Some time ago my wife, Margie, returned from an errand visibly shaken by a heartrending conversation she had experienced. She was about the very simple task of selecting a picture and a frame when a dialogue began with the owner of the shop. When Margie said that she would like a scene with children in it the woman quite casually asked if the people for whom the picture was being purchased had any children of their own. “No,” replied my wife, “but that is not by their choice.” There was a momentary pause. Suddenly, like a hydrant uncorked, a question burst with unveiled hostility from the other woman’s lips: “Have you ever lost a child?” Margie was somewhat taken aback and immediately sensed that a terrible tragedy probably lurked behind the abrupt question.
The conversation had obviously taken an unsettling turn. But even at that she was not prepared for the flood of emotion and anger that was yet to follow, from this one who was still a stranger. The sorry tale quickly unfolded. The woman proceeded to speak of the two children she had lost, each loss carrying a heartache all its own. “Now,” she added, “I am standing by watching my sister as she is about to lose her child.” There was no masking of her bitterness and no hesitancy about where to ascribe the blame for these tragedies. Unable to utter anything that would alleviate the pain of this gaping wound in the woman’s heart, my wife began to say, “I am sorry,” when she was interrupted with a stern rebuke, “Don’t say anything!” She finally managed to be heard just long enough to say in parting, “I’ll be praying for you through this difficult time.” But even that brought a crisp rejoinder, “Don’t bother.”
Margie returned to her car and just wept out of shock and longing to reach out to this broken life. Even more, ever since that conversation she has carried with her an unshakable mental picture of a woman’s face whose every muscle contorted with anger and anguish—at once seeking a touch yet holding back, yearning for consolation but silencing anyone who sought to help, shoving at people along the way to get to God. Strangely, this episode spawned a friendship and we have had the wonderful privilege of getting close to her and of praying with her in our home. We have even felt her embrace of gratitude as she has tried in numerous ways to say, “Thank you.” But through this all she has represented to us a symbol of smothered cries, genuine and well thought through, and of a search for answers that need time before that anger is overcome by trust, and anguish gives way to contentment.
Of all the stories in the Scriptures, none so reflects those varied needs as the story of the woman at the well in her conversation with Jesus. In the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel we read of the encounter Jesus had with the Samaritan woman. The disciples had left him to get a little rest while they went into town to buy some food. When they returned they were astounded to see him talking to this Samaritan woman, but they were afraid to ask why he would talk to her or to question what prompted this curious familiarity.
The woman represented all that was oppressed or rejected in that society. She was a woman, not a man. She was a Samaritan burdened with ethnic rejection. She was discarded and broken from five failed marriages. She identified God with a particular location, not having the faintest clue how to reach this God. Was it possible to have any less self-esteem than in her fragmented world? Jesus began his tender yet determined task to dislodge her from the well-doctored and cosmetically dressed-up theological jargon she threw at him, so that she could voice the real cry of her heart. Almost like peeling off the layers of an onion, he steadily moved her away from her own fears and prejudices, from her own schemes for self-preservation, from her own ploys for hiding her hurts, to the radiant and thrilling source of her greatest fulfillment, Christ himself. In short, he moved her from the abstract to the concrete, from the concrete to the proximate, from the proximate to the personal. She had come to find water for the thirst of her body. He fulfilled a greater thirst, that of her soul.
In the Psalms, David described himself as one wounded and crying in his bed at night. This same David spoke of the happiness that came when he took his cry to the Lord. With that same confidence, let us begin our journey to respond to the cries of the heart. We might be surprised to know how much bottled-up sentiment will be uncovered. When God speaks we will not respond by saying, “Don’t say a thing;” rather, we will be soothed by God’s touch and will rest in God’s comfort, knowing that God has bothered to hear our cries and to come near in our need.
Ravi Zacharias is founder and chairman of the board of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.