Thursday, April 26, 2007

The woman at the well plays along

Borrowing a page from Mother Angelica

The Eternal Word Television Network ensures that we will never lack for reruns of its founder's homespun homilies. While formal preaching in the Roman Catholic Church is the exclusive province of ordained menfolk, Mother Angelica was a feisty catechist who never lacked an opinion on any point of Catholic theology and practice—even to the point of once denouncing Cardinal Roger Mahoney of the Los Angeles Archdiocese. (That was one of the few times Church discipline forced her to back down, albeit extremely reluctantly.)

Although Mother Angelica is now an ailing octogenarian, her video and audio recordings can still be seen and heard regularly on EWTN-affiliated television and radio stations. Folksy and unaffected—but very opinionated—Mother Angelica likes to let her imagination take flight during her little talks, casually speculating on minor details that are not explicit in the Biblical texts on which she expounds. She conjures up little domestic details about the Holy Family (that's Jesus, Mary, and Joseph for all you secularists out there) or suggests bits of undocumented back-story for overly familiar parables. In her talk about chapter 4 of the Gospel of John, Mother Angelica suggests that the woman at the well was drawing water at an untimely hour because she was an outcast within her Samaritan community.
And the women never went to the well at noon time. Say, why not? Well, they didn't. The women only went around six o'clock. And they would gather and they would gossip. You see, this woman wasn't leading the right kind of life and she didn't want to be with these other women. And probably she had tried and they had so humiliated her and spoke very poorly to her that she decided, “I'm going at noon.”
These details aren't in the Bible and Mother Angelica isn't quite old enough to know the water-drawing routines of the era from personal experience, but it all adds a measure of extra-scriptural color. That's Angelica at work. Here's the actual text of the pertinent verses from John 4:
4Now he had to go through Samaria. 5So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour.

7When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8(His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

9The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

10Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

11“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?”

13Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

15The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won't get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

16He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

17“I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

19“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

21Jesus declared, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”

25The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

26Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you am he.”
That's the bare Biblical account of Jesus's encounter with the woman at the well. As we saw, Mother Angelica adds her own embellishments. How might the story turn out if embellished by another? The plain text is compatible with multiple perspectives, some of them at odds with Angelica's pious version or the mainstream accounts of other exegetes. For example, what if the woman at the well were to have given her own first-person account? It might very well have turned out like this, entirely consistent with John 4:
My Encounter at the Well

by A Samaritan Woman
(as told to Zeno the Stoic)

It was a day like any other when I picked up my water jug and headed out to Jacob's well. On the way there, I passed a group of scruffy itinerants walking into town, no doubt in search of provisions. They had the look of mendicants and it seemed likely that they had just come from drinking their fill at the well. I silently gave thanks that they were not loitering at the well, for I know their kind, Jewish preachers full of peculiar dogma they are all too willing to share and full of demands on the common folk for food, water, and shelter. I expected to draw my water in peace.

It was not to be. One of their number had remained behind, resting next to Jacob's well. As I attached my jug to the rope at the well to lower it into the water, the reclining Jew said, “Will you give me a drink?”

It was a startling request, so I answered him sharply: “You are a Jew and I am a woman of Samaria. How can you ask me for anything?”

His reply confirmed my suspicion that he and his companions were itinerant preachers. He acted as if I were obligated to serve him: “If you knew the gift of God and who is asking you for water, you would have asked him for water in return and he would have given you living water.”

Despite the obscurity of his remarks, the Jew was mild in his manner and I found myself smiling. “You, sir, have neither bucket nor jug with which to draw water, living or otherwise. Jacob's well is deep. If you cannot draw water for yourself, how are you to provide me or anyone else with living water? Perhaps you are greater than father Jacob, who dug this well with his own hands and drank from it himself, along with his many sons and his great flocks?”

The ragged preacher smiled back and said, “Everyone who drinks from father Jacob's well will thirst again, but those who drink my living water will never thirst.”

I sniffed at him and lowered my jug into the well. “Yes, I see. I know the water whereof you speak. It can be gathered from adders and scorpions and certain plants. Those who partake of it never thirst again. I would not have this deadly water.”

The Jew did not take offense, but laughed. “I do not speak of such,” he said. “The living water I give becomes a spring of water of eternal life.”

Clearly the man was mad—or religion-besotted, which is much the same—but he seemed harmless enough. I pulled up my jug and let him sip from it. As he drank, I said, “Sir, why don't you give me your living water? Then I won't get thirsty again. I can spare myself all these trips to draw water. Maybe you should drink some yourself, so you wouldn't have to sit next to wells and ask strangers for a drink.”

He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and smiled again. “Go home and fetch your husband. Come back and I will give you both living water.”

I admit that I found his suggestion irksome. What would he say if he knew that my worthless husband was lying drunk on his pallet at home? Was he hoping to find out whether I even had a husband?

Some of the Jewish preacher's companions were returning from Sychar, carrying the crusts of bread and rinds of cheese that were the fruits of their foraging. One ill-favored man clutched a wine jug, which I presume they had had to purchase. I was eager to get away, now that the talkative Jew had an audience for his bantering with me. I decided to test him.

“I cannot do as you say and bring my husband to you. I have no husband.”

He leveled a severe gaze at me and declaimed, “You are right when you say you have no husband. You have actually had five husbands. The one who lives with you now is not your spouse, so what you have just said is most true.”

His companions had sly grins on their faces and I saw one nudge a neighbor with his elbow. No doubt they would soon be telling everyone about their leader's preternatural insight into the lives of strangers. No doubt the tale would grow in the telling. I gave the Jew a small smile and saw a flicker of doubt cross his face. Perhaps he was afraid I would gainsay his oracular pronouncement, but I knew better than to do so. I, a woman alone among strange men, would be safer if I played along and nourished their pride.

“You are a prophet indeed, sir,” I replied, with no hint of mockery in my voice. The grins on his companion's faces broadened. Nevertheless, I would risk a subtle riposte. “You know, O prophet, that our fathers worshiped on this mountain, this land where father Jacob made this well for us, but you Jews claim that we must worship in Jerusalem. Must I travel so far if I wish to pray?”

The preacher was equal to my challenge, and his eyes twinkled with appreciation as he intoned his reply and enthralled his traveling companions: “Believe me, O woman, when I tell you that a new time is coming—a time when you will not worship the Father here on this mountain nor in the city of Jerusalem. Samaritans worship in ignorance while we Jews worship in knowledge, for salvation comes from us. Yet that new time is coming. Indeed, it has now come. All true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, as the Father ordains.”

He was getting repetitive, which is a manner I have seen in preachers before as they seek to draw in their listeners and hold them rapt. When he finally concluded his homily, I hefted my water jug and gave him one final offering, speaking clearly in the hearing of his disciples.

“I know that you Jews say a Messiah is coming. When he comes to us, he will be able to explain everything. Perhaps he will explain things much as you do.”

The Jewish prophet concealed his delight at my teasing remarks and schooled his features to assume a profoundly serene aspect. He calmly said, “I who speak to you am he.”

As his companions goggled at his frank admission to a strange woman, I swiftly left them and made my way back to town. My worthless husband was stirring, and I confess that I wasted some of my hard-won water by splashing it on him.


PlatoisDerrida said...

I've always thought the story of Abraham and Abimelech needed some retelling from Abimelech's perspective.

Zeno said...

Yes, the readers are clamoring for more! (Or are you telling me I rewrote the wrong story?)