This morning, I was reflecting on the story of the woman at the well from the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel. Sometimes, I find it beneficial to slow down, savoring the story. I think we can learn a lot by stepping into the story and taking a look around, trying to imagine what people were sensing, imagining, feeling, and thinking. When we recognize that these stories are not just flat words upon a page, but real life and blood people, it can deepen our understanding. Today, I tried to envision the woman’s experience and wrote a story. I hope it is edifying.
With the noonday sun cresting in the sky, she began her daily trip to the well. Working in the sun’s oppressive heat was a small price to pay to avoid judgmental stares and whispered accusations. She walked down the familiar path. Though she had walked this narrow trail a thousand times, she kept her eyes trained a few feet ahead, only glancing further along every few moments. A world-wise woman understands how important it is to be aware of her surroundings.
As she drew nearer to Jacob’s well, she looked up again, this time seeing someone sitting nearby. She debated whether to turn back, but she knew from experience that the man she was living with would be angry if she came back without a full jar. In her mind, she weighed the risk of encountering an unknown stranger against the guaranteed sting of a slap across her cheek. They needed the water. With any luck, she could avoid any interaction.
She was both attracted to and repulsed by men. They provided some measure of protection. And intimacy. But they could also be unkind, even unsafe. Everyone in Samaria knew that women were at a disadvantage around men.
As she approached, she avoided eye contact. Vigilantly, she paid attention to her surroundings, calculating escape routes if necessary. She’d been in this position before. Too often. God make him go away. She had her jar. She could use that as a weapon if necessary, but even if she defended herself against him, none of the townspeople would believe her. Worse, who among them would care about a woman with her reputation? Certainly not the man she lived with. She was there to meet his needs in exchange for his “protection.” He really cared nothing for her as a person. Most men didn’t. Her father did, but he’d been gone for decades.
She set the jar down. Her breath was shallow, senses on high alert. She kept this stranger at the periphery of her vision as she bent down to draw the water. Hurry up.
Breaking the silence, the man said “Give me a drink.” She shuttered. Although there seemed to be gentleness in his voice, she remained anxious. Rather than simply giving him a drink, she continued to look at the ground. “How is it that you, a Jewish man, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for water?” Jews would rather die of thirst than receive help from a Samaritan, especially a Samaritan woman. Women were to be used, not engaged. Samaritans were especially scorned.
Jesus responded, “If you really knew who I am, you would instead ask me for living water.” A hint of sarcasm tinged her voice. “You don’t even have a bucket! How are you going to obtain this ‘living water’? Are you quite special?” She knew this response would lead to a punishing blow, and yet it didn’t.
Leaving her jar on the ground, she stood and looked at him, the flash in her eyes betraying the passionate emotion she generally kept suppressed. He held her gaze, “Everyone who drinks this water will keep getting thirsty, but for the one who drinks the water I give will never thirst again.”
She scoffed. It was clear that this man wasn’t thinking right. Perhaps he was not dangerous, but probably crazy. Mockingly, she gave voice to her passion, “Great! Sign me up! Coming here every day is a real drag.” Shaking her head, she turned back to the well.
“Go get your husband.” The internal warning signals were on again. High alert. Perhaps he was crazy and dangerous, a lethal combination. She considered her escape routes again.
“I have no husband,” she replied shortly, unsure of how this message would be interpreted.
Though she busied herself, he continued to look at her. “I know. You’ve been married five times, but the man you live with now isn’t your husband.” Now shame accompanied fear, but she was not about to bear her soul to a stranger, and especially not a Jewish man, even if this one broke all social convention. She steered the conversation once again to the differences between Jews and Samaritans. He told her that a change was on the horizon, that a time was coming when culture would no longer shun people, but when everyone who lived by the Spirit would be welcomed. No judgment. No exceptions.
She looked to the horizon and whispered, “Yes, the messiah will come someday.”
After a long pause, she looked back to this stranger who had grown quiet. For the first time in a long time, she felt completely at peace. He held her gaze and said, “Today is that day.”