There’s a woman in the New Testament who encountered Jesus in his travels. She was a Samaritan, the first-century ancestor of a Palestinian, I guess – the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Even then, the Palestinians and Israelis couldn’t quite manage to get along. In fact, even then, they pretty much never even tried. The Children of Israel were the Chosen Ones, the Samaritans were the “red-headed step-children,” and they despised each other for reasons that were essentially flip sides of the same coin. Anyone who’s survived a stiff case of sibling rivalry will get it:
“Dad likes me best.”
“You are so stuck on yourself.”
“Yeah, well, you’re stupid.”
“Yeah, well, you’re stupider, ‘cause you think Dad likes you best.”
“Yeah, well, he does.”
“So? I can still beat you up, and if you tell, I’ll tell Mom you swung first. She likes me best.”
So there they were: Yeshua the Chosen on the road, passing through the back yards of the red-headed step-children, and this woman out doing her daily routine. She went up to the well to get water for her household, and there was this man – this clearly Israeli man – sitting there, apparently waiting for something. “Give me some water?” he asked.
“You’re asking me for water?” she responded. “I’m surprised you’d stoop to speak to me – you and your stuck-up, holier-than-thou Israelite self!”
“Yep,” he said, “I’m asking you for water. Please?” He didn’t have to. She was already drawing the water, and she’d already picked up the little cup to fill for him. But his mama taught him manners, so he did say “please.”
And then he told her some things about herself she’d just as soon keep under the rug, and he offered her living water.
Of all the characters in the Bible – and it’s full of characters, in every sense of the word – this woman is probably the one I most identify with. First, she’s an oddball even among her own townspeople. She doesn’t do things the way everyone else does, and they don’t approve. She’s pretty used to getting odd looks.
She’s been married five times, and she’s currently “living in sin” with some guy. I can’t quite match her there, but I’ll tell you this: as far as the Episcopal Church is concerned, I’ve used up my quota of church weddings. I have to say, I’ve wondered about this woman on that particular count. What happened to her husbands? Did the Samaritans not take quite as dim a view as other folks in those parts of women divorcing and remarrying? Had the husbands been brothers who died one after another and left her childless? If the Samaritans were going by the same rules as the Israelites, each “next brother” would be obligated to marry her upon the passing of his older sibling, in an attempt to keep the gene pool filled. And if that was the case, what was the problem? Why was she coming out in the middle of the day, when it was hot and dusty and no one else was there? Why, for that matter, was Yeshua’s tone a little bit condescending? I mean, when you read how he brings it up, it sounds like he’s calling her on it – zapping her for something she’d rather he not call attention to.
But I digress. It’s one of my favorite things to do, but there’s a point here, and it’s not the Samaritan gene pool.
Basically, this woman is an odd duck at best. She goes about her business while everyone else is taking their siestas. Whether it’s because they’re liable to throw rocks at her if she comes out when they do, or she just prefers her own company to that of her neighbors, she doesn’t hang out with them much. As a lifelong odd duck who has often preferred my own company to that of the jocks and “mean girls,” and who didn’t fit in with the “Pseudo-Intellectuals” I hung around with – yes, we actually called ourselves that, and I didn’t fit because I was shy about voicing my opinion, which is definitely not a Pseudo-Intellectual trait – and who usually felt a little ill at ease with the blue-collar kids because they seemed to think, as a preacher’s kid, I was a cut above everyone else and I knew I wasn’t… Well, you get the idea. I know exactly where this odd duck is coming from.
And we’ve both been married multiple times. Not even twice – multiple. Whether it’s about children or the company of someone with whom we can be on equal footing, intellectually and emotionally, we had to come back and try again more than once. We weren’t willing to settle for less than what we needed, and we bucked the norm in the process of looking for someone to fit the bill. In Samaria or in a small town in North Carolina, that will get you some funny looks, I guarantee. And on occasion, even a rock or two.
The other thing about this woman, though, is that she was looking for something. She thought it was water for her bucket. Yeshua saw past that. He saw someone who was looking for a truth she hadn’t yet defined, might not even know if she saw it, but was looking for it nevertheless.
I’ve been doing that all my life. In trying to fit in and in pretending not to care that I didn’t fit in; in the company of others and of just myself; in the books I’ve read, the music I’ve loved, the jobs I’ve worked at, the friends I’ve cultivated – few of those, but with bonds that, for the most part, are unbreakable – I’ve looked. I’ve known the truth wasn’t as simple as people made it out to be; that sometimes you have to struggle to understand it. And sometimes you can know in your heart it’s the truth, but your gut still just refuses to let you believe it.
So I can relate to this woman. Never mind the centuries and the cultural differences. We both come from the same place.
A few years ago, I was assigned to write a Lenten meditation using this passage. I fought with it for about a month; I couldn’t get my head around it. Everything I thought of was more of the same; the Woman at the Well has been preached to death. Everyone already knew the punch line – the one about “living water,” you know – and there was nothing new to say.
Then, in the week before I was to turn in my essay, we had a hurricane. This was North Carolina, where hurricanes sometimes blow in and retain their hurricane-force winds halfway into the state. And I was living in just about the center.
This particular hurricane hit with a vengeance. It went ‘way past us in Smithfield and Wendell and Zebulon. In fact, by the time it got to us, I don’t think it had even slowed down much. It was a lot of miles up the road before it started winding down. I remember standing in my front door around midnight, watching the rain blow sideways – literally sideways – and wondering whether the 200-year-old oak tree out front would stay vertical through the night.
When the wind died and the rain stopped, there was a whole lot of water in places there hadn’t been any. Dips in the road had become streams, streams were rivers, ponds now were lakes. We couldn’t go anywhere for a few days, because the roads were all flooded.
Late in the week, I finally was able to drive into Raleigh by way of Poole Road, the two-lane “back way” into the city. I made several stops to take pictures of the amazingly alien landscape, and then I came to the bridge at the Neuse River.
The Neuse runs between two ridges that are uncommonly high for that place on the border between the Coastal Plain and the Piedmont. In fact, Poole Road in general is pretty hilly, but the banks of the Neuse are steep even for Poole Road. The bridge sits a good 20 feet or more above the water as a rule, and that’s if we’ve had regular rain.
Not that day. I had to stop on the other side of the bridge and walk back. I stared, and I trembled. The rushing brown water, stained dark with loam and clay washed from far up the banks and bark from great, dense trees uprooted and swept along, was no more than two or three feet below the bridge where I stood. I was terrified and awestruck. It was like watching the proverbial train wreck: I was scared to death of what I was seeing, but I couldn’t look away. I couldn’t turn and walk away from it.
I knew if I slipped and fell into that wild torrent, I would panic. I would surely struggle, and I would surely drown. There’s no telling where I might wash up.
And I got it.
This is what Yeshua offered that woman. This was living water. It was crazy, it was scary, it was too powerful for words. To accept it was to be swept away, to be changed forever. To dive into the living water meant to understand she might be giving up everything. The Samaritan woman had no way of knowing what would happen after this. She could only hope to ride the current and come out alive.
“Living water,” he said. “You’re giving me water from your well, but I can give you living water, and you’ll never be thirsty again. You’ll be transformed, you may be scared to death – your life will never be the same. You take this living water I’m offering, and all I can promise is that you’ll be thrown off the deep end, right there. No turning back, no matter how terrifying it becomes.
“But you’ll know. You’ll see the truth, and you’ll be able to believe it. Your heart and your gut will meet, and you'll find the answers to your questions. You won’t be thirsty any more – you’ll be swept downstream in the massive, raging current that is the Almighty, and you’ll wash up wherever that current washes you. And you’ll know. You will know.”
It’s a terrible, awful, frightening thing he offers us. If we have any sense at all, we know enough to quake in our boots. This isn’t rowing your boat “merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily.” Life isn’t “but a dream.” This is stepping out of the boat onto the fiercely choppy water and trusting – hoping, anyway – we won’t drown.
This is real. It’s beyond intimidating. And if we want to know the truth, and we want the truth to make us free, we have to do it. We have to step off the bridge into that living water and let go.
Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy.