Not being a Christian, I had never heard this popular Christian story. I didn’t even realize it is a Christian story until I looked it up to find a link to this book.
I conclude that it may be inspired by the Christian story, but it is not written in that language, and seems to tell a story of humanity and any higher power or spirituality or personal growth or revelatory experience. It honors all those who have felt forgotten and unworthy, hopelessly and forever cursed. It helped me to see myself; it spoke of something I hadn’t put to words.
This is a short story from the book ‘Angels & Dragons‘ by Molly Wolf.
And reading it, I say, “May we all know the taste of living water. Please, please, please, dear Universe. May we drink long and deep and become a Spring for others in the sun too long.”
THE WOMAN AT THE WELL
The other women would have come early in the cool of the day, chattering companionably as they let down their water jars into the well. Here she is at noon, alone except for the quiet dusty man sitting on the stonework. She is doing this hard, heavy work in the heat of the day, when everybody else is indoors having a siesta. She is here at noon because if she came early, with the other women, she’d have to endure their looks and comments. She has enough to do coping with the steady running commentary from the monkey of self-blame who sits on her shoulder, the beast invisible to all but her, who natters incessantly at her, chewing away at her. She doesn’t need any outside commentary. So she stays away from the other women, because there’s nothing like that look in a respectable woman’s eyes to make another woman feel like a piece of garbage.
Her history isn’t recorded in any great detail, so we don’t know what had happened to her. Maybe she’d simply had a run of terrible luck, like Job before her. Perhaps she’d been repeatedly widowed or repudiated, through no fault of her own — infertility, perhaps, or family alliances coming unglued. That’s what some respectable scholars say might have happened. But the women I know say: Huh. This one’s been around the block a few too many times.
She will see in others’ eyes, then, condemnation, or superiority, or the sweet falseness of conventional sympathy, or perhaps fear — people can’t help believing that bad luck is catching; there must be an evil eye somewhere, and what if it chances to glance in your direction? People also don’t know what to do with someone who’s damaged, whether by bad choices or sheer chance. They feel awkward and uncomfortable. They are attracted to the happy and successful, and the happy and successful are not out here drawing water at midday, in this dusty place with the dusty quiet man. So she lives alone in town, with the man with whom she has no rights except the right to be looked down on and held at fault for whatever. And that just makes her lonelier.
The funny thing is, it really doesn’t matter whether or not she’s been promiscuous or just unlucky. Even if she’s perfectly innocent, she’s had Job’s comforters, within and without, saying, “Since God is just, if you keep running into all these problems, surely there must be something you’ve done to deserve them.” And if she casts her mind back and sees that she hasn’t done anything to deserve what happened, or not nearly enough, then Job’s comforters inside and outside will whisper to her, “Well, if it isn’t something you’ve done, it must be who you are. There’s something made all wrong in you, something you can’t see yourself that attracts trouble as rotting meat attracts flies. There must be.”
And that’s where the terrible damage gets done, and it’s all the worse because what’s damaged and dirty is her sexuality, her womanness, where she is most vulnerable and can be made to feel hopelessly unclean. Whether or not she’s done wrong, the sense of wrongness sinks in over time; it seems to seep into her being like spilled lamp oil into wood; it gets so mixed up in the fibers of herself that there’s no way on God’s earth she could ever be cleaned or made whole. She dreams that God, finding no way to separate out her wrongness from her self, will have to burn the two together — that to undo whatever the wrongness is, she herself will have to be sacrificed. At least that’s what she dreams, in nightmares that set her bolt upright beside the heavy man with whom she has no rights, gasping and praying frantically to a God who is absolutely silent.
Sometimes, in her own house, when she’s alone, she can think back to when she was young, before it all went wrong. She can remember having been worth something, having had some value; she can recollect when the world was a promising place and what awaited her was a man of her own, a house, children, a place in her world, the honor a good woman can have even in a world that doesn’t honour women. And then it’s not so bad. But sometimes all she can do then is to mourn what she lost — or, rather, mourn what she was never given to lose. You can’t mourn the loss of love if you’ve never been properly loved; you can only mourn the fact that you have never had it to mourn for. But who understands that, except those who have been in the same position?
Walking across to the well is when the shame hits her hardest, because she feels most exposed and loneliest then. Her water jar may be heavy, but her sense of shame is heavier still; it always is. Shame is such dense stuff, much, much heavier than mere guilt. Even quite small balls of shame weigh you down, so that you struggle to walk across the village square or climb a set of stairs. It pushes your head down, bowing your shoulders forward, or it makes you walk unnaturally upright, your shoulder blades so rigidly yanked back that they ache, a clench in your upper back, and your molars crunched together. It’s that heavy, shame.
So she walks across the dusty square, grim and silent, and there’s this dusty, quiet man sitting on the masonry around the well. There are only the two of them there, although God alone knows how many are watching them from the silent midday houses. It is intensely quiet, only the buzz of insects and the lonely caw of a distant crow. She steps quietly, not wishing to draw attention to herself. After a quick, sideways glance, she keeps her eyes off him. She can see from his clothing that he’s a Jew, not a Samaritan, and she’s down enough already, she doesn’t need his ritual contempt. She fancies he can tell what she is anyway; a respectable woman wouldn’t be out here at this time of day, on her own. She’s had enough put-downs. She’ll just get her water and go before he can lecture her or spit at her or just give her one of those looks.
But astonishingly, she hears his voice; he is speaking to her, not at her, to her, quite matter-of-factly, without any unkindness or condescension in his tone. He is asking her for a drink of water. This is so startling that she looks at him involuntarily, and she sees no contempt in his face either. He is just a person with a thirst, and she is just a person with a water jar, which she almost dropped just now, and he is asking her for a drink from the well. Him drink from her jar? Is he really such a fool as that? Doesn’t he realize that the very clay is unclean to him? Again, involuntarily, she blurts out, “How is it that a Jew can ask for a drink from a woman of Samaria?”
And then something even more surprising: he shifts subject abruptly, engaging her, really talking to her, as though she were a person of worth, making her an offer of something precious: “If you knew who I am, you’d ask me for a drink, and the water I would give you is living water.” She’s bewildered: “How could you give me a drink? You don’t have a jar to let down into the well. Are you greater than Jacob, whose well this was?” “If you drink the water I have to give you, you will never be thirsty again.” By now she’s completely at sea. But the notion of not having to fetch water again, not having to take that long solitary shame-laden hike from her house to the well–oh, what she’d give to be let off that particular chore. She grabs at the idea, and at the kindliness of his voice, clutching eagerly at a small straw of hope. “Oh, give me that water, so that I may never have to be thirsty or come back to this well again.”
“Bring your husband here,” he says, out of nowhere, and for a second she’s stunned, and then the pain kicks in. She should have known better. she should have known that even if he seemed to accept her as a woman and a Samaritan, and treated her without contempt for those parts of herself that he had every right to despise–even if he could accept all that, he’d still see the wrongness in her, that stain soaked in, too deep to be removed. That’s why he asks about her husband. He knows. He can see what everyone else can see, the wrong-something-in-her that’s so sunk into her being that nothing can ever separate it out and get rid of it. Oh, well; that’s just the way it goes, has always gone, will always go. Her lie (“I have no husband”) is mechanical, a puff of air as hope collapses once again around her ears–you’d think a person would get used to this, eventually …
But his voice, listing her past that he could not possibly know about, stays as kind and level as it had been. He is still talking to her, not naming and blaming the wrongness, but simply telling her that yes, he already does know about all that stuff, and really it isn’t important. Or it’s important because it’s caused her so much suffering, and he knows about the suffering too, and the guilt and the weight of shame. He knows that healthy hopeful girl who used to be, and he knows that the girl is really who she still is–but he also knows how she got to be where she is now, what choices, what chances fetched her to this dusty place under a merciless sun. But none of this is part of her; she has a self worthy of love. This wrongfulness is like dirt on a mirror; on, not in, the glass. Something that can be cleaned away.
He knows. He has really seen her, exactly as she is. And he’s still talking to her.
Can’t you see, you people who see only a dusty man and a woman with a water jar talking together — can’t you see that what he is doing is pulling that stain out of her, so that they can both set it down and walk away from it? He is sorting through her self and cleaning the crud out: the old mistakes, the old tragedies, the corrosive self-blame, all the times she’s been found at fault and accepted the fault when in fact she shouldn’t have. He’s picking all that out of her, and he’s telling her that when the wrong’s all picked out, there is still a person there, a real person, as valuable and beloved as the highest priest in Jerusalem–a woman of Samaria, who should have had it so much easier.
He is looking her in the eyes now and telling her that she exists, outside the wrongfulness she thought was part of herself, as much her as the shape of her hand. And if he’s right, if the wrongfulness isn’t really her, then maybe it doesn’t have to rule the rest of her life. Maybe things can be different.
And yes, there is living water. She knows now what it tastes like.