“Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I ever did.'” – John 4:39
Life is laden with secrets. From people on the outside, we keep our family secrets. From people who might ridicule us, we make a secret of our hopes and dreams, for fear of what they might think or say. We keep the secrets of our pasts, our failures, our anxieties until the pressure of all these secrets threatens to crack us.
We fiercely hang on to our secrets, but at the same time we secretly long to let them out, to find ourselves free from the load. In his memoir Telling Secrets, Frederick Buechner writes, “what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else.”
In the familiar story of the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), Jesus makes it known that he is aware of the woman’s secrets–he knows her checkered moral past no less than her current situation. He speaks to her of personal things (her several failed marriages) as well as matters of more public concern (the identity of the Messiah and what it means truly to worship God). As he comes to speak to her about the relationship between humans and God, he presents himself as the one around whom centre all the hopes and expectations her people have cherished. This is a deeply significant encounter.
Yet when the woman goes around afterwards telling other people about her meeting–we are told it was a very successful mission–the message she delivers is a simple, personal one: “He told me everything I ever did.”
To this woman with a tainted history the good news was that Jesus knew her secrets, and yet offered her a new start. She had met the One who could give true life and offer knowledge of the true God, and miraculously she found she now had nothing to hide. Her testament of joy at this new reality is not an uncommon one for those who have found a safe place to unburden themselves of a secret that is painful to keep. In a climactic scene of the 1996 film Secrets and Lies, after sharing a long-kept family secret a character pleads desperately for some honesty among his family members, decrying long-kept “secrets and lies. We’re all in pain. Why can’t we share our pain?”
The woman at the well had found freedom, as all find who come to the same Jesus she encountered. The apostle Paul on more than one occasion wrote about being “known by God” (1 Cor. 8:3; Gal. 4:9) as a defining reality of our life in Christ. To be known by God is to know the release that comes from letting our secrets be known, because when Jesus died on the cross he bore in himself all the dark secrets we ever thought we’d have to keep. And one joy of the church, the community of those who find they now have no secrets from God, is a natural extension of that truth: we can now begin to share our well-kept secrets–our fears, our hopes, even our failures–with one another.