It seems axiomatic that God’s focus is the heart of people. People focus on external things. The encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well is a good example. Jesus introduced her to “living waters.” Her responses focused on cultural and religious differences between Jews and Samaritans. She was a product of that confusion over the proper place to worship (which mountain) and had, seemingly, given up on trying to figure it out. She had five husbands and was living with a man not her husband. The living waters to which Jesus referred was Jesus, himself, and he directed her focus to worshipping “in spirit and truth”. (John 4:4-28) It is fair to say that the particular mountain on which to worship was of no importance, though it had divided the Jews and Samaritans for many years.
Not only was the place of worship of no consequence in God’s scheme of things, but which mountain was the proper place to worship was not really the issue between the Jews and Samaritans at all. The real issue is the heart of people. An overarching message throughout the writings of the Bible is that people tend in their hearts to focus on the wrong things. God is continually testing the heart: “The crucible [is] for silver and the furnace [is] for gold, but the Lord tests the heart.” (Prov. 17:3)
Everywhere Jesus went in the Gospel accounts, peoples’ hearts were tested. If nothing else is clear in those accounts, one thing is apparent: an encounter with Jesus, the “exact representation” of God’s being (Heb. 1:3), exposed the hearts of those people in the way they reacted to Him. The Psalmist said that God knows the secrets of the heart. (Ps. 44:21) What impressed the Samaritan woman at the well is that “he told me everything I ever did.” ((John 4:44). Her reaction was to believe that he was the Christ, the Messiah of the Scriptures to which both the Samaritans and the Jews adhered.
It is not insignificant that Jesus exposed the Samaritan woman’s sinfulness. He baited her by asking her to get her husband, knowing that she had been married to five men and was living with a man at that same time who was not her husband. (John 4:16-18) Just as significantly, there was no pretense in her; she replied honestly, “I have no husband.” She did not try to keep up appearances. Her heart was exposed. Jesus knew her sin, and he knew her heart; but he offered living water to her. She did not attempt to make excuses or defend herself. She accepted it. The Samaritan woman believed.
Soon after the encounter at the well, Jesus was approached by a “royal official” in Cana whose son lay sick and close to death in Capernaum. (John 4:46-47) The term “royal official” suggests someone of position and power. In that moment, however, he was vulnerable. He had no power over the health of his son. His reaction to that predicament was to seek out Jesus, who was known in Galilee for having turned water to wine. The official’s heart was exposed in the act of asking Jesus to heal his son. He believed. His act of faith was rewarded when his son’s fever broke the very hour Jesus told him, “Your son will live.”(John 4:53)
After traveling from Galilee to Jerusalem, Jesus healed a 38 year invalid at a pool. Jesus told him to “pick up your mat and walk”, and he did. (John 5:8) The man did not even know who it was who had spoken to him (John 5:13); he simply responded to the command. When Jesus found the man later at the temple, Jesus commanded him to stop sinning. (John 5:14) Significantly, the man’s reaction was to head to the temple after being healed, though he did not know who it was who had healed him. There Jesus found him, and the instruction was aimed at the heart – stop sinning.
The people who responded to Jesus in these three encounters were not the religious devout. They were a Samaritan woman, shunned by the Jews who believed in worship on a different mountain, living a life of sin; a royal official, a politician of sorts; and a sinful invalid. When some of the Jews, the religious devout, heard about the healing that took place on the Sabbath, their reaction was to persecute Jesus (John 5:16) and to seek to kill him because Jesus was “calling God his own father, making himself equal with God.” (John 5:18) The Jewish law at the time forbade people to work on the Sabbath, even to carry a mat. (John 5:9-10) The irony, of course, is that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Scriptures and law that the Jews revered, but they did not recognize Him for who he was. (John 5:39-40)
In spite of their adherence to Scripture (and external rules and observances), these people did not recognize the very likeness of God the Father in the form of a man in front of them – the “exact representation of his being”. Their hearts were exposed. Jesus performed a miracle in healing an invalid of 38 years! Yet, they wanted to kill Jesus because he performed the miracle on the Sabbath.
We spend our lives keeping up appearances. God wants to break through the appearances and focus on the heart. In response to the Jews who wanted to kill Jesus, Jesus proclaimed, “[W]hoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life….” (John 5:24) How a person reacts to an encounter with God is a measure of the status of the heart.
Jeremiah proclaimed: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.” (Jer. 17:9) The human heart is prone to wander from God; it is deceitful. We tend to compare ourselves to others, like the Jews and Samaritans. We tend to focus on our situations, our relative power and influence or lack of it. We even seek to justify ourselves in our religious observances. “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.'” (Matt. 15:8-9, quoting Isaiah).
God knows the heart. His aim is the heart. God is also the answer for heart problems. Our prayer should be, “Test me, Lord, and try me, examine my heart and my mind….” (Ps. 26:2) Lest we fail the test, however, we need to seek God sometimes to change our hearts: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Ps. 51:10) The good news is that God is up to the task: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ez. 36:26) Jesus changed the life of the sinful Samaritan woman trapped in a cultural heritage excluded from those considered the people of God (the Jews). Jesus changed the life of a royal official whose power and influence were unable to change the change the plight of his son. Jesus changed the life of the invalid, not just in healing his physical infirmity, but by setting him on a course to change his heart. Jesus directs us to change our focus from pretenses and preconceptions and to open our hearts to His word that brings eternal life when we embrace it. It is not about religious observance, but spirit and truth.