the woman at the well: a meditation

There once long ago was a woman who had no good fortune with relationships. She lived in a world where the best thing anyone like her could ever have was a good marriage, a strong son, and a solid community reputation. As a girl, she’d dreamed about what her future husband might be like. He’d be respectable, strong, intelligent, romantic, awe-inspiring. She’d dreamed of her future sons, who would, of course, be supportive and devout, growing up to the stature of community pillars, as all the town would look to her as a great woman whom God had smiled upon, and who, because of her virtue, had been blessed with honor and comfort.

Of course, what she didn’t know at the time, but what came to be obvious as the years wore on, was that her dreams were only illusions. Her first husband was quite respectable indeed. He was the eldest son of a wealthy synagogue leader. They were to have a blessed life, as he would lead the community into purity and devotion to the Ancient of Days. And so he did, becoming so active at the city gate that he scarcely paid his wife any attention those few hours he was home. She was expected to prepare Sabbath and remain unseen when he and his important colleagues, all of whom sat in counsel for the town, partook and prayed. It wasn’t quite what she had dreamed, but he was overall a good man. It came as a horrible shock when the news came that he had been waylaid by bandits while on the road to Moriah. He didn’t survive.

Childless, she grieved for a long time, even as her deceased husband’s brother took up the responsibility of caring for her. After the required season of mourning ended, they were married. And her second husband was very a very strong man, a state of affairs she rued nightly as he beat her. And even though she had, in their brief time together, gotten pregnant, one of his outbursts of rage had so ravaged her that the child had died before birth. It was a blessing when he died that sultry August evening, when the illness that had been overtaking their town cruelly entered their own home. She herself had been very ill, but somehow, despite her weakness, cared for him as he lay soaked with sweat and (thankfully!) too weak to lash out at her.

Her third husband was very intelligent. She was so lucky that he was even kind enough to marry her. And when their son was born, he was quickly found to be like his father, so much so that her in-laws decided he should be moved in with them, where he would be closer to the highest educational center in the land. Alone together with his wife, his only son four days of journeying time away, this man soon became bored with his lot. She was no match for his conversation, and he missed the friends of his hometown. So one day, upon coming home from market, this woman found her husband and his things gone. Dropping all the produce in a heap on the floor, she ran to the synagogue, where she learned that he had signed the official writ divorcing her, and taking full custody of their son. He was gone.

Destitute, and afraid of what would become of her, she returned home, careful to study the ground in case she might find abandoned coins or other such valuables within grasp. As a divorced woman, she was shameful to the community, who believed that such a state of being was certainly due to moral depravity or some other character ailment. Yet she was resourceful, and was fortunate to have yet the house and small plot of land he had purchased when they married. She transformed the land to a small, thriving garden, and she raised a tiny flock of chickens, and thus she somehow scraped together enough to feed herself, and even, during good months, a tiny income with which she could purchase poorer quality fabrics and meal.

One day, while in the market haggling over flour, she was approached by a stranger, who seemed to her the most amazing fellow. He seemed to truly care about her lot, and he began a mind-whirling romance with her, which culminated in a storybook fashion. They were married, and she believed that this romantic fellow would give her that dreamed-about happily ever after. Of course, he had to keep himself separate from her, since she was a fallen woman, evidenced by her multiple past husbands. But he was merciful to his wretched wife, until, that is, he too divorced her, taking her house and property as his rightful due, being the head of household. Their marriage didn’t last three months.

Childless, outcast, she found herself sleeping in fields covered by straw or torn up chunks of peat. She hadn’t money to leave town, but every time she passed her own little house she was overcome with such a pang of grief, of lost childhood dreams, that she could scarcely breathe. Of course, she had to resort to panhandling or theft to survive. And then came the most awe-inspiring man. He couldn’t marry her, of course, but he would give her a place to live, a small allowance, and food, for a small price. He knew she hadn’t income, so she would clean and cook for him, and, as he desired, on occasion offer other more intimate services. She gratefully accepted.

There were consequences, but she considered them small compared to her previous lot in life—at least, she did at first. She was now considered a whore by the community, banned from synagogue. She would hear the disapproving whispers of mothers to each other, feel the occasional pebble hit her ankle or elbow as she walked past taunting children. She knew the stories they told about her. And the pain of it compounded over time. She resorted to avoiding people. She’d go to market or the well at the hottest time of day, in order to face the fewest people as possible. She remained indoors or found a little refuge in her tiny garden. Instead of being the esteemed woman of the proverbs she’d read as a girl, she was a pariah, living at the mercy of this benefactor who wouldn’t even marry her.

She was, after all, but a woman, a being with no civil rights or powers beyond those held by a husband or son, neither of which she herself had.

So it was, one especially hot and humid afternoon, that she came to the silence of the well at the center of town. She was weary, but they were low on water, and Sabbath was upon them. There would be no water for tomorrow if she didn’t fetch it now, and besides, it was so hot she knew nobody would be at the well to torment her. She found the hard work cathartic, actually. When she labored so physically, she was able to turn off her mind, to temporarily escape her unlucky world to one of simple work.

It was then a startling turn of events when she heard the voice. This man had come out of nowhere, and suddenly he was asking for a drink of water. When she looked up, she realized that this man was a Jew, one of those who traced their ancestry from the Babylonian captivity, one of those who considered themselves more fitting to be called Moses’ heirs than people like her, people who traced their ancestry from those whom the Babylonians left behind when they invaded the land. A Jew! And he looked like a rabbi, too. Startled, knowing that if he took anything from her his religion would consider it—and him by extension—unclean, she replied, “You’re a Jew. I’m a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” It was crazy. No Jew in his right mind would ask anything of a Samaritan, let alone a Samaritan woman!

His reply was mystifying. “If you knew the gift of God,” he said, “if you knew who it is that is asking you for this drink, you’d have asked him instead, and he’d have given you living water.”

Without thinking (darn, how silly not to stop and think!), she replied, “You don’t have anything to draw water with! And this well is deep. How could you possibly get this living water?”

After a pause, when her brain kicked in, she realized he was being somewhat metaphorical. She had, after all, listened enough times at the door during the meetings between her first husband and his friends! “Are you greater than our father Jacob,” she asked, “who gave us this well and drank from it himself, along with his sons and flocks and herds?”

The reply—“Everyone who drinks of this water will get thirsty again. But whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst. In fact, the water I give will turn into a spring within the drinker, welling up to eternal life.”

Aphorisms. Symbolism. She didn’t understand. And it was hot. But he was entrancing, and defying societal norms even to carry on such a conversation with her. Revolutionary! And no one really talked to her any more. Especially with such profundity and as if she were an equal. And what was this water, anyway?

“Sir,” she said. “Please do give me some of this water. I’d like not to be thirsty, not to have to return her all the time to draw water.”

“Ah,” he said. “Go call your husband and come back.”

Of course it would come to this. Mockery. He had to have realized that since she was here in the middle of the day, she was an outcast. She shouldn’t have made herself vulnerable. Especially not to a Jew. Well, fine. He won’t stick around town, and there’s nothing she hadn’t heard before.

“I have no husband,” she said flatly.

“This is true,” he said. “Fact is, you’ve had five husbands. And the fellow you’re currently with isn’t your husband at all. You speak correctly.”

She had to steady herself against the well. “What?” How did he know, this Jew from far away? And even though he pointed out the facts of her life, he didn’t seem to be mocking her at all. It was uncanny. Just matter of fact, not accusatory. And he had such a presence!

“Sir,” she mumbled, “I see you’re a prophet.”

Then, madly, she decided to pursue her longing for true conversation, for respect, and even for a few answers to questions that had been nagging her for over a decade. “Our fathers,” she began hurriedly, interrupting herself, “they worshipped on this mountain, but yours, yours worship in Jerusalem, and you say that that’s the only proper place to worship.”

Sitting on the edge of the well, the man looked kindly at her. “A time will come when you won’t worship the Father either here or in Jerusalem. Believe me. You Samaritans worship what you don’t know; we Jews what we do, because salvation is from the Jews. But a time is coming when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for these are the kind of worshippers the Father looks for. You see, God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth.”

Well! Revolutionary indeed! It doesn’t matter to this man that he’s speaking to a woman as if she were one of his disciples, teaching like a rabbi. It doesn’t matter to this man that she’s a Samaritan, and his words sliced through the very doctrinal matter that divided Samaritans from their Jewish kin for centuries. Where we worship doesn’t matter, he said. It’s how. Is that what he refers to when speaking of this living water? It was so confusing.

“I know the Anointed One is coming,” she said. “When he comes, he’ll explain all of this to us.” Messiah would reunite ancient brotherhoods under his teaching.

“I am he,” the man said.

It was all a blur. Messiah? Now? Here in Samaria? Talking to her, the outcast, the pariah? How could it be?

Suddenly, this band of Jewish men approached, and some of them looked at her, perplexed. But contrary to what she expected, nobody said anything about her talking to this man. Nobody voiced any judgment. Their surprise seemed only that, not laced with the sectarian racism that so often marked the Jewish treatment of Samaritans. It was too much.

“Please,” she said, dropping the water jar, “I’ll be right back!”

And she ran into town where she knew many townspeople would be, taking a break from the heat. It didn’t matter how they treated her. It didn’t matter the pebbles, the gossip, the ostracization. There was here someone suggesting a new way of thinking, a way of egalitarianism, where Jew and Samaritan could stand together before the Father, worshipping equally. And this man! He claimed to be Anointed One, and if so, then this new way would erase the history of inequity, of judgmentalism, of victimization. It would raise up the oppressed and lower the oppressor, making all united before the Holy One. They had to know!

“Come and see this man at the well!” She cried.

People looked up, startled to hear the woman who said so little shouting so animatedly.

“Come and see this man who told me everything about me!”

The gossipy ones looked up. Everything about this woman?

“Could he be the Anointed One?”

Wait, they thought. Messiah? Was she raving?

She ran back to the well, looking carefree, almost. This merited investigation. And a number of the town elders and many of those who had heard her yelling in the square followed, out of curiosity, to see this man. And they were also amazed at what he said, and they came to believe that he was the Anointed One, and asked him to stay (a Jew! Staying with Samaritans!). Amazingly enough, he did, for two whole days. It was unthinkable, revolutionary, and mind-blowing.

The pariah had found the Anointed One (or, rather, he had found her). And through this outcast, he had reached out to the outcast people, showing the gentle plan of the Father, who was the God of all creation, of all peoples.

The irony of this story is, of course, how it has been carried down the centuries. Over time, connotations have arisen, suggesting that the woman was a prostitute, that she had divorced many times, forgetting the fact that no woman of that era had such rights. The irony is that the outcast has been kept at arm’s length by those who believe she was, in some fashion, a horrible “sinner” whom Jesus deigned to teach a lesson to, to correct. But no such connotation exists in the text.

Of course, my story is a fiction, a suggestion. But it is more consistent with the historical facts regarding woman’s rights and role in society. And it’s more consistent with the pattern of Jesus’s life. Jesus came to the outcasts. Jesus came to obliterate the divisions made by “us and them” thinking societies. His birth was announced by shepherds and mystics, the former being social outcasts who were considered unclean, the latter being Gentile pagans who were impossibly unacceptable to any truly pious Jew. Jesus ate with tax profiteers. Jesus touched lepers.

It was the outcast who became the spokesperson of the kindom of heaven, that kindom where there are none who lord over others, but where all stand dignified and acceptable before the Father. It still is the outcast who speaks for the kindom.

Jesus said once that the kindom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. Many times, I have heard this interpreted, based on the King James wording, as a call to violently storm heaven in the name of Jesus. But language evolves. Words change connotations over time. There was a time when “to browse” meant “to chew a cud”—as in a cow. Then it evolved to mean “to look through”—as in a library or bookstore. Of course, now, it primarily means to do a web search. It is foolish to take contemporary connotations and place them on centuries-old texts, to assume they communicate precisely what we would mean using those words.

When translated more carefully, the meaning of Jesus’ words are chillingly opposed to that common understanding, preached from countless American pulpits. “The kindom of God,” he said, “is under siege; those who have no right to it are trying to overpower it by violence.”

The kindom of God, that family of equality and respect, is under attack by those who claim right to it, those who are invading it violently, like the Huns invaded Russia or the Goths pillaged Rome. Those who claim inequality and ostracization are God’s design. Those who set up castes and pariahs. Those who, in short, are more concerned about whether we worship on Moriah or in Jerusalem, not whether we worship in spirit and in truth.


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