Sunday we heard a sermon about Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well, recorded in the fourth chapter of John’s gospel. We heard that she was a woman of bad character, or at the very least a woman who had made bad choices, who was not respected by the community, who was coming to the well in the heat of the day to avoid the scorn of gossiping neighbors. We were challenged to think about her response to Jesus; it was suggested that she wondered why He (a Jew, a man, a stranger, a rabbi) was speaking to her (a Samaritan, a woman). But what if . . .
What if she was a woman who had been married five times and was now living with a man who was not her husband, and she was getting water in the middle of the day (all we’re told about her, really), but . . .
What if she did know why He was speaking to her? What if she’d always been looking, always seeing the flaws in the solutions she found for life’s challenges, but never giving up the search? What if she had sought and been disappointed so many times that she should have been dead by her own hand by this time or so dulled by her own choice that she was only going through the motions of living until she could finally find rest in the grave? What if instead of choosing death or dullness she still had a tiny flame, a spark that only showed red when she breathed on it, a coal of fire in her breast that she kept hidden from all view but her own in the rare moments when she could dare to draw away from the responsibilities of living long enough to hope for life? What if she knew there was more (as we sang this morning), if she had repeatedly hoped for more than an existence controlled by a man who could not see, could not understand, could not hope as she could? What if these many husbands had died of natural causes, accidents of the hard work and danger of life, honorable men who had done their best as required by their culture, even godly men who had sought and followed Yahweh? What if because of the limitations of her time in history this woman had to have a husband to protect and provide for her, but battle-worn and weary, torn by repeated grief and loss, she had let herself enter a marriage relationship without the endorsement of the established authorities?
What if the reason she came in the middle of the day was not because she dreaded the sharp tongues of the scolding harpies in town, but rather because she was weary of the emptiness of women’s talk? What if she simply wanted some time alone with her own thoughts, so much deeper than theirs, time to reflect and to breathe, even in the heat of the day, and to refresh herself with water to slake at least the body’s thirst for life, even though her existence did not offer refreshment for her soul? What if this daily walk was a ritual she had developed to remind her that there was a refreshment, a hope, a life beyond what she was living, and this walk through heat and aridity to the Well of Jacob – Israel – was her way of remembering that God’s promises to Israel were to all His children, and despite her current circumstances He would refresh and renew her one day?
What if instead of being confused by Jesus’ remark about living water, this woman sensed exactly what He was offering, and her question back to him was rather a challenge for him to prove the truth of the offer? What if all her life she had been waiting for this moment and she knew when she heard His first remark that this was the One she’d been waiting for?
I’ve studied the woman at the well. I’ve thought of her story from different angles. Today, as I thought of her, these questions came to me, and I thought perhaps if the story were read that way . . .
what if I am that woman?
I think a lot of us are. A lot of us know there is more, determinedly refuse to give up that hope, and know without a doubt when we find it.
Or I should say, when He finds us.
Thank you, Lord.