The woman at the well: John 4:5-42
Jacob’s Well was on the edge of the village. We all knew it as Jacob’s Well. It had always been known as Jacob’s Well. Here he had stopped for a drink, stopped to refresh his face, stopped so that his flocks, his servants, his sons could be rested and renewed. Jacob, the trickster, the patriarch, who met with God, wrestled with him and received a blessing. Jacob’s Well, one hundred feet deep, fed by a stream we couldn’t see or hear. Fresh water, constantly replenished.
When I say that the well is on the edge of the village, I mean that it is a mile, or so, away. The rest of the women come down first thing in the morning to lift the stone from the top of the well together, fill their jars and return, sharing the weight, companionship and village news. Settling back into their homes before the sun grew too fierce, the shadows too short and the light too piercing.
I walk out in the heat of the day, conscious of my shame, my choices put me outside of the cosy coterie of the village mums, my lifestyle makes me too dangerous to talk to. I have ideas, opinions, I know my own mind, I make my own decisions, and, yes, they haven’t always gone the way I had hoped, especially when it came to relationships, but I am my own woman and if fetching water alone is the price I have to pay for being free, then so be it.
Still, whenever I walk to the well I’m always thinking – who will help me roll the stone away. It was the same that day. Carrying my bucket, rope and stone jar, I knew I was going to have to make more than one trip. I was doing all the calculations in my head. A quarter of a jar for cooking, half a jar for washing the utensils, another quarter jar for scrubbing the table, and at least another half for washing our hands and feet. The rest for drinking. Nothing to be wasted. Water is too precious to be squandered. Every drop comes with a cost.
I was so busy working it all out that at first I didn’t notice him. A man, a man my age, sitting on the well stone. I must admit my thought was ‘great, he can help me shift it’. Only then did it strike me as odd – a man, sitting out in the heat of the day, alone with not even a bush to shade his head. And, oh my, I was being slow, the sun must have addled me – he wasn’t just a man, his clothes, his face – he was different, he wasn’t one of us. He was a Jew, a Jew from Galilee, the rough end of the nation.
Now, you know how it is – those Jews and us Samaritans don’t get on. We don’t do anything together, we have our own land, our own ways. They have theirs. We believe in the one God, we have the five books of Moses as our scriptures. They believe in the one God but to the five sacred books they have added histories and songs, prophecies, mysterious sayings and much more besides. They have confined God to the stone palisades of the Temple in Jerusalem. We let God run wild, we worship him out in the open, in the high places of our own land.
Too busy thinking I found myself standing over the stranger. Before I had time to get myself sorted he looked up at me, shielding his face from the sun, and said ‘Give me a drink.’ Now, that’s not the way you talk to me. I’m my own woman – I don’t take kindly to being ordered about, I follow my own rules, not those of convention, no matter how religious or ancient they might be. I was about to tell him to go jump in the well, when it struck me that like me he wasn’t following the rules. So I asked him straight: ‘You’re a Jew, I’m a Samaritan. Jews despise Samaritans. You’re a man, I’m a woman. Jewish men don’t talk to women alone. So how is it that you are asking me for a drink?’
He smiled, looked down, drew some patterns in the dust. He spoke of God’s gifts, of knowing who was asking for a drink, of being able to offer me living water. I couldn’t catch it all, but it didn’t quite add up – I was the one with the bucket, not him, and the well is deep. Without my bucket he wasn’t going to be able to offer water to anyone. Or was he another trickster – another Jacob? And what was this living water? Was it always flowing, forever fresh? What made it different from the stuff I lifted from this well every day?
‘Ah,’ he told me, ‘even though you drink the well water you’ll soon be parched. Taste the water I’m offering you and you’ll never be thirsty again, it will be like a spring inside you feeding you forever.’
Now, I’m a practical soul. If I didn’t get thirsty I wouldn’t need to come to the well so often. Every jar I didn’t have to collect would spare me that midday walk of shame. So I asked him – ‘Sir, give me this water!’
He looked hard at me and said: ‘Go, call your husband and come back.’ So he wasn’t a rule breaker, after all. He was just another man who didn’t think women could make up their own minds. I wasn’t going to let him get away with that. I told him: ‘I have no husband’. His eyes didn’t leave my face. ‘True – you’ve had five husbands and the one you have now isn’t your husband.’ Woah, this was getting personal. He was right, but that was my business. Time to change the subject.
A bit of flattery: ‘Sir, I see you are a prophet.’ A religious argument. That would keep him busy. We started discussing the differences between our ways of worshipping – mountains or Jerusalem. He listened to what I said, considered my arguments before he responded. I wasn’t used to that in a man. Instead of trampling all over me we were wrestling equally. He shifted the ground – true worship was about truthfully seeking out and meeting with God, not rites on hills or altars. That threw me – ‘You are speaking of things only the Messiah can explain to us.’ His eyes were still on my face. ‘You are talking to him.’
That was too much to process: the Messiah sitting at my well, sparring with me. We were like Jacob and the angel at Penuel, but I couldn’t work out who was who. Voices, male voices, more Jews, his companions, coming this way, talking – as men often do – about food. I couldn’t be seen. I fled, left my bucket, rope and jar. And no water.
No water. Back at the village, with no water. But I was full, full to the brim with knowledge, with confidence, with the surety that in that man, at that place, something about the world – my world, the whole world, the Jewish world, the Samaritan’s world, had changed.
Stuff what anyone would think. If it was true then I really, really couldn’t keep quiet. I had to tell them – the rest of the village – ‘Look, come and see – an unknown man who knew more than any of you about everything I have ever done. Surely, he can’t be the Messiah, God with us?’ Laughing they went – another chance to make a fool of me – to prove that I was wrong to think for myself.
They came back, their eyes dancing wildly, their jaws on the floor. They brought him with them. He stayed for two days, teaching them over and over about God being in our midst, God giving us the gift of life, God filling us with his spirit. And they believed, we believed. Of course, they told me that it was nothing to do with me. My words hadn’t swayed them, they believed because they heard it from his lips, not mine.
But that was the day I went to the well and came back without even an empty jar. Yet I had been giving water, living water and I didn’t waste a drop, I didn’t hang on to it for my private use, I gave it way, I watered the village, and it grew into something bigger than all our rules, it sprang from Jacob’s Well with a man from Galilee and we never were able to put the stone back over the entrance.
Living water – have you tasted it? Have you shared it? Let it change you, but don’t keep it to yourself. Perhaps that is all that the Messiah asks of us – to be generous with all that we have been given, to be open to God’s spirit, to thirst for the truth, and to have the courage to walk openly with no shame knowing that we are loved and loved and loved eternally by the God who, in both the sunlight and in the shadows, walks with us. Amen.