It is important to the story to understand the significance of walking out of town and to Jacob’s well in the heat of the midday sun.
People certainly would have gone to Jacob’s well for water, even with a well in town, because here was the best and sweetest water in the area. But why go now, when others were resting in the shade, having saved such labors for either the cool of the morning, or the wind of late afternoon?
Most commentators have logically concluded the woman wanted to avoid other people, and wanted this because she had what is euphemistically referred to as “a reputation.” This last is based upon information Jesus revealed to her towards the end of their conversation. And, like most everyone else, I bought into the general idea she was a “loose woman” who had “gotten herself into trouble” and was therefore something of a social pariah.
That is to say, until one afternoon when I was perusing my husband’s home church’s new recipe book, just published by the women’s Bible study group. As I was leafing through it, my husband came to look over my shoulder, and pointed to a name at the top of one of the pages.
“You know, that lady has been married three times.” He said it in just the right kind of voice, the frisson of a sly hint of scandal.
I, of course, responded in just the way he had hoped. My eyes widened, I gasped, and I clutched my pearls. “No!” I mean, after all, this was a church recipe book, from a small town, Midwest America.
“Oh yes,” he said, grinning from ear-to-ear. “She’s my grandma.”
Well, this was unexpected! I felt embarrassed, and ashamed of myself for jumping to conclusions about her character and lifestyle. I had pictured this unnamed woman with chipped nail polish, a feather boa, a smoking cigarillo balanced between browned teeth and bright red lips, and a tumbler of whiskey poured neat and to the rim. (Old t.v. westerns’ version of a “fallen woman.”)
What had happened?
Her first husband had died young and unexpectedly of a heart attack. Her second husband had gotten cancer early in their marriage. And her third husband, whom she also survived, had been even older than she when they had married.
See what happened there?
So, I have re-imagined this woman, living in the small town of Sychar, named for Joseph’s tomb nearby. In the following—imagined—tale, I offer five possible ways she would have honorably lost five husbands, why she might be living with a man who was not her husband, and how the pain those experiences might have etched deeply into her soul.
[Reading this story is a commitment! (it is long.) If you would like to skip to the end, I offer a brief list of possibilities that could have left a woman without a husband in ways over which she had no power.]
Even in the dawn hours, when the air is at its coolest, she could feel the heat pushing against the east wall of their small home. She briefly weighed her options. She could draw hard water at the town well, and deal with the women there, or she could walk the half-mile to Jacob’s fresh sweet water well, outside of town. Alone.
It would be a hot walk. With a heavy jar.
Mentally shrugging, already knowing which she would choose, she rolled out of bed and padded to their storeroom. She would prepare some barley flatcakes for their breakfast, grind some flour, then get the water. They already lived closer to the village’s edge, so it would be an easy matter to slip mostly unnoticed, pass through the gate, and be down the road.
The day drew on as so many days did. He woke later than she, scratched and spit, felt for her in their bed, then heaved himself up to begin the day. A quiet man with simple needs, she appreciated his company, and remained grateful to him for taking her in when her last husband had put her out. Using her shoulder to wipe a tear away as she ground their barley, she tried to forget that recent, painful memory.
I’m still young, she though. Young enough I might yet have children. There had been a pregnancy, early on, with her first husband. She had been only a girl! just entering her womanhood when her parents had concluded her betrothal, made when she was a child, with the son of long-time friends. It would be a bonding of two families to now bring forth another generation of friends through life. But her young husband had not been strong.
When sickness swept through their home, so that everyone was weakened, she had been left with the care for her small nieces and nephews, and the elderly ones.
The sickness had taken its toll, for their baby had not survived to birth, and though her husband had lingered, frail and now unable to work, he, too, had died. Her husband’s brother, the only remaining son, was to offer her yibbum that his brother might have an heir, and she a home. But he was not willing.
They performed the ceremony of halizah before the elders at the town gate, she crying real tears as she removed her sandal before them, and uttered “This is what is done.” No one in the village blamed her. But there were no other suitors, either.
Why am I remembering these things, she asked herself. The old pain stirred up the new pain of her abandonment, and she used her shoulder again to wipe another tear away.
She had had to move back in with her parents, though they had at first refused. God help us, they said, how can we afford you, too? But it would have brought even more shame to the family had she turned to the streets for bread and board. One of her father’s widowed friends had finally taken pity, and they quietly signed the marriage contract, without feasting. But he had been old. Before long, she was twice a widow.
At least there had been an inheritance for her, or so she thought, until his adult children came to claim their property, her home and all the things she had thought were hers. There was little room for pity from them. And once again, she found herself with her parents. Even in her sorrow and shame, she understood their displeasure. Her brothers had their wives, now. They and their children and their animals all took space. The harvest would feed them, but there was not much to spread to yet another hungry belly.
And so it was, with no inheritance, no dowry, and no children to tie her to the families of her now dead husbands, the only option left was servitude.
Her parents offered her as an indentured slave to whatever household might accept her. Thankfully, her skills and young body made her an attractive prospect, and she was soon grinding flour and baking bread for a sprawling, extended family who had settled there centuries before. In true Samaritan spirit, they welcomed the homeless, aided the widow, and fed the foreigner. God bless that family.
She remembered with a smile their young heir. She had caught his eye, and he had desired her, though she was somewhat older than he. In keeping with their ancient law, the family had given her to him as a wife, though he would also enter into a proper contract for marriage with a family from another village nearby. Sadly, when that wife had given birth to their healthy, happy son, it was not long before her own favor waned. A year later, and he was giving her her severance, and sending her on her way.
She had been given again, this time to a man who was looking for an obedient wife. He had been displeased with his others. Following the teaching of Beit Hillel, he had written each a divorcement: “She did not have a good smell.” “She was slow to obey.” “She ate too much.” Ordinarily, she would have had a say, and she had never liked this man. But, her parents reminded her, she was in no position to choose. He had offered mohar for her, and they would take it. It was a marriage contract. It meant she would have a home.
But, of course, it was not long before she was knocking on her parents’ door again, her own divorcement in hand. “She has no smile.” No, her father said. You are cursed. We are done with you. Where had she to turn? They finally settled on allowing her to stay for a few months, through the spring and summer harvest, and the late planting, but then she would have to find something else. No one said what that would be. As the time drew near, she agreed to become a nearby landowner’s fourth wife. Her youth had appealed to him, and his other wives had not produced a son.
Two years later, she was still without child. She thought perhaps it was his age. He claimed she was barren. He did not want her to stay, he wanted a woman who would bear him a son.
The heat had now seeped into their house and filled the courtyard with an oppressive weight. The cakes, lying as they were on a flat stone in the sun, had hardened. Taking them with her flour-dusted hands, she walked back into the relative cool of their middle room, where he was readying clay to throw into some bowls and juglets. Beside him already was a cup of wine. As he took a cake from her, he said, “I need water.”
She knew it. The clay had to have plenty of water in order to be worked. He had poured all the rest of their sweet water into the bowl beside him, though the jug filled with town water stood nearby. Water to drink, to mix with the wine, must be sweet, or the man would be displeased. She nodded, pulled her veil over her head, wearily picked up their empty water jar and headed for Jacob’s well. Even as she walked past the village gate, though, she was startled by a crowd of Judean men striding towards her town. Afar off, she could see a lone figure sitting on the well’s edge.
All of these scenarios happened in first century Palestine. If you follow the links embedded in the story above, you can read some of the research for yourself.
- To lose a husband through illness, age, or accident.
- To be forced out of the marital home because no child has been born, and the dead husband’s brother(s) was unwilling to follow through with levirate law (which was to either marry the widow, or, to at least provide her with a child to carry on the dead man’s name and inheritance).
- To be sold as an indentured slave, then be married to the family’s son. The Torah specified terms of divorce if the son married another woman and liked her better.
- The House of Hillel allowed men to divorce their wives for any reason.
- Polygamy was practiced even among the so-called middle classes.
- Being taken in as a servant—or slave—was not uncommon, and one of the very few options available to liminal women, women who had no place or role in society, such as widows.
- For men to sleep with their slaves was also not uncommon, as slaves were not counted as persons. It is one possibility as to why the woman at the well was ‘living with’ a man who was not her husband.
 British explorers quoted a medical missionary, Dr. H.J. Bailey: “The respective qualities of various supplies of water are a favourite topic with Easterners, and in a hot climate, where other beverages are almost unknown, the natives are great connoisseurs. From the nature of the soil the springs at Nablus are mostly of very hard water, ‘heavy’ as the natives say. Not unjustly they attribute many of their complaints to this, and long for the ‘light’ waters of Gaza and other places. Now Jacob’s Well has among them the repute of containing cool, palatable, refreshing water, free from the deleterious qualities of their other supplies. Frequently I have been told that after a hearty meal (which with them is appalling) a draught of this water will disperse the feeling of abnormal fulness in a short time. The fountain at El-‘Askar gushes from the limestone of Mount Ebal, and is of particularly hard or ‘heavy’ water. ….It is not uncommon in the East to send a great distance for drinking water, especially among those who can afford to do so.” [Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly, 1897, p. 149 ff., quoted in G.A. Smith, pp. 245-46]
[The woman at the well | The LUMO Project, http://www.freebibleimages.org]