by Wondering Celt of Wales, UK
Her walk to the well was no different today than any other. By going later now, she avoided the taunts of the other women who were uncomfortable around her. Struggling under the noonday sun, she arrived very thirsty.
She warily eyed the scruffy, Jewish teacher resting there. Not yet old, but with eyes older than the stars, he sat slumped against the low stonewall that prevented the flocks from tumbling into the well. She knew she was unclean to him, but with men it never paid to be too trusting. She watched him from the corner of her clear eye. Not much shocked her, but when he asked her for a drink she was genuinely surprised.
“But you’re a Jew. I’m a Samaritan woman, why’d you be asking me?” she replied tartly, while thinking he’d more likely ask a dog than a Samaritan, and female at that.
“If you knew what was in store for you, who I am – you’d be the one doing the asking. I’d give you the best water ever,” he replied flatly, glancing away from her.
Thinking he was joking with her, she decided to tease him.
“But you’ve no rope and the well’s very deep. Where’s this water coming from? Besides, Jacob, our ancestor gave us this well. Are you better than him? How’re you going to offer better water than his?”
She stressed their common ancestor, hoping to topple him from his lofty, inherited position.
She continued to draw her water, working hard to pull up the bucket. Meanwhile, every fibre of her being was tuned to the stranger, watchful of his every move. She didn’t trust him, regardless of his so-called religious principles. She’d known too many men willing to compromise those. He was gazing into the distance as if listening to the universe, her words just grains of sand.
Having formed his thoughts, the stranger replied. “People soon get thirsty again drinking this stuff. But I’ve water that you couldn’t dream of, lasting you forever. You’d have a well within, never-ending, for all eternity.”
Well, that was a line she hadn’t heard before!
“Yes, please! To never have to haul up this bucket again? I’ll have some of that!” she replied, teasing again, unsure where the conversation was going.
Abruptly he turned his head to look her full in the face.
“Go and get your husband,” he instructed gently. Caught off-balance, her defences rose as the shame of her existence flooded back.
“I don’t have a husband,” she replied curtly, looking away and fussing over her water jars.
“True!” he agreed easily.
“Actually, you’ve had five and now you are living with another man.” He spoke gently, stating the facts but without accusation.
It still stung.
“And you’re a prophet, sir!” she replied sarcastically. She decided to provoke him now, attack being her best form of defence, formed through years of practise. “So, perhaps you could tell me, why do you Jews insist on worship in Jerusalem, while we Samaritans claim Mount Gerazim is the place?”
It was years since she had bothered with God, but this man had goaded her by bringing up her past. She didn’t really care what the answer was. Any subject was better than her not-so-private life.
Despite her bravado, her unease grew. How did he know? How far had her infamy spread? And why her anyway? She wasn’t unique, just one among many such women.
He smiled kindly at her, without condescension.
“Really?! Well, soon that won’t matter; in fact, it doesn’t now. Your people know little of the one they worship, here or in Jerusalem! But we know whom we worship because liberation comes through us and getting your head around our relationship with the Father. The Father is looking for anyone who will worship him properly. He is Spirit, so those who worship him must do so by spirit and truth.”
She hadn’t expected that. She’d come for water. Instead, this man was describing her sorry life, revealing deep spiritual insights, and inviting her to take part! Her, of all people? Covering her confusion, she grabbed the rope and began to haul up the bucket.
The word Father touched her deeply. Her own father was a good man. She knew he suffered at what had become of her. Powerless to help her, a gulf of shame had opened between them, hurting both. It was so long since anyone had cared for and nurtured her. Years of struggle to take care of herself and her children meant it was not a subject to dwell on. Too painful to contemplate, her need lingered deep in her subconscious. She dared to turn these emotions over in her mind for a moment – then felt the pain cut through her.
She pulled harder on the rope, physical pain cutting into her hand. Hope, long since abandoned, replaced by the weary determination to endure, flared up again. But it was no good. He didn’t hold the answers she needed, he was only passing through. She sighed as she bent over the jar and emptied the contents of the bucket.
Don’t trust this hope, said a voice inside. Don’t go there, it will only cause more pain.
She stood up and with an air of finality said, “Well, I don’t know about that, but I do know that one day Messiah will come. He’ll explain it all then. If I’m around, maybe he can make sense of it for me.”
“I am He!” he said, his gaze penetrating her soul. His unexpected words hit like a physical blow.
She let go of the rope, the bucket – and her defences – crashing to the bottom of the well. As it hit the water, she felt something within her break. Thoughts and flashbacks swirled in her mind. All the while, her eyes never left his face.
He continued to regard her gently, clearly concerned. She warded this off, waving her hand at him, motioning for time. Her spinning mind, confronted by truth almost beyond knowing, sought to find understanding, to regain its balance.
Something stirred deep within. Her spirit, long dead and buried by the suffering and pain of the years, burst into life. Light and understanding flooded her being. She stood mutely, staring into his eyes so kind, so gentle, so compassionate. Yet there was something so magnificent about him that she hesitated to approach any closer.
She backed away, water jug forgotten. Suddenly, she had an overwhelming desire to bring her children to him, to gather others to meet him. She signaled with her hand again, this time asking him to wait. Stumbling in her haste, she ran back to the village. Excitement, joy and amazement, mixed with incredulity, exploded like fireworks inside her as she ran.
Entering the village square she cried out, “Come and meet the man at the well! He’s told me my story, yet he’s a stranger! He’s a prophet! Says he’s Messiah! Go quickly, drop everything, something is happening here!”
Grinding wheat, the village women looked up, shocked. Normally, they paid her little attention. But her face arrested them. It was vividly alive! The hard dead look was gone, replaced instead by softness they hadn’t seen since her girlhood.
Theirs was a small village, not much happened here. In the last hour strange Jewish men had arrived asking for food; that too was odd. They hurried away to see who’d caused her transformation.
The woman breathlessly collapsed by the grinding stones. As her breathing slowly returned to normal, she became aware of a difference. The ice around her heart had melted. Was this all really happening to her?
Gaining her composure, she stood up, called her children who were playing nearby, and walked in the direction of the well once again. ▪
Paraphrased re-telling of John 4:7-26
Photo credit - Statuette of a veiled and masked dancer, Hellenistic 3rd-2nd-century B.C.- Greek, Bronze Metropolitan Museum of Art