It was hot and dry, and she shielded her eyes against the glare of the sun, to see a man sitting by the wall of the well. She tutted in frustration, expecting and hoping to see no one. She didn’t seek encounter. She just wanted to be left alone.
Still, it couldn’t be helped. She set down her waterpot ready to draw the water.
“Can you get us a drink, love? I’m so thirsty.”
It was astonishing and aggravating.
In the couple of seconds that it took him to speak, she could tell that he was a foreigner, a Jew, and Jews never talked to Samaritans. Never. They looked down on them.
And it wasn’t done to talk to a woman, either. It was very pushy. He was looking intently at her now, and she flushed. How could he just ignore normal customs?
There was a reason for the flush. There was also a reason for her coming to the well at noon, when she expected to see no one there. It was because she had a story, a difficult past, and as he looked at her, it was as if he was reading the story in her eyes.
“How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” She spoke quickly, defensively, looking at him properly for the first time, and seeing the ready smile beneath the dust of travel and the obvious tiredness.
“If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water.”
And suddenly, they were talking on a different level together. The old Jew/ Samaritan stand-offishness had been dismissed as irrelevant. The man/woman distinction too. She was taken aback by his sparkling directness and the intrigue of his words. What on earth did he mean?
“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 a better man than our ancestor Jacob, who dug this well and drank from it, he and his sons and livestock, and passed it down to us?”
She was interested, she couldn’t deny it. She knew he was talking in riddles, to make some point, but she didn’t get it. It was if he was making fun of her, gently, to pique her curiosity and ensure her attention, and it worked.
So she jibed back, referring to the story of the ancient well, and to the common ancestor that both Jew and Samaritan shared. Nothing would wind a Jew up more!
But he simply ignored the jibe, and said something so outrageous that it took her breath away.
“Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.”
The riddle had become a claim so massive that she didn’t know what to do with it. She had first simply seen a thirsty man. Then a Jew. And now what? Something peculiar was happening. He kept ignoring outward appearance and pointing to inner reality in a way that was both provoking and poignant.
She took the bait: “Sir, give me this water so I won’t ever get thirsty, won’t ever have to come back to this well again!”
What did it all mean? Was she entering the riddle herself? She hardly knew. Something was stirring inside, like the gush of laughter when you hear a joke. She wanted…. she didn’t know what she wanted.
“Go call your husband and then come back.”
It was like a slap. A cold, hard slap. She flushed again and turned her face away. Why do you think I avoid everybody? Why do you think I’m ignored by the people in the town? “I have no husband.”
She said it quietly, but she had been stung.
But he wasn’t fazed for a second. He even nodded as she spoke! “That’s nicely put: ‘I have no husband.’ You’ve had five husbands, and the man you’re living with now isn’t even your husband. You spoke the truth there, sure enough.”
It was true. All completely true. But her real sense of shame just made her more feisty: “Oh, so you’re a prophet! Well, tell me this: Our ancestors worshiped God at this mountain, but you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place for worship, right?”
It was a good question, a real sore point between Jew and Samaritan, but the real reason for her asking it was to shut him up about that whole husband business. Don’t go there!
But he simply nodded and smiled again, as if he saw the ploy as clearly as he had evidently seen her messy past. And just as the water question made him think of her deeper thirst, so the mountain question made him think of what worship really was.
“Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you Samaritans will worship the Father neither here at this mountain nor there in Jerusalem. You worship guessing in the dark; we Jews worship in the clear light of day. God’s way of salvation is made available through the Jews. But the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter.
“It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”
It was odd. He seemed to honour the place of the Jews in the past, but then dismiss them for the future. Was that it? As if he had a whole new way of looking at everything. And her private life…. she could tell that he knew that that was intrinsically tied up with the way she worshipped God too. Of course it was. It was all part of her inner thirst.
She shivered with involuntary delight. But. But.
She had to say it: “I don’t know about that. I do know that the Messiah is coming. When he arrives, we’ll get the whole story.”
“I am he,” said Jesus. “You don’t have to wait any longer or look any further.”
And her heart flopped over. And something new began.