This is a story based on John 4:1–30 (the woman at the well) and Genesis 24:34–58 (Rebecca, a wife for Isaac).
These readings present us with two women (a few thousand years apart). They were very different from each other, but each of them went to fetch water from the well outside her village, and each met a stranger there who transformed her life.
And as I sat with the two of them and contemplated this intersection of their lives, the Samaritan woman, the one Jesus met by the well in Samaria, began to tell me her story, and I want to share it with you today. Listen to what she has to say.
My favourite character in the Bible has always been Rebecca. Probably because I was named after her, but I loved her story growing up. We lived in a small village in Samaria. We didn’t have much, and it was always my job to fetch water for the family. We girls from the village would gather round the well and chat for a bit while drawing up the water and filling our jars. It was hard work but we had such fun.
And, of course, I would dream about Rebecca, my namesake.
In my dream, I would come down to the well, and there would be a handsome stranger on a white camel. And he’d ask me for some water. And, of course, I’d say yes and offer to water his camels, too.
Then he’d put a gold ring in my nose and gold bracelets on my arms. He’d ask my father for my hand in marriage and Father would ask me, as Rebecca’s family did, ‘Will you go with this man.’
And I’d say, ‘Yes, yes! A thousand times, yes!’
But, not so he could hear. I wouldn’t want him to think I was desperate. Then he’d whisk me away to his desert kingdom, and I’d become his princess.
But, of course, that never happened. It was just a dream. Instead of a stranger on a white camel, all I got at the well was Sam and his smelly goats and Thomas’s grumpy camels pushing in.
And then, I guess, I grew up. The dreams became a distant memory, and I married Andrew. He didn’t have a white camel or shower me with treasures, but he did have a heart of gold, and I suppose that’s as much as a girl could wish for. And he reminded me of Abraham’s son, Isaac, Rebecca’s husband. Isaac, the gentle.
Like my Andrew, Isaac was quieter and more gentle than the other patriarchs – Abraham, his father, and Jacob, his son. Isaac always seemed to let others do things for him. He never seemed to do anything for himself. Even the business of finding a wife was something his father didn’t trust Isaac to do; instead, Abraham sent his servant off to his family up north.
Of course, you can’t blame Isaac. He was bullied and laughed at as a child by his half-brother, Ishmael. And then that terrible, terrible day.
He went on an adventure with his father, Abraham. They were going to make a sacrifice to God together. What child wouldn’t have been excited about that? But, suddenly his father is tying him up and putting him on top of the altar. He is going to be the sacrifice. How do you cope with that? I’m not surprised that he was an emotional wreck and couldn’t make up his own mind about anything. No wonder his father had to send off in search of a wife for him.
And, yes, Rebecca also seems to have manipulated him a bit, and his kids did their own thing. Even his servants weren’t able to stand up for him. Every time they dug a well for him, the servants of the Philistine king, Abimelech, would chase them away. Instead of standing up for themselves, they’d just go and dig another well somewhere else.
That was my Andrew, too. Never standing up for himself; always giving others the right of way. Ah, well. He died far too young. I miss him still.
It was all downhill for me after that. Andrew’s family threw me out of the house, and I had nowhere to go. I drifted back to the village I’d grown up in. I had no family left, and not many options. When Samuel asked me to marry him, I thought of the question they asked Rebecca so long ago: Will you go with this man?
I guess I didn’t have much choice, so I agreed, but he wasn’t like my Andrew. He was coarse and brutal. There was no sorrow when he died a few years later.
And then there was … well, suffice to say, there were five husbands altogether, each about as bad as the other. When the fifth one wanted to move to Sidon, well, I told him I wasn’t going anywhere.
Then I hooked up with Thomas, who was pretty much as lost as I was. Neither of us wanted to get married. Didn’t seem much point.
Of course, that put the uptight noses out of joint. But where were they when I was being brutalised?
So, I didn’t make it to the society weddings and wasn’t welcome around the synagogue. Even the well was a lonely place. I started going in the middle of the day to avoid the constant jibes and sneers of the prim and proper types. It was a lonely few years. But it was all I had.
And then ….
Well, what can I say?
One day, it happened.
My dream came true.
No, it wasn’t a man on a white camel.
But it was a man, and it was at the well.
I’d come to collect water as usual, and there he was, sitting there with a lost look in his eye; sad, perhaps, burdened. He was some sort of Rabbi, but he seemed to be on his own.
He asked me for a drink of water.
Well I got such a shock. Not because of my dream (although I did have a little chuckle to myself). But he was a Jew, and me? Well, I’m a Samaritan and a woman.
Jewish men don’t talk to strange women, even for a drink of water. And for a Jew to talk to a Samaritan woman? Well, that never happens.
And, anyway, he would have known there was something odd about me, fetching water in the heat of the day.
But there he was, against all that was holy, asking me for a drink of water.
I mean, Jews won’t even use our utensils! So, what was he going to drink my water with?
So, I said to him, ‘You’re a Jew. What are you doing asking me for water?’
Then he said the strangest thing. He spoke about God’s gift, and he said if I only knew him, I could ask him for life-giving water.
Oh, oh, I thought. There goes my dream. I’ve got a crazy here.
I should have walked away then. But something kept me. So, I told him that without a bucket he’d have trouble getting any sort of water. Or did he think he was better than our ancestor Jacob who dug the well thousands of years ago?
Sheez, these Jews!
But he wasn’t put off at all. ‘Whoever drinks this water will be thirsty again,’ he said. ‘But anyone who drinks my water will never be thirsty again. It will be a spring within you, welling up to eternal life.’
Well, I didn’t know what he was talking about, so I said, ‘Please, give me that water. Then I’ll never be thirsty, and I’ll never have to come to this hateful well again!’
Then he told me to call my husband.
Ah, here comes the sales pitch, I thought. He’d be in trouble if he tried to negotiate with a woman, so now he needs my husband.
‘I haven’t got one,’ I told him.
What he said next, shook me rigid. ‘That’s true,’ he said. ‘You’ve had five husbands, and the man you are with now isn’t your husband.’
This was getting personal, so I tried to steer the conversation into a religious debate. These Jews are always so self-righteous about their religion, I knew I’d trip him up.
But, somehow, we weren’t taking about religion. We were talking about God and having a personal relationship with him – being in touch with God instead of doing religious things.
It was exhilarating, but also frightening, as all the old rooms and hidden places of my life seemed to be exposed. But it wasn’t like he was pointing fingers. More like just opening them up and healing them with a gentle touch.
Then we spoke about the Messiah, and I said I longed for him to come, because, surely, the Messiah was the one who would explain all this to us and make it real?
Then he looked at me. And in a calm and gentle voice, he said, ‘I am he.’
Just like that.
And, suddenly, I knew.
If anyone had said to me then, ‘Will you go with this man?’ I would have jumped up and cried, ‘Yes, yes! A thousand times, yes!’ Camel or no camel.
Suddenly, his disciples were with him – they’d been buying bread or something. They didn’t say anything about him talking with a woman.
But I knew what I had to do. I left my jar and ran to the village. I called all the people, who’d ignored me (or worse) most of my life.
‘Come see a man,’ I said. ‘Out by the well. He seems to know everything about us. He told me all I have ever done. Could he be the Messiah?’
I must have sounded crazy. I don’t know why they didn’t laugh at me. But they came anyway. And they warmed to him, as I had. They even asked him to stay, which he did for a couple of days – and healing happened.
The village folk began to see in him what I had seen, and they believed as I had done.
I realised, later, that my dream had, indeed, come true.
No, no white camels, and none to ask me, ‘Will you go with this man?’
But it was my own voice calling in the same way: ‘Come see a man ….’
And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
Whenever I see someone in distress, someone in pain, someone lost or left out as I was, I tell them about Jesus. And I invite them to come to him.
So, I ask you, as they asked the other Rebecca, will you go with this man? Will you walk with Jesus?
Will you open your heart to him, as I did, and let him see the dark places, the scary places, the sad places of your life?
Will you let him bring healing and hope to your broken world? Because that’s what he did for me and my village, just as he did for my name’s sake so long ago, the other woman at the well.
Thank you for listening to my story.
[See also: Rebecca: A Prayer from the Well]
A pregnancy, a donkey, and an update
The Internet is a place full of shadows. People come and go; they visit this blog as I visit others. One or two leave a comment, which is a most welcome and tangible sign of their visit. But most leave no more than an echo; something the system picks up to say that someone was here, visiting this page. Who they were and how long they stayed; whether they were challenged, horrified or simply indifferent, the echo doesn’t say; they are simply shadows.
I wrote the story, “A pregnancy, a donkey, and a whole bunch of questions” for an Advent service on 28 November 2010, and I posted it here two days later. There wasn’t much interest that year, and only 210 visitors looked at the story in the whole of 2011. This year, 2012, must be the year of the donkey, or the journey, or whatever, because 245 people viewed the story in November alone, and another 280 in December so far.
No doubt many of those who came, left with nothing more than a quick glance. Others perhaps stayed to read the story. What I’m interested in is whether someone out there has tried to use the story themselves somewhere else.
I used it again last Sunday at another church here in Pietermaritzburg. The response was very good, with the general comment being, “It finished too soon. I want to hear what comes next.”
It’s not often a preacher gets asked for more! Which is why I believe that we should tell more stories. There are risks in telling stories, which we don’t always want to take. With a sermon we lay the foundation, prepare the listeners, and then we draw them to the main point. The message (we hope) is clear, and it can be summarised in a few words.
A story is its own message. There is usually (as in the great stories of the Bible) an overall message of God’s grace, of God’s involvement in the world, of our struggle with God’s call, etc., but how people connect with the story is out of our hands.
In this story of Mary and Joseph’s journey, it is not the dialogue or their assumptions that matter. The key is simply recognising that the conversation took place; that Mary and Joseph were real people like us, who would have asked the same questions we ask, with the same fears. Yet they found a way to engage with God, and to trust him for the impossible future to which he was calling them.
When we begin to understand the people of the Bible in this way, as their experience and their encounter with God becomes more real to us (and more like ours), we can more readily engage with their story, and their story becomes our story. We can no longer ignore the challenge that their lives present; we can no longer say “well, it was all very well for them….” It wasn’t all very well at all. Yet as they listened and responded to God’s challenge, they began to reflect God’s glory, and their light still shines for us today.
Their story is no longer a fairy tale of otherworldly people, whose feet don’t quite touch the ground, and whose eyes are constantly raised heavenward. They are people like us. God took his chance with them, as he does with us. He loved them in their misunderstanding and lack of faith, as he loves us. He reached out to them when they were farthest away from him, as he does to us. They had the same questions we have, and God answered them as he seeks to answer us.
What has been your experience of story? Do they help or hinder your journey?
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