Then he speaks for a long time until she finally sits up straight with expectation and says something. Suddenly they are interrupted, and she rushes away leaving her water jar abandoned at the well, a sign as poignant and promising as a glass slipper.
If we have read the right stories we know what kind of story John is telling. We have been to the well before. A man meets a woman at a well. It was at a well that Abraham’s servant, sent on a mission to find a suitable wife for Isaac, met Rebekah. At a well Jacob met Rachel. Zipporah comes to a well to water her flocks and is rescued by a dashing Moses.
Whether it is Katharine Hepburn in Spencer Tracy’s face for the first half of the movie or Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan “meeting cute,” we know what to expect. We’re seeing a romance!
But wait! Something is not quite right here. There has been a foul-up in casting. Where’s the ingénue? This woman at the well is no doe-eyed innocent! She’s been married five times and now is living with a man to whom she is not married. This is not what we expect.
Explanation may be necessary if we are to understand John’s story. When we hear Jesus say, “you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband,” what do we think? Do we picture this woman changing husbands the way she changes hairstyles? Remember, this woman has no rights under the law. She cannot divorce, she can only be divorced. She can only be cast aside by someone who has no more love for her, no more use for her. And this has happened to her, again and again. Five times. Now she lives with another who will not even grant her the dignity of marriage. Do you get the picture? Nobody wants her. No one loves her.
Al the cues tell us it’s a love story. If so, it is certainly not the kind of love story we expect. This isn’t the kind of love story the movies give us. This isn’t the sort of romance we find in paperback novels. No. This love story has a different author. Dare I say it? It’s such a cliché. But here it is nothing less than gospel truth. This is a match made in heaven.
This woman at the well is not just someone Jesus meets on a journey through Samaria. She is also everyman–everywoman–everyone. She is the human race. She is the people. Saying this is nothing original. The Church has always heard her own story being told in this woman’s story. We are the ones who are no longer doe-eyed innocents. We are the ones who have been around a time or two or more. We are the hard cases, callous from years of broken promises. We are the ones who have been, as the Texas songster Mickey Gilley sang it, “lookin’ for love in all the wrong places.”
We look for love in power that bends people to our will, and sometimes we think we can even force love by violence. Some read this woman’s story as the story of the history of Palestine. Ah, we know who those five husbands are! They are the loveless empires that raped and pillaged the peoples of Samaria and Judea: the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and now the Romans who have so little love for the people they will not even “wed her.” We look for love among the loveless powers: “lookin’ for love in all the wrong places.”
We look for love, thinking that accumulating the things of this world will satisfy our deep thirst. Ah, yes, said the Church Fathers, those five husbands were the five senses of sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch. This woman has not found what she was seeking in the world of the senses. The sensory world alone cannot satisfy: “lookin’ for love in all the wrong places.”
This woman, however, does not give up looking. How easy it would be for her to grow bitter and cynical! Five husbands have tossed her aside! How easy it would be to listen to Jesus words and say, “Fellow, I’ve already it before. I’ve heard it all.”
After so many broken promises, how hard it is to believe another promise. But we do not surrender hope. We lift our faces and listen. We hear John’s hint that if we only could see it truly, if we can only read the cues correctly, the story we are involved in is a vast and unimaginable love story: the great story of God’s love for the world, the story of God’s love for all people.
“If you knew the gift of God,” Jesus says, “and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
Lord, teach us to know the gift of God. Teach us to know and live the great love story you are telling in our lives Finally, we pray you, teach us to love with your love.
PATRICK J. WILLSON is pastor of Williamsburg Church in Williamsburg, Va.
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