Only once, that I can remember, did I see anything like this--a man, a male, at the community well--and this time there was good reason. We were in an isolated village in Mali, far off any traceable beaten track, when the men, the powers-that-be, insisted that we, their honored guests, visit their wonderful village well, something of a gift, by the way, of the Japanese.
They didn't say it, but it was crystal clear they were bust-your-buttons proud of that well's modernity. No ropes, no pulleys, and no buckets, save the buckets they used--the women that is--to lug all that precious cargo back to their huts.
We had to walk a ways in a desert sun so intense I wished I'd worn a cap or cape. Emphasis on had to--there are things honored guests simply have to do, and we had to witness the glory of their blessed village well.
"We don't really have a choice, do we?" I said quietly to my U.S. travel companion as we walked in heat that was almost unbearable.
He tipped his head and smiled knowingly. "No question," he said, "but out here, you know, water is life."
What came to me immediately, right then and there, was a Samaritan woman, a woman with a history of five husbands and, most recently, a live-in partner, the woman at the well, the gospel story.
All of which simply enriches the old gospel story, doesn't it? That Jesus was there at a well like this one was quite something, if I can extrapolate a bit. That he, a man, actually talked to her, a woman, had to be almost shocking. But what trumped everything was the fact that the woman was a Samaritan, and a tough one at that, a "hard woman," my mother might say, a woman with a vitae she'd rather not print up. The man who was God, Jesus the Christ, the only human being with divine parentage, trashed all the rules, broke every last one of them.
But then, at places like this, I had to be reminded that water is life.
It goes without saying that if you travel abroad, almost anywhere, you just don't drink the water, a rule especially difficult in overheated sub-Saharan Africa, where you simply have to drink even if you're not thirsty. After all, water is life.
The village elder up there at the top of the page offered us a drink of the water that blessed pump poured out richly. Warning lights flashed in my head, alarms blared in my ears. But when our African guide hunched over and drank from the well, then insisted to me that this well was a very deep and therefore safe, I drank too, hesitantly but, eventually, bountifully, the only time I actually drank the water in Africa.
Water is life, after all, I reminded myself.
When finally we walked back to the village, I couldn't help but wonder what the Samaritan woman thought when on that exceptionally strange day she met the exceptionally strange Jew at the well, a man who actually spoke to her and told her in no uncertain terms that he was, of all things, the Messiah, the promised one. When she got back to the hut, I couldn't help but wonder what exactly the Samaritan woman said to that guy she was sleeping with. I wonder how she might have explained to him the living water because she had certainly heard something and seen someone she'd never, ever heard and seen before.
Right then and even now, a few weeks later, that whole wonderful gospel story is clearer, more vivid, peopled by characters I can see at wells I've visited firsthand.
Like anything else, the phrase "living water" can wear itself out into cliche. Maybe it goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: when I stood there in the hot sun, at that very precious village well, I was, that afternoon, greatly refreshed.