The Woman at the Well
On Sunday 15th March, Phil led a service in which we were blessed by input from all of the Six Nations, alongside friends near and far. Revd Branwen Rees, born and bred in Porthcawl, enthralled us with the reflection below. A story about how a woman trapped in isolation and fear was given hope, welcome and community through an encounter with Jesus – who taught her that God can be met and worshipped wherever we are – seems particularly apposite for today.
Address – The Woman at the Well
(With thanks to Nick Fawcett’s ‘Light Shines a 100 Meditations for Lent’ John 4:5-42)
I shall never forget that day – many days I long to forget, forget the pain of death, the pain of abuse, the pain of neglect, the pain of shame. But that day, I never want to forget it.
It started off as every other, waking up and remembering. Remembering the past, my past. Even if I did manage to forget, many in my village ensure I remember. The names they call me as I walk past, or just crossing over to avoid me. Black widow is the most common name – but I guess I’ve heard worse!
So I avoid crowds, go out under cover of darkness. But some things you can’t do at night. So midday is also a good time. Not many people about then, too hot. That’s when I go to the well. I have to drink, and wash and cook and easier to go when no-one else is about – saves the odd looks, the name calling and just the awkward conversations. Or so I thought!
I saw him as I was approaching the well and to be honest my heart sank. No-one’s at the well at that time of day. What on earth was he doing there? But then it got worse as I got closer, I could see he was a Jew. If I thought my people gave me a hard time, then Jews could be far worse – no love lost between us.
I thought he’d push me aside, just like the rest; either that or walk away with his head in the air. Yet he stayed where he was, a smile on his face, quite happy, apparently, to be seen with me. Well, call me suspicious but I wasn’t sure what he was up to. I’ve seen his like before, you know the ones, let’s have some fun with this woman. But how wrong was I!
‘Give me a drink’, that’s what he said. No ‘hello, how are you’ oh no, straight down to business. ‘Give me a drink’, I almost laughed, would he really want to take water that I had collected? A lone woman at a well at midday, he must have known there was something wrong with me. And as I looked at him, it felt like he was looking into my very soul – as if he could read everything about me.
But still I was on my guard, so I came out and asked him, ‘What’s your game?’, he laughed and I expected some smug retort, if not worse; and I did think he was taking the mick when he offered me some water. Well, I could see he didn’t have a bucket, and I assumed he wasn’t about to shin down the well himself. So, where was this water he was promising me?
I really thought he was pulling my leg and I was waiting for his mates to jump out and join in. but despite all that I was beginning to like him, he may have been talking nonsense, he may even have been pulling my leg, but I didn’t feel threatened by him, he wasn’t aggressive. He had a nice way with him, kind, gentle. A bit of all right in an unconventional way.
Then he started talking about water he had which would mean I would never be thirsty again. No idea what he was talking about, but I wasn’t going to pass up that opportunity – never having to come to the well again – sounded too good to be true.
And of course, it was, because the very next thing he said was, ‘Go, call your husband’. My heart sank – was he teasing me, goading me even. Part of me wanted to use it as a reason to run, run back to the village and hide away again. But I still needed a drink, if I wanted to eat tonight, I needed to cook; I needed water.
Don’t ask me why but I just turned around and said, ‘I have no husband’. Part of it was me sticking two fingers up at him in a, ‘see, you don’t know anything about me’! But he was also one of those people who I felt I could trust so actually saying ‘I have no husband’, rather than hot footing back home seemed the most natural thing in the world.
I’ll never know how he guessed, but he looked straight into my eyes. They didn’t undress me like so many men I meet do. But he seemed to look much deeper, beyond the superficial almost into my soul. Then he started talking about my lovers, my husbands, my past. He seemed to know every detail but not in a creepy way, like some stalker.
It was certainly uncanny how much he knew about me and a little frightening, far too close to the bone. I could feel the colour go to my cheeks and I was getting hotter and hotter. How did he know so much? I guess I’ll never know.
I did fell safe in his company, but I still didn’t like the way this conversation was going so I tried to steer it away from me; deflect back to him. I suppose trying to flatter him – I’ve found that usually works for men! I could tell he was a prophet just something about the way he was, the words spoke, and I was intrigued, I never really understood why our peoples couldn’t get on so thought this might be a good opportunity to find out a little of the history of the antipathy between Samaritans and Jews.
I mean I sort of understand the actual history of our peoples all to do with the exile, but I still couldn’t understand why we hated each other so much. But, that’s not what he told me. To be honest, I’m not sure I really understood what he was talking about – even now, all this time later, talk of worship no longer being in a building or even a city but in spirit and in truth! Can any of you get that? If you can explain it to me, I’ll get you a glass of water!
You see he didn’t try to humour me none of the usual trite answers but instead he reached right to the heart of the matter, cutting through all the trivia. It was after that that he produced the biggest surprise of all – he told me he was the Messiah.
I didn’t know what to say. Part of me wanted to laugh – as if! Part of me wanted to run for the hills again, but instead I just stood there like a fish – gawping, stunned. I mean I knew there was something different about him, a prophet, yes. But the Messiah!
I know, I couldn’t believe my ears, we’d been longing for the Messiah for centuries, for generations, and there he was standing there, bold as brass, talking to me!!! Telling me, why me? I was nobody, actually I was worse than nobody! So why tell me – after all if I went off and told others – they’d never believe me so I wanted to press him on this – to explain if he really was the Messiah why he was talking to a woman in the middle of the day, close to a Samaritan village – I somehow wanted him to prove who he was.
But I didn’t get the chance as it was at that point that his friends showed up. I had a feeling I was in for a rough ride – they didn’t look like the most open and welcoming of people. I’m not sure what they found worse, that their friend was talking to a Samaritan or a woman. I have a feeling they thought I was going to tempt their mate away, lead him astray for a life of wine, women and song! You could hear the incredulity in their question – why are you speaking to her?
I took this as my cue to run, oh not to run away and hide but run back to the village and tell everyone about this unusual man. Part of me was hoping for some reassurance, that someone would tell me he was just another wannabe, another religious nutter – we do seem to have more than our fair share. But they didn’t, the were curious, wanted to know more! They were actually interested in what I had to say!
Yes, I wanted them all to come and see for themselves. And they actually followed me, know!! And when they heard him, listened to his teaching, they believed he was who he claimed to be – the promised one of God.
Do you think that unlikely? Yes, well, I did too. But he was full of surprises that man, the most amazing man I ever met – and that’s coming from me with all my history!
So, incredible or not, it may just have been true, I met the Messiah! But I do keep going back over that day, did it really happen, did I imagine it all. But no, I have to accept it wasn’t a dream, and different things keep coming to mind.
And perhaps here’s a funny thing: one moment that Jesus fellow was asking me for water, and the next he was promising the water of life, bubbling up within, a spring that never runs dry, meeting my deepest need. Wonderful, but very odd!
He understood me better than I did myself. He knew my inner longings and my every fault – and believe me there were plenty of them! Yet despite all that he seemed ready to grant me the blessings of which he spoke.
I still can’t really work it out, for he made the first move, apparently wanting something from me, if only a cup of water, yet I left feeling that whatever I might give him, he can offer me far more!
But, all those years later, what does this mean for us now after all a simple request for water became the source, the spring of transformation that changed not just me but my whole community. This Jesus gave value to us as a people – no longer despised but accepted. We were offered this fresh and life-giving water and believe me we drank till we were sated.
He also showed that all the usual hostility between Samaritans and Jews is just stupid. We should be open to each other, regardless of what history or society may tell us. We’re all made in God’s image after all. He was showing us that we should cross boundaries rather than erect them; no group of people is more privileged than another, despite what they, or we, may think! Whether it’s based on gender or where we’re from, Jesus showed we shouldn’t be governed by fear or prejudice. We’re actually all the same.
But more than that, he did something for me personally. Oh, nothing had changed in my personal life – I was still the black widow, but somehow it was said more with affection now, rather than the usual ridiculing. I felt new life bubbling within me and was no longer embarrassed to be seen during the day.
I think this Jesus was trying to get us – and when I say us, I mean me and my village, but also all those who’ve heard my story since. He was trying to get us to look at things with fresh eyes, rather than basing things on our past assumptions and prejudices. We could look at each other now as fellow humans rather than as Samaritan or Jew, man or woman.
He taught us that people who are nobodies to them, are somebodies in the eyes of God. Who are those nobodies? They are the people we ignore. Maybe they are our neighbours, or the strangers who walk through the door, or a potential group to be welcomed into the household of faith. He reminded us that sometimes our attempts to draw the boundaries of the faith community are too narrow. We may prefer to leave out the nobodies, but Jesus does not do that. He welcomes outsiders, as well as insiders, into discipleship.
Look at me, before I went to the well that day, I was an outsider, yet I became a witness; from a beginner in faith, I became an apostle sent by Jesus himself to witness, to testify on his behalf. Could I really have become a model for other women, for people who feel like nobodies, for newcomers to the faith, and for people with a past. You see I learnt that day that Jesus encounters and welcomes many into the household of faith — even the least likely and believe me I should know.
Perhaps you’ll know too, for maybe we can all see ourselves as the ‘Samaritan Woman’ people to whom the Good News has come at unexpected times and in unexpected places. The question is – what do we do now?!