The Woman at the Well: A Novelization
The sun beat down on the travelers as they marched north toward Galilee. For many of them, it was home, but a homecoming was the last thing on most of their minds. Going back to familiar places was a blessing, of course, but there was nothing about the journey getting there that made any of them happy. Rather than cutting along the Jordan, like everyone else, the rabbi informed them that they would be making their way directly north, straight through Samaria.
Before the idea had fully registered for most of them, Simon the Zealot had already blurted out, “Samaria? That’s outrageous!”
A few of them muttered in agreement. The Samaritans had once been part of Israel, their brothers and sisters from the sons of Jacob, but that had been a long time ago. Their blood was so diluted now, there was hardly any trace of Abraham left - or so the Jews said. They had no respect for the temple, no understanding of the true God. Had they been Medes or Persians, all Judea would have waved it off, but since they had been from their own tribes, the betrayal was far deeper. They had the truth, and they spat on it and went their own way. There was no redemption for these people, and their hatred was mutual. Both sides would gladly be rid of the other. No Jews went through Samaria; it was like walking into a snake’s den.
As the reality of his plan settled into everyone’s minds, Jesus simply smiled at them, his eyes raised with that friendly yet pitying look. “Oh, my disciples, we’ll be fine. It takes several days off the trip, and who knows what the Father will bring.” And that was the end of it.
Now, halfway through the journey, James looked into the sky while most of the group talked to one another in clusters. He had to admit that, with the sun nearly roasting them, a shorter trip did sound good, but he was still anxious. They had only been able to bring a day’s food with them, and the idea of going into a Samaritan town to buy supplies was unnerving. They’d managed to get this far only meeting a few people on the road, and most of them just eyed them suspiciously as they moved past. Having to interact with them was something else entirely.
Sychar was just ahead, and Jesus stopped them near the gates. He pointed off to the side. “Look: Jacob’s well! This is a good place. Why don’t we stop here for midday? We can get some water from the well, and I’m sure you all can get some supplies in town.”
“Aren’t you coming in with us?” asked John.
Jesus shook his head. “No, no. I’ll stay here. I’m tired. You can surely bring something back for me. Go on. I’m always with my Father.”
The men hesitated for a moment, but finally relented and shuffled up the hill. They were just as tired as their rabbi, but no one wanted to complain or argue with him. As their teacher, he was entitled to send them off while he rested.
He watched them make their way up the hill and into the city gates, but it wasn’t long before he turned to the well and sat down on one of the blocks nearby. He rubbed his legs, forcing tired muscles to stretch and relax.
After a while, he took in the area, hoping to find a jar to bring up some water from the well, but there wasn’t anything that would serve. Grimacing a bit, he was unsurprised but disappointed. He would have to wait for the others to return and hope that they would bring something that would work. With nothing demanding his attention, he closed his eyes and breathed in deeply and slowly, settling himself and focusing on the presence of the Father.
As Jesus prayed, another figure came down the hill, though far from the road, picking her way down a half-hewn path that wound around weeds and stones. Photina cursed the heat, knowing that having to carry a full jar back up when there wasn’t even any wind to cool things down would feel immeasurably worse. Still, it was better than dealing with the constant contempt from everyone in the mornings. Even when they didn’t say anything, and even when she didn’t look them in the eye, she could still feel them scowling at her. A few looked at her with pity, which was somehow worse. She mentally cursed all of them, forcing her to drag water up and down a hill in the middle of the day like someone’s witless donkey.
While still a ways away from the well, she looked up and froze, seeing the figure resting on the stone bench. Not only was it a man, she realized, the way he was dressed made him stand out as a Judean. She stopped a moment, weighing her choices. There was no telling how long he was going to sit there, and it would be ridiculous to spend the rest of the day waiting to find out, potentially standing there for hours in the sun.
She grit her teeth and sighed with obvious frustration. It was just one more cursed thing to deal with, but maybe it wouldn’t matter. He was a Jew and a man. He would probably ignore her, and he had no idea who she was. She would just be some strange woman from Samaria he saw drawing water at midday for some reason. He’d surely be on his way and forget all about it.
She continued down the hill, and as her sandal scraped along the gravel, the man turned to look at her. She stopped, and they both stared at each other for a few moments. Photina hoped he would turn away, but as the seconds passed and nothing changed, she gave up and finished the distance to the well with him watching.
Setting down the jar, she pulled the wooden cover to the side, exposing just enough to peer down into the darkness and draw some water up for the day. With practiced ease, she swung the jar over the side, lowering it with rope until she felt the resistance of water below, then waited for it to fill before pulling it back, the scraping sounds as it rubbed against the stone matching the friction she felt from having someone staring while she worked.
The jar had just reached the lip of the well, and, setting it aside, she reached to replace the cover when the man spoke. “Give me some to drink,” he said, his voice halfway between a question and a directive.
She looked up at him, her confusion and dismay plainly displayed. His face was innocent, as if he had simply asked a friend for a trivial favor. She paused, trying to understand if he didn’t care or if he was completely oblivious to the years of feuding between their peoples. “You’re a Jew,” she said, “and you’re asking me, not only a Samaritan, but a woman for water?”
“I am,” he said, “but if you knew who I am and the gift that God offers, you would have been the one asking me, and I would have given you living water.”
She turned to face him, the absurdity of his statement making her forget in the moment that the cover for the well was left half-open. “You’ve got nothing to draw up any water, and you’re not going to be able to reach down there to get any. Where were you planning on getting living water? It was our father, Jacob who built this well, and he lived off it with his sons and his cattle for years,” she said, an edge creeping into her voice. “Are you going to do better than he did, making your own well and drawing water without even a jar?”
“Every day,” said Jesus, “people come down to this well, and they draw water, and they drink, and they water their livestock, and every night they get thirsty again and have to come back and do it all over again. But if anyone drinks from the water I have, living water, they won’t be thirsty again. That water will become in their very being a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Photina looked at him incredulously. The fact that he was even speaking to her made him odd, but now he was sounding like he was mad, and her exasperation had started to boil over. “That sounds great,” she said, holding out her hands in mock expectation. “Give me your water so that I won’t be thirsty anymore, and I won’t have to come down here every day to drag a jar back up the hill in the heat. Show me your water.”
Jesus was unperturbed by her ire. “Go call your husband and bring him back here,” he said simply.
She turned away, her jaw once again clenched in frustration. “I don’t have a husband,” she muttered.
“That’s true,” he replied. “You don’t have a husband. Not now. But you’ve had five husbands over the years, and the man you’re with now isn’t your husband. So yes, I suppose you don’t.”
She spun back to him, her eyes wide with shock. “How do you know that?”
He merely smiled in response.
“You’re obviously a prophet,” she said, feeling impressed yet anxious and wary. Worse, as she glanced to the side, she saw a group of men coming down the hill from town. She was sure they were with him, and she quickly leapt to change the subject to something that would be appropriate for a Judean prophet to be discussing with a Samaritan. “We Samaritans have worshiped on Mount Gerizim for generations, but you Jews say that all people should worship the Lord in Jerusalem.”
“Yes, you’re right,” said Jesus thoughtfully. “But believe me, there will come a time when you Samaritans won’t be worshiping the Father on Gerizim or in Jerusalem.”
The twelve had reached the well, and they stood watching the exchange in befuddlement. Several nudged each other, hoping one of them knew what was happening. Others just watched the scene, hoping to pick up some signal that would help them understand why Jesus was talking with a Samaritan woman in public where anyone could see and potentially start something violent.
“You worship the Lord,” he continued, “but you’re worshiping someone you don’t know. We Jews worship the God we do know. After all, salvation will come from Judea. There will come a day, and in fact, it is already here, when those who truly worship the Father will worship in spirit and truth. That’s the kind of person the Father wants worshiping him. God is spirit, and anyone who truly worships him must do it in spirit and in truth.”
“You said salvation will come from Judea,” said the woman. “You speak of the Messiah?” Jesus nodded. “I know when the Messiah comes, he will untangle all of this. He’ll explain it and make it all clear.”
Jesus replied, “Woman, the Messiah is already here. You’re speaking to him now.”
Photina stood speechless for several seconds. The group had come forward to stand behind Jesus, and she suddenly realized they were disciples of him. He was obviously a rabbi and a prophet. She wondered if maybe he was telling her the truth, that he was the Messiah. The idea was exciting, but in that moment, she felt outnumbered and vulnerable, a woman alone in a group of foreign men. She needed other people who could test him and see if he were telling the truth. Turning toward the city gates, she hiked hurriedly up by the main road, a route she rarely took anymore but somehow was the only reasonable one.
At the crest, she approached the town elders sitting by the gates. “Esdras, Abijah, all of you, I need help.”
The men scowled at her. “Away with you,” said Abijah. “We won’t be greeted by any woman that way, least of all you.”
“Listen!” she implored, trying not to shout, but her voice more forceful than she intended, being winded from rushing up the hill. “There are Jews down by the well.”
“Yes, we know,” chided Esdras. “They passed by us a moment ago. They bought supplies for the road and didn’t make any trouble. Don’t you go making trouble with them.”
“One of them claims to be the Messiah.”
At that, they all looked at her with greater seriousness but also incredulity. “And you believed him?”
She paused a moment, gathering her thoughts. “I don’t know. Maybe. I think he might be. I just saw him sitting there by the well, and the next thing I know, he’s telling me about my own life - saying things that I never told him. He knows…” She trailed off a moment, not wanting to dredge up the very things that made her feel like the whole city despised her, but not knowing what else to do. “He told me about my past life. He named exactly how many husbands have divorced me, and he knows about…” Acknowledging the final bit seemed more than she was willing to admit to the elders. “He knows!” she stressed. “And I never told him anything. Maybe he is who he says he is.”
None of them wanted to believe her. They all sat looking at her in silence for several moments. It was finally a man Photina didn’t know who spoke up: “Well, knowing is better than not. They’re already here, so we’d better gather some people from the town and go find out what’s happening.”
There were muttered assents from the group, and several started calling to others in the street, forming a small band to go down the hill. As they began the march from the city, Abijah looked over his shoulder to see Photina still standing at the gates uneasily. With a grunt, he motioned for her to follow.
As the woman had made her way up to the city, Jesus sat watching for a bit. Then he turned to his disciples who were still looking to him for some kind of explanation. When no answers were forthcoming, John lifted a bundle. “Rabbi, we brought food.”
Jesus said, “Oh, I have food you don’t even realize.”
John looked at his brother. “Did you already give him some?”
James held up his own sack. “I’ve been waiting for you. Did that woman give him something?”
“My students,” interrupted the rabbi, “my food is to do what the Father sent me here to do, to take part in his work.
“Philip, when we were walking past the fields before we came here, you said it would be another four months before all that beautiful grain could be harvested, but look around! The field is ripe for harvest right now! The one who was sent to reap the harvest is already receiving his pay and gathering fruit for eternal life, and the farmer and harvester will celebrate all this good together.
“It’s true what they say, ‘One man sows, but another reaps.’ I’m sending you out to harvest what you didn’t sow. You didn’t know it, but others have already been working on this harvest. I’m inviting you to join their work. Soon, the town will be coming down that hill. This is an opportunity; come join the harvest!”
The men looked at each other uncertainly. Several began asking their teacher to explain what he meant, and it quickly turned into a discussion among them all. Before long, they were all seated, sacks opened and food being spread out so they all could eat while they talked.
The session was short lived, however, as a crowd from up the hill began making its way down to them. Apprehensive, many of the twelve quickly started gathering up the food, but Jesus held up a hand. “The harvest,” he said. “The harvest is right now.”
“Men of Judea,” called an older man from the front of the group. “We heard from one of our own that one of you is a prophet?” The twelve looked at Jesus. “Well, then,” said the man, focusing on the rabbi, “what do you have to say for yourself? Are you a prophet?”
“Is that what you heard about me?” Jesus replied. It was the beginning of a conversation that turned with hardly anyone noticing into a teaching. Before long, the Samaritans had begun sitting around the well, and eventually, when there was no other room, the ones left standing found seats even next to their bitter enemies from Judea. The disciples shared some of the bread they purchased, and many of the Samaritans found themselves eating with those they, just hours earlier, would never have associated with.
Evening came, and the elders invited Jesus and the others to stay the night. A few Samaritans were willing, if still somewhat warily, to give the Judeans a place to sleep. The discussion resumed in the morning, but this time at the city gates and with an even larger crowd. Some travelers from around Samaria even stopped to listen. At the end of the day, the elders again invited them to stay, only this time, the offers of homes and beds were made without any reservations and were so generous that Jesus and the twelve weren’t numerous enough to take all of them.
Jesus spent the morning of the third day teaching again. Before the sun had gone too far along its path, however, he told the crowd that they would need to be on their way again if they were going to be in Galilee. Several men from the city packed bundles for them, thanking Jesus for his teaching and his willingness to stay so long, and many watched them go, gathered around the well and offering blessings.
As they faded into the distance, Esdras realized he was standing near Photina. He called her over and said, “You came to us with a story I hardly believed, but that man…” He stroked his beard in thought. “That man is indeed the Messiah, and we have you to thank for bringing us to him.”
She stuttered an awkward response, unused to any affability from people around her, but things felt different. She wondered if perhaps the Messiah’s presence had been enough to change her whole situation. A slight smile snuck past her lips. Maybe the man had brought her hope. Maybe she wouldn’t have to wait until the sun was overhead tomorrow to drag a jar up and down the hill. What a relief that would be.