I shadow her as she lays another cloth on his head, this man-cousin of hers, who has been ill for months. Only in her earliest thirties, her dusky face is riddled with fine wrinkles, her black hair shot through with fine strands of gray. Her breath is light and even, as if impending death is no stranger to her home. I move around her simple one room house, the unseen spirit from a far future, touching this old sword, that old fold of men’s clothing. I can smell the illness here, and when she reaches for the water jug, I know it is as much a time of relief from her vigil as it is a need for any water.
I trail her down to the well, smiling in wonder at her sure gait, the way she shoulders a pot I would struggle to hold with both hands even if it were empty. Each of her steps requires a half-skip on my part. The heat folds and shimmers around us, so dry that my nose pinches tight and the edges of my lips crinkle. I know a man will come to the well soon, the man we call Jesus, and he will enter into a conversation with her that has echoed down through the ages.
But I wonder, my feet falling into the dusty outline of her own footprints, what assumptions we make about her from our translation of a translation of a third-hand remembered event in the Bible. Five husbands, but I could see their echoes in her tiny abode—these were not divorces but losses, five men in a row taken by plague or war or accident or too much drink. How time devoured the poor and how so easily we, in our comfortable settings, forget. And the man in her home is far from a lover—he is a relation in her care alone.
The sun cuts my eyes and I glance away. A woman at the well at noon—“she must be mad” later readers will claim. Surely that or she is difficult or avoiding the other members of the village. But I can smell the clean heat here, and the spaciousness of a chore done in quiet and care. How often she has been taught that she must not engage in conversation with those not of her tribe. There is an ancient tightness around her lips—holding back what she must not say, white teeth grinding on loss, on captivity, on the bondage of a fine mind to a deep and abiding poverty and loss. I hear the voice she wants to use but feels she cannot.
I did not come to ask my own questions of her, but to simply see her as she is before the famous give and take with this Jewish Rabbi. I wanted only to see the woman as she sets the jug down and shields her gaze with the edge of her hand so she can see the stranger sitting there, well-side, waiting. Their eyes meet and there! with that searching glance is where I smile at last. Heart begins to talk to heart here before a word is even spoken—not man to woman, nor Jew to Samaritan, not law to law or tradition to tradition. The simple tip of her head, the way her gaze sparkles with both challenge and invitation to conversation no different than any meeting of equals today. They will share deep, cool, living water and most miss that the first glance of acceptance and welcome is the real jug that will carry such thoughts through many tongues and ages.