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The Woman at the Well: a first person monologue  

John 4: 5-42

Third Sunday in Lent 

Delivered by Rev. Ron Coughlin

Introduction to the scripture passage

Before we hear the scripture reading from the Gospel of John, I would like to tell you a brief story.  This is a scene from the ending of the movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, based on the 1971 book written by Ernest Gaines.

Louisiana, at the beginning of the civil rights movement.  The sun was beating down, parching the earth, blinding the eyes.  A black woman, 100 years old, bore the brunt of the heat that day.  She walked with the aid of a walking stick, sure-footed and courageous, head held high for the dignity of her people, her eyes fixed on the living water.  She walked slowly, but surely, past a row of state troopers, all white, all carrying guns, cocked and ready to shoot.  She walked slowly, but surely.  She had been born a slave, and now she carried the 100 years of indignities on her shoulders.  She walked slowly and surely, her eyes fixed on the water fountain that had a sign, “For Whites Only”.  She walked to that fountain….bent down….and drank deeply of that cool, refreshing water that leaped up within her like a fountain of everlasting life.  Then she turned, a woman now tall and straight, and faced those state troopers with a look of deepest satisfaction, and headed back to her people.[1]

With that story in your mind, listen now to this story of Jesus and the woman at the well, from the Gospel of John, chapter 5: verses 45-42.                                                                                            

Sermon

Before we begin, I invite you to close your eyes.  Take a deep breath in … and out… Imagine that we are in the Middle East.  It is hot, the sun beats down.  All is silent.  There is the kind of quiet that hangs heavily in the noonday sun.  The kind of quiet that brings us into a different time and a different place.

(Sitting in rocking chair, Miriam is wrapped in a blanket to tell her story.)

This is my story.  This is my well.  My mother drew from this well.  And her mother before that.  And her mother before that.  They drew from this blessed water, this life-giving gift of our great mother earth that nourished our bone-dry tongues.  You’ve never tasted water until you have drunk the water from the well in Sychar.  It tastes so good.  Clear and pure, and the well has never run dry.  They say that our ancestor Jacob dug this well over 2000 years ago, and he came here with his sons and his flocks to drink from it.

Oh, I’m sorry.  I get carried away when I talk about this well.  Let me introduce myself.  I am Miriam, daughter of Obed and Deborah.  I was named after the famous prophetess, sister of Moses, singer at the Red Sea, when my people were fleeing from slavery in Egypt.  Yes, Miriam the singer was a Jew, but Obed, Deborah and I are Samaritans.

I grew up with the same hopes and dreams of every young girl – to find a loving husband, marry, raise healthy children, and live a long peaceful life with a prosperous and large family.  Well, some of that came true for me, but not in the way that I had expected.  When I was ten, my mother died in childbirth and I took over the running of the household.   Then my father remarried and I did not get along with his new wife.  I was used to running things and all of a sudden this new woman in our home treated me like a servant girl.  We argued and fought constantly.  So when I was thirteen, my father arranged for me to marry Reuben, a widower and farmer who was 47 years of age.  We were married in the Synagogue and I went to manage his farm and his home.  After two years, we had no children and so he was going to divorce me, but before that could happen, he died in the fields.  You see I had prepared supper and I was waiting for him to come home.  I waited and waited and after some time, I went to the fields looking for him and there he was, lying in the furrow behind the oxen, who just stood there waiting.

You have to understand that at this time, women had no rights of their own.  A woman without a man was nothing.  So I had two choices, I could return to my father’s house – which I did not want to do, or I could wait for Reuben’s nephew, who was just six (6) years old, to grow up and become my husband.  Neither alternative appealed to me.  I was still young, I was only 15, I was still beautiful, and I had my dowry.  I had a reputation as a good cook and a hard worker.  So I picked out a 20 year youth named Joseph and began to woo him.  We were married six months later.  Joseph was a smith and worked in the forge with his uncle.  It was a good marriage.  But Joseph had another interest; he belonged to the Zealots, that group which was dedicated to fighting the Romans and driving them out of our land.  I pleaded with him to not get involved, but he would not listen.  And one time when they were attacking a Roman outpost, he was captured and convicted of being a rebel bandit and was crucified.

So, here I was 18 years old and again a widow.  I still did not want to return to my father’s home, Reuben’s nephew was still only nine (9) years old.  I still had my good looks, my dowry, my experience and so Joseph’s uncle took me to Jericho where I married Aaron.  In the city of Jericho I learned a lot.  I saw how ugly and violent the Roman occupation was and how degraded the people felt.  I saw how Samaritan and Jew hated each other and could make life difficult.  I saw how women were mistreated.  When we women gathered at the well in cool of the evening to draw water, we would talk about the injustices.  We wanted things to change.  However, the men would just talk, talk, talk.  They often gathered at my house and would do nothing but drink wine and talk, talk, talk.  One night I spoke up and told them that rather than idle talk, they should be doing something.  My husband was furious and that night he beat me with a stick so that I was black and blue.  From that time on I made his life miserable.  Finally he had enough and divorced me.  He took me to the synagogue and said, “I Aaron of Jericho divorce thee Miriam.  I Aaron of Jericho divorce thee Miriam.  I Aaron of Jericho divorce thee Miriam.”  And it was done.  I was freed from him, but not free.

Married three times and only twenty-three (23), I still looked good, still had some of my dowry left, but now I had a reputation for being difficult to live with.  The men would gossip about me and point at me when I went by.  I knew about Simeon, an old man; he was 60 and recently widowed, he found his bed cold at night and wanted some warmth.  So, he agreed to marry me.

Now I had become pregnant twice before, but each time had a miscarriage.  However, I gave Simeon a beautiful boy, who we called little Simeon.  When he was circumcised we had a great party and Simeon was teased and toasted as a man who finally had a son and in his old age!  Well, Simeon could not live forever and after five years of marriage, he died having outlived all his relatives.

Now remember, my first husband Reuben and his nephew.  Well, the nephew, who was called by his nickname, Junior, was now 19.  And his family eyed the property I had in little Simeon’s name and my dowry and came to claim me under Jewish law as Junior’s wife.  And so the leaders at the gate ordered me to marry Junior.  And that is how I moved back to Sychar.

Now Junior was a weakling, and he seemed more interested in men than in women and so I banished him to a separate room and a separate bed.  I was pleased to live my own life and raise up little Simeon.  However, I had not lost my voice and continued to speak out about men’s hypocrisy and the collaboration with the Roman occupiers.  This time, Junior’s family ordered a divorce, but they made sure they kept the property that should be little Simeon’s and my dowry.  So there I was aged thirty-three, with a ten year boy and no place to live, no support, no future. 

Now I knew of a bachelor who was kind of eccentric and lived a rough style of life on the edge of town.  So, I went to him and offered my services.  I said, “You have much land and no help, I need work.  Let me live with you and help you out.”  He wanted to know what was the catch and why would I do this.  And so I said, “I need a home for me and my boy.  I need food for me and my boy.  I will work for that.”  So he gave me a job.  He gave me a home.  There was no marriage.  I worked with him in the fields, I kept the home neat and tidy. We shared the bed, but he did not share the housework or the cooking or the fetching of water.  But he did share my opinions and together we would discuss the problems in our society and some of the hopeful solutions.

Did I tell you about the women of Sychar?  That is a story in itself.  Most go to the well at sun-up.  They always walk in groups laughing together, catching up on the latest news.  They walk through the cool, grey dawn, past the city gates to this well.  I used to go with them, but no one would speak to me.  Oh, they might say “Hi”, but then they would talk about me, as if I was not there.  I would hear them whispering my name, “Miriam”, as if they were saying the word “leper”.  Then I would hear, “on number six, is it?”  They didn’t know my story.  They did not want to hear it.  So I stopped going in the morning and would go later in the day, during a break from the work in the fields.  But I digress.

I want to tell you about one day when my life changed forever.  You see, I went to the well, it must have been about noon.  The sun was high in the sky.  The heat was oppressive.  I was carrying my water jug on my head.  It is amazing that my head is not flat!  I had just managed to roll the stone off the opening of the well.  I was breathing hard, I was sweating, with beads of sweat rolling off my forehead, and then I saw him.  I could tell he was a Jew, probably from Galilee, by the way he walked.  Life is not so hard in Galilee, the land of lakes and streams.

He asked me for a drink.  I could not believe my ears.  I was shocked!  You must realize that Jewish men do not talk to Samaritan women.  Never!  Not in public.  Not anywhere.  Unless they want….well, you know!  I found it hard to believe that his fellow would proposition me in public, but why else would he speak to me?

You know the animosity between Jew and Samaritan has been going on for over 500 years.  You see when the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in the year 721 before Jesus, they took many of the Jewish people away into exile.  Then they brought all kinds of other nationalities here to settle this land.  And over the years, the people inter-married, which is a big no-no for the Jewish tradition.  Then in 587, the southern kingdom of Judah was also conquered, this time by the Babylonians, but after about 50 years, they were permitted to return back home.  You might remember, this is the time of the great prophet Isaiah.  So when the people began to rebuild the temple and Jerusalem, some of the Samaritans went down to Jerusalem and offered to help with the reconstruction.  But the Jews refused our help.  They sent my people away saying that we were unclean and unfit to work on rebuilding the temple.  Oh, my ancestors were very angry at that insult to us.  So later, we built our own temple on Mount Gerizim here, but in the year 128 before Jesus, the Jews came and destroyed the temple here, saying that the only true place to worship was at the temple in Jerusalem.  So needless to say, there is no love lost between Jew and Samaritan.  But I digress!  Where was I?  Oh yes, the request for water.

Well, I was not going to make it easy for him.  I said, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of water of me, a woman of Samaria?”  Then he started talking about living water.  I thought he meant a stream of water, running water, rather than well water.  Later I realized that he was talking about God’s spirit.  He talked about how with living water, you will never be thirsty!  So I said jokingly, “O, me give this water, that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

Then he shocked me.  He told me to go get my husband.  Well, you know my story there.  Then we started talking about worshipping God in spirit and truth.  I had never spoken with another man in this way before.  He treated me like an equal.  He had a gentle and kind manner.  He had a sparkle in his eye and despite the heat, a sense of energy and life that I had never seen in a man before.  I don’t know why, but he made me think of the Messiah – the prophet who will come and teach us everything.  When I mentioned the messiah, he said that it was he!

Well, just then some other Jewish men came, who seemed to know him and so I left my water jug at the well and ran to the city to tell everyone about who I had met.  I said, “Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did!”  And they all followed me out to see Jesus.  The leaders of the city invited Jesus to stay with them and so he and his disciples stayed for two days and we all sat at his feet listening to his teaching.  He told us stories: stories about the Good Samaritan who helped a man in need.  Stories about a prodigal son, stories about lost coins and lost sheep, stories about a rich man and Lazarus – Oh, so many stories.  He also gave us a bunch of proverbs, like “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”  We were mesmerized by his teaching.  He talked a lot about love and about how we will all share in the great banquet in heaven with God.  We realized that this was indeed the Messiah, the Son of God, the Saviour of the world.

After Jesus left, we tried to remember his teachings.  Some of them wrote down what they had heard.  When we gathered in the synagogue, we would repeat his stories.  We tried to live according to his teachings.  We talked about how to live a life of love and service.  Every week we repeated his mantra, “Love one another, as I have loved you.  Love your neighbour as yourself.”  When he was with us it seemed that the 500 years of hostility between Jew and Samaritan had just melted away.

Later, when we heard that he had been crucified by the Romans, we wept.  Then later, some of his disciples returned to our village and told us more of his stories and about his life.

After that day at the well, my life changed.  No longer was I an outsider to the women in the city.  No longer was I ostracized.  I was welcomed back like a long lost sheep.  People would listen to me and to my opinions.  We did not always agree, but we respected each other.

So now, I am a grandmother. I am 62 years old.  I live with my son, little Simeon and my 10 grandchildren.  They often ask me to tell them the story of how I first met Jesus.  I have indeed been blest.  Thank you for listening to my story.

May God bless and keep you, and may you come to know Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, the Saviour of the world.


[1] adapted from a story in drawing from wisdom’s well by Gloria Ulterino (Ave Marie Press, 2002) p.40.

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