The Secrets We Keep: Reflections on John 4:1-30

He says, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give will never be thirsty. The water that I will give them will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life."

She says to him, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water."

So far, so good. He has offered her living water. She wants this living water.

The Man at the Well

There is just one little thing that could be a problem—if he finds out her secret before he gives her the living water. That will be a deal breaker.

"Go call your husband and come back," says Jesus. "I have no husband," she says, telling a half- truth to shield her secret. She has tried to keep it from everybody else. There is no way she would tell this stranger.

Her whole life is organized around keeping her secret. Dreading the moment it comes out. It's like the jack-in-the-box clown. It stays in the box but then the handle starts turning and that creepy music starts, and then Pop, goes the Weasel! Out comes our secret and we flush with shame.

You can't have both full disclosure and acceptance. That's not how the world works. That's why people send anonymous postcards to a website—because they are afraid to confide them to another human being face to face.

"He has offered me living water. If he learns my secret, he will not give it to me." That is what the woman at the well tells herself about her encounter with this man.

A common theme running through Jesus' encounters with people in John's Gospel is that the reader knows more than the biblical character. In chapter 3 we knew that Jesus was offering Nicodemus the chance to be born from above. In chapter 5 we knew that he was offering the man at the pool of Bethesda the chance to be made whole. Here, in chapter 4, John has made sure that we know three things about the man at the well that she does not.

1) We know that this man is here for a specific purpose. He has come here on purpose to interact with this secret-keeping woman. John told us that "He had to go through Samaria" (4:4). John told us in the Prologue (1:18) that this man has come to tell us the secrets of God. "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known." Jesus has come through some pretty hostile territory, for the purpose of dealing with this woman's painful secret, and ours.

2) We also know that Jesus is the only one in the story who doesn't move. He is stable. He stays put, sitting beside the well, while the disciples come and go, the woman comes and goes and comes back. The Samaritan villagers come back with her. He stays put. He is not going anywhere until she shares her secret with him and until we do the same.

3) Finally, we know that all her precautions and half-truths are pointless because he already knows her secret.

When the woman realizes that Jesus knows her secret, she leaves her water jar behind and runs from the well back to town proclaiming "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!"

This woman's new life begins when she recognizes the identity of the man at the well.

Our new life begins when we finally recognize the identity of the man at the well. He is the One who, despite the fact that he knows all our secrets, still offers us Living Water.

3/22/2011 4:00:00 AM
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  • Alyce McKenzie
    About Alyce McKenzie
    Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.