I have an affinity with, a sense of connection to, “the woman at the well,” spoken about in the Gospel of St John; and, recently, she has been cropping up everywhere: from a long and sympathetic dialogue with my lawyer a month ago to the subject of a Bible study, just last week, and several times in between. And having heard her story told, over the years, mostly by clergymen and from a man’s perspective, I am moved to weigh in, today, on how I feel about her.
I will tell you, up front, that I think she has been slandered for generations. Every time I have heard the tale, the man in the pulpit has made her out to be a woman of loose morals, or none at all, and given the impression that she was infamous for having kept – not retained – five husbands: in other words, she was a serial “kip-woman.” I beg to differ. Nowhere in the gospel does it say this. Jesus said to her, and she agreed, that she had had five husbands; which I take to mean, simply, that she had been married five times.
Her sisters might have refused to host another bridal shower after the second one; her mother might have exclaimed, “Again?” when she came home with the news that she was tying the knot a third time; and her dad probably told her to find someone else to “give her away” after husband No. 4. But I don’t see how any of that makes having five husbands a disgraceful thing in a time and culture which held that “marriage is honourable in all and the bed undefiled.”
One of the things I think we fail to take into credit is that this poor Samaritan lady (and I use that word deliberately) was the victim here. These were the days when divorce was the prerogative of men, not women, and when a feller could just write his wife “a bill of divorcement” for something as simple as her cooking being too salty, or through no fault, at all, of her own. Women were chattel, after all: the property, first, of their fathers, who could trade them for cattle or sheep, and then of their husbands, who treated them like cattle or sheep. They had no standing without a man.
And so you can imagine what this sister went through when the first and second spouses “put her away;” how frightened and desperate she might have become when No 3 told her he was packing his things; and the utter panic that would have set in when her fourth mister dropped her off at her parents’ place. I am certain that, with her youth now gone and her looks and figure disappearing fast behind it, she didn’t hesitate when some slimy old toad offered her marriage No 5. Looking at him, she probably thought he’d be grateful to have a wife to rub his warts, and that, this time, finally, she could park her camel for good.
What a nightmare to learn she was wrong yet again! Since women were so cheap and so many fathers wanted to get daughters off their hands, the warty feller probably got a good deal on a younger model and wanted to trade up; hence, divorce No. 5. Now, who, really, can blame this Samaritan divorcee for looking at her reflection one day in the well, and sobbing, in pain and with resolution: “No way! I am not putting myself through that again. I might be open to dating, maybe, but not another man is going to fool me in marriage!”
Where, in that scenario, is there anything to be disgraced by; what is there on which to cast aspersions? As women, isn’t love something we all desire? And when a relationship sours, don’t we all hope that the next one will be the right one? And when even hope is gone, don’t we all vow that the last one was the last one? And, let’s be honest, don’t we all think, usually, that we were the victims in those failed relationships? …Now, having answered “yes” to these four questions, where do we get off judging that poor sister who had so few choices, if any at all, in the way her love life turned out?
I think this sister’s circumstances, rather than censure, call for some pity, some empathy, from us – especially when we see her situation replicated right here, in these modern times, among people we know … or are. Since getting married every time we fall in love is hardly practical, or advisable, these days most of us practice what is called “serial monogamy.” Usually, we have one boyfriend/one man at a time in a relationship that might stretch anywhere between a year and a decade (or more). Many times, we go into the affair hoping it will last forever; and when it ends, we mourn the loss of the partner and the passing of the relationship. Yet, it doesn’t stop us from moving on, in time, to do pretty much the same thing again with a new man, and then another, sometimes making children with one or two along the way. For women are known to be nesters, and not hunters; we seek union, stability, family. And if these things are not to be found here, then we will look there in order to find them. And what is wrong with that?
I once loved a feller whom I thought was “the one.” For three years we had barely a disagreement and each thought we were the other’s future – until year No 4. Following that break-up, and since, I have met and loved other men, and, again, could see a long tomorrow with at least one of them. But tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet and so I am still in today. Still, I know I will get to the point where, like the Samaritan sister with the misters, I will stop imagining a future and will “settle,” if you will, for having a present – because women do get to the point of diminishing returns and decide not to bother.
We see women at that point, and past it, all around us. Some will say, “Oh poh! Me can’t bother with man, now!” and they will sublimate their desires, their longings, their love, in other pursuits, whether gardening, cooking, charity work, or, particularly, the church. And it is in the latter place, regardless of what drove them there initially, that scores and hundreds and thousands of women finally, finally, meet “the man,” the man who never disillusions, who never disappoints, who never leaves. After the five serial boyfriends, or the one husband and the four stand-ins, women “come to see” the man who knows everything they did and who loves them in spite of it.
And I think this should be the focus of the story, and of those who make up stories, about the Samaritan woman: That she was no better and certainly no worse than the rest of us, and that all she was seeking – and, thank God, she found – was love.