The Woman at the Well

by Nicole Austin
It was the hottest part of the day, and the sun shone brightly from the middle of a blazing blue sky. The few clouds that had not burned off drifted across the horizon like wisps of woolen thread being pulled and twisted, halfway between the distaff and the spindle. The ground was hard and dry, with the tops of olive trees the only hint of green scattered across the otherwise rocky and rust-colored terrain.

Jesus sat beside the well, his legs sore from the morning’s long walk, his forehead beading with sweat beneath the outer tunic that draped across his head, protecting him from the sun’s rays. His sandals were covered in a thick layer of dust and grime, and the purse which hung at his belt held little more than a few coins. The majority of the money he shared with his fellow travelers was carried by another, and his companions had taken it with them to purchase food from the nearby town of Sychar. He was alone.

Jesus smiled as he thought back to the looks on his friends’ faces at the beginning of their journey when, instead of turning to the east toward the river Jordan, he had led them north instead. There was some quiet conferring among those behind him, and the theory was put forth that he must be taking them along the costal route to Galilee, so as to avoid the region of Samaria via a western route. No one questioned him directly until they reached Gophna, when the road split and he continued to lead their party north toward Mount Gerizim. Then it was Peter who spoke, stumbling slightly as he hurried to draw even with Jesus.

“Master?” Peter’s voice was tentative but determined. “The road ahead will take us through the land of the Samaritans, and you know they are no friends of ours. We will have safer passage if we turn aside now rather than continuing on this path.”

Jesus spoke quietly as he answered, although his response was loud enough for the rest of the men walking behind him to hear. “Yes. You speak the truth, Peter. Yet this is the way we must go.”

Peter looked confused, but fell silent and drew back to rejoin the others. After that, no one dared to question Jesus. A day and a half passed quickly, as the men focused their energies on climbing the rocky mountain path before them. The trail wound higher, snaking its way through the hillside, and by noon on the second day they had reached the place where Jesus now rested. After taking refreshment from the well, his companions proposed that they enter the nearby village to purchase additional provisions for the remainder of their journey. Jesus, who had refused the water offered to him by his friends, elected to remain behind.

He had been alone no more than a few minutes when a woman approached the well. Her clothing was humble but well-made, and her cloak looked as if it had been newly woven. She was neither young nor old, her auburn hair barely visible beneath her head scarf, and her dark eyes fell on Jesus as she drew near. She looked surprised to see an unfamiliar man alone at the well, and she paused, taking in his disheveled appearance and relaxed posture. Then, as if making up her mind, she came closer, lifting her water jug from where it rested on her shoulder and setting it on the side of the well, beginning to unspool the rope that would allow her to draw water.

Jesus watched her in silence. As she lowered the vessel into the mouth of the well, he spoke softly so as not to startle her. “Will you share your water with a weary traveler?”

She looked up sharply, and when she spoke her voice was wary. “I see by your cloak that you are a Jew, and wonder at your presence in the land of my people. I do not think your companions, whom I passed on the road here, would approve of your speaking to me, an unaccompanied woman, let alone one of Samarian birth. Do you mock me?”

Jesus rose slowly from where he sat, his eyes never leaving her face. His smile was kind, and a little sad as he replied. “It is true that we are strangers to one another. But if you knew to whom you speak, you would know that I do not mock you. The water I ask for from you is cool and clear, and would sooth my parched throat. But the water I have to offer you is something different, water that will flow long after this well has run dry.”

The woman looked at him quizzically, and her eyes narrowed as she considered his words. “This well has been here for many generations, from the time of our father Jacob. Do you presume to say that you are greater than he? Where will you get water if not from a well or spring?”

Jesus looked over the edge of the well’s stone threshold at the water, which appeared like gemstones gleaming in the sunlight. “This water will satisfy only for a time, and then more will be needed. You know this very well, as I am sure you have worn a path to and from here, coming and going. But the water of which I speak will satisfy eternally, bringing an end even to death.”

The woman looked incredulous, and yet there was nothing in Jesus’s demeanor to suggest that he was anything other than serious. Wondering at his motives, she kept her tone light as she responded. “Surely, then, this water is more valuable than any I can offer to you. If this water is as you say, then it is I who must ask it of you, so that I may be thirsty no more.”

Jesus’s companions, who had found a man at the edge of the town willing to part with food and wine in exchange for their coins, were making their way back to the well when they saw in the distance the woman speaking with Jesus. Their heads were close together, as if they had long been intimate friends. Although the men could not hear the words being spoken, they could see that the woman appeared deeply moved and a little shaken. Her water jug sat idly beside her, forgotten, and she searched Jesus’s face as he spoke, hungry to understand his words.

As they drew near, they heard the last words of Jesus, who could see them over the woman’s shoulder. “I who speak to you am he.” She let out a small gasp, her breath audible even over their approaching footsteps. Turning, she saw the other men, and without another word, she fled, leaving her water jug behind. She did not look back.

The other men sat and began to unwrap the provisions they had purchased, but Andrew took up the jug and made as if to follow her. Samaritan or not, the woman’s livelihood was likely dependent on her ability to draw water, and he did not want their presence to be the cause of any distress on her behalf. But before he could take more than a few steps, Jesus called him back.

“There is no need to do that, Andrew.”

“But, Teacher, what will she do for water?”

Jesus smiled. “She will return, with others ready to listen. It is for this that we have come.” While his friends looked on in amazement, Jesus gently took the water jug from Andrew. Drawing water from the well, he drank deeply, his eyes fixed on the road before him.
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