Journey to the Well
In the tradition of empowering spiritual writers such as Ilanya Vanzant, Bishop Vashti McKenzie offers women a Christian path to personal transformation. A groundbreaking preacher who, in 2000, became the first woman to serve as bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Bishop McKenzie is renowned for her eloquence and passion in the pulpit. Now she brings her inspirational message to readers through the biblical story of the meeting at the well between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. In twelve lessons, McKenzie interweaves the Samaritan woman's experiences with contemporary personal stories, Bible quotations, life-affirming sayings, and meditational activities. Through them she shows women that if they hold onto hope and listen for their moments of epiphany, they can accomplish anything.
A Woman with One Hope
But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
Who hopes for what he already has?
The gospel writer John tells the story of the woman of Samaria in John 4:4-30, 39:
It was about the sixth hour. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, "Will you give me a drink?" (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
The 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.)
Jesus 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."
"Sir," the woman said, "you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are 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?"
Jesus answered, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but 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."
The 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."
He told her, "Go, call your husband and come back."
"I have no husband," she replied.
Jesus said to her, "You are right when you say you have no husband. The 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."
"Sir," the woman said, "I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem."
Jesus declared, "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet 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. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth."
The woman said, "I know that Messiah" (called Christ) "is coming.
When he comes, he will explain everything to us."
Then Jesus declared, "I who speak to you am he."
Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, "What do you want?" or "Why are you talking to her?"
Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, "Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?" They came out of the town and made their way toward him.
Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I ever did."
The Samaritan woman, on a mission to get water from Jacob's well, is down to her last hope. She walks toward the well at the hottest time of the day, avoiding people, heat penetrating the ordinary weave of her robe, her face covered in adherence to her tradition's codes, and her eyes lowered in accordance with her culture's norms. All alone, she steps through swirls of dust as her hands clutch an empty clay pot carrying one hope: the hope that one day things will change. In spite of having five failed relationships, having no one to count on, having few remaining relationship options, male or female, and having one last hope-that one day things will change-she keeps going. She holds on to her one last hope. She takes the journey and continues with her regular, routine responsibilities. She goes to the well, where she encounters Jesus, and on this most ordinary of errands, something extraordinary happens, and her life is transformed.
The story we find in John 4 is about a woman who took a journey to get a drink of water. She went back home without the water she had come for, but received Living Water that changed her heart, mind, and spirit. She left her water pots at the well, returning to town with an opportunity and purpose to preach one sermon: "Come see a man who told me everything about myself."
Several weeks before my due date, I was a woman with one hope. I went into full labor on the highway 150 miles from the hospital where I had planned to have my baby. In those moments of excruciating labor, my one hope was to get home to the hospital I was familiar with, and the medical professionals I knew and trusted with the delivery of this child. Since the baby from our previous pregnancy had died six weeks before the due date, I was praying this pregnancy through especially hard, while tackling the responsibilities of being a minister leading two churches. As I rushed toward the hospital, I was down to my last hope.
We all have a hope, we all have longed-for dreams, ideas, visions, and beliefs that keep faith alive in our hearts (Hebrews 11:1, KJV). The Samaritan woman's story is our story, and our story is the same as the stories of the rainbow women of many different hues who live all over the world. They speak different languages, adhere to different traditions, and are from many nations, clans, tribes, and environments, but all share the same hope: that one day things will change. We each carry our pots of hope to the well searching for enough water to sustain our hopes, and daily, like the Samaritan woman, we shoulder our water-toting responsibilities, making the necessary trips to the well. We all hope for what we do not have-for who hopes for what they already have (Romans 8:24-25)? We hope for solutions to problems that won't go away; cures for the curses of modern life; resolution for our conflicts and reconciliation in relationships that drive us to the edge of sanity. We begin the journey to our wells in hope, even though we are in danger of being victims of hit-and-run accidents. The ongoing challenges of our lives do not abate, even while we are on the journey to the well. We may be hit hard and run over, pushed to the side like roadkill waiting for the appropriate agency to dispose of our bodies.
Like the Samaritan woman who is down to her last hope and has no one to turn to, we too can be moved by our one hope as we carry on with our responsibilities in the midst of trials; get ourselves to the well; and have transformational experiences with the Creator. In this chapter, as our hearts and minds are drawn into the world of this woman from Samaria, we will explore what it means to be down to our last things, our one last hope-in fact, sometimes holding on to the very idea of hope-then getting to the well, experiencing transformation, and, finally, celebrating the woman each of us is becoming, a woman of hope waiting patiently for what we do not have.
WHAT ARE YOUR LAST THINGS?
Sometimes we're down to our last ounce of energy, our last surviving coping skill. We've all had bad days: completing an assignment with the flu, feeling disappointed and still getting up every morning to feed the children and get them to school on time, falling down emotionally and getting up the best you can as soon as you can, moving forward because the show must go on. How many times do we rise above our fears, problems, and circumstances to do the tasks assigned to us as women, and to us as people? We learn to work through colds, fever, depression, gossip, flu, divorce, separation, death of loved ones, and physical and emotional upheavals to complete assignments and responsibilities. Meanwhile, the one hope no one asks us about is being carried close to us, like the pot the Samaritan woman carries to Jacob's well. We carry our hopes around with us day in and day out. No one asks about our empty water pots, no one talks to us about our hopes, and frankly no one really cares. Sometimes we almost feel too tired to keep carrying those empty water pots. Sometimes it seems as though however much we do, the only things the people around us care about are: Did we get enough water for today, or did we cook dinner, clean the house, settle the children, type the report, check the e-mail, pay the bills, stop at the grocery store, the cleaners, or the video rental store? Did we make the beds, walk the dog, write the thank you note, clean up the mess, complete the presentation, and return the telephone calls? Did we do what we were supposed to do? Did we take care of business? Did we take care of their needs? Even if you somehow do all that and feel you can organize your life in such a way as to leave no room for the unexpected, still, you may find one day that you of all people are down to your last something.
You can store extras of everything tangible and create sophisticated backup systems only to discover that one day, in spite of all your efforts and investments you find yourself down to your last something. Some last things you may want in your life: paying the last mortgage payment, making the last car payment, being down to the last cigarette, or changing that last diaper. Last things can be both positive and negative. When they are positive they carry a sense of hope, but when they are negative it can be devastating. When my mother died without warning on a sunny April Sunday afternoon, I felt all hope had left me. The one who had known me longer and better than anyone else in this world was no longer here for me. How was I going to carry on with life's responsibilities without her? My one hope was that I would somehow find the strength and the will to do what needed to be done. Mom and I had talked the night before and she had shared with me her thoughts about the annual conference we had just attended. She had attended every one since I had become a pastor in the early 1980s, and she always stood by my side, along with my husband, as I nervously reported on behalf of the people of whatever congregation I was serving at the time. She was always a supportive presence in the lives of my brother and me. Now she was gone without one last good-bye. I would not be able to say "I love you" one more time, not be able to hug her one more time; there would be no more sharing of secrets, confidante conversations, morning tea, or midnight chats. Every Monday morning, I had visited mother after dropping the children off at their schools or completing my early-morning shift at WEBB radio. It was a mother-and-daughter teatime of sharing. There were times, I admit, when panic took charge of life and mother would have to remind me to "Act first, panic later." At these times my mother would repeat my sermons back to me; preachers need to be preached to sometimes.
Now the one who knew me best was no longer active in my life. The one who observed all the transitions in my life was no longer visible-only her echoing words: Act first, panic later. But I could not act. I felt cheated that there were no lingering bedside chats, no role reversals, and no long good-byes. It was over; the present had become the future, and a future without my mother lay before me. Action was no longer a viable option and panic was in control, becoming the operative modality from which all decisions were made: the funeral arrangements, flowers, Omega service of her sorority, wake, influx of family, hosting and feeding guests, wills, social security, the cancellation of whatever was going on in our lives, and being strong for others. I was in danger of postponing the grief just to get through the day, promising myself, "Tomorrow I will deal with this unexpected upheaval in my life." I was in a state of panic, not faith. And there was more. A handful of seniors died in my congregation following my mother's death. For the next few months I was going from home to hospital to mortician to church to yet another grave site. At each death I relived my mother's passing with the family, crying with each remaining family member, grieving over each death as if it was my mother's. Finally, I told God I had had enough. How could I be there for someone else's family when I could barely be there for myself? How could I minister to someone else when I needed someone to minister to me? In the afterglow of memories, I again heard my mother's voice, "Act first, panic later."
I was in a wilderness just as dry as the barren desert sands that the Samaritan woman journeyed through on that fateful day in Palestine. Her life was out of control. I too felt my life was beyond my control. What I thought I knew, I really didn't. What used to work was no longer working. Just as the Samaritan woman's one hope was that one day things would change, I now hoped that I would survive the latest change. Like the woman at the well, I felt that my life was out of control.
The Samaritan woman's life was out of control, but she also knew that she had to still take care of her own responsibilities. She was probably the city's "pass around girl"-every man got a turn. What she really needed to do was work on her life but she had to go to the well in order to survive. Water retrieval was a necessary task, a task that was generally assigned to women. Cities grew up around water sources, families came together or broke apart in disputes over water, and nations went to war, and will probably continue to do so, because of the value of water in a dry land. Water was needed for cooking, washing utensils and clothing, and for the planting, growing, and harvesting of crops. Water was needed to satisfy the parched dry throats of both humans and animals and to sustain life. Women were required to rise as early as necessary to retrieve the liquid resource that assured the continuation of life: It was a woman's job, her duty and responsibility, to get the water; no matter what was going on in her life she still had to fetch water on a daily basis.
The Samaritan woman was not the first woman in the Bible to wrestle with last things. The Old Testament book of 1 Kings 17 describes how the widow of Zarephath was down to her last ounce of oil and her last grains of meal. She cared for herself since she had no husband or grown son to provide for her. She was resigned to the fact that she had reached the bottom of the barrel. A famine plagued her land; a famine that the prophet Elijah had predicted to King Ahab. A drought would occur that would last about three and one-half years. This meant there would be no rain, no planting, and no harvest to replenish her food supply, and so she planned to fix her last meal with the remaining oil and die. Last things for her meant death because she had stopped seeking answers. When faced with her last things, she did not even hope for the unexpected or for Divine intervention.
The prophet Elijah knew something about last things too. When he was obedient to Yahweh and predicted a famine, he was rewarded with the anger of King Ahab and forced to flee the king's control. He was beyond King Ahab's jurisdiction but he was not beyond the provisions of God. While Elijah stayed in the Transjordan at a brook called Cherith, God commanded the ravens to feed him twice daily. Every day Elijah was down to his last meal, and twice daily he was down to his last supply of food. Every day, twice a day, God provided just what Elijah needed to survive. When the brook dried up, God sent Elijah to the widow of Zarephath to be fed, but she herself was down to her last oil and meal. It is often in the midst of last things that we are able to see the handiwork of God and find a provision that can only be attributed to God, not to intellect, education, employment, family, or friend. It is at our dried-up brooks and streams where we learn that God can still do more than we asked for (Ephesians 3:20). When Elijah faced that last meal and last trickle of water flowing through the brook at Cherith, God's voice directed him to a woman who was wrestling with her last things. "Go at once to Zarephath of Sidon and stay there. I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food" (1 Kings 17:9). God didn't mention famine or lack of food. Surely this Yahweh, the God that had been faithful to Elijah for nearly one year, feeding him with the help of food-bearing ravens, would continue to be faithful again as he joined this widow who was down to own her last meal. When the prophet Elijah arrived he asked her to prepare him a meal from her last supply of oil and meal. For her this meant that the last things would not be for her own personal consumption, and naturally the widow resisted by stating her lack of provision. But Elijah persuaded her to first fix him a cake, and then to make a meal for herself and her young son. He assured her that God would not allow her supply of meal and oil to run out until God returned rain to the land (1 Kings 17:14). The widow made the cake and served it to the prophet, and as she kept making meals and giving away her last things she discovered that what was supposed to run out did not. She had enough for herself, her son, and the prophet. God had met all of their needs with her last things.
There are similarities between the widow of Zarephath and the woman at the well. The names of both women are lost in antiquity and they are identified only by their location: one in Zarephath in Sidon and the other by a well near Sychar. The widow was a Gentile and the woman at the well was a Samaritan-both were considered outside the covenant of God, yet both were instruments used by God to save or assist others. The widow was used to sustain the prophet Elijah; the woman at the well was used to ignite a revival in Sychar. The prophet Elijah interrupted the widow's famine, in the same way Jesus the Christ of Nazareth interrupted the spiritual famine of the Samaritan woman and her community. God took what the widow had and multiplied it; Jesus took the woman at the well and transformed her. The widow of Zarephath was down to her last things and so was the woman at the well. The widow was down to her last oil and meal; the woman at the well was down to her last hope, her last chance, and at the last place she wanted to see someone: Jacob's well outside of Sychar.
No one bothered to ask the Samaritan woman about her hopes as she carried her one hope with her to the well. It was her last hope. She had to get to the well! She didn't know it yet, but it was her last hope that would change things. She came to the well one day to get water and her life was never the same again. Jesus was at the well, and he offered her water that was filling and satisfying. She had left the city to escape the gossip of those who talked about her less-than-perfect lifestyle, those who participated in her relationship roulette. She was a woman who was passed around to five different men and was living with another outside the legal and cultural tradition of marriage. It was a less than perfect relationship, outside the laws of the community. It was a scandal in her generation, and eyebrows would still be raised in ours. Her lifestyle created an atmosphere where she was uncomfortable with herself and others were uncomfortable with her. But the Samaritan woman returned to the city a new woman, not motivated by her physical needs, but by a spiritual relationship with Jesus Christ. She returned to the city after encountering more than just a man. Jesus only demanded water, but he gave her what every woman wants in life: to belong, to be accepted, and to be valued.
"Bishop McKenzie's 'twelve lesson' journey will take you from stagnation to the elevation of 'Living Water,' from the well of hope." —Dr. Gwendolyn Goldsby Grant
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