Giving Wit and Edginess to the Woman at the Well
When reading the Bible, it’s important to get into the habit of giving faith-filled imaginings to the characters, the monologues, and dialogues offered in the text. As with other literature up until a couple of centuries ago, no hints are given as to the attitudinal tone or volume of anything spoken. When the resurrected Jesus Christ speaks to Mary Magdalen in the garden (John 20: 10-16), it is one word that clarifies for her that she had mistaken him for someone else. That one word was her name.
Just how did the Lord say her name? Was it with a memorable tenderness? Was it whispered? Did Jesus use a slight tone of wonder, as if he was surprised at not being recognized? Read the text and practice saying aloud the various ways Jesus could have said, “Mary.” See if it doesn’t add power to the reading and bring the scene closer to our 21st century existence.
When making decisions about how things were said, we find the courage to make interpretive decisions by making sure we do the work of finding our best understanding of the context and meaning of the text. For in rendering the emotional content of anything spoken by a character in the Bible, we can be confident that there can be many faithful renderings. But we do the work of understanding the context of the reading because we fear providing an unfaithful rendering.
The story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in Sychar, Samaria, is especially ripe for this application. Find the courage and confidence to give the unnamed Samaritan woman a voice and attitude. For years, I’ve given her what I call a “sassiness and sauciness.”
Put yourself in her place. She’s alone, having to lug around a fairly large container to carry her water back to her dwelling. This daily sojourn is further burdened by her being probably shamed—she’s possibly a prostitute—into drawing the water at high noon, a much hotter portion of the day than when the general population would line up in the morning to draw water from this well built by Jacob eighteen centuries earlier.
It’s also important to understand the depth of the enmity between Samaritans and Jews. The region of Samaria was lodged between Judea to the south and Galilee to the north. During this time, Jews would generally walk around Samaria so as to avoid contact with Samaritans.
And then she sees what she knows to be a Jewish man sitting alone by the well. She can tell by his beard, his robe, and it’s easily confirmed by his voice. “Yep, a Jew.” “And he’s asking me for a drink of water?” Give her a voice; give her some sass. As of yet, she has no idea of the dizzying, life-altering conversation she’s about to have with this Jewish stranger who talks to Samaritans, and a Samaritan woman, no less.
“What’s the living water this weird man is talking about? “Yes, I’d like some,” she says somewhat sarcastically, but simultaneously thinking to herself that she especially likes the part about never thirsting again.
Give her some attitude. “Give me some of this living water so I won’t have to come here to this well every day” and then maybe under her breath whispers, “So I won’t have to meet the likes of you.”
And then an extended pause, flabbergasted, after being told to “get her husband.” Agitated, she corrects his misassumption about having a husband.
She then hears him, almost without hesitation, give the startling and frightening assertion in matter-of-fact tones that she’s had “five husbands and the man you’re living with now is not your husband.”
Remember, the biblical text offers no explicit information about vocal tones, quality, and volumes. It also provides no clues about the probability of pauses in dialogue. At this point, in your private and public readings of the story, give her a long, dumbfounded pause with an inner-monologue that eerily wonders how this Jewish stranger got a hold of her diary.
Give her another long pause, moments to arrive at a retort worthy of her wit and demonstrative of her sagely knowledge of contradictory claims about God from two competing cultural systems. So, weird and smart guy, answer me this: “Are we Samaritans right about worshipping God here on Mount Gerezin or are you Jews right in saying that all people must worship God only in Jerusalem? We both can’t be right.”
And again, she is stunned by his answer. When we are stunned by someone’s actions or answers, how do we respond? Imagine her shocked face and, again, in her pause she can’t decide whether to turn away from him in fear and shame or to fix her eyes on his face in awe.
But she finds herself saying something about a long-awaited Messiah who will come and explain everything.
And then, of course, there’s one final shock. With the energy of that climatic revelation, she rockets back to her town and passionately reported to everyone she met, “Come and see the man who told me everything I ever did! Could this be the Messiah?”
He had spoken to her. He knew who she was, stunned her with his insight and startling depth of acceptance. Later, the town would confess after time spent with the same bizarre and powerful Jewish stranger, “We now know that this man truly is the Savior of the world!”
This is one possible interpretation of the tones and attitudes of the woman at the well. What is yours?
Paul D. Patton, Ph.D., is a professor of communication and theater at Spring Arbor University in Michigan. He has graduate degrees in Guidance and Counseling, Religious Education, and Script and Screenwriting, and a doctorate in Communication with an emphasis in theater arts. He has been married to his wife Beth for over forty years and has three daughters (all actresses)—Jessica, Emily, and Grace, three sons-in-law, David, Joe, and Eric, and four grandsons, Caleb Rock, Logan Justice, Micah Blaze, and Miles Dean.