This sermon is part of the sermon series "The Heart". See series.
More than 3,000 years ago, near the city of Shechem, in the land we know today as Israel, an unknown seeker began digging a hole in the crusty soil where he and his family scratched out a living. The back-breaking work became harder still as his pick hit the strata of limestone that sits just below the topsoil in this unforgiving land. The sun was hot. The dry, dusty air burned in his throat and lungs. Nevertheless, the seeker continued working, day after day, digging deeper and deeper, sending bucket after bucket of stone fragments up to the surface. Months later, at a depth of more than 100 feet, the man finally struck what he was after. Up from the cracks in the limestone came bubbling a cold, clear substance. And from the depths of that pit, the seeker cried out toward the heavens a single word of ecstatic praise: "Water!"
The Bible tells us that, in time, this land and its cistern would be bought for "a hundred pieces of silver" by Jacob, the grandson of Abraham and father of Joseph (Genesis 33:18-19). The place would become known as "Jacob's well," and from its depths would rise the grace that sustained generation upon generation of Israelites. In time, however, this region of Canaan, known as Samaria, became shunned by traditional Jews. An offshoot of the Hebrew people established nearby Mount Gerazim as their central place of worship, building on its summit a magnificent temple and declaring it—not Jerusalem—as the one true place where God should be honored. For this reason, among others, a great antagonism grew up between Jews and their cousins, the Samaritans. When travelling between the southern and northern sections of Israel, most Jews and every Jewish holy man by-passed Samaria altogether. It was where the sinners lived.
Walking to the well
One day, Jesus and his disciples set forth from Jerusalem on their way back up toward the Sea of Galilee. Strangely, however, John's gospel says that "Jesus had to go through Samaria." As I've said, there was certainly no geographical or cultural reason why he should have to go through that part of the land, but the implication of the verse is that something compelled Christ to choose that route, and not just any route, but one that led to a very historic place. "He came to a town in Samaria call Sychar," on the outskirts of Shechem. Jacob's well was there. The Bible says, "Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well." His disciples asked him if he wanted to go with them into town and get some food, but Jesus apparently said no. He would later tell them, "My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work" (John 4:34). Remember that in the Bible, the words "will" and "heart" mean the same thing.
What was this work that Jesus came all this way to finish? What could be so important that he would choose to go through Samaria where he, as a Jew, was not welcome? What would move him to stay behind at that well when he was likely every bit as physically hungry as his disciples were from their journey? What compelled Jesus to come to this place? It made no sense. But, then again, as the philosopher Blaise Pascal once observed: "The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know."
And then the reasons started to become clear. Scripture says, "It was about the sixth hour [high noon] when a Samaritan woman came to draw water." That she had come there then was, on the surface, every bit as odd as the fact that Jesus was there. In the Middle East, women followed the same two basic rules when it came to drawing water: first, carrying a bag or jar full of water was a very heavy job, so women would go out only in the early morning or in the late afternoon when it wasn't blazing hot. Second, they always went out in the company of others, because drawing water was a social affair. But here is this woman coming out at the peak of the heat and all by herself. Why would she be doing this?
The limestone heart
She did this simply because "the heart has its reasons." I wish we had time today to go line-by-line through the encounter that unfolds between Jesus and this woman, but I'll have to abbreviate it. Jesus digs into the conversation by making a simple request: "Will you give me a drink?" It's an act of humble solicitation aimed at establishing a connection with her at the most basic human level: "We all get thirsty. Can we help each other out?"
But this foray elicits a response like a spade hitting hard-packed dirt. "You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?" she replies. In other words, "Jews and Samaritans don't hang out together and they certainly don't drink together, remember? Men and women aren't even supposed to speak in public to one another; why are you talking to me?"
Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water." In other words, "Dear one, what I'm asking for is simply a chance to give you what you are really looking for. I know you are thirsty—thirsty for something you won't find in this well." This time, the Seeker's spade hits limestone. "Look," the woman says, "you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep," or, "Do you really think you're going to meet my needs? Do you really think you're greater than St. Jacob who gave us this well?" As Jesus digs deeper, the rock just seems to get harder, and the conditions darker. This woman's heart is very hard to find.
Then, suddenly, the tip of Jesus' pickaxe finds a crack. He tells her that he can meet the deepest thirst in her and fill her up to overflowing with an eternal source of life. And for a moment, she starts to open up. "I'd like that," she says. "Sir, give me this water so that I won't get thirsty and have to keep coming here." She longs to live life differently than she has been. Jesus asks her to "go call [her] husband," and the rock of her heart seems to go liquid for a moment as she stutters, "I have no husband." And with one last precise swing, the Seeker finds the bottom of the heart shaft. Jesus gently says: "You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true." "Sir," the woman replies, "I can see that you are a prophet." Jesus knows the truth about this woman.
The bottom of the heart shaft
It is hard to know the truth about people sometimes. I think of the crusty surface of Mr. Barlow, a math teacher in my high school who we all made fun of for his abrasive ways and flights of extreme anger. We never thought about what might lie beneath the surface of the man, the darkness and pain that might be there at the bottom of his heart shaft. The truth was that Mr. Barlow had once been a wonderfully affable man. And then he got the phone call that his wife and all his children had been killed in a terrible car accident. The experience began a process in which layer after layer of anger formed over his heart like 100 feet of limestone.
I know a woman whose life is like a perfectly manicured lawn. Everything is trim and bordered, not a hair out of place. There is every appearance of complete perfection in her life, although the very smoothness of it seems almost compulsive. What none of her neighbors know is the childhood she had, the shunting she experienced from one foster home to another, the desperate longing she had for a real home and a parent who loved her unconditionally. At the bottom of her heart shaft is a terrible fear that she can't make mistakes—she must be perfect, or once again, she'll be told to move on. Now she works feverishly to keep up appearances, drowning the pain in binges with alcohol, layering and layering over the fear.
I've also been driven far too much by something that got broken in my heart when I was very young. As the child of a very "successful" family, I absorbed the message very early on that I am what I do. My family never intended to shape my heart this way, but my heart developed around this message nonetheless. I came to believe that my virtue and value are directly related to how competent I am in getting good grades, speaking well, being a good athlete or leader, pleasing people with my performance. It has made me a relentless achiever and a workaholic. I live with a relentless anxiety that I need to do more. It hurts my immediate family and my workmates too often. I wish I could get back down to the bottom of my heart shaft and really drink in the truth I most thirst for: "It's OK sometimes to produce nothing at all, Dan. Why don't you just go play?"
Meeting the Seeker of your heart
Now we know why the Samaritan woman couldn't come to the well in the cool of the day and the company of other women. It was because no woman in town would have anything to do with her. She was a serial seducer, one of those people who know how to woo but not how to love. What the Bible doesn't tell us is how she became this way.
Maybe her problem was her own sin. But maybe it was also because she'd suffered some brutal attacks from the sin of others or from the Adversary who is dedicated to sowing lies in us to ruin the thing about us that is most important—the heart God created to beat after his.
Maybe she'd been abused by a man when she was young and now had this intertwined thirst for and hatred of the affections of men. She'd reach out for love but then revert to the lie that she was safer on her own, that she had to go it alone. Perhaps her early experiences taught her that love could not be trusted, so she'd dispose of men before they disposed of her. Maybe she absorbed the lie that limits like chastity or fidelity would only hurt her. Perhaps she'd seen so much loss and rejection in life that she believed it'd never change, because gravity gets you in the end. I don't know what lies she had believed.
What I do know is that some of the hard, crusty, or smooth people we meet everyday are hiding secrets they don't speak of often or haven't even faced in themselves. They've developed a way of getting by in the world that seems ugly, awkward, or too impressive, but this is merely the protective, adaptive, pile-up of spiritual limestone—the accretion of anger, fear, or anxiety—over a place in their hearts that got injured or became distorted.
How's your heart in this regard? Are you thirsty? Do you ever ache for something that will rise up to cleanse and heal, to fill and refresh that part of you that is dry and broken?
If so, then I have a message for you this morning: The Seeker has come to meet you today. He has come to put his spade into the soil of your life. He has come to dig down deep into the ground of your being, to work his way down to the very bottom of the shaft and place his pick into the cracks of your heart. He comes to help you find what is broken, to replace the lies with his truth, to bring up in that place the living water of his Holy Spirit, the wellspring of his life-giving heart.
Like the woman at the well did, we've got to stay with Jesus long enough for him to help us find that deep place and bring his new life up through it. How do you do that? Maybe it's time for you to seek the help of a good Christian counselor. Perhaps you need to contact the church and let us help you get connected with a spiritual director. Maybe you need to start practicing some of the spiritual disciplines and see how Christ uses those to open up a crack in your heart through which he can pour more of his life into you. Perhaps it's time to get into a small group where it is safe to talk about the deep places in your heart.
The world offers plenty of quick-fixes to the anger, fear, and anxiety that afflict the heart of many of us. You can always find someone peddling something to help you rationalize, escape, anaesthetize, or even admire what ails you. But what Jesus says is true: "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." Come to the well. Drink deeply of his grace, and find out what it is to truly live.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.