What if the famous story of Jesus and the woman at the well happened not in first century Samaria, but in England today? What would it look like? Who would the woman be and what would Jesus say?
That’s what a group of us wondered at the Connected Worship conference recently. After speaking on the topic of Listening to the Soul of Your Community, I and a small group of attendees walked around the town of Warrington, Cheshire, trying to put what I’d said into practice: looking for the signs of spiritual longing in Warrington’s culture with the aim of communicating the Christian story more effectively into it. Collaboratively, we then re-wrote the story of Jesus and the woman at the well as if it had just happened.
Read the original story first, then take a read below and tell me what you think. You may also like to know a little about Warrington, the IRA bomb blast that shook the town in 1993, and the River of Life monument for context.
Oh, and the White Hart pub was raided by police looking for drugs the evening we wrote this.
‘Let’s stop by Warrington,’ he says.
Jesus and his friends are heading north, on the train from London to Glasgow. Judging by their faces, his suggestion of breaking the journey at that location isn’t winning the popular vote.
‘Warrington!’ Nathanael says. ‘Can anything good come out of Warrington?’
‘According to the newspapers,’ John says, looking at Jesus, ‘it does have a reputation.’
‘We must go there,’ Jesus says.
The train reaches Warrington Bank Quay station by lunch time. They cross the road and head up Museum Street, take a left, then a right, and walk for a couple of blocks to the Bridge Street precinct. Though not desolate, the area does have something of a vacant feel, with its string of empty shops and To Let signs.
Peter says, ‘Isn’t Bridge Street where the IRA planted that bomb in ’93?’
They walk further up to the McDonalds – the spot where the explosion killed two local boys and injured many others all those years ago. There’s a monument there now – a tear-shaped water feature with leaf designs and a stream flowing along a channel onto a bronze dome. On the dome are the hand prints of local children. Around its edge are children’s faces etched into copper, including the faces of Tim and Jonathan, the two boys who died.
‘It’s called The River of Life,’ John says, before stooping down to look closer at the writing on the monument. The words turn out to be a verse from the book of Revelation – about the waters and the leaves of the trees being for the healing of the nations.
John looks at Jesus and smiles.
Crowds of teenagers congregate along the street, laughing and hollering and occasionally taunting each other. Jesus and his friends wander past the fountain at the top of the rise and turn left into Sankey Street, passing the church and the Poundland and the greeting card shop with its shelves full of Christmas cards ready for the season.
‘I’m hungry,’ says James.
‘Me too,’ says Peter.
‘You go and get some lunch,’ Jesus says. ‘I’ll meet you later.’
Peter, James, John, Nathanael and the rest head back towards the McDonalds as Jesus crosses the road. Looking back, they see Jesus step into the White Hart pub. John looks at James and shakes his head in that ‘Don’t ask me what he’s up to’ way.
Business is good at the White Hart. The place might have a reputation for drunken brawls and unsavoury clientele, but everyday members of Warrington’s close-knit community call this their watering hole too. Most of the tables are full, but there’s one table in the far corner with some seats spare. A girl with heavy makeup and gold bangles sits there alone.
Jesus approaches the table and sits down.
‘Hi,’ he says.
‘Hiya,’ says the girl, a little wary of the stranger invading her space.
They sit there, together, in silence for a moment. And then Jesus says something extraordinary.
‘Why don’t you buy me a drink?’
The girl – Sarah is her name – passes Jesus an incredulous look. ‘Excuse me?’ she says. ‘You want me to buy you a drink?’
‘Why not?’ Jesus says.
Sarah turns in her seat a little, facing away to the window.
‘Of course, if you knew who I was,’ Jesus says, ‘you’d be the one asking me for a drink.’
‘Oh really?’ says Sarah.
‘I’ve got my own brand.’
‘Why don’t I see you behind the bar then,’ Sarah says, ‘pulling pints of your own ‘brand’?’
‘You can drink pint after pint of what you can buy here…’
‘And many of us do,’ Sarah says.
‘… but what I have to offer will fulfil you in a different way. A deeper way. Forever.’
‘Forever?’ Sarah says, her tone sharp. ‘A drink that lasts forever? Well now.’
‘A river of life,’ Jesus says, ‘streaming within you.’
Sarah shakes her head, wondering how a Warrington girl got herself into such a conversation. Perhaps she wouldn’t have, if she hadn’t have been drinking alone.
‘Is there a man in your life?’
‘I’d like to meet him’
‘No,’ Sarah says with a weary sigh. ‘There is no man.’
‘I guess that’s true,’ Jesus says. ‘For now. The real story is there’s been a string of men, hasn’t there. And each one has either led to nothing or to heartbreak. And the guy you hooked up with on Friday night… well, we can’t really call him your man can we?’
Sarah is startled now, this stranger seemingly knowledgeable of all her secrets.
‘Who are you? Are you one of them psychics or something?’
‘No, not a psychic.’
‘I guess you’d call me a minister.’
‘Oh, a priest!’ Sarah says sarcastically, though deep down intrigued by this mysterious man with the kind eyes. ‘I guess you want me to go to the church and say a few prayers then. Not my scene, I’m afraid. I believe in my own way.’
‘Let’s be honest, Sarah – you don’t know what you believe. On the rare occasion when you pray – when everything’s collapsed and you need to be rescued – you don’t know who you’re praying to.’
‘Well, that’s not…’ No, Sarah has to admit he’s called it right.
‘It’s not about praying in this church or that church, or out in the fields or on a mountain top. God wants worshippers, Sarah. Worshippers. People who know who they’re praying to. People who know God well enough to give away their every waking moment to him. Complete surrender. Total trust.’
‘I trust myself,’ Sarah says. ‘I’m doing alright.’
‘Has that guy called you back? You know, from Friday night?’
‘And how are the scratch cards working for you? Any luck there securing your future?”
‘Not yet, but…’
‘And do you trust yourself to fix things with your family? Fix the heartbreak and the cynicism? Fix the emptiness? Fix the guilt?’
‘I was christened, you know,’ Sarah says in her defence.
‘And do you even know what that means?’ Jesus replies.
‘I read the spirituality articles in the magazines,’ she says. ‘I’m a spiritual person.’
‘You’re still looking for your rescuer.’
‘And I’ll find him one day. I’ll find a good man who’ll take care of me…’
‘Sarah!’ Jesus says with passion now, ‘Sarah! You can keep going with your scratch cards and your magazines and your search for the ‘Christian Grey’ of your dreams. You can sit at this table and fill the hole in your soul with another drink and another. Or you can have a river of life, a river of love, a river of hope, of forgiveness, of security flowing deep within you from God… from me.’
‘It’s me, Sarah. It’s me.’
Written in collaboration with John Anderson, Brian Armitage, Robert Brenchley, Sheila Brown, Sue Butler, Margaret Calvert, Pam Cox, Simon Etty, Christine King, Phillipa Kirby-Gyrdlestone, Hayley Moss, Tricia Rayner, Carol Reeves, Katy Rowe, Sue Warner and Monica Wilding at the Connected Worship conference, Warrington, UK, November 3-4, 2012.