A Woman At the Well (John 4)
It was about noon when I grabbed the water jug from its spot on the shelf and headed out into the heat of midday. I live in Sychar, a city in the region of Samaria where it is hot and dry, especially in the summer months. As I stepped out into the street from the safety of my doorway, I looked both ways to ensure no one else was around. Usually no one is at this time of day — people stay indoors where it’s cool and shaded during the hottest hours of the day. But for me? This is the time I head out with my water jug to make the trek to the well that lies just on the outskirts of town. This well is not only our livelihood; it’s also the reason our town is on the map since hundreds and hundreds of years ago it was used by our patriarch Joseph, after his father Jacob gave him the land. For centuries this well has allowed our city to remain inhabited since it is far from any other source of fresh water. Although the water sometimes acquires the taste of mud, and especially right now in the heat of summer is tepid and far from the crystal-clear springs I know exist elsewhere, it’s clean and has always been safe to drink. Every day the women of the city go out to the city’s edge to draw water from this well. They go in groups, talking and laughing as they walk, fill their jars, and return to their homes with enough water for the day. They go in the morning, when the breeze is still cool and the sun isn’t yet scorching overhead, enjoying their social time of gossip and swapping family stories and complaints about their husbands. When I was much younger I used join them, but not anymore. See, if you lived in Sychar you would know I’m not the kind of woman other women want to be friends with. For many years I’ve been called names I won’t repeat here, and the women love to gossip about me more than any other topic. So I’ve learned to wait until midday, when I’m certain no one else will be around, enduring the heat and blinding sunlight to go draw water from the well, because we have to have water to live. Everyone knows that.
This particular day, things seemed even quieter than usual as I weaved through the streets, making my way as quickly as I could to the well. The air was stifling, and no breeze even attempted to tease my face as I left the narrow streets of the city and came out into the open. I had been looking down as I walked, being careful to keep my face hidden behind my head scarf in case anyone was peeking out their windows as I walked by. But now I lifted my face and loosened the scarf just a little bit to try to get some air. As I did this, I was startled to see a man sitting by the well only 15 or 20 yards away. I sucked in my breath, my mind racing as I realized he had noticed me. I could tell even from here that he was a traveler — based off his dress and the dust that covered his feet and robes. Even more reason to avoid him, I thought. And yet, I couldn’t help but be a little curious. I couldn’t quite make out the features of his face from where I stood, so despite my common sense telling me to turn around and come back later, I stepped closer to the well. I would just fill my jar quickly and retreat back into the shadows of the house from which I had come. I stole a glance at the man as I approached and was surprised to see him continuing to watch me. Not that it was unusual for a man to look at me — but somehow this time it was different. Instead of feeling like a piece of meat being salivated after, or quickly judged and then rejected, I could sense the weary man sitting there was intelligent, and powerful, but also kind… or something. I had no category in my experience to place this man, this stranger. Something was different about him.
I was already feeling very out of sorts by the events that had happened on this usually uneventful part of my day, so when he spoke, I practically dropped my water jar in surprise.
He simply asked, “Would you give me a drink of water?”
It took a split second for it to sink in that his question was directed to me. Even though I was the only one there, I could hardly believe that he would acknowledge my presence, let alone speak directly to me. I knew he was a Jewish man — I could tell immediately from his accent that he came from Galilee, which is just north of Samaria by the Sea of Galilee. And he was dressed like a Jewish man — a religious Jewish man. I’ve learned to steer clear from these kinds of judgmental, rule-obsessed people. And these kinds of people tend to steer clear from me too. So why would he ask ME, for a drink??
After a few seconds of silence, I spoke back to him. “Why are you, a Jew, asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?”
For those of you who don’t know, Samaritans and Jews usually have nothing to do with each other. We inhabit the same land, yet most Jews hate Samaritans as much as they hate the Romans that occupy their land in Judea. While they think of themselves as God’s chosen people, we are racially and morally impure. We’re unclean. And if this man drank out of my water jar — a Samaritan water jar — he would immediately become unclean too. We believe different things from each other, and even worship and offer sacrifices in different places. A truly religious Jew would never talk to a Samaritan, let alone a Samaritan WOMAN. Jewish men don’t talk to women hardly at all — even to Jewish women. So you can see how odd it was that this stranger should be willing to talking to me, especially to ask for a drink of water.
But my suspicion at our conversation didn’t seem to faze him, and his response made me feel even more like this stranger was different, unlike any person I had met before. Instead of directly answering my question, he said this to me:
“If you knew how generous God is and who I am, you would be asking ME for a drink of water. And I would give you fresh, living water.”
I prickled under what I perceived was this man’s arrogance. I’ve never been one to keep my mouth shut — even when I know I should — and this time was no exception. I challenged his statement, pointing out its obvious flaws: “Sir, you don’t even have a bucket to draw with, and this well is deep, so how are you going to get this ‘living water’? Are you telling me that you are a better man than our ancestor Jacob, who dug this well?”
His response again was odd and confusing. He said, “Everyone who drinks THIS water will get thirsty again and again. But anyone who drinks the water I give them will never thirst again. The water I give will be a spring within you that gives life throughout eternity.”
At this point, I really had no idea what he was talking about anymore. But if somehow this man could give me a kind of water so I would never have to come back to this well ever again, enduring the heat and ridicule of my neighbors and townspeople, then yes. I wanted that water that kind of water. So I said,
“Sir, give me some of this water, so I’ll never be thirsty and never again have to make the trip to this well!”
What he said next, I never saw coming. He switched topics so quickly, I was left speechless and reeling. He told me, “Then go, get your husband and come back here.”
All of a sudden all my irritation at the man’s “arrogance” drained away, leaving my soul exposed and bare. This stranger had struck a very raw nerve. The topic of husbands has long been a painful one for me….
I was married as a young girl, like all the other girls who have “come to age,” but that relationship didn’t last for very long. I was young and headstrong, and my husband was much older than I was. He was boring — not to mention rather unattractive. He hardly paid any attention to me, except when I had failed to keep our home clean enough. I longed to be loved and romanced, and then I met a strong, handsome young man who had just moved to the city. It started off innocently enough — I was helpful to answer his questions about the city and where to find housing — but one thing turned into the next, and before I knew what happened, we had slept together. I thought I could hide it from my husband, but talk soon spread throughout the town and he found out. He was outraged, and immediately called for a divorce. As is the custom, after the divorce was finalized, I was to marry the man with whom I had committed adultery. We did marry, and lived two passionate months together before that relationship started to fall apart too. My second husband grew violent and eventually threw me out of his house. I’ll spare you all of the details, but I was remarried not just one more time, but three. My last marriage ended (thankfully) when my husband died, but at that point I was already secretly seeing someone else. And that man, my sixth lover, is the man who I live with now, even though we aren’t technically married.
It is because of my history and reputation with men that I have become an outcast in my own town. It’s why my family has disowned me, and I no longer go to the well with the other women of the town. So what could I say to this stranger who now sat before me, telling me to go get my husband?? I was desperate to move on from this painful topic. The only thing I could say was this:
“I have no husband.”
The man turned and took a step closer to me, his eyes boring holes into my soul. I stepped backward uncomfortably, feeling my personal space — and my personal life — being invaded. I wanted to leave, to run back into the city to the dark yet private room where I lived out most of my days. His words brought the searing pain of my broken life to the surface, where I couldn’t ignore it. Little did I know, my discomfort was about to increase drastically. The man spoke gently, but his words ripped into me. He said,
“You’re right. You have had FIVE husbands, and the man you’re living with now you aren’t married to.”
His words felt like a physical slap to the face. What in the world was going on?? Was I mistaken? Was this man a local after all, someone I had never met before but who knew my reputation? Could the gossip about me have spread that quickly? How could he possibly know such intimate — and painful — things about me? But no — he was still clearly Jewish. The accent and dress were undeniable. So HOW could this stranger know who I am?? The only thing I could conclude on was that he must be a very powerful religious prophet. In a desperate, last-ditch attempt to turn the focus away from me and my failures and back to him, I answered as calmly and coldly as I could,
“Sir, I can see that you’re a prophet. Well tell me this: Our ancestors worshipped God on this mountain, but you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place for worship, right?
I was desperate to change the direction of our conversation to anything else I could think of, like philosophy and religion instead of intensely painful things — the shambles of my failed relationships and broken life. I’m not a young woman anymore; I know my life has been a failure… Maybe the man sensed my suffering, or he was just more interested in proving how his beliefs were right and mine was wrong. Either way, he thankfully took the bait, although his words were not at all what I expected him to say as a Jew. Apparently no conversation with this man was simple.
He told me that a day was coming when it wouldn’t matter where or when people worshipped. What WOULD matter is the heart of worshipers. Salvation was coming — from the Jews, and God would be looking for what the man called “true worshipers.”
Religious laws and prophecy have never really been my thing, so his words didn’t really make sense to me. I was still in shock that this man could possibly know all of the details of my personal life, but I pulled from the recesses of my brain what little I did know about religion and future happenings to respond back to him. I tried to wave him off, saying that yes, I knew a Messiah was coming, and that he would explain all of that to us in due time.
The man stayed quiet for several moments. He hadn’t taken his eyes off of me the whole time we had been talking, and now, his gaze turned even more intense. I wanted to look away, but I was powerless to do so. He reached out a hand to me and quietly said, “I am he.”
At that very moment, as soon as those words had come out of his mouth, we were suddenly surrounded by a group of other men, also Jewish. I guess I had been so lost in the conversation with the man in front of me that I hadn’t even noticed them approaching us. From the corner of my eye I sensed they were all staring at me curiously, but not one of them said anything. For me, time had come to a standstill as my eyes were still locked with the stranger who had known everything about me. His confession to me about being the Messiah hardly seemed possible, and yet, could it be?? How else could he have known all those things?
Suddenly, the moment broke, and I became keenly aware of the world around me again and the oddness of what was happening, and what HAD just happened. I jumped up, knocking over the still-empty water jar that had been sitting by my feet, forgotten as our conversation progressed. The fact that I had come to draw water from the well no longer was important. Everything felt different now, and I felt compelled to tell someone — anyone — what had just happened and about this man I had met. For years, even decades, I had made every effort to avoid the other people of my city, but now I rushed back into the streets, telling every person I met on the way, “Come! Come see this man who told me everything I ever did! Could this be the Messiah??” Instead of retreating and hiding, I couldn’t keep the wonder of my experience with this man to myself. I needed their help to know — had I just met the Messiah?
At first people were shocked to see me not just out in the open, but willingly and eagerly approaching every person who crossed my path. Many of them laughed in my face or looked at me with such judgment and contempt, I would have turned and run away in any other circumstance. I know a lot of them probably thought I was absolutely out of my mind, but I couldn’t keep this to myself. Lots of people just snickered and walked away, but I didn’t care. My excitement and the fact that I so boldly approached the people I had before avoided at all costs finally began to get through to some of them. Whether or not they actually believed me or were just looking for more ammunition to add to their arsenal of gossip, a group of them did make their way out of the city to find this man I couldn’t stop talking about. For those people who had known me the longest, they realized something drastic had taken place…
My heart has been stone cold for so long. The young girl I used to be, who saw life as an adventure and still believed that romance and happiness existed, she divorced me the same way my first husband divorced me. For so many years I have simply been going through the motions, each new relationship making me more cynical, more hard. I did what I had to do. I fed my physical desires, and told myself that I didn’t care about anyone else. I didn’t need anyone else. I told myself that I could live whatever life I wanted, and it wouldn’t matter. But what was left behind was the shell of a woman — someone who had no real relationship with anyone, who tried desperately not to feel anything.
And then, I met this man who knew everything about me, and after that short conversation, my heart felt the things I had stuffed down within me, both bad and good. I felt the guilt and shame of my past and the pain connected with it, but I also felt for the first time in such a long time like there was hope. Hope for a different life than the one I had resigned myself to. Hope for healing and wholeness and life like I had always longed for. Like a gushing, crisp, clear stream of flowing water. I had gone to the well that day a hardened, isolated woman, but I left with a taste of something I had longed for my whole life. This man, Jesus, had broken into my world and given me hope.