This is the lost Gospel of Marah, the woman at the well to whom Jesus spoke while travelling through Samaria, as described in the Gospel of John, chapter four. It was recently discovered wedged behind a stone of a well in Samaria. This is the Contemporary American Version translation. Text allusion references provided in brackets.
Have you ever met a stranger who seemed to know you inside and out, but without judgment or romance? One who looked straight into your eyes and saw every wound and hope and fear and love? One who valued you, your questions, your opinions, your relationship with all things spiritual?
That was how I first encountered Jesus, the Jewish prophet avoiding the judgmental Pharisees of Judea en route to his home province of Galilee, who essentially was “slumming” it by crossing Samaria. Prophets are rare in this place. Most Jews do not hold Samaritans in high regard and will have nothing to do with us. They view us as foreigners, mongrels, half-breeds, not fully Jewish, and they believe we worship in the wrong way and in the wrong place.
Too, I am a woman, and holy men such as rabbis do not speak to women lest they be defiled by our perceived impurity, which would prevent them from going into the Temple of Jerusalem, for the same reasons the priest and Levite, on their way to the temple, passed by the man who had been mugged along the road, who was then helped by the Good Samaritan who had no such qualms. Yes, that parable of Jesus spread far and wide among us Samaritans. Here finally was a prophet who recognized our worth, and I too had heard this story.
Jesus also had a reputation of including women in his ministry, which scandalized both Jewish and Samaritan men. In fact, Jesus’ disciples were quite flustered when they found us talking. “What is he doing?” “What will people think?” “Does he even know this woman?”
Jesus knew without me telling him that I had had five husbands—two abandoned me for younger women, three were very old and died, and the man who now supported me refused to marry me. Tough times for women economically dependent on men, but Jesus was primarily concerned with the poor anyway. Somehow he knew my situation and I believe that’s why he had compassion on me, engaging me in a very real conversation about the very nature of things, and eventually revealing his calling from God.
The well where we met was already a holy place for me. I used to go there with my grandmother, who would tell me how our revered ancestor Jacob dug this well not only for his family, but for his descendants—all of us. My grandmother taught me that drawing from this well was drawing from our past, our heritage, our ancient story. She taught me that the purest water was to be found in wells dug over underground streams—she said such water was called “living water” because it flowed freely beneath the ground.
It was also at that well that my grandmother told me why she named me Marah, after the bitter water the Hebrews complained about shortly after crossing the Red Sea. Our ancestors were always kvetching with Moses in the wilderness, despite his having led them out of slavery in Egypt. Marah, you see, means “bitter.” Legend says that Moses tossed a piece of wood into the water, and miraculously, the water turned sweet [Exodus 15:22-25]. My grandmother named me Marah to remind herself, she said, that though her daughter died in childbirth, common among women of the time, her bitter grief was made sweet by my birth.
My grandmother’s name, incidentally, was Rachel, named after the love of Jacob’s life, and she told me many, many stories at our village well about those who go before us, those who precede us in life’s caravan, including one other story about the Israelites’ thirst being assuaged when God told Moses to go pound a rock, and up rose a spring in the desert [Exodus 17:1-7].
To me, her stories were my springs in our desert, pounded from the rock of our experience as a people, and after her passing, I passed them on to my only child to survive infancy and childhood, a girl named Mary, who was taken from me when she was only thirteen, by whom or for what purpose I may never know. The choice of my name, Marah, was perhaps prophetic.
This is why I liked to go to the well alone, in the middle of the day, not in the morning with the other women. I liked being alone at the well, thinking of my grandmother and her stories about our ancestors, thinking of my lost daughter and wondering if I would ever see her again. And that’s when Jesus spoke to me, asking me for a drink of water.
I was surprised, but happy to comply, and in return he told me about spiritual things, how people would worship God in spirit and in truth, rather than in the Temple of Jerusalem or upon our holy Mount Gerizim, where we Samaritans once had a temple. I gave him a drink of water, and he gave me living water, a Spirit that flowed out of him, into me, and on to all those I gathered from my town, asking them to verify that he might be our long awaited Messiah. They came to meet him at the well, and, our priest handed him a scroll from Isaiah, and Jesus read [from Chapter 55]:
Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money
for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Incline your ear, and come to me;
Listen so that you may live.
Says the Lord:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my Word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but will accomplish that which I purpose.
And Jesus rolled up the scroll, and gave it back to our priest, saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth [Luke 4:20-22].
Then he began to teach us, saying:
Blessed are those who thirst, for they shall be satisfied. [Luke 6:21]
Blessed are those who thirst for righteousness, for their thirst shall be quenched. [Matthew 5:6]
Blessed are those led beside still waters, restoring their souls, for they shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. [Psalm 23]
Blessed are those who cast their bread on the waters, for it shall be returned a hundredfold. [Ecclesiastes 11:1 and Luke 18:30]
Blessed are those baptized with water and Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. [John 3:5] Let no one forbid the waters of baptism to those baptized with the Spirit. [Acts 10:47]
Blessed are those who give one of my little ones a cup of water, they shall not be without their reward. [Matthew 10:42]
Blessed are those who will drink of the water that I shall give them, for they shall never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life [John 4:14]. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life [Revelation 21:6]. Let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ Let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift” [Revelation 22:17].
Then, passing my jar of well water around for all to drink from it, Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” [Luke 22:19] And after all had partaken, Jesus said, “Set me as a seal upon your heart, for my love is strong as death, my passion fierce as the grave—many waters cannot quench my love, neither can floods drown it.” [Song of Solomon 8:6-7]
After two days in the presence of Jesus, my fellow Samaritans told me, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”
I begged to follow Jesus anywhere, but he refused, saying, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what grace you have witnessed.” [Mark 5:19] And so I remained, and on the first day of each week, the day he came to us, we gather around the well of our spiritual ancestors and remind ourselves and others of all that he said and did among us, passing the jar of water around, drinking all from it, remembering his promise of living water.
Then we go out from the well, each with a jar of water, and look for those who are thirsty, and give them to drink in his name. Among those who have received this sacrament at our hands have been Philip, who used the water to baptize us when he came here to preach, and Peter and John, when they came to lay hands on us to receive the Holy Spirit. [Acts 8]
My daughter Mary was never returned to me; but I take comfort that Jesus’ mother was also named Mary, a name which is said to mean “child we wished for” and “visionary.”
May all who read this gospel be refreshed in Jesus’ name. Amen.
I gave this as a sermon for Ormewood Park Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday of Lent, March 23, 2014, using these texts: Exodus 15:22-25, 17:1-7 and John 4:1-30, 39-42. Copies of this Gospel were distributed. Afterward I passed through the congregation with cups of water that had been blessed.
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