Two Women Came to a Well
Two women came to a well. Thirsty, weary, alone. Centuries and miles apart, but each with gaping wounds, stories pierced through by rejection and indignity. One, a foreign slave, sold by her family, commodified to produce progeny for her barren mistress. The other, the slave of a broken system, married and discarded five times, wholly dependent on a man to provide her basic needs. One running from abuse, unwilling to give up her unborn baby to be raised by her abusers. The other, hiding in plain sight, practically invisible to all, with no right to talk, much less to need or dream. Both exhausted and numb, internal self-loathing no doubt heaped onto the pile of external critique they’ve only ever known. Never loved, never valued, never heard, never seen – until the day they came to a well.
Before the Encounter
Hagar was one of many commodities gifted to Abram by Pharaoh during his time in Egypt (Genesis 12). Perhaps as an apology gift for lying to Pharaoh, thereby causing her to endure a short stint as one of his concubines, Abram gave Hagar to Sarai to be her personal slave. We don’t know what menial chores she was tasked with taking off Sarai’s plate, but one day, she was summoned to her most consequential assignment – giving her body to Abram as a womb for his offspring. It was common for wealthy infertile couples in Old Testament times to impregnate a slave as a surrogate for their progeny. Later in Genesis, Rachel gave Jacob her servant Bilhah “that she may bear on my knees, that through her I too may have children.” (Gen. 30:3, NASB) Some scholars believe this phrase “on my knees” was meant literally, with the surrogate made to sit on the lap of the rightful wife during conception and birth, symbolizing the passing of parental rights from the surrogate to the mother. Whether this custom was followed in Hagar’s case is not known, but it is likely that Sarai was at least in the room to witness the humiliating loveless conception of her future child.
The news that the seed had taken root in Hagar’s womb did nothing to elevate her status in Abram’s household. In fact, it did the opposite. Hagar became the walking proof of Sarai’s infertility. It could no longer be speculated which partner in the marriage was the problem. Sarai felt the way most infertile women feel – ashamed, useless, jealous, perhaps even angry – and she transmitted her pain to Hagar. Hagar had pain enough of her own. She was carrying the only person in the world who can make her feel less alone, bone of her bone, flesh of her flesh. The bitterness of giving up this child bubbled up inside her and spilled out as rage. It would have been easier had she continued being alone without the possibility of her loneliness being alleviated then to have that hope born, and then snatched away by greedy alien masters. Unable to hold her pain and Sarai’s any longer, she fled.
Her New Testament counterpart, the Samaritan woman, was also a foreigner and a commodity. Samaritans were hated by the Jews going back centuries to the Assyrian exile. Some of the poorest Samaritan Jews were not considered valuable enough to be taken captive into Assyria, and so, left behind, they intermarried with the Gentile colonists who were sent by the Assyrians to populate the land. The half-breeds these unions produced became untouchables in the eyes of the Jews who resettled after the Babylonian exile about two hundred years later. They were avoided like lepers, skirted around when traveling. If going through the area could not be avoided, a good Jew would never stay overnight and would not eat in a Samaritan town. The Talmud states, “He that eats the bread of the Samaritans is like to one that eats the flesh of swine.” Many considered all Samaritans demon possessed (John 8:48), making them the only people in the world who could not convert to Judaism. As a Samaritan, this woman’s experience taught her to expect to be shunned and alienated by Jews. The disciples could very well have passed her on their way to get food in the city, and kept their distance, moving to the opposite side of the road from her.
Being a woman brought her a further notch down on the social order, but then there were the five marriages. The traditional notion about this woman is that she was loose, a harlot in need of the living water of forgiveness. Some use the fact that she came to the well in the heat of the day to prove that she was not welcomed by her female tribe. The problem with this view is that first, Jesus never condemns her for her lifestyle. He never calls her to repent or ask for forgiveness, as he does with many others. Second, according to Jewish law, she would either not be alive, or would be severely punished if she had been unfaithful five times (Leviticus 20:10). Third, she is not the outcast it would seem she was, as evidenced by the fact that the townspeople listened to her account and followed her back to Jesus at the well. What could be the possible explanation for her five marriages and the man who she is living with who is not her husband?
According to Jewish law, a woman had no power to divorce her husband.
“The divorce was always from first to last, in Jewish law, the husband's act. The common term used in the Bible for divorce is shilluach 'ishshah, ‘the sending away of a wife’(Deut. 22:19,29). We never read of ‘the sending away of a husband.’ The feminine participle, gerushah, ‘the woman thrust out,’ is the term applied to a divorced woman. The masculine form is not found.”
By law, the husband had to issue the wife a certificate of divorce, but the acceptable reasons for him to do so were many and often trivial. He could divorce her if he did not care for his in-laws, if he did not like her cooking, if she was infertile, if she was bad in bed, or if he found someone else more attractive. This was a stretching and twisting of Old Testament divorce law, which was given as a merciful protection for women. The law was instituted to prevent a husband from kicking his wife to the curb without a divorce certificate, rendering it impossible for her to remarry and be provided for. In light of the cultural treatment of women, and the ease and prevalence of divorce, the most likely explanation for the Samaritan woman having had five husbands, is that either she was widowed five times, or abandoned five times. The man she was living with could very well have been her betrothed and future sixth husband.
Try to put yourself in the mindset of women as they approached the well that day. Rejected, powerless, hopeless, bitter, lonely.
They are Seen
“Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”
Jesus asked the first woman.
“Will you give me a drink?” he asked the second.
Stunned by the dignity conveyed in a simple question, by the audacity to even speak to these low-class, uneducated cast-offs, both women are taken aback.
Hagar was given the honor of being the first in human history to see and interact with the pre-incarnate Christ (Christophany). Before visiting Abraham, Moses, Balaam, Gideon, Samson’s parents, David, or Elijah, he visited an Egyptian slave girl. She could not have known she was speaking to the future Messiah, but the gravitas of this Being was not lost on her, as she later named him, “The God who sees me.”
As for the second woman, being a Samaritan was transgression enough for her to be avoided. Being a woman was all the more egregious. Rabbis were expected to avoid public discourse with any woman, Jewish or otherwise, including their own wives. (With this in mind, it is remarkable to think how many times Jesus broke with religious norms simply to converse with women throughout his ministry.) It is no wonder she shoots back, incredulous, “How can you ask me for a drink?”
They are Heard
Without condemning them, Jesus then assures them he already knows their story. To Hagar, he says, “The Lord has heard your misery.” To the Samaritan woman, he goes right to her deepest wound, the part of her story that defines her. “You’ve had five husbands.” Maybe for the first time in their lives, hearing these simple revelations, they realize they have not been abandoned. They have been seen all along by the Unseen. Their sighs have been heeded, their tears counted.
This Divine empathy would have been enough, but in his extravagance, Jesus offers each of them a promise. Hagar is given the same incredible promise of countless descendants that Abram received a chapter earlier. She need not worry that her son will be taken from her and grafted into Abram’s line. Not only will she not be forgotten, she will be cared for all her days, and from her son, an entire nation would be born. Our modern western ears cannot grasp the magnitude of this gift. To be the mother of a nation was the highest honor bestowed upon a woman of that day. And to a nobody Egyptian slave girl.
Jesus promises the Samaritan woman Living Water. Though she doesn’t grasp his meaning at first, by the end of the conversation, her physical thirst is forgotten as she leaves her empty bucket behind and bubbles over with the Living Water already welling up in her soul. At long last, her thirst for understanding and acceptance, compassion and dignity, forgiveness and provision had been quenched. Then, with stunning candor, and for the first time in his earthly life, Jesus reveals his true identity to this nobody Samaritan woman. “I, the one speaking to you -- I AM he.” She might have heard, “I am the greatest man to ever walk the earth, and I will never reject you.”
After the Encounter
They are Changed
These women were irreversibly changed by their encounter with the Almighty. They were not scared into obedience by his promise of wrath, nor by his awe-inducing bright hot holiness. They were fully known and fully loved, and obedience was their grateful and easy response. Hagar was told to return to her mistress and to submit. Before leaving the holy ground of her Divine appointment, she named both the Person and the place, names which became etched into the biblical record, and which were accepted into the vernacular for centuries to come. She arrived home to unchanged circumstances, but she was not the same. Like Mary, she treasured the words of God in her heart: “I see you,” “I hear you,” “I am with you.” She is fortified for the hardships to come by the promises she received during her encounter.
The Samaritan woman was not explicitly told to go, but she is compelled almost by force to share this news with her family and friends. While she is gone, Jesus takes this opportunity to school his disciples. Seeing the townspeople surging toward them, he says,
“Open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.” (John 4:35-38)
I cannot help but wonder if the sower he is talking about is this once cast-aside woman, now guiding people to the well to hear the man who “told me everything I ever did.” The spiritual descendants credited to this woman are the fruit of the promised Living Water, poured out from her onto fertile soil and burgeoning into a field “ripe for harvest.”
We all come to the well, every last one of us, with a story not so dissimilar from these two dejected women. We are enslaved and encumbered by sin, guilt, pride, and shame. We are exhausted from our efforts, worn out by judgment from within and without. We have known the sting of rejection in varying degrees. We know how it feels to be used to gratify the needs of another human being. We drag our thirsty, weary, lonely selves to the well, or more aptly, we are dragged.
The intimate love that awaits us at the well is unexpected and often difficult to receive. Not unlike the Prodigal who at first cannot accept the unearned and lavish love of the Father, we are asked for nothing other than to lay down our striving, our justifying, our selves, and be swept up in the current of God’s grace. And when we have this kind of encounter with Jesus, we are changed.
New life always results from an encounter with Jesus.
It started with new life within these women, which then was birthed into the world. They were loved to show love. Accepted to offer acceptance. Changed to bring change. If your Christian experience is marked by shame, pride, or condemnation (either of yourself or others), perhaps you need to return to your original encounter at the well, and see it through a new lens. If your inner daily monologue is a barrage of self-critique, worry, or jealousy, maybe a daily visit to the well is needed to be reminded who you are.
“Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” Hebrews 10:19-24