What you seek lies in front of you, as does what you fear...
Updated: Jun 27, 2021
From the "Trashley" days. Don't even ask 'cause I don't remember...
“What would you do if you met someone who could tell you everything you’d ever done?” I ask my husband.
He laughs that sudden, brazen, abandoned laugh that was one of the reasons I first fell in love with him, a laugh ejected by sheer force of incredulity.
“Well, I’d have to kill them. Immediately. Without mercy, before they speak to any reporters” he says. He’s mostly joking, I think. Okay, 50/50. Okay… 70/30, at least. (100/0 – the Editor/Steven/Me/Hi Mom!).
“So, you definitely wouldn’t consider it an occasion for, say, I dunno... joy?” I ask.
“Joy?!?!” he echoes sardonically. “Oh, hell no.”
“Huh, interesting,” I answer, and keep thinking on her. You know, the loose woman, the harlot, the lady of ill repute, the serial wife, the adulterer. The so-called slattern who puts on a haughty, shameless front, thrusting her chin in the air as she goes, but in whom shame metastasizes darkly, its roots pressing the edges of her very soul. The one from whom wives usher their husbands away and who is ever providing rich fodder for gossip.
The one whom, finally weary of the other women, of the cutting words delivered as they saunter away or the faux-kindness behind which crouches a cobra-like spite or the icy moral superiority masquerading as pity.
Desolation is better than all of these. The withering, punishing heat of midday is better than all of these.
I wonder what she thought as she approached and saw him there. From a distance, she wouldn’t have known he was a Jew.
Maybe a shiver of danger chilled her for a moment, goosebumps rising beneath beads of sweat. Perhaps he was a man who’d heard of her reputation and weighed the risk of forcing himself on her and the risk had come up lacking.
Who’d believe her, anyway? Would she even believe herself? Maybe she didn’t know whether she’d even bother fighting him off or just resign to her fate. Didn’t she deserve it, anyway, after all she’d done, after she’d hoped so naively, after she'd given herself lovelessly again and again ‘til guilt gave way to numbness? After six men already had taken what they wanted and then shucked her aside like garbage? Maybe that's all she was, truly.
Her gait takes on a wearied resignation. But as she draws nearer, the four tassels on the corners of his robe come into view. A Jew. Now, this is just getting weird. A rogue Jew, all alone in Samaritan territory. She tucks her chin, ignores him, prepares to go about her business in awkward silence. But he speaks.
“Will you give me a drink?”
She starts. Her head snaps up. Maybe she even glances behind her shoulder, makes sure there is no one else to address. When not the object of scorn, she’s used to being invisible. And maybe now she chuckles and shakes her head. This must be some kind of ruse designed by this righteous Jew to humiliate her.
Maybe if she did dip a ladle into the cool of the water and hand it to him he’d cruelly knock it to the ground, sneering at her assumption that he, a Jew, would ever deign to accept a drink from her. It wouldn’t be the worst insult she’d ever suffered, but she’d rather avoid it all the same.
Cautiously, she states the obvious: You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. (A woman!) How can you ask me for a drink?
His answer is some vague, mystical-sounding folderol that sounds like nothing more than a riddle to her: If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.
Maybe she rolls her eyes, inwardly. Another Jew with grandiose messianic delusions. She brings him back down to earth, to the matter of the water here and now, ‘cause she’s thirsty, dang it, thirsty as Hagar in the desert, dying slow in the godforsaken heat. She smiles ruefully, points out the obvious, again: You have nothing to draw with and the water is deep.
He’s unnervingly silent and his gaze is unnervingly steady, without deceit, without guile, without secrets. Mystery, but not secrets. Intelligence, but not the scheming hucksterism that had felled a hundred supposed messiahs before him.
She shifts on her feet. Where can you get this living water? She asks, his patience piquing her frustration. She decides to challenge him: Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?
Perhaps her tone is wry and ironic, perhaps she smirks inwardly, thinking now I’ve caught him.
But he doesn’t hesitate, doesn’t seem to need to pause and carefully phrase a reply, to twist his words up in a condescending spiritualized riddle formulated to make her feel dumb, a scolding for presuming to push back at him. No - he speaks straight. Honest. His words give her a shiver, again, this time a mingling of wonder and fear.
Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, he says. But whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.
She’s tempted fleetingly to dismiss it as the same kind of esoteric-sounding sophistry she’s heard before. But something beckons from within the core of his words, from within him. A smile tries the corners of her mouth even as her brow lowers and she shakes her head, just slightly. Could this water be real? What was it? How could she get it?! Would it fill at last this hole eating up the inside of her, this ravening vacancy which sex left only hungrier than before?
Still, she doesn’t quite understand, and reverts to the literal: Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.
And then he said the words that struck a low, hollow note of shame in her heart: Go, call your husband and come back.
She hadn’t meant her life to be this way. She truly hadn’t. Five husbands. Shacking up with the man who was supposed to be the sixth but who’d become complacent and distant since she’d started ceding her body to him. Who cares anyway, she thought. It doesn’t matter.
Her shame bows her head, but now she raises it defiantly up, leans back slightly, and tells the naked truth for one of the few times in her burnt-out wasteland of a life: I have no husband, she says. Her voice starts to crack and she scolds herself inwardly. No. No. You will not cry.
His face doesn’t twist in disgust, though, as she’d steeled herself for. He inclines his head. Is he smiling?!
You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said it quite true.
Her breath catches. Excitement rises in her chest. He’s a prophet! Then he’ll know: why do the Jews say we have to worship in Jerusalem?!
Believe me, woman, he says - and a thrill passes through her as he addresses her so directly – a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. Relief and confusion war in her brain – the Jews were wrong. But so was she. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. He says it matter-of-factly, without a trace of hubris. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.
Hope rises within her, a lucid river, its cool threaded blueness tumbling into the places made arid by her promiscuity, by the abuse, by the cynicism that ramified in her heart until she no longer knew which way was up. She remembers the old tales, the old hope, the stories told to her before her ruin. That was a long, long time ago, a world so sparkling with innocence it might as well be on the other side of the world. Could it become real to her again?
Her eyes shine, just barely. She bets it all on that most dangerous of things, faith, yet again: I know that Messiah is coming, she says. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.
His eyes shine, too, a luminosity cradled so deeply within them she can’t discern its source. He pauses. Then he says the seven words that crack her world wide open, that loose the rain on the arid wasteland of her soul: I who speak to you am he.
She gasps. Her face collapses. The tears come, hard and fast, tears of relief and joy and some ineffable rapture she’d only dreamt existed.
Her jar forgotten, the heat forgotten, she runs back to town clutching her skirts in her fists. She stops the first man she comes to, grabs him by the shoulders, straining to catch her breath and utter the one delirious sentence that sums it all up: He told me everything I ever did.
What? Who? The man asks. But she runs on and perhaps he shrugs (who doesn’t know everything she’s ever done?!) She doesn’t have time for exclamations, though maybe if she did she’d tell him that the man didn’t just know the town gossip, didn’t just know who she’d slept with: he knew the secret lusts, the secret lies, the secret shame that slept like a dragon at the core of her being, waking to torment her when it pleased. He knew it all. He’d seen it all. He was the Messiah.
Her crowning joy is this single testimony: He told me everything I ever did.
He told me everything I ever did.
What about you? Would this be occasion for rejoicing? For running like a maniac through your neighborhood telling everyone you encountered that you met a man who told you everything you’d ever done?
If it were another mortal human, we’d be beyond mortified, of course. Some of us, perhaps, would be driven to homicidal panic. At the very least we’d have to move to the diametrically opposed longitude and latitude of this person’s location, and even then our nights would be haunted by the knowledge that they know. And they’d be haunted, too, haunted by how deeply runs our sin… and their own.
But what if the person who could tell you everything you’d ever done was also the only person who had the cure for everything you’d ever done? What if this person in spite of and perhaps even because of his knowledge loved us so deeply he’d do whatever it takes to make things right, to reclaim our soul and our innocence from the squalor we’ve made?
It’s audacious, this hope. It’s scary. But what, WHAT if this were your greatest joy? He told me everything I’d ever done.
When I was in college, playing fast and loose with my dignity nearly every weekend, there were a group of girls who took to calling me Trashley. The first time I heard it, it stung. But then, like the Samaritan woman, I thrust my chin out in defiance and claimed it for myself, making it into a joke - Trashley - as though I embraced trashiness brazenly as a badge of honor, as though I didn’t care about being characterized as human refuse. But dear God, in the thin hours of the morning when the buzz started to wear off and the hangover set in and my mouth was as dry as my blackened heart, I would weep. Trashley. That’s what they called me. But I knew it wasn’t supposed to be my name. I knew I’d wandered far, and I feared it was too far. Innocence was a laughably distant dream: I couldn’t remember ever feeling truly innocent. I was irredeemably soiled.
If only I’d encountered the one then who could tell me everything I’d ever done. I thought I was alone in the knowledge, burdened by it. Others knew sordid bits and pieces. But I alone knew it all, and I hated myself for it, and although the burden was intense, the instinct to hide was even more so.
He told me everything I’d ever done. Being known wholly was both my greatest fear and my greatest longing. (And at this point I can hear Izzy lowering his tweenage voice to imitate Red Skull at Vormir in Avengers: Endgame: ‘What you seek lies in front of you, as does what you fear.’)
It turns out being known by God is fearful, at first. The baptismal water flashes gold and green, hints at murky depths. And it is true that death dwells beneath. I swallowed hard when I first waded in, my steps tentative and short. Can I trust him, this Jesus? I wondered. How I ever be made clean?
I couldn’t think myself under, couldn’t reason myself into the waters of faith. I had to succumb, to surrender, in faith but still all atremble with doubt and fear. Fightings and fears within, without, o Lamb of God I come, I come, as my dad’s favorite hymn goes.
I feel her astonishment, her joy, now: He knows. There are no secrets, there is no hiding except my very life, hidden with Christ in God.
What you seek lies in front you, as does what you fear: he told me everything I’d ever done.