As I sit here in a Roman prison, I think about my life. The guards tell me that they will execute me by throwing me to the bottom of a well. That seems appropriate. There was a well at the beginning of my story too.
My mother’s favorite Bible verse came from the book of Proverbs. If my mother said it once, she said it a hundred times. “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without good sense.” She said it every time someone told me I was cute or pretty or attractive. Mother always said that she was afraid for me. She was afraid that men would take advantage of me. She was afraid that I would be proud of my beauty.
Sometimes I thought Mother was jealous. She had never been very pretty. Mostly, though, I was just angry. And it didn’t take long for me to show her just how powerful a woman’s beauty could be.
Twenty years, five husbands and a lover later, I was walking down the road toward Jacob’s well. The well was about a half mile from our little village of Sychar. I had a six gallon water jar on my head. I was on the lookout for anyone at the well. I preferred to go alone.
No, that’s not really true. I was alone because no other women would go with me. Decent women went in groups to the well in the early morning or early evening. I had no friends, and my family was ashamed to be seen with me in public. People thought I was guilty of adultery…or worse.
As I got closer to the well, I saw a man sitting there. “Great!” I thought to myself. “Will I get abused or insulted?” Those were my options.
“Give me something to drink!” he said. Typical man—expecting some woman to wait on him hand and foot. Then I realized he was a Galilean Jew. This could be really bad. Jews treated us Samaritans as traitors, as illegitimate children of Abraham, and as unclean. Usually the Jews passing this way just ignored us. But this time was different.
So I asked him. “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” The Pharisees had a rule about Samaritan women. They said we were perpetually impure—from the cradle to the grave. I assumed that he would berate me or even beat me because I didn’t show enough respect. But what he said next was just confusing.
“If you knew what is really happening here,” he said with a smile, “you would be the one asking me for a drink. And I would give you the water that never runs out.” The water in Jacob’s well never rises to the top. We have to reach down eight feet or more to get to the water. That man had neither bucket nor rope. I figured he was just trying to hustle me for a good time.
I played along for the moment. “Sir, give me this water,” I purred, “so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” I called his bluff. And I waited for the rest of his come-on.
His next words threw me completely off balance. “Go, call your husband and come back.” Without even thinking, I shot back. “I have no husband.” I hung my head. The truth was out. I was completely alone and vulnerable. I just hoped this would be over quickly and that he wouldn’t kill me in the process.
“You are right,” he said quietly. “I know you’ve had five husbands. And you aren’t married to your current man. You have told me the truth about yourself. You are to be commended for that.”
How could he know this? People in the village knew all the dark details of my life. But why would some Jewish stranger know my story? Had he been here all morning? Had the other women gossiped about me as they came to fill their jars? For a moment I felt angry. Then I had another thought.
“Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. My people know about prophets. We worship the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. We know that the Messiah is coming. And when he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” By this time I had figured out who my questioner was. He was Jesus of Nazareth, that Galilean prophet and miracle worker who came after John the Baptist. No wonder that he knew my story!
When I said the word “Messiah,” he slowly stood up. I was afraid I had said something offensive. Instead, he said to me, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
Now I had to sit down on the wall of the well. I felt a little dizzy. I was damaged goods. I was a scarlet woman. I had left a trail of destruction in my life. I was shrouded in shame and lost in loneliness. I spent my days trying to escape my past, seeking to deny my story.
And the Messiah, the Savior of the World chose to reveal himself to…me. To me!
At that moment his disciples came back from the village. They had gone to the local market for some food. I could see the shocked disapproval on their faces. They knew what my mother knew. “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without good sense.” But they didn’t know that Jesus called me to be one who worships God in spirit and in truth.
In that conversation, Jesus changed me from an outsider to an insider. He transformed me from seducer to disciple. Jesus converted me from foe to family member. Jesus moved me from menace to missionary.
Did you notice something? I didn’t think about this until later. Jesus called me “Woman.” This is neither a label nor an insult. Later, Jesus used the same title to address his mother from the cross! He made me part of his family. Me!
I didn’t wait for the disciples to say anything. I left my water jar behind at the well. I knew I was heading back home. I had to go to the village square to share the news. I usually avoided public places. The children shouted insults. The women hid their eyes in disgust. The men made lewd suggestions. Sometimes they threw garbage or even rocks at me.
But not on this day!
The jeering and insults started. “Wait,” I shouted. “Listen to me!” I don’t think they were interested in what I had to say. But they were shocked that I spoke out loud in public. “I just talked to Jesus of Nazareth. And he told me my whole story—everything I had ever done. He knew all the darkness and despair. He knew all the pain and shame. He knew all the fraud and failure. And it didn’t make any difference at all!”
“You mean that Jew didn’t care about another broken-down Samaritan woman?” one of the men shouted. “What’s the news in that?”
“No,” I said quietly. “I mean, he knew it all and loved me anyway. And somehow, that made all the difference. Look at me! My story hasn’t changed, but somehow I have been changed. Only the Messiah could do that! I believe he is the Savior of the World!”
Suddenly everyone was talking at the same time. “She’s finally lost it,” said one. “Come on,” said another, “what really happened there at the well?” Others were not so skeptical. “It’s easy enough to go and find out,” said one of my neighbors. “He’s still sitting there at the well eating lunch. If he talked to her, this Jesus will surely talk to us. Let’s go find out what he has to say about this.”
So they went to the well and listened to the Messiah. I went as well. He talked to them about their stories. He helped them to see how God’s kingdom was coming. And he made it clear that the kingdom was coming for all people—for Jews and Samaritans alike.
They were so impressed that they invited him to stay with us in the village. Jesus of Nazareth was the first Jew to sleep in our village in a hundred and fifty years! He continued to talk and teach. And soon, the others didn’t need to rely on my story. “We have heard for ourselves,” they told me, “and we know that this is truly the Savior of the World.”
Things changed for me. Jesus helped me to own my story—all of it. No longer do I feel like a gold ring in a pig’s snout. I moved out on my own and got my life together. I was in Jerusalem when they crucified our Lord. I thought for a few days that my world had ended. But then came Easter. And my life changed one more time.
I was baptized along with many of the other disciples. I was given the name, “Photina.” The name means, “Daughter of Light.” That’s when my real story began. I traveled to Turkey and to Carthage as a Christian missionary. I was honored to tell my story—the whole story—again and again. Then I was arrested by the Romans.
Here I sit, waiting my turn to die for Jesus. Soon my real story will begin.