What if the famous story of Jesus and the woman at the well happened not in first century Palestine, but in Australia today? Who would the woman be, what would her life look like, what would Jesus say to her?
I’ve just returned from keynoting at the Christian Schools Australia national leaders’ conference in Hobart, Tasmania. After speaking on the topic of Listening to the Soul of Your Community, I and a small group of attendees walked around the city of Hobart, particular Elizabeth Street Mall, trying to put what I’d said into practice: looking for signs of spiritual longing in Hobart’s culture. We then re-imagined the story of Jesus and the woman at the well as if it had just happened. You may remember me doing something similar with a group of ministers in Warrington, England, last year. The result of that experiment turned out quite different.
And he walks—down Elizabeth Street Mall. Past the phone shops and soap shops, the cafes and body shops; past the jewellers, the stationers, the accessories stores and fast food spots; past the clothes stores with their manikins selling size 8 fashions, and the travel agents selling exotic trips to blue-skied heavens; past the discount chemist with its fat- busting potions, and anti-ageing creams promising eternal attraction. The vitamin store had caught his attention, with its endless jars promising eternal health. And the sea of headlines on the magazine racks, with their 5-step solutions to the good life.
And she? Well, she sits there—in the coffee shop on the corner of Elizabeth and Collins. She sits, starring out the window, watching the happy people go by, busy with their seemingly meaningful days: mothers with children, couples on dates, businessmen on lunch breaks, girlfriends out shopping, and kids slouched on mall benches with their jokes and their skateboards and their teenage crushes.
Five loves, two kids, all by age 29. She’d lived a full life in a small amount of time. And as she sits there alone (it’s always alone), as her mum has the kids while she pulls another shift at the chemist that sells those anti-ageing creams, she wonders if things will ever get better. She thought the last guy was The One. But to be honest, she’d thought that about the guy before him. Perhaps she’ll have more luck with man number six. Hope springs eternal. And what else does one have if not hope?
He’d arrived that morning on the 7.55 flight from Melbourne. His mates had been reluctant to come. Why go out of their way to visit little old Hobart when the big cities like Melbourne and Sydney beckoned? But he’d been insistent—they must go to Hobart—and they all knew when he got that look in his eye that he wouldn’t be swayed.
They’d arrived mid-morning, took the shuttle bus to town, then walked around Constitution Dock—past the Drunken Admiral and the IXL plant, across to the spot where the convicts were once strung up, hung there in public to pay for their crimes.
Lunch time had come and the boys went to Mure’s takeaway, but he decided to walk on. So he’d walked up Elizabeth Street and now walks down the mall, to the coffee shop just there on the corner. Through the door he walks—for his appointment.
A guy by himself sitting down with a girl all alone—you’ll agree, it doesn’t look the best. But he knows those eyes—her eyes. Knows their weariness. He pulls up a chair at her table.
‘I could really go a coffee,’ he says with a smile. ‘Your shout.’
‘Excuse me?’ the girl says—Crystal is her name. ‘Do I know you?’ Concern grows in her voice.
‘Not well,’ he says, sitting down, ‘although that should change.’
‘Uh-huh,’ Crystal says, and she gets up to leave. The last thing she needs is a stalker.
‘Sit, sit,’ he says, ‘please. I’ll pay for the coffee.’
‘No thanks,’ although she does sit back down. She’s got nothing else to do, and… it’s nice to have company. Even if it’s of the dangerous kind. But how much could go wrong in a coffee shop.
They sit there quietly for a minute, Crystal looking away from him out the window, wondering how long this awkward moment will last.
‘Maybe I will have another coffee,’ she says, more to break the silence than anything else, and she reaches into her handbag. A copy of Eat, Pray, Love sits near her purse.
‘Need another caffeine hit, huh? he says.
‘Whatever gets you through the day.’
‘Or in your case,’ he says, ‘the morning. The hits always wear off.’
‘Suggest anything better then?’ she says sarcastically.
‘There’s a vitamin store up the road. They have a few remedies on offer.’
Crystal smiles. ‘I sell those “remedies” every day. The same people come back buying the same pills every week. Some remedies they are.’
‘Kind of like self-help books,’ he says, glancing down at her handbag and the copy of Eat, Pray, Love.’The same people buy the same kind of books over and over again.’
Crystal feels the jab intended for her. He just smiles.
‘So,’ Crystal says, ‘is this what you do all day—sit and chat to women in coffee shops?’
‘Only the lonely ones,’ he says.
‘What makes you think I’m lonely?’
‘Give me the names of your three closest friends.’
Crystal stares at him. Only two people come to mind—both of them coworkers at the chemist, neither of them close.
‘Tell me the last time you felt deeply happy,’ he says.
She keeps staring.
‘OK, then tell me about your husband.’
Finally, something Crystal can answer. ‘I don’t have a husband,’ she says.
‘That’s right,’ he says. ‘Five loves, two kids, all by age 29.’
Crystal’s eyes open wide. She suddenly feels exposed in the presence of this mind reader.
‘OK, who are you?’ she says sternly.
‘Who are you?’
‘Don’t play games with me.’
‘I’m not playing games, Crystal…’
‘How do you know my name?’
‘…I’m offering you something greater than a caffeine hit or a self-help book. Or even the affections of man number six. Now, tell me this. Who are you?’
Crystal sits there, stunned. After a moment she speaks.
‘I’m the girl all the men want to get, but no one wants to keep.’
And silence falls as they sit there, together.
Two minutes, three minutes, five minutes pass. Then ten minutes, twelve minutes, fifteen. Crystal realises the silence no longer feels awkward.
‘Feel this?’ he says.
‘This,’ he says, waving his hand in the space between the two of them. ‘This is what acceptance feels like.’
Acceptance felt good to Crystal.
‘And do you know what else this is?’ he says, after another moment’s silence.
‘This is forgiveness.’
‘I don’t even know you,’ Crystal says, ‘so why do I need your forgiveness? How can I hurt someone I’ve never known?’
He smiles, but this time the smile has a tinge of sadness to it. He looks away.
‘No, please,’ she says, surprised at her own words, ‘tell me.’
‘You’ve said it yourself, Crystal—you’ve never known me. The knower of your thoughts, the watcher of your deeds, the One who’s felt every silly, selfish, misguided decision you’ve ever made. And you’ve never known me.’
‘Who are you?’ she asks again, now out of want rather than fear.
‘One greater than man number six, Crystal.’
‘You mean you’re…’
‘The One, Crystal. I’m The One—The One you’ve been looking for.’
He gets up to leave. She gets up too.
He walks out the door.
And she follows him.
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You may find the following links and resources helpful:
- Blog: Jesus and the woman at the well (John 4)
- Blog: Jesus Comes to Warrington
- Blog: Resources on Listening to the Soul of Your Community
- Blog: My next Australian speaking tour itinerary
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