I can still remember the day I met him. I had gotten up at dawn to prepare breakfast for Adaiah and poured the last of the water into his waterskin just before he left. As the day warmed, my throat felt dryer and I longed for even the stagnant taste of the well’s water. But I didn’t dare go yet. In the early morning the well was sure to be surrounded by the women of the village, the respectable ones, the ones whose husbands were still alive, the ones with husbands who chose to stay, the ones with sons and fathers to protect them. So, I worked, waiting for the sun to rise to its highest point. Then it would be safe.
As I carried my water jar toward the well I saw a man sitting next to it. What was he doing there? There was nothing for it, I needed the water and this was the only time I could draw it. As I came nearer, it became clear to me that he wasn’t from the town. I had never seen him before. So I lowered my eyes and tried to be invisible as I lowered the water jar to the ground.
“Give me a drink.” As soon as he opened his mouth I knew he was a Jew. His very accent was enough to tighten my shoulders. How dare he? Who did he think I was? Who did he think he was? So I asked him, with all the cold politeness I could muster, how it was that he, a Jew and a man, was speaking to me, a Samaritan and a woman?
He replied, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is asking you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” When he spoke he looked me straight in the eye, not brazenly, not judging me, just looking at me.
I was confused. He was clearly a traveler, but he had no bag, no donkey, much less a bucket. The only water within reach was the old well; there was no stream or fountain where he could get fresh flowing water. Again, the anger began to rise. Who did he think he was? This Jew dares to ask me for water, then boasts that he has better water! My father had always said the Jews were arrogant, that the further they got from the true worship that we Samaritans had maintained, the more arrogant they got.
So I said to him, trying to contain the irritation in my voice: “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our common father Jacob, who gave us this well?”
He paused before he responded. He kept looking at me. I couldn’t remember the last time when someone had looked at me that way. I felt naked, but not ashamed; safe but not quite comfortable. He didn’t take the insult, but simply smiled and said, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
My parched throat made me speak before I could even think: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty,” then remembering the shame that brought me here at this hour, I continued, “or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
The man smiled again. “Go, call your husband and come back.” My heart fell. He was like all the rest after all. As soon as he heard, his eyes would be veiled again, his face would close up like a wall, his gaze would be somewhere over my shoulder. It didn’t matter that my first husband, Ezra, had been trampled by our neighbor’s ox, that the second, Hanan, had died of a wasting disease, that Bilgai had divorced me because I had burned his supper once too often. My fourth husband, Zadok, had run off to join the insurrection against the Romans, and the last divorced me because I had not borne him any children. Adaiah stayed with me when he was in town selling his goods. I knew he had a wife and children in some other town, but he would always leave me a little extra money for food when he left, and some company, some protection on some nights was better than none.
If I ever had to leave my house when others were on the streets, like on market day, the stares and whispers and outright insults followed me until I closed my door behind me again.
But none of that mattered. I looked back at the stranger defiantly and said, “I have no husband.” He didn’t need to know more than that.
The stranger nodded. “You’re right,” he said. “You have had five husbands and the man with you now is not your husband. This is true.”
How could he have known? Even more, how was it that he did not judge me? His eyes still looked at me, open and embracing. My heart leapt. The water was forgotten.
This had to be a man of God! How else would he know these things about me? But he was a Jew, of a people who had abandoned the worship our forefathers had been faithful to on Mount Gerizim!
So I asked him. It was a strange question, but it seemed most urgent at the time. I had to understand who this man was. If he were a true prophet, maybe he could help me to win back God’s favor. God had abandoned me long ago, I was convinced, and I wanted to be able to approach Him once again.
“Woman,” he said firmly, “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. . . . the hour is coming when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.”
I could hardly believe my ears: “you will worship the Father neither here nor there.” A day was coming when I would worship God unbound by the disgrace I suffered, beyond the hatred that had existed between this Jew’s people and my people for so long. Worship would be not just the right rituals in the right place, but in spirit, not in fear and hiding, but openly and in truth. What was more, the Father was seeking people to worship him, God was seeking me!
I don’t know how much time passed, but before I knew it I was seated at his feet, listening to him and being listened to by him. “I know that Messiah is coming,” I told him, trying to find that common ground between our people, trying to show him that despite being a woman I knew something of our faith. “When he comes, everything will become clear.” The stranger said, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” And I knew that he was telling the truth.
We had both been so engrossed in our conversation that we didn’t even notice when a group of men—evidently his friends—returned from town with food. When we looked up we saw them standing not too far off. There in their eyes was the look that had never appeared in his. They already had decided who I was and judged me unworthy. The shock of it shook me back to reality.
But reality had changed. This man knew me better than anyone, yet he loved me—yes, loved, but not in any way I’d experienced before. He wanted nothing from me but the truth and offered the same in return.
I jumped up, leaving my water jar behind, and ran into town. Right to the main gate of town I ran, where the men gathered to conduct their business, where disputes were mediated, where gossip—rather, news—was shared.
I ran right into the midst of them, ignoring the indignant stares, the pointing fingers. “You must come,” I panted. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” I know it made no sense to them. What had my shameful reputation to do with the Messiah? But my shocking declaration, my seeming lack of shame at being seen in public, and my insistence that they come with me made them follow me back to the well.
When we came back to the stranger and he began to speak to them, I could hear their murmurs when they heard his accent. But before long they too sat down to hear what he had to say. Word spread quickly to the women, who soon crept out of their homes and listened on the edges of the crowd.
He stayed two days, teaching us about the true worship of God and God’s love for us. Even those who’d been skeptical because of my involvement came around to believing him. Just before the stranger left—we found out that his name was Jesus—one of the men of the town turned to me and said, “It is no longer because of what you said that I believe him. I’ve heard him now myself and I know that he is the Savior of the world.” A backhanded complement perhaps, but it was the first time in years that anyone in the town, much less a man, had spoken to me with respect.
I still go to the well every day, but I no longer go at noon. My shame is gone. I can walk with the other women, my head held high. For I have met the Messiah, and he told me everything I had ever done.