The Woman at the Well

Reflection at St James and All Saints, Lent 3

Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:5-42

To listen, as you read, to the recording of the reflection made in Colwall:

Psalm 95: If today you will hear his voice, harden not your heart, as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness.

The well, of course, is at the bottom of the valley. Well, where else would you expect a well to be, for heaven’s sake? Water flows downhill, doesn’t it? At least, it does in Samaria. It’s a gentle stroll down and a hard slog back up with a heavy water jar to carry. Every day. More than once. Down to the well. Back up to the village.

On this particular day, I went down about noon. I do that sometimes. It’s quieter. The other women don’t gather like a flock of chirruping birds, as they do in the cool of dawn and dusk. And there are days when I just need peace. I don’t need their kindness, their sympathy, the words that cannot alter the facts. Four husbands and not a child to show for it. Four devoted marriages to good men – unblessed, more barren than the bare mountains towering above us. Oh, they don’t say ‘God is angry with you’, but it’s there at the back of their minds. So there are days when I don’t want to talk. I just want to be alone. To shrug off the role of the barren wife. To be free to be myself for once.

So I go down in the heat of the day. It’s not too bad, if you take your time, although there’s precious little shelter on the path. And you have to be careful. Jacob’s well is at the junction of the main road from Jerusalem in the south. Here, the road splits, going east to the Jordan Valley and west past that new Roman town and on into Galilee. The road gets very busy and if you’re unlucky you run into a detachment of Roman soldiers or some Jews who won’t even tread on the same patch of earth as a Samaritan. There have been enough battles around this ancient well. You’d think people had forgotten that it is a place of the divine. Forgotten how God has spoken here in times past, through Abram, through Jacob, through Joseph, through all the events of our past. Or maybe they remember too clearly that it is also a place of base human treachery, like the time Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery and then concocted a lie to cover their deed? And God knows that we Samaritans and those arrogant Jews have fought enough over the pass between the twin mountains, Gerizim and Ebal.

Yes, it can be risky to go out on your own. You never know whose path you’re going to have to get out of. Roman soldiers don’t give way for anyone and the Jews are not much better. I met a bunch of them today, coming up the hill to the village. Young men, laughing and joking and mopping the sweat from their brows. Come from Jerusalem, I expect. From their holy city. At least, they were laughing and joking until they saw me. I don’t know what they expected so close to a Samaritan village, but a woman going for water seems reasonable enough, doesn’t it? You’d think I’d got leprosy, the way they behaved, and just for once, I’d had enough. I kept right on down the path, regardless. I might be a woman and a Samaritan, but I’m old enough to be their mother. They can show some respect and get out of my way for once! You should have seen them jump. They couldn’t get off the path quick enough, wouldn’t even turn their faces to see me go past. I don’t know what they expected to do in the village, but they’d find it difficult if they refuse even to look at a Samaritan!

I continued my triumphant progress. My path. My right. Ahead of me was the well. I’ve seen it a thousand times, but that day, it was different. There was a light surrounding it. Resting on the stones as if to mark the place. Radiating power, just as God was standing there in front of me, as he did on the rock at Horeb, when Moses struck the rock, and water came out of it, so that the people could drink. But it was only another young man. Another Jew. Sitting there at the edge of our well as if he owned it. Looking up at me from below, but actually looking down at me, a Samaritan, a half-breed, an ethnic traitor – and a woman. I needed water. I was not going to be put off. After all, we didn’t have to say anything to each other. Religious law forbade it anyway. So I kept right on down to the well.

And then he asked me for a drink! He just sat there and asked me. You could have knocked me over with a feather. I had to check to make sure I’d heard him right. Who did he think he was, with his talk of living water? Didn’t he know that the well of Jacob runs deep and clear and never fails? That’s living water. Water that has been here for a thousand years and will be there for another thousand to come. He had to be joking! But somehow, I felt that he wasn’t. There was something in his voice – a promise, a hope, a willingness for me, me a despised foreign woman, to understand that he was talking about something more than just water. And he was talking to me. We were having a conversation. A serious and equal conversation, whose implications I could hardly take in. For a rabbi to discuss, to enter into dialogue with others is a sign of respect: he respected me.

He knew who I was. He truly saw me. It was as if I was an open window, through which he could look at the story of my life. He could take me down into the depths of my being and show me the hidden things, the storehouse of forgotten memories and hurts and free me from them. Free me to grow in a way I could not have imagined. Free me to stand upright and to walk the path ahead and to trust that I would be given that living water, that power to sustain me as I did.

And how did he know I was living with my brother, caring for him now that there are only the two of us left? Only God can see such things. Only God and his Chosen One, the one who comes to save and right all wrongs. The One who is God’s eternal unbroken promise, come to heal our broken and corrupted state, and to assuage our thirst for holiness with his living water.

But he was thirsty too, right now. The giver of living water was thirsty himself. Vulnerable. Dependent of a woman with a bucket and a water jar. Suddenly I understood how God and his humanity are intimately interconnected. Understood that he was waiting for me to play my part. How could I refuse him? The child of my heart. The son I never had. The young man who talked with me because I mattered. God’s Chosen One, a thirsty human being, just like any one of us.

Legend says that for Jacob water rose to the top of the well and overflowed. The rest of us have to let down 130 foot of rope and then pull it up, slowly, carefully, hand over hand. His hands were beside mine on the rope. We worked together at the task. Carefully, quietly, unhurriedly, as if we had been doing it together for years. When the full bucket finally reached the top, he held his hand over the water, traced the surface with a gentle finger. He smiled. And then I put the water into his hands, so that he could drink. The giver of living water, accepting a gift from a stranger, a foreigner, from a woman.

Such news could not be just for me. Abandoning the water jar into his care, I flew back up the hill, passing his puzzled friends on their way down. My heart full of joy and my voice was already crying the news to my redeemed and accepted people. The first good news in a thousand years of bitterness, revealed to us, the despised, the rejected: we have been given The Chosen, The Holy One of God.

Notes of theological research for this reflection