The dusty desert sun slipped in through the eastern window at my feet. The tingling, balmy feeling at my toes awakened me with subtlety and strength. I breathed out a silent sigh in hopes of wriggling free of the dingy room without waking Ze’ev. He coughed hoarsely as my motion stirred him. Relief washed over me when his large form shifted and then continued to snore. Descending the stairs to the stables, I set the hens scuffling and clucking; the ewe shifted to tuck her lamb in closer to her breast;, the milking goat bleated in objection to my morning chores. I felt the objection too. She knew as well as I that our day lay scripted before us.
I opened the doors to the stable and spread out the feed on the ground before the pecking chicks. It was one of my favorite parts of the monotonous day. The desert air that is stifling in the afternoon was crisp and pure at first morning’s light. I breathed it in deeply and enjoyed the emptiness that fills it. I was awake and out the door tending to the animals before any of the other women in our neighborhood. Ze’ev would remind me that it is because I have no children to nurse through the night but I pushed the accusation aside. He had known what he was bargaining for when he settled with Baram to take me in. Truly, life with Ze’ev was better than it had been with Baram. Baram never even allowed me my early morning moments to relish the loneliness and enjoy my strange, sad peace. With Baram, there had been a fixed ceremony to wifely subordination to begin each day. Like the cruel taxation of an overseer who relentlessly takes from the farmer who tills seedless and rocky soil, Baram stripped me and plunged for seed day-after-day, hoping to pluck a son up off our bloodied bed sheets.
The involuntary recalling of the memory of that other life jolted me. I felt my face flush as shame and rage warred inside of me. The two tempests fought an endless battle. Anytime I opened my heart to emotion, the war they waged clawed its way out. My face burned red and my stomach dropped, twisting and turning. I leaned over the side of the stable gate and hurled all my emotions into the splotch of green growing there. I would not remember Baram anymore. He was as dead to me as I was to him. I gave him no son and I had been sold like the slave he taught me to be.
I looked up to see my neighbor, old lady Anushka, peeking her head out the upstairs window at the noise of my retching. I didn’t even have to squint through the dim light to feel her eyes roll with disdain. Anushka was routinely the second woman to wake on our street. Her home was bustling with grandchildren and daughters-in-law who needed her help at all times. She disapproved of Ze’ev for taking me in when his wife died last year. To her I was just a promiscuous companion for an old man. Like all the other women of this town, she knew my evil deeds but could never fathom my most inward thoughts.
“Beulah!” The call from above was easily identifiable as Ze’ev’s rough voice. “The cheese for my breakfast?” Today was Shishi. While I prepared for Shabbat, it was Ze’ev’s favorite ritual to finish our bread for the week with goat cheese and fig preserves. The distractions of my memories had made me late to prepare breakfast for Ze’ev. Quickly, I prepared his plate, kissed his forehead as a sign of blessing and gathered my things for the market. He knew where my trip to the market would take me, but he did not care or complain because I still gave him all he desired in a wife.
The dusty Roman road that wound through town to the marketplace was still sparse as I walked. The women of town were walking the opposite direction, to the well, to gather their water. The daughters went today too. More water was required on Shishi to prepare for Shabbat and to refrain from making a trip to the well the next day. Only Yahweh separated water from land. We did not take from the well on Shabbat out of reverence for Yahweh.
As the women and young girls traveled to the outskirts of town in the cool of the morning light to carry their loads of water, my feet found their way on cold cobblestones as I neared the market. Arek turned out of his house just as I passed. He turned away from me with a sour expression on his face, as if the stench of my sin followed me. It was far beneath the priest to walk beside a sinner like me. Iakovos and his son Iaokim crossed to the other side of the street, looking down at their feet as they walked briskly by. They saw my bodily shame as if it were the tunic I wore on my back. I knew they feared that if they touched it they too would be unclean. And, perhaps, that was not so bad a situation to be in—no one else would touch me or take from me if they feared me enough.
I meandered through the marketplace, slowly wondering if my visit might possibly be quick and innocent today. I gathered spices from a man I did not recognize and was grateful for his unwitting kindness to take the money from my hand without hesitation. Slowly I moved toward the olive stand. I saw a young boy of only eight or nine filling orders for customers. My heart skipped a beat with the elation of freedom; perhaps my meeting for today would go unfilled and I could return to Ze’ev from a journey into town as a good wife should. A large tanned hand reached out from behind the curtain and moved the boy by the shoulder. Suddenly, a tall, handsome man, with deep and dark set eyes was standing in the boy’s place. Every part of me knew that I should shudder at the way he looked at me, but I could not keep the wincing smile from my lips.
Aden whispered something into the tent and then returned to meet my eyes again. His subtle motions told me that the alley behind the olive stand would be our rendezvous point for today. For all the men who had taken from me and been taken from me, there was a sense of security that came from knowing that at least I gave myself to Aden willingly and he could not be taken from me because he did not belong to me to begin with. I pushed away the nagging thought that his wife must not feel the same way, but I had played the part of the woman left in the dark at home before; it was my turn to play the desired mistress of delight.
Later, I returned to Ze'ev, stained with the smell of spices and olives, just before the midday sun pushed through the thatches of our roof. I poured the final ounces of water into the kettle above the stove and stoked the fire to set the water toward boiling. Climbing to the roof, I turned the fruit and grape leaves over to dry. Descending again, I gathered the old, rough yoke from its store place above the door. I pulled and tugged on the metal and rope to adjust the water jugs into place at both ends. Hurtling the yoke up onto my shoulders with a force only the menace of suppressed guilt can employ, I set off down the dirt road that leads out of town.
Sweat dripped down my neck and agitated the place where bone and skin and the splintered wood of the yoke all meet. This is the easy leg of the journey, I thought. I walk to the well with jugs that are empty, but I will have to carry them home full. Full and empty, the exchange made at the well. I used to dream of this beautiful picture once, as a young girl, singing songs and telling stories with the other women as we walked.
She made the servant stay
As she, her first act of service
Watered camels till midday.
Leaving fatherland she went by faith
To capture Isaac’s heart
And save for Jacob the lion’s share
Of the blessing we now know in part.
as innocent as a lamb
A shepherdess by heart and trade
She gathered up Jacob’s hand.
With beauty and with grace
Rachel guarded what she gave
And brought up Joseph to be
the leader of the land.
By flight of Pharaoh Moses flew
To the desert bird of song
Whose shepherding ways, to the Egyptian, were so new
With wisdom and with haste
Quick Zipporah saved
By water and by blood
Before Moses ever walked beside the waves.
The daughter of Caleb
By discernment she asked for springs of water
In the land of the Negeb.
Flowing wells of victory
All these women found
Our mothers taught us it is from Eve
That life springs forth and abounds.
As an innocent girl, I had hoped when Father had secured for me a marriage to noble Adnet that my story would be as virtuous and victorious as the pleasant tales I had heard of women like Rachel or Rebekah. It had taken only a few months before Adnet and I both knew that my body would not bear children. After a long and painful year, wrecked with tears, I watched from the hillside as he took Tamara as his second wife. It was still many more years before the strife and jealousy won out and I was cast aside and into Jedidiah’s house.
Jedidiah had read to me from the Law every morning and every night. It seemed so strange to me that he had delighted in calling me his inquisitive wife. Even now, I squirmed under the yoke as I thought of his shining smile patiently beaming at me as I tried to read the words on the scroll. He had been so kind, so gentle, so unassuming. We were mismatched. I was already deeply aware of how used and worthless I was. I felt the stares of pity wherever we went. I had really tried to believe his kindness was true but my own inadequacy shaded my every thought. And so, one day, like the woman whose name was missing in the well-song, I ran. Like Hagar, I ran. I ran until his kindness was outdone by shame. I ran until I knew the law would not let him take me back. I ran until the only one who deserved me was the wicked Baram.
Lost in the thought, I stumbled into the shaded canopy that hung loosely over the well. Setting down the heavy yoke and letting my eyes adjust to the dimmer light I noticed a shady figure coming toward me. In a panic I rushed to begin my work with downcast eyes. The man drew close and said, “Give me a drink.” Timidly, I met his strong gaze and took in his features. He was not handsome but simple, ruddy in appearance. His nose, his eyes, the olive tone of his skin, the blue threads at the corner of his tunic gave him away—he was a Jew.
“How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” I asked in reply. A sly smile stretched across his face. I saw a hint of Jedidiah’s same kindness behind his eyes and I winced, unwittingly. He caught my fumble and, with a knowing look, said, “If you knew the gift of God, and, who it is that is saying to you ‘Give me a drink’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
Setting my water jug down, I stumbled backward a step. I kept my gaze fixed on him but I needed to take him all in; I needed to be sure I am not in danger—that this was not a holy man in front of me here. It was as if he knew my mind had just been traversing Hagar’s story. It was as if he wanted me to ask him if he was the angel of the Lord who offered her life and water. Who was this man? The one she called El Roi—the one who sees? Was he a danger to a woman like me?
“Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep.” I said from a safe distance away. “Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.”
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The calmness with which he said the words astonished me. His words sounded like absurd metaphors, some sort of poetic polemic of a madman. I wondered if there was a way for me to shrink away unnoticed. Perhaps if I challenged him, he would leave.
“Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” With a knowing glance, he stepped closer to meet my challenge. “ Go.” he said with authority. “Call your husband and come here.”
I thought of Ze’ev waiting for me to return. I thought of Aden whom I had known just this morning, whose own wife had been here earlier in the day. Did she meet this same man? Does he know all about the part of my life that I most want to keep secret? With breath rising in me like wind in a sail I said, “I have no husband.”
“You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband;’ for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.”
I staggered for breath as the wind was knocked from me. Many in town knew rumors of my shame. They did not trust me, they would not look at me. But this man! This man had told me what I had done. He had looked me in the eye. He was inviting me to know something more. “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.” I said, ever so slowly. “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”
Almost interrupting me, the man said, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know, we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
Words spilling from my mouth, I said, “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes he will tell us all things.”
My heart pumping wildly, I waited for his reply. I already knew what he would say. I could see the truth of it on his beaming face. “I who speak to you am he.”
I felt my face radiating, glowing, just like his in this moment. We stared at each other for a quick, unspoken exchange. As his company of travelers ascended the hill toward him, bewilderment slapped across their faces, a giggle bubbled up from deep inside of me. I looked from the man, to his companions, to the town beyond. Like a young calf, impulse took over me. With a screech of joy, and a laugh of elation, my legs carried me at bolting speeds off toward town. “Come, see the man who told me all that I ever did!” I yelled off into the distance. With a force much greater than that which compelled me to run from Jedidiah all those years ago, I ran back to the marketplace, past the ruinous place where I’d met Aden on the street that morning. People stopped and stared, they gathered around this wild woman. I could see the questions on their faces. Emerging from the crowd, Ze’ev came toward me.
I panted, catching my breath to prepare to tell him my full confession when he raised a hand in concern. “Beulah, where is the yoke? Where are the water jugs?”
I took him by the hand. “Ze’ev, I left my yoke at his feet. Come, meet the one who is the Christ.”
Cover image by Erin Randle.