It was a dreadful time to come and draw water. The sun beat down on her, the jar she carried was heavy, even when it was empty. She couldn’t keep doing this, it was all too hard. But they would not let her join them in the cool freshness of the morning and evening. They were afraid of her, she had done what they would not do, or rather what they would never admit that they were capable of doing, and there was something about her they were scared might be contagious. Five husbands – and what a sorry collection they had been! And now no one would have her, the whole town had decided she was bad luck. As for the guy she lived with, he didn’t care, she was convenient, and he knew she would put up with poor treatment because she needed a home and a little food so very much. She had done what she must to survive, and no one accepted her – apparently it would have been more virtuous to just roll over and die.
And she was so thirsty. Oh yes, her body was thirsty, the heat was drawing moisture from her like a wilting plant, and she longed for the cool, sweet water of Jacob’s well. But that would soon be satisfied. The other thirst raged inside her with no hope of satisfaction – a burning pain of longing that she tried to ignore, because she had to stay strong just to get through each day. That was just the way life was – the pain of failure and mistakes, of rejection, of being both despised and despicable. It was so hard .. perhaps a person could die of such thirst?
She was shocked when she approached the well to see a strange man, and a Jew at that, sitting there, and even more shocked when he spoke to her, asking for a drink. Didn’t he know the rules? But he didn’t seem at all fazed by her astonished questions, and instead started talking about Living Water. Her heart lurched in hope, but her mind doubted. Was he crazy? Or touched by the sun?
She pointed out the obvious, he, who was asking for a drink, had no means of giving water! Who did he think he was! But he went on with his wild and glorious promises: ‘never be thirsty again”, “springing up to eternal life”. She was almost in tears – she must be fiercely practical – there was no water that could solve her problem – why was this madman tormenting her with hope?
And then, like the priest who knew just how to hold the sacrificial animal to make it completely helpless, he touched her most vulnerable point. “Go and get your husband!”
Choking back the shame, not daring to look him in the face, she stared at the ground and muttered, “I have no husband.”
His voice was incredibly gentle, yet he named to her face what was only whispered behind her back, that she had had FIVE husbands (most of those who knew her would have trouble keeping count), and now lived with a man who wouldn’t even offer her the respectability of marriage. It hurt so much, yet, just hearing him speak the words was like the first trickle of water in a dry and barren land. She could hear the faint tremor of tears in his voice, but she dared not look at his face. He was not crazy, no crazy man could have known the whole sorry story of her life .. so who was he, and why was he, a prophet of God standing here, in this town, speaking to its worst citizen?
Her mind was doing somersaults, trying to make sense of this. She needed time to take in the enormity of this. She cast her mind wildly for a safe topic, one that would keep him talking while giving her heart time to catch up. All she could think of was the old, tricky question that was such a cause of contention between his people and hers. A prophet should know the answer, where should they worship?
The moment the words left her lips she knew how ridiculous they were, and blushed deeper. He was laughing at her – no, with her, inviting her to share the joke of human silliness. Yet he answered her question seriously, “You worship what you do not know ... salvation is of the Jews ..”
Could it be? Was this .. the Messiah? There was no judgement here, or rather, in some way she could not fully understand, judgement had already been passed and she now stood on the far side, where it didn’t matter any more. There could be joy here, and even love .. She stood by the well, her water jar forgotten, while mercy and peace flowed over her soaking the parched and barren places in her soul. God Himself had sent this man to her, God himself cared about her whom everybody despised. She did not know that she stood there open-mouthed at that moment while the Living Water he had spoken of poured over her in a mighty waterfall, washing away her shame.