecure and that Jesus knows her deepest needs. Jesus shows her that her repeated drawing from the well of her personal history has left her spiritually thirsty.
When the disciples’ return signals her time to leave, she runs to her neighbors and tells them about this amazing man at the well. Could he be the Christ? Her confession is enthusiastic, honest, tentative, and short—but it is a confession that reveals how much she has understood. And then, in an amazingly bold scene, she invites the whole town to come and meet Jesus. Because of her open-ended invitation, they see, hear, and believe him for themselves. The story ends with an eloquent and powerful confession: “We know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
How often do I take for granted the fact that Jesus can see beyond my public face to my heart? Like the woman at the well, I need to have Someone who can be more honest with me than I often am with myself—Someone who won’t be repelled by my bad manners or lack of grace and is willing to sit patiently with me as I finally come to realize what I truly need. When I sit with my friend and observe how others can’t see beyond her public face to her heart, I begin to realize what a gift it is that we have a Savior who can.
About the Author
Thea Leunk is a pastor at Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.