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Iris Blue pounded on the walls of her Texas prison cell in solitary confinement. She was six foot three and known for possessing a right hand hard enough to fistfight men and win, hard enough to incense the male inmates in the same cell block as she pounded the walls and screamed and cursed, hard enough to match the heart that had grown cold in her chest.
Maybe all the pounding and yelling was more than sheer rebellion. Maybe it was Iris's angry way of venting what she felt inside. Maybe what seemed to be senseless yells had meaning after all. Maybe she did it because she couldn't stand the quiet.
The devil was in the quiet.
The quiet was filled with painful memories, thoughts of the little elementary school girl who longed for acceptance, thoughts of how she measured up against everyone else. The memories lingered, sometimes in the back of her mind and sometimes in plain view, sometimes crying with her and sometimes giggling at her, but always reminding her not only of how big she was but how big a loser as well.
And the memories never let her forget how early it all went wrong.
"I started liking boys in the incubator. I loved them. I thought, 'There is a God, and he made boys,'" Iris said. "I'd try to flirt with them and look sexy, and I'd lean up against the locker and it'd cave in. But my dream was that I wanted some little boy to carry my books or to treat me like I was valuable or open the door for me. I just wanted somebody to think I was special. So the little boy I had a crush on said, 'Listen, I need to ask you something.' He was real nervous, so I thought he was going to ask me to go steady or something. But he asked me to carry him on my back."
Iris didn't need to look in the mirror to be reminded of why the boy wanted the piggyback ride. She was huge, even at a young age. She was tall and heavyset and stronger than all the boys.
"The little computer inside my head started saying, 'Look, you're big and ugly, and if you don't do something, you're not going to get his attention. You see who gets to hold hands in school. It's those itty-bitty cute girls,' " Iris said. "Deep in my heart I wanted to say to him, 'No, my dream is that you'll carry my books. I don't want to carry you on my back.' I compromised my dreams even in elementary school. I wanted desperately just to be treated like a lady, but I didn't think I qualified. So I told him to get on.
"I'd already learned even in church not to let anybody know what was really going on inside. Just put on a smile and act like everything is OK. I was hurting inside. I wanted to cry, but I didn't want anybody to see me cry. So I didn't let anybody know."
The boy jumped on, giggling all the way. He was the first male to use Iris for his own pleasure, innocent as it sounds. But he wouldn't be the last.
The noon sun brought droplets of sweat on Jesus' brow. He sat by Jacob's well near a town called Sychar in Samaria, wearied by the long walk from Jerusalem.
He wasn't supposed to be there, not by man's standards. Jews considered Samaritans half-breeds and took the long way back and forth to Galilee by traveling on the eastern side of the Jordan River. But Jesus wasn't an ordinary Jew. Somehow, in a way humans will never understand, he was both fully God and fully man. And he had a divine appointment. He had dispatched the disciples to go into town for food, clearing the way for his scheduled one-on-one with a special someone. We still don't know her name. But God does.
Up walked a lone woman. The town despised her. That much is clear by how and when she fetched water. She worked alone at noon. The town's other women visited the well to draw the day's water early every morning, a ritual shared among friends, their conversation and fellowship lessening the burden.
The lone woman carried a burden too great to lessen. Until now.
Jesus knew her long before this day, long before her first sin, long before she was born. He knew her in a way only God can know the children he creates. And he had marked this day on his calendar, and on hers, long ago.
As the story in the gospel of John unfolds, we learn the Samaritan woman had been married five times and is living with yet another man. Yet only one Man can fill the void she had sought all the men to fill. Only one Man can satisfy the ache in her heart and wash away the pain of all the bad decisions, all the wanton nights, all the desperate tears of shame. Only one Man could remove the pain of chasing acceptance from all the wrong people at the wrong places in the wrong ways. Only one Man.
And here he stands.
He asks her for a drink of water, and the request stuns her. She can't believe a Jewish man would speak to her. She is suspicious already because she isn't accustomed to seeing a Jew in her town, much less one who stayed in her presence. She knows a Jew would look at her and see not only a Samaritan but a Samaritan tramp.
"How can you ask me for a drink?"
Jesus answered her, "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."
Jesus is referring to eternal life, spiritual water that flows without end.
The Samaritan woman tugs her bucket of water from the well and answers, "Hey, this well is awfully deep. Where do you get that water you mentioned?" She assumes he is talking about literal water and doesn't understand Jesus' spiritual reference. Anyone in her sandals would react this way. She is sick of the daily water grind, sick of dodging the other ladies and their knowing glares, sick of the whispers.
For most of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, two different kinds of water fill the conversation—living water and well water. Jesus confronts her with the truth of living water and from whom it comes. But she is spiritually dead and doesn't understand. Each time, she drags the subject back to well water. It's the only kind of water she knows.
Many of us live like this Samaritan woman. We go about our daily routines and draw familiarity and comfort from our own little wells. At work, at play, at home, and at church, we dip into our wells wherever we go.
We articulate it with our actions more than our words, but in essence we think, "This is my well. This is what I think is going to sustain me."
Some of us try to use friendships as a well. If we have our friends, we're OK; and if we don't have the friendship and approval of others, we focus on the void. Some of us try to make wells out of a more intimate person—a spouse or a boyfriend or girlfriend. Some of us draw from the depths of our intellect, talents, or skills to derive a sense of identity or contentment. Some rely on our strength, past successes, or even assumptions of a better situation or a better tomorrow. Whatever it is, most of us have a few "wells" we count on to sustain us and bring us joy, security, hope, peace, and contentment.
As Jesus demonstrates in John 4, he isn't interested in our ideas of wells. Jesus ever so subtly works to reveal the Samaritan woman's personal well. When she doesn't pick up the spiritual connotation of his living water, he tries a different approach, just as he does with many of us.
Looking back, I remember times when he tried to speak to me in a certain way but I was too dull of hearing or too absorbed with what I considered my own wells. Then, when I went through the struggles that inevitably follow from doing it my way and drifting from God, I questioned him or got mad at him when he was only using circumstances to draw me to him.
When we don't want to hear what he has to say, Jesus always knows the perfect approach to go straight to the heart of the matter. Verse 16 records that Jesus looks at the woman and says, "Go, call your husband, and come here."
Where did that come from? Wasn't he just talking about water?
Whether he startles her is unclear, but she manages a partial truth: "I have no husband." I'm sure she's thinking, Maybe that'll be good enough.
But Jesus calls her on it: "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."
If you're this woman, what do you say? What do you do when God shows you he is God and knows all? Most of us do what this woman does.
"Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet," she says. "Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship."
She goes religion on him. She realizes she's not dealing with an ordinary man, so she starts discussing religion. This living water guy shocks her. Everything in her life is turned inside out forever, because that's what truth does. Truth just is. It doesn't change, but it changes everything it touches.
Here is what truth does for this Samaritan woman: She thinks she's standing beside a well and talking to a man. Instead, she is standing beside a hole in the ground. And she's talking to the Well.
Iris Blue ran away from a God-fearing home led by praying parents at the age of thirteen. She now knows she left because she chased her dreams of womanhood and acceptance from the wrong people in the wrong places in all the wrong ways.
As a child, Iris frequented church and Vacation Bible School and convinced herself she was saved when a visiting evangelist tried to scare her out of hell. It wouldn't be the last time she acted on emotion.
Within days after running away, she was on drugs, scrounging for a way to eat and staying with people too old and too strange for the little girl inside the big body.
"You don't have to run real far to be a long way from home when you're looking for the wrong kind of stuff," Iris said. "I had a complex and I had an attitude, and those two things started multiplying real quick, and I didn't know how to handle it."
She kept her dream tucked deep inside, longing for someone to love her for who she was, all of her, and for someone to treat her like the lady she knew was underneath all the scars and the pain. But sin blinds the sinner, and a rebellious Iris substituted a drunkard for her dream. A man in a bar gave her the male attention she craved, and she fell into a cycle of heroin abuse, theft, prostitution, and multiple abortions.
Yet she always managed to find someone in a little more trouble. "No matter where we are, whether it's in a church, in a bar, or in prison, we're always trying to find someone to compare ourselves to," Iris explained. "We look around and say, 'Well, I might do one thing, but, honey, it's not as bad as somebody else.' I learned this truth hanging out in places you might not think are real obvious. Some of it was even in church, not just in bars. We learn to compare ourselves to others."
If rock bottom ever came, Iris didn't know it because she liked living there. At seventeen, she joined a few doper friends to rob a store with a gun. She made off with $33,000, only to be tracked down by the police in mere hours.
She spent nine months in jail awaiting a trial that ended with a judge pronouncing an eight-year sentence as part of a plea bargain. It wiped clean any potential charges for the seventy other crimes she was believed to have committed.
"There were things going on in that prison I wouldn't even try to describe. But I walked in with an attitude saying, 'Now look, there are certain things I won't do.' See, I had never changed. From the very beginning, I'd draw a line and say, 'I'll do this but I'll never do that,'" Iris said. "But I'd always find another line to draw. No matter where I was, at my very worst, at the very pits I ended up getting to, I could still compare myself to other people. At one point, my biggest comparison was when I said, 'At least I'm not a hypocrite. I just do it. I'm not like those church people who claim one thing but then go live like other people out in the world.'" Prison officials administered psychological tests and a personality profile to the woman no one could tame. "Big Iris" required multiple male guards to drag her, cussing and spitting, to solitary confinement for the constant rebellion and fights.
Iris served seven years before her release and then returned to her old habits in a matter of days.
"On my permanent record they put that I was incorrigible and a degenerate. I didn't even know what either of those words meant because I was a dropout. But I found out they mean this person will never change. They mean unredeemable. There's no hope. That's on my record—that there's no hope for me."
The True Well
I would love to have seen the look on the face of the Samaritan woman when Jesus told her all about her past. How does he know all of that stuff? How can he know all that I've ever done?
Hope runs deeper than Jacob's well, and John 4:16 reveals the point where Jesus goes straight for her heart.
The Samaritan woman doesn't grasp the spiritual meaning of Jesus' words, so she relates it to something she has seen—religion. When I say religion, I mean the kind of rituals and empty checklists people follow when a relationship with Christ isn't personal and authentic.
The Samaritan woman brings up nearby Mount Gerizim, where Samaritans chose to worship. In other words, she talked about the church down the road. When Jesus reveals he knows all about her past, she answers with the phrase, "Our fathers say." All she knew was someone else's religion, but Jesus corrects her with famous words describing God and authentic worship: "The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth . . . God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." She's tired of coming to the hole in the ground, and she's tired of the hole in her heart. Jesus weaves the conversation until the woman mentions the word Messiah. Little does she know he is standing before her.
The more he talks, the more she remembers that as a child she heard of a coming Messiah, the true one who would appear and make everything right. Oh, how she needed everything to be made right.
The countless men. The countless fights. The nights of wiping away tears to the snores of a stranger.
She came only to draw water. Could this be the man of her dreams? And could this man really be ...
Here, in the middle of her workaday world, it dawns on the Samaritan woman that God is pursuing her. He's not pursuing Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim or a massive amount of people at a rally—he's pursuing her.
Have you ever had that moment? Have you ever felt stale and hardened in your heart and yet sensed God trying to break through the thickness and say, "I am not a book. I am not words on a screen that you sing. I am a Person who wants to know you"?
I remember when it happened to me: "I am almost certain there is way more to this than I'm allowing in my life." Jesus always answers this moment in the same way he answered it for the woman at the well: "I who you speak to am he." It is the deepest of truth from the deepest of Wells.
His response reveals the tipping point both of their conversation and of all of eternity. The pronoun he is not in the original Greek manuscripts. The literal translation of Jesus' reply is, "I who speak to you am." He claims deity. He tells the woman, in effect, "I'm the I am your fathers worshiped."
The woman, heart pounding as Jesus proves he knows her like no one has ever known her, understands his claim. She realizes she has been drawing from all the wrong holes. She realizes it is time to draw from the only true Well.
The evidence suggests a changed life. The woman who dodged towns people to draw water alone is the same woman who darts into town to bear witness to the Messiah's arrival. "Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did," she says as she brings the town to Jesus (verses 29–30), and many of those people are in heaven now because of her testimony (verse 39).
I believe God speaks to us today, but we often don't hear him because we try to exchange his living water for well water—sustenance from our own wells.
Excerpted from The well by Mark Hall Tim Luke Copyright © 2011 by Mark Hall . Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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1 A Lone Woman: John 4:1-45 15
2 Let It Go: The Hole of Control 33
3 Dead Mud: The Hole of Something Better 49
4 Belly-Flop Guy: The Hole of Approval 65
5 First Day: The Hole of Religion 79
6 Deep: The Hole of Resourcefulness 97
7 Twist: The Hole of Talent 113
8 Cheerios: The Hole of Entitlement 129
9 Filling the Holes with the Holy Spirit 149
10 Living Like You Just Woke Up 163
Epilogue: Full Circle 179
Practical Application: Five Points 183
Discussion Guide 189