Approaching the low wall, I could barely put one foot before the other any longer. We had set out at dawn after a very short night, and the sun was now high and hot in the merciless sky. Every bone ached as I manoeuvred myself down onto the stones and gave a grateful sigh. I was vaguely aware of the others leaving – I supposed in search of food – but I didn’t really notice them, or see in which direction they went. My entire attention was occupied by one thing. From my place on the wall I could see right down into the depths of the well, and there at the bottom the cool, shimmering water reflected the sky above me, and mocked my thirst.
The terrible thirst. We had emptied our water flasks long ago, and the sweat had streamed down my face and clothes as I pulled my tired body up the steep mountain paths. I thought back to the dawn of this day, on another mountain many miles away, when I had found a secret spot in the crisp morning to worship and listen. I knew I had to come here, that impression had been unmistakeably clear, but I had no idea why, and looking around me now I saw nothing to give me any clue.
This feeling of searing thirst dominated my whole body and soul and made it hard for me to get my thoughts into any kind of order. I tried to straighten my leaden shoulders and in so doing caught another glimpse of the scornful water far below, winking at my distress. I, always so at one with all things natural, found it more than strange to be at odds with the water that gives life to the earth, but there it was, twenty feet below me, as far out of my reach as if it had been beyond the stars, taunting my parched senses.
A slight scuffling noise caught my attention and I looked to where the path rounded the cliff edge and turned towards the well. A figure shuffled into sight – a woman. Not one of the graceful beauties who come to these wells at dawn and dusk, proud and erect with their water-pots elegantly poised on their stately heads, an easy grace in their gait. This woman was scrambling with effort along the stony path, her head so bowed with care or perhaps shame that she had to clutch at her urn with both hands to keep it on her head.
Consequently, she had almost reached the wall before she looked up and noticed me sitting there. She gave a great start and stepped back a pace, looking at me with a mixture of suspicion and contempt. I took all this in at a glance, but the thing that gripped my attention was the water-pot in her hands.
I struggled to listen to the Spirit of my Father within me – surely now He would show me why I had to come here – it must in some way be connected with this woman. But the screaming thirst made it impossible to think or to hear His still voice in my spirit, and so, without a moment’s thought I heard myself blurting out, “Please, will you give me a drink?”
She lowered the pot to the ground, placed her hands on her hips and looked me up and down with one eyebrow raised. I think she could see that I really was gasping and exhausted and something in her womanly soul felt a faint flicker of pity for me. She moved hesitantly towards the well, not taking her eyes off me for a moment.
“You’re a Jew,” she said, as she tied the rope to the handle of her pot, “and I’m a Samaritan woman. How is it that you ask me for a drink?”
I shrugged. Why did she think I was asking? “Because I’m so thirsty,” I responded, nodding towards the urn. “May I have one?”
I watched, moved by the kindness of a stranger as this daughter of Sychar lowered her waterpot with a delicious splash into the cool depths below and began to pull on the rope. She was more beautiful than I had first thought, but her liquid brown eyes and full lips were masked by the expression they wore, a mixture of shame, defiance and fear.
Standing the overflowing pot on the wall beside me, she motioned to me with her hand to help myself and stood watching me, alert with wordless curiosity, as I drank deeply until my thirst was quenched.
“Thank you,” I smiled. The well was so deep that even on the hottest of days the water remained cool and refreshing, and I felt myself reviving, both from its hydration, and from the sense that I was here to do my Father’s bidding, and that somehow the interaction I was about to have with this woman, however, it developed, was going to be meat and drink to me.
There was a moment of awkward silence, but now it was my turn to be curious, and I voiced my thoughts into the still, stifling air. “It’s a strange time of day to be drawing water.”
Without blinking she retorted, “It’s a strange time of day to be sitting on the wall of that well.”
I liked her boldness. “I’ve come a long journey, and I stopped to rest,” I explained. “And you’re alone. Have you no friends to come and draw with?”
She shook her head and snorted. “No one wants to associate with me. Nor would you if you knew who I am.”
I felt a great surge of love for her from deep within me. It was as if I could see, all at once, who she was made to be and what she had become, and I longed to bridge the gulf between the two. “And if you knew the gift of God,” I responded, “and who it is who asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
I wasn’t teasing her, certainly not mocking her, and yet she looked at me with so much suspicion, as if she could not see what good motive a man could have for engaging in light-hearted conversation with a woman he’d never met before. At the same time, she was transfixed, unable to turn her gaze away, her curiosity increasing with every word I spoke.
She raised a cynical eyebrow. “Living water, eh?”
I nodded and watched her. There was a hardness and defiance in her voice, but in her eyes the shadow of self-reproach. I longed to hold up a mirror for her to see herself the way my Father saw her.
“Sir,” she said, and then abruptly stopped herself. “Well I don’t know why I’m calling you Sir,” she muttered, more to herself than to me. “It’s a long time since I called any man Sir.” Then, gathering her thoughts again, “Sir,” (she pronounced the word with exaggerated deliberateness) “you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep. Where are you going to get this living water?”
I made no hurry to reply, but looked thoughtfully at her as I listened to my Father’s promptings deep in my spirit.
She threw her shoulders back, tossed her chin up a little and sneered, “Are you greater than our father Jacob who gave us this well and drank from it himself, along with his sons and his livestock?”
I looked at her planted there on the path, so hard and yet so fragile, sweltering under the midday sun, framed by the trees either side, paling the wayside flowers into drabness by her beauty if she did but realise it, so young and so cynical, and felt as if my heart would break.
I picked up her water pot and held it over the path. “If I were to let go of this,” I mused, “it would shatter into a thousand pieces. How could you ever gather them up and stick them back together? It would never hold water again.”
She reached out and snatched it from me. “Sometimes the soul can feel like that,” I continued. “Life has shattered it into pieces. You try to stick them back together, but you can never make it whole again. It will never hold water, and so you have to keep trying to find something to quench the inner thirst.”
She was listening now, open-mouthed, her task forgotten. I turned from her and leaned over the well to see the water far below. “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again,” I observed. Then I looked back at her, turning so that the well was behind me, spreading out my hands for support on either side of me. “But whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.”
She gasped audibly. I pretended I hadn’t heard and carried on. “In fact the water I give them will become a spring of water inside them, welling up to eternal life.” I was willing her to ask more, longing to show her how her thirst for love could be forever quenched in the Father’s arms.
I had spoken of pots and I had spoken of souls. What was passing through her mind? I wondered. She turned her eyes away and stared at her water pot.
“Sir,” she hesitated, and this time there was no irony in the word, “give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Still tuning in to the felt presence of my Father, I debated what subject would draw her out, would come closest to the source of her inner thirst and enable Him to address it. All of a sudden I knew what I had to ask her. “Go, call your husband and come back.”
Shock, and then fear registered on her face. I could see her thoughts were racing, trying to decide how to reply. At last she stared at the floor and mumbled, “I have no husband.”
And suddenly I could see, behind her, a line of men who had owned and abandoned her, discarded her as worthless, or died taking a chunk of her heart with them, and I knew that her thirst for love went on, so frantic, just as my physical thirst had been when I first sat down here, that she no longer cared how she quenched it.
“You are right when you say you have no husband,” I agreed. “The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not YOUR husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
She winced at my emphasis on the word “your” and I wondered whose husband it was that she was now living with. The guilt all over her face told me that there was another, wronged, woman involved.
There were tears in her eyes, and a desperation to shift the conversation away from an area so painful. “Sir, she whispered, “I can see that you are a prophet.” She waved a hand over in the direction of Gerizim. “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews say that Jerusalem is the place where we must worship.”
I could tell that she hoped the ancient controversy would deflect my thoughts away from her life and all the things she was ashamed of. I looked at this woman, so damaged that she didn’t even feel like a woman any longer, and was overwhelmed with an immense tenderness for her, a longing to restore to her all she had been robbed of. “Woman.” I chose the word deliberately. “Believe me, a time is coming when you won’t worship the Father either on this mountain or in Jerusalem.”
Again she gasped, this time at my use of the word “Father”. I sat motionless, watching expressions of surprise, curiosity, bitterness and puzzlement pass over her face. After a time she looked back at me again. Seeing I had her attention, I continued.
“You Samaritans worship what you do not know.” I was determined to erase the lies and replace them with truth.
“That’s true enough.”
“We worship what we know. Salvation comes from the Jews.”
She tutted and turned contemptuously away. I wanted to bring a reconciliation that transcended any ancient fundamentalism. “But a time is coming – in fact it has now come – when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks.”
I had seldom been more conscious of being enveloped in the presence of God. I didn’t want to argue theology with her, so I simply held that presence out to her. Her look softened, her defences crumbling.
“I know that Messiah is coming.” Her voice was pensive. “When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
I slipped forward and got up from the wall. I walked over until I was standing right in front of her and looked down at her. I know the excitement was shining in my eyes, I couldn’t contain it. I looked intently at her. “The one who is speaking with you – I Am.”
I saw a moment of incredulity and then a wave of joy engulfed her, transforming that face into the full beauty of its original creation. I knew she had understood. In fact, no further words were needed. She gave a little dance of joy right there on the spot, put down her water pot and ran off into the village, shouting as she ran, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did! Could this be the Messiah?”
She ran right past the others as they returned with parcels of food and their refilled water flasks. Peter urged me to eat, but I really wasn’t at all hungry and I pushed it away. It was as if my encounter with the woman had filled me right up, I felt replenished. I must have looked it too, because they had left me exhausted on the wall, and here I was standing, energised, as if I had just enjoyed a long and refreshing sleep and a three course meal. The only explanation I could give them was that my nourishment comes from doing what God sent me to do.
As we looked back towards the village, my new friend had gathered a crowd and they were all surging towards us, eager to find out what had happened to her. I turned to the guys who were with me.
“Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I’m telling you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They’re ripe for harvest.” I pointed at the approaching crowd. “Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. So the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. I sent you to reap what you haven’t worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you’ve reaped the benefits of their labour.”
And it was true. That one moment of revelation, that the Father who created her was seeking her, and that in worshipping Him she would find an eternal water-source for her soul, had caused that woman to find a whole harvest-field of other thirsty souls and here they were, ready to be gathered in to the Father who had been seeking them and longing to exchange a heartful of love with them.