Thirsty

Image credit: Mount Gerizim by Daniel

Milcah rolled over on the mat, taking most of the blanket with her and leaving Simon, who was snoring softly beside her, mostly uncovered. She lay there for a while, curled up comfortably, watching the shadows travel down the wall from the cracks under the heavy wool curtain. A soft breeze blew against them, making the shadows dance like the ripples of wine being poured into a cup.

Based on the shadows and the noise in the street, it had to be close to be close to midday. She groaned and pushed herself upright and onto her feet. She tore herself a piece of bread from yesterday’s loaf and absentmindedly chewed it as she looked herself over in the polished bronze mirror. She smoothed out her hair with her fingers—it had mostly turned gray now, but at least it was still thick, she thought with satisfaction. And no children meant fewer wrinkles: no crow’s feet by her eyes, no lines by her mouth. Milcah was close to 60, but she prided herself that she didn’t quite look it.

She grabbed the water jug and poured it into a bowl. Only a little came out. Milcah splashed it all on her face, especially around her eyes to brighten them. No more water meant another trip to the well. So it goes, she thought. She knew she was going to have to go back there soon. At least it should be quiet at this time of day. None of Martha’s smug looks, or Rachel’s reproachful glares. None of the chitter-chatter gossip; none of the whispers that suddenly got quiet when she drew near.

She pulled on her sandals and her outer robe. As she picked up the heavy clay jug and hoisted it onto her shoulder, she glanced at the wineskins in the corner of the room. Empty too. Simon must have drunk the last of the wine when he came in last night. Of course, she had done her share too, Milcah thought wryly. It would mean her second trip this week to Josiah’s to buy more, but he wouldn’t judge her. Not for all the coin she had put in his purse.

Just the thought of wine made her thirstier. She pushed the door open with her foot and set off toward the well.

The streets were mostly quiet. The farmers were likely tending to their herds or crops; the women were inside with their children or milling wheat or mending garments. Most of the people she saw didn’t seem to notice her; they were all too busy making their own ways to pay any attention. She turned down one street, then another, lost in thought.

The sound of an argument drew her out of herself. Milcah looked up. Not far ahead of her, a group of men were gesturing at each other. She sized them up as she drew near. Jews, she thought. No wonder none of them sounded happy. Jews didn’t come to Samaria often, and when they did they had similar looks of these men; even though at least three of them looked to be fishermen by trade, they were wrinkling their noses as if the air itself had a stench that would sully their souls. As if we did not all have a common father in Jacob. Milcah kept walking forward—no fear of them reaching out to touch her, at least—and looked away, doing her best to ignore the cacophony of voices as she drew closer.

“Will you just—”

“He needs—”

“Fine. Fine! I’ll just ask her. You. You! With the jar!”

Milcah stopped. Had they really spoken to her? She turned to them and glanced up cautiously. Most of them were looking resolutely at anything but her, as if they would become unclean simply by making eye contact. The one who had spoken was wearing the fine linen robes of a student, and she wondered vaguely why he was traveling with fishmongers, of all people.

Still, there were many of them, and they could easily overpower her if they chose. She would play it safe. “Sirs?” she said, demurely looking at the ground.

He didn’t mince words. “Our rabbi is hungry. Where can one buy food in this—town?” From the pause, Milcah could tell that he wanted to use a less favorable word.

“Market Square is eight streets down and to the right,” she said, gesturing with her head. The clay pot pushed into her shoulder; Milcah shrugged it up to shift it back into a more comfortable position. “The baker’s name is Joseph,” she said. “The vintner is Josiah. And if you want meat—”

But they weren’t listening. As one, the men had turned toward the direction she had nodded, without even a single thank you for her assistance. She considered reaching out to touch them just to make them unclean according to their laws, or spitting at their feet, and even went so far as to try to form spit, but her mouth was too dry, and she was painfully reminded of her errand. She shifted the jar to her other shoulder and resumed her walk.

Milcah never had understood why the Jews disliked her people so much. Why, they were in the shadow of Mount Gerizim—the oldest mountain—and the village of Sychar had been founded very near the fields their ancestor Jacob had given his son Joseph; the very well she was heading toward had been Jacob’s own well. And was it not Jacob who received the name Israel from the same Yahweh the Jews worshiped? Really, those men had no right to be so boastful, simply because by chance of birth they had been born in the ruins of the Southern Kingdom of Judah.

For Milcah knew the history, oh yes. Long ago, when she was a very small girl, Milcah’s mother had sat at the edge of the well in the early morning and told her the stories of the prophets of old: of Elisha, who raised the widow’s son; of Elijah, who defied Ashtoreth and Baal (she always liked to pretend that he had stood up to them on this very mountain). Why, was it not Elijah who the Jews were awaiting to herald their Messiah? And would Elijah not have been a Samaritan like her? Milcah chortled deep within her throat as she took the final steps toward the well.

The well was not quite deserted. None of the other women were there, but there was a man, resting against a tree. She eyed him warily. He was another Jew; it was obvious from the tassels on his shawl. He looked to be about half her own age, or maybe a little older, about the right age to be the son she never had. His face was already lined with care, and his skin was slightly burnt from the wind and sun. His eyes were closed. She wondered if this was the Rabbi the Jews had mentioned.

Milcah shrugged and turned toward the well. She had come here because she was thirsty, and no Jew was going to stop her from quenching it. Certainly not a sleeping one.

She set her jar down next to the well and tied a rope to it. Gently she let it down into the dark water, and pull by heavy pull she raised it, filled to the brim with cold water drawn from an underground spring that formed deep within the belly of the holy mountain. She carefully set it on the ground next to the well and dabbed at the sweat on her brow with the sleeve of her robe; the noonday sun was beating down on her, turning her thirst into a torment. She untied a wooden ladle from her belt and dipped it into the water. Pressing it against her lips, she drank greedily, allowing the water to slosh on her face and neck.

“Ma’am, might I please have a drink of water?”

She almost choked, and spit some of the water out. The rest of the water sloshed out of the ladle as she dropped her hand and turned around. The man was still reclining against the tree, but there was a dark glitter now between his lashes.

She sputtered and spit as she tried to form the words. “How is it,” she finally said, “that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” Didn’t you see my lips against the ladle?, she almost added. Didn’t you see how I drank?

The man smiled gently. “If you knew the gift of God, and who I am, you would have asked me for a drink, and I would have given you living water.”

Milcah looked again at his creased face and his reddened skin. Maybe he had become ill from the heat. “Sir,” she said bemusedly, “You don’t have a bucket, and this is a deep well. Where would you get that living water?” She gestured with her ladle at the well. “This well came from our ancestor Jacob. He drank from it, and his sons drank from it, and his livestock drank from it, and it’s been passed down all the way to us. Are you greater than our father Israel himself?”

She wasn’t sure what she expected him to say to that. Perhaps he would be embarrassed. Perhaps he would get up and leave. But he did neither. Instead he tapped his hip thoughtfully, and pushed himself a little straighter and opened his eyes a little wider, and said, “Everyone, even Jacob, who drinks from this well will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I provide will never be thirsty again. It will become a spring inside them, welling up to eternal life.”

Now she knew he was sick from the heat. Water inside a person? Never thirsty again? Wouldn’t that be nice. Then she’d never have to face Rachel or any of the other women. Milcah swallowed a smirk and tried to mask the taunting in her voice. “Sir, give me this water, so I will not be thirsty or have to come back here for water.”

For the briefest moment the man looked upward, biting his lip ever so slightly. Milcah knew that expression. She had seen it on the faces of fathers around town, trying to figure out the best way to answer a child who wasn’t comprehending something. His face lit up, and he leaned forward. “Go get your husband, and come back here,” he said.

Now she was just insulted. Of course the great Rabbi couldn’t be bothered to explain something to a woman; of course he wanted to speak to her husband instead of her. As if… as if Simon would be able to understand anything better than she would. She snorted derisively at the thought. “I have no husband,” she said, and started to bend down to pick up her jar.

The man smiled encouragingly at her. “That’s correct. You don’t have a husband,” he said. “Rather, you have had five husbands, and the man you are with is not your husband. What you have said is true.”

Milcah’s knees went weak, and her mouth went dry.

She had married her first husband when she was 15, and Nathaniel was 19. They had been close companions since they were children, so it was only natural that their play would turn to breathless, whispered promises under the starlight, and that when he inherited his own fields that he would come to her father for a blessing. How they danced and feasted in the village green! How they had giggled together on their mats at night, with excited plans for a beautiful future. True, a year passed without Milcah knowing the joy of pregnancy, but they clung to the stories of old, of old Hannah praying in the tabernacle and being given the great prophet Samuel as a son not nine months later; of Jacob’s own dear Rachel, whose long-desired son Joseph perhaps walked these very fields! They were still young. They had plenty of time.

They had been married not two years when, one day as Milcah was mending a patch in her robe, one of the other men rushed in from the fields. “Come quickly,” he said. Milcah could still, even now, remember how he gasped for breath, holding onto the doorframe to not collapse. “There’s been an accident.” While they were tilling the fields, one of the oxen had stumbled, and Nathaniel had gone up to check it. While he was bending down low, the other ox kicked him in the head. He lingered on for two days, during which Milcah tore at her hair and robes and poured ashes over herself and begged that Yahweh would send Elisha or one of his other prophets of old to raise her husband. But Nathaniel never woke up. And so Milcah returned to her father’s house.

Milcah was 17 when Benjamin approached her father, asking for her hand. Benjamin was an older man; at 47 he had become rather comfortable financially, but he had never married, and wished for a son. She consented; she didn’t know him well, but he had a good reputation, and he had mentioned that he had waited the full year for her to finish mourning (as if she would ever truly cease). So they were wed in a much more lavish ceremony than she wanted, but Benjamin was rich and had never had a wife, and he wanted the wine to flow freely. And on their marriage bed, as he groped awkwardly over her body, they told each other that they would grow fond of each other in time.

And they did, at first. Benjamin was decent and hard-working and treated her kindly, and Milcah wanted to be a good wife, and although they never found the unbridled joy that Milcah and Nathaniel had shared, they lived quite pleasantly together for the first few years.

But time passed, and Milcah never got pregnant, and Benjamin got more and more frantic in sex, and more and more sullen as her monthly uncleanness continued to come. Finally, after 11 years, he shook his head at her sadly. “This isn’t working,” he said, and presented her with a certificate of divorce. Milcah was 28. Two months later, Benjamin had remarried; within a year his new wife had borne him a son.

This time Milcah didn’t wait for someone to find her. In the next town over, Milcah had heard of a surly, elderly widower. She made up her hair and put on her best perfume and knocked on his door. Phineas was bald and wrinkled and covered in liver spots, but that hardly mattered. More important was that he was rich. “I have heard that your life has been difficult since your wife died,” she said. “I would like to become your wife, to keep you warm at night. You may do with me whatever you wish. All I ask is that you leave me some coins when you die so that I can be assured that I will not starve through my life.”

Phineas’s eyes traveled slowly down her body. Even though she was fully and modestly dressed, his gaze turned to a leer as he reached her breasts and hips. She gazed back impassively as his face broke out in an internal conflict. “You are still young,” he said reluctantly. “Why marry me? If you marry a younger man you may yet have a son.”

“I will never have a son,” she said bitterly. “I know this much to be true.”

So they were married, and it was dreadful. He slapped her and bruised her and pulled her hair. Still, she gritted her teeth and started to drink extra wine to mask the pain. She bore it for about four years, until he suddenly fainted and woke up and was unable to speak or move the left side of his body. She continued to care for him for another four, less as a wife and more as a hired maid; still, she shared his bed and touched him at night like a wife ought to touch her husband, and when he finally passed away he kept his promise and left her a sack of silver coins. If she was careful, Milcah figured she could last most of her life on them.

And so, at age 35, Milcah found that she had been twice widowed and once divorced. Instead of returning to her father’s house, Milcah moved another town over and rented a small room. She quickly caught the eye of Aram, the village vintner. He didn’t know she was unable to have children; and besides, she was still young enough, and she still got her monthly uncleanness. Was not the great matriarch Sarah 90 when she had Isaac? So perhaps there was still hope for her yet.

Aram handed Milcah a certificate of divorce when she was 43. Their marriage had started decently, but she still failed to get pregnant, and Aram was cool toward her, and she increasingly helped herself to his wine. He didn’t stop her, and sometimes even drank with her; but when her cycles started to become less regular, he became angrier and angrier, and Milcah drank harder and harder. So he ended it, and Milcah finally returned to Sychar, where her mother had passed away and her father was ailing. She managed to mostly hide her drinking from her father, but her thirst was great, and she turned to the wineskins regularly now. Her father looked disapprovingly at her, but he needed her help, so he never said anything.

She was 49 when her father died, and she had not had her uncleanness in over a year. After the funeral, one of her father’s younger friends from a different town approached her. Lamech was a widower with three young children at home; he had no need for more, but the children did need a mother. Would she be interested? Milcah thought of her dwindling bag of silver and agreed. And she tried to be a good wife and mother, but by that point her reliance on the wineskins was too great. Just three years ago now she crawled back to Sychar with her bag of gold and her fifth failed marriage. She rented a room and did her best to melt away into the shadows.

But when you live in the shadows, you start to notice the other creatures who live there too, and Mlicah found a friend in Simon, the town drunk. They spent many an evening sitting on Josiah’s step, sharing a wineskin before Milcah would return to her own mat and Simon would stumble home to his wife, Rachel, and their children.

One night—was it a year ago, or maybe two?—Milcah had returned home from one of their drinking sessions. She had doused the oil lamp and was laying on her mat when she heard a rapping on the door and someone shouting her name.

It was Simon. “Rachel kicked me out,” he said. “C’n I stay ‘ere for the night?”

That first night, she only opened her door. He slept curled up in the corner, using a wineskin as a pillow. The fifth time, she opened her bed. And although Simon never divorced Rachel, by that morning he had not slept in his own bed for months, or even a year.

All of this flashed through Milcah’s memories in an instant. How did this man know? As far as she knew, nobody in Sychar knew all of it. Few were left who would even remember Nathaniel at all, let alone that she had briefly been his bride. And yet this Jewish rabbi knew the comings and goings of a rapidly aging Samaritan woman. How could this be?

Her knees folded under her. She grasped desperately behind her for something to catch herself—her hand fell on the well—she sank to the edge of it. The well.

Jacob’s well.

Jacob, who had seen visions of angels climbing to and from the Heavens, who had once wrestled with the Angel of the Lord and won a blessing.

Could it be that in this sacred space, she was being visited by an angel?

Gasping, she said, “I see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshipped here, on Mount Gerizim”—she gestured with her other hand—”but you Jews say people ought to worship in Jerusalem.” She wanted to go on. There was so much more to say. How should she worship this prophet’s Yahweh? Could she even worship him as a Samaritan? Was she beyond hope? But her mouth was too dry to get any of it out.

The man—the prophet, really—smiled at her as if he had heard all of her misgivings anyway. “Ma’am, believe me that the hour will come when people will worship the Father neither in Jerusalem nor on this mountain. You worship what you do not know. We worship what we know, for it is true—salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming—and really, it’s already here—when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is searching for such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.”

In spirit and in truth.

That was the living water he was talking about.

Milcah didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. She thought she had been abandoned by Yahweh long ago when Nathaniel died; she was sure of it when she failed to give Benjamin a child. Sometimes she thought it was because she was a Samaritan; she remembered once hearing that one of the prophets had proclaimed God had handled the entire Northern Kingdom a certificate of divorce. As a child she had tried to cling to the promises of old, like the sacredness of Jacob’s well, but her entire life stood as a testament to the futility of those childhood myths.

If they were myths.

And now this rabbi was telling her that where she worshipped wouldn’t matter anymore; it had everything to do with her own heart, with the water she could almost feel bursting from her chest. But he was yet another man, and she had been failed by so many men over life. Could she trust him?

There was only one thing Milcah could think to say. “I know the promised Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will tell us everything.”

He heard her unspoken question. He spoke quietly, but his voice rumbled in her heart like clap of thunder before the drumming of rain. He said, “I am he.”

She hardly noticed that she was again standing. She only barely noticed that the group of other Jews had just arrived with loaves of bread and raisins and dates, or that they were staring at the two of them with a mix of shock and confusion that their rabbi would talk to someone like her. She dropped her ladle on the ground; it bounced twice and rolled to the man’s feet.

The clinking of the ladle galvanized her to action. In a manic frenzy she ran to the city square, shouting all the way. “Come and see the man who told me everything about myself! He knew everything! Come and see!”

Simeon stumbled out of her home, rubbing at her eyes. Across the street, Rachel stepped into her own doorway. Milcah ran forward and grabbed Rachel by the arm; she dragged her forward and grabbed Simon’s arm with her free hand. All the while, a small crowd was gathering, following behind as she dragged the couple along with her back to the well. “I think this is the Messiah,” she shouted, and the sweetest, most joyful tears were streaming down her cheeks. “I think it’s him. Come and see!”

Back at the well, the rabbi leaned over and picked up the dropped ladle. With surprising energy he sprang to his feet. He tapped the ladle twice against his palm to shake off errant pieces of dirt and walked over to Milcah’s jar, which she had left behind in her haste.

“We brought you food,” said one of his men, proffering a loaf.

The man merely smiled as he bent over the water jug. “I have food that you do not know about,” he said. He dipped the ladle into the water and lifted it to his lips, pressing his lips exactly to the spot where Milcah had pressed her own mere minutes before. The water was as sweet as wine on his tongue.

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