the story of the woman of Samaria, as she tells it
‘How can you sleep with a mere man when the Desire of the ages chooses to lodge under your roof?’ This thought, this question, raised me from my bed of sickness, from my sin, and set me on my own feet for the first time in my life. I had always let myself be carried, always wanted to be carried, not where I would have gone, but where my lover of the moment desired to take me. I had no other purpose but to fold into a man, any man, and do his bidding. That’s what women are for after all, isn’t it? We only exist to help our man. Without this mission we have no existence, no right to exist, we are not even alive.
Yes, I had had my share of them, men, even more than my share. My own father found me too choice a morsel to let me go to another before he had his way with me. Why then was he so severe, so merciless, with Avram when he, my first lover, got me with child? It happened within the same moon, besides, so whose was my first-born son, really? Who was the father of my Yosef? Who can know these things but God? And so my father forced the boy to make me his under the canopy of marriage, and denied his womenfolk the chore of checking the sheets for the blood they would not have found.
‘Go, call your husband,’ the strange Jew had commanded me, forcing my mind to swiftly search my heart for an answer, for I had no husband. Avram had not truly loved me, though caught in the net of his beauty, I surrendered my freedom gladly. I should have known better, but I was only a girl. Were other men like my father? I wanted to know, could a man be gentle? I had not much time to find out, for like his namesake, my first husband Avram soon left his father’s house, and me his wife with child, and went to work for his brother in a distant village. To divorce me he did not dare, but I never saw him again.
Perhaps the Jews are right, we Samaritans are all offspring of adultery. Perhaps their rabbis speak the truth when they call us ‘unredeemable’ and ‘unclean,’ a people that cannot change, a race that is born craving what is unlawful, a brood doomed to die in its sins. But what about them, those Jews? The stranger’s words, ‘we worship what we know, for salvation comes from the Jews,’ was he just another self-righteous rabbi? But why did he speak to me, then, a Samaritan, and even worse, a woman? ‘Who is this man?’ I kept asking myself, every moment hope mixing with fear, as a new desire was aroused in me.
Hoping to hide behind the truth spoken as a lie, I answered him, ‘I have no husband,’ but this stranger—I could already sense that here was the man who had always known me, who knows me better than I know myself—this man who asked me for a drink, replied, ‘Yes, that’s right. You have no husband. You’ve had five…’ And for a moment it felt as though my heart stopped, my ears burned for his boldness, my eyes opened as if for the first time. ‘I see, you are a prophet,’ I blurted out without thinking. There was nothing else I needed to tell him about me. Now, I only thirsted to hear him tell me who he was.
He already knew about the others, those men whom need or desire had compelled me to take to my bed. There was nothing, though, of blame in his voice as he told me, ‘and the one you’re living with now is not your husband.’ How could he have known? Something in me was caught, no, released from a net, like a bird set free. Hope spoke again in my heart, ‘He tore the net, and we escaped,’ and I heard myself tell him, ask him—I had never given it a thought before, but now it seemed important—‘our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews say that only in Jerusalem can true worship be offered.’
Why did this come to mind? I was a woman, to whom holy and divine matters are of no importance. That is what men do. They alone are worthy to approach the One, they alone can worship, while we must humbly wait for them behind the wall. We approach the unmade Maker only by being hidden like Eve was hidden in Adam’s side. But this strange Jew, as if he knew the longings of my wounded heart, spoke what no man had ever spoken before, that worship is not what is offered on mountain tops and in temples, and only by men, ‘God is spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth.’
I could not hold back any longer. I put down my water jug—I was holding it tightly against my body without noticing, and it suddenly felt very heavy, like a child within me—and I said, ‘We know that Messiah will someday come and teach us the truth about everything.’ The stranger smiled, looked at me with a love that I had never seen in the eyes of any man, and gently said, ‘I who am speaking to you, I am He.’ I stood there while a shiver ran over me, and then—how long had it been? It seemed like forever—I heard the sound of men’s voices. Some travelers came up and encircled me and that man.
They looked shocked, but they didn’t say anything, at least not while I was there. Suddenly, I remembered myself, ‘I am just a woman.’ I pulled my veil back over my head—I had unmindfully slipped it off while talking to the stranger—and looking down now, I left my water jug and passed through the circle of men. How I wanted to say something to him, to thank him, to look at him looking at me one more time. How I wanted to be carried by him, to go where he would take me, for here was the first real man I had ever seen. I was too excited now to stay or to go, but I knew I wasn’t welcome in this crowd.
Yes, I ran back to the village. ‘Hey, everyone! Come here, quickly! I’ve just met a man at the well who has told me everything I’ve ever done! I think he must be a prophet, maybe even the Messiah. Come and see!’ I ran to my house, fetched my boys Yosef and Ezri, and told the man who was living with me, ‘He knows all about us!’ Pinchas snarled, ‘Woman, what are you babbling about? Where’s the water?’ I dared to ignore him, and ran out with my boys to join the other villagers who were already taking the road downhill. I didn’t look back, though I heard him growling behind me, but more and more faintly.
I reached the well after everyone else. When I got there, the stranger was sitting where I left him. I could see that he was some kind of rabbi by the way his disciples regarded him, yes, those men who came up and through whose midst I escaped. No, not some kind of rabbi. As I stood there, far off with my two sons, listening, I knew it was He, the Holy One of Israel, the Messiah, who was speaking. The villagers were engaging Him with their questions and their quests, and they encircled Him closer and closer until they were at His feet, and the closest sat there in the dust, drinking in His words.
The disciples of the Master—for that is what they called him, though I knew more—made as though to depart, and He arose finally to go with them, but my villagers crowded closer and couldn’t keep their hands off Him. I watched from a distance in silence. They were imploring Him to spend the night. They wanted Him to stay with us. ‘We’re only Samaritans,’ I complained to myself, ‘He won’t stay with us, He can’t stay with us. Look at His disciples’ faces. They’re just being patient, but they want Him to go… now!’ As I watched, He looked closely at us, in silence gazing on us, this brood of sinners, then nodded, ‘Yes!’
Cheers and ululation accompanied the procession as we walked back uphill to our village. I followed the crowd at a distance. A kind of shyness had overcome me. Everyone had forgotten all about me, and I was happy with that. My boys tugged at me, though, wanting to go home. I was worried what I might find there when we returned. Would my man beat me, as he sometimes did over trifles? I began to be afraid. The people up ahead had surrounded the Teacher, so I could barely see Him. Suddenly I heard someone call my name, ‘Shulamit! Shulamit! Where’s Shulamit?’ I came out from behind a myrtle tree.
‘Yes, here I am!’ I called back, ‘what is it?’ One of the men—actually it was the headman of our village—broke with the crowd and walked toward me. He had never come to me, let alone speak to me, before. I was a shameful thing in his eyes, not only a weak woman, but a sinful one, and everyone knows, a man should even speak to his own wife no more than is necessary. ‘The Master wants to spend the night at your house. He said that he knows you, and that he wants to stay with one of his own. Aren’t you a Samaritan like us? He’s a Jew, isn’t he?’ A thousand excuses, the man I live with, but I couldn’t tell them.
Torn between fear and joy, my heart lit the path ahead to where it ended at my door, and the Master followed. ‘Who am I to receive Him—some of the villagers were already calling Him the savior of the world—under my roof? I who have slept with… I who am sleeping with… oh, no, where will He sleep?’ The fire of my anxiety was found and quenched by His meek suggestion, ‘Let me sleep here tonight, with your boys. It will do.’ Where was my man? I looked around for Pinchas. ‘Maybe he’s gone out,’ I said to myself with a sigh of relief, ‘but what will I do when he returns?’ A shadow filled the open doorway.
‘You forgot the jug at the well! Didn’t you think our guest would want something to drink? And why haven’t you given him the best berth? We can sleep there in the hay with the boys. There’s plenty of room. Let him sleep in our bed.’ I couldn’t decide what was happening. ‘What had come over him. Had he talked to any of the neighbors? How did he even know? Why wasn’t he angry? He’s never treated me, or a guest, like this before,’ my mind wouldn’t quiet itself. Then, the Master said, ‘No, Pinchas, you and Shulamit keep your bed, but I thank you for your offer.’ In the growing darkness, we all lay down.
That night we didn’t draw the curtain across our corner of the room. Pinchas and I slept side by side as brother and sister. Something had changed in me, and he sensed it. I too could feel a change in him. What had caused it? ‘We know that Messiah will someday come and teach us the truth about everything.’ Those words I said to the stranger at the well would not cease, but flowed through me like a stream of living water. In the coolness of the night, I felt loved, I felt carried in the arms of a real man for the first time, I knew that where He would carry me would be where I never dreamed, yet where I always wanted to go.
No, the man I was living with was not my husband. In the morning of that day he understood it too. He knew for sure that I did not belong to him, nor he to me, but that both of us belonged to Another, to Someone who neither of us ever knew but always wanted. In the night, I had turned to him lying beside me, wanting warmth, wanting touch as my body had ached for years, wanting to be held in a man’s arms, but it was not to be. I had been married to five men, yet knew not love with any, until the One appeared who makes everyone His bride, and forever. Shulamit was enlightened. She was wed at last.