Fiction and Plays


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Woman at the Well

A play, or something like that

This was originally performed in 1999 at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto. It was done around a stone baptismal font in the transept with four performers. There was music and staging, including, in one place, a slide show, that I have not indicated here, not simply because I'm lazy but because I don't wish to keep others' imaginations from doing other things with it.

[Begin with the round based on Julian of Norwich, sung to the tune of "Rose, Rose, Rose, Rose"] I can make all things well, I will make all things well, I shall make all things well, and all shall be well.


[delivered by the whole cast, in parts]
Welcome to the well. The well of sorrows, the well of joy, it doesn't really matter, it's the well of water. It's the local spring, be it as it may existing in a hole in the earth rather deep, surrounded by stones and dirt and the whole area caked with animal excrement and probably the salt from the dried dripped sweat of every person who's come through since the last rain and for that matter probably a lot longer. The stones around the edge make a decent place to sit and rest. You can also sit there and wait from someone with a waterskin or jug to come along if you're a traveller passing by. You see, it doesn't have a permanent bucket or anything like that, and certainly not one of those pumps you prime as it wheezes and makes donkey noises, sputtering rust water first and then spewing gushes of clear though metallic tasting water. It's just a hole in the ground! And probably one with more than a few foreign objects or even foreign bodies floating in it, truth be told. But if you want to get water out, you need a rope and a container. And if you ain't got that, mister, you're not getting water for yourself. There sure isn't any kind of ladder down the side so you can just go down to the bottom, hang there and scoop some into your awaiting parched lips. A mountain stream this is not.

So when a traveller from up north heading towards Jerusalem passes by, if he's just sitting there and waiting for his friends to come back from town where they're buying food, and it's about three in the afternoon which means it's hot, he doesn't just turn around and get himself something to drink because he's thirsty. Where's his rope, where's his jug? Of course, if he were in a position to get himself something to drink, he wouldn't have to ask this Samaritan woman who comes along to give him something, and then we wouldn't have this story, would we?


[the poetry bits could be said in unison, or with one saying and one chanting, or broken up into lines said antiphonally...]
the human body is apparently
sixty or eighty or something percent
water, however much, I can't
remember, but whatever it is
mine must be more than usual
because of all the tears
I've choked back and kept in
over the years, it must
be a big water balloon, barely
solid, ready to burst at
any moment, and it must be
very salty too. I'm only
guessing this, you see, I can't
feel anything; occasionally I think
I will open up like a
summer squall and drench the floor
and my clothes, but always
it would be inconvenient at that
moment and later I can't.
Now I think I'm dry like
taut latex, tied at the
top, wobbling a bit maybe, but
will the knot be undone
somplace safe, will I stay intact,
or do I see a
small child with a pin heading
with purpose in my direction?


The trip to the well is not exactly the most enjoyable thing on the planet to do, but she does it every day, without fail, because how else can you get water? And so too she worships on the mountain, because where else can you find God? And so too the Jews go to Jersualem. Even Jesus is on his way there, though his purpose is to find people, not God. You see, Jesus is like a guy with a well in his basement, like a guy with indoor plumbing. And his aim is to show everybody that we all have indoor plumbing. Going outside yourself to the mountain or Jerusalem or your church or wherever thinking you can only find God there is like having fully functioning indoor plumbing and ignoring it, not knowing it's there or how it works, and instead going every day out to the well, however far it is and however disgusting the weather – and for that matter the well-water – is, to get whatever limited quantity of water you can lug back.


Jesus: Hot day.

Woman: What?

J: Hot day.

W: [pause] You're an expert at stating the obvious.

J: I certainly am. I especially like things so obvious that nobody notices them.

W: Have you noticed that I'm a Samaritan?

J: [smiles] Could you get me something to drink?

W: What?

J: I see you have a water jar. This is a well. I wouldn't mind some water. If you'd be so kind.

W: What's the catch?

J: Pretty good, if you ask my fisherman friends.

W: What?

J: You say that a lot.

W: Why are you even talking to me?

J: Because you're there. And you have a water jar and I could use some water.

W: I'm surprised you'd even ask me.

J: If you knew what I had to offer you'd ask me to quench your thirst.

W: And how would you do that? I take it you don't have a water jar.

J: I have living water.

W: Living water?

J: Water of the spirit.

W: Oh. I don't drink before sundown.

J: No, I'm not talking about that.

W: I'm not sure what you are talking about, and I'm not sure what you've been drinking.

J: [laughs] How far do you walk to this well?

W: A quarter of an hour each way.

J: The water you need you can always have, anytime, anywhere. You drink this water, the next day you come back, you're lugging this sloshy, leaky thing for a quarter hour back, you sweat off as much as you're carrying. It never ends, not until you drop dead. But once you find the living water, it's always there, in abundance, and the more you drink the more you have – and when you drink it you never die.

W: [pause] You're shitting me.

J: Nope.

W: Where is it? Where's the well, the spring, the whatever?

J: [points to his heart] Here. In other words, [points to her heart] here.

W: You're confusing the hell out of me.

J: That could be a good thing. ...Look, why don't you go get your husband and I'll explain to the both of you.

W: [looks him over] I don't have a husband.

J: That's true. In fact, you've had five, and the guy you're with now isn't one of them.

W: Who are you?

J: [spreads arms out, hands up, as if to say, "This is me"]

W: [long pause] You're a prophet, aren't you. [sits] Tell me something. My people have always worshipped on this mountain. We find God there. But you Jews say God's in the Temple. God can't be in both places.

J: Who says?

W: Well, not any more than you can.

J: But I'm sitting here and at the same time I'm in your head, there.

W: But that's not the same thing.

J: God gave you the breath of life, right?

W: Well, yes...

J: So were you conceived in the Temple or on the mountain?

W: Hey, that's not nice. Anyway, I didn't get it directly.

J: What, by mail-order?

W: That's right, from my father and his father and his father before him.

J: Look, I'll put it to you straight: God can be found anywhere. Find the well of living water and you've found God.

W: But how am I supposed to find that? Do I have to wait for the Messiah to come and reaveal it?

J: You've already found the Messiah. You just don't realize it.

W: [looks at him. Pause.] ...I'll be right back.


Water, soft and wet,
water, cool and thirst-quenching,
water eats the rocks,
water corrodes hard edges,
water wears away,
water is a slow acid,
carrying away
minerals dissolved in it,
holding even air
in microscopic suspense;
water trickles on,
tracing dusty rivulets,
leaving little trails,
pooling sediments deeply,
dripping off edges,
calcifying stalactites,
depositing rock
when and where it it pleases to.
Water in the air
makes the noonday heat severe,
water on the skin
cools the body readily,
water in the throat
satisfies our parched longing,
water in the lung
takes away the breath we need.
Water is our life,
water cleans us, carries us,
water is power,
water heals and water hurts.
Life is the message,
water is the medium,
change is the message,
water is the medium,
time is the message,
water is the medium,
death is the message,
water is the medium.
Water is the truth,
water is the hand of God,
water is your self.


[Tao Te Ching 78, Feng and English translation:]
Under heaven nothing is more soft and yielding than water.
Yet for attacking the solid and the strong, nothing is better,
It has no equal.
The weak can overcome the strong;
The supple can overcome the stiff.
Under heaven everyone knows this,
Yet no one puts it into practice.
Therefore the sage says:
He who takes upon himself the humiliation of the people is fit it rule them.
He who takes upon himself the country's disasters deserves to be king of the universe.
The truth often sounds paradoxical.


[Julian of Norwich:]
Sin is behovely, but all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.


The next thing is that the woman runs off to her village. Presumably she left her water jar at the well, then, and we don't even know if it was empty or full. Of course she was going to have to get water; we do need to drink it, our minds may be deeply religious but our bodies are usually atheists – all they seem to care about is solid sustenance, and they have a way of telling us they like things that aren't even very good for them. Jesus, we would assume, could easily have made water materialize for him, but his way of doing so was usually to be in a place where someone would give him water. We don't give Jesus enough credit for colouring inside the lines whenever he could. When he did do a miracle, after all, it had the hazard of reinforcing the idea that material things are what's really important. But in this case Jesus didn't need the water anyway, it seems; what he really wanted was for this woman to hear his message, even if it was a message she was bound to misunderstand.

The woman flies into the village and tells everyone that there's a man by the well who's told her all about her life. It's not the bit about what she can do that she's most impressed with; she has no proof of it, and she doesn't really understand what he's got to say, and it's not concrete. But this kind of supernatural knowledge of her past, now, it impresses her, because it's concrete and verifiable. It's like Jesus found one spring and so she believes he can find another. The villagers are suitably impressed; they come back and see Jesus, and he talks with them, and they invite him to stay for a couple of days. So he does. And at the end of it all, they're all believers; they tell him that at first they believed because of the woman's report, but now they believe because they've heard him for themselves. But we don't know just what it was he told them, and how, with what parables and so forth. And we don't hear any more about these people. What happened after that? They kept living. This woman kept living. Did they continue to have contact with Jesus? How well did they even understand him in the first place, and how well did their faith stand up after he left – what sort of distortions crept in, and how did the banality of life gradually take over? And this woman. Did she stop taking up with more men in her long string of them? Did she ever really manage to put his teaching into her life, did she understand where and what the well was? Look at us today – we fancy ourselves very sophisticated, we think we understand all this. But how much more often do we believe what our senses tell us: that we're thirsty, and that's most important; that we're hungry, and whoever feeds us is good because he feeds us; that if it doesn't come in through your usual five senses, if you can't verify it, there's no use and probably no reality to it. There's no physical Jesus around to set us straight – and the fact that we seem to need one kind of illustrates that we haven't really found our own wellsprings. Jesus' point seems to have been that he is the well, and that we have that same well within us; but if we, like the woman, have our lives turned around but then find ourselves without the physical guide, do we slide back, do we grasp at straws, do we believe our bodies first?

If Jesus had stayed, then the woman would have happily drunk his water for the rest of her life. He had to go, for a lot of reasons but certainly because he had to if she was ever to find her own living water, to stop believing only her hands, eyes, ears, and stomach. But that doesn't mean she did. And it doesn't mean she didn't keep thirsting for his water, going to the well of her memory of him. What do you do when someone changes your life and then leaves?


[Psalm 42:]
As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.


[to the tune of "Motherless Child"]
Sometimes God digs a well in your soul [x3]
So the spirit can flow free

God tears you apart to make you a whole [x3]
So love can spring from within

You travel for years in search of the source [x3]
While water springs from your footprints

You think it's the fall but it's really the spring [x3]
And the rain and the sun are yours

We all come home to find we never left [x3]
And the end is just the beginning


Toilets are the saviours of the world. In their swirling vortices, their holy aqueoues cyclones, all our sins are swept away. Eat too much, drink too much, eat or drink the wrong things, whatever. Into the crapper and pull the lever and all is forgiven and forgotten, consigned to the cleansing powers of the filtration plant.

Household plumbing is like the unconscious, which is to say the spirit. Pipes we never think of, running behond walls, touch a tap and presto! Your water of desired temperature – or something thereabouts – is flowing like the fountain of eternal life, and then on down the drain, into oblivion. Our conscious receives materials from the unconscious gratuitously, free-flowing, the gracious gifts of the spirit, and we do what we will with these things, claiming credit as suits us; the refuse goes back down the pipes, except for when we try to stuff too much down, and then it backs up and overflows onto the floor.


Well here I am
in the same hole
I thought I dug
myself out of I
thought I climbed out
of it now I
find the walls are
rising to surround me
Well here it is
how do I get
out this time how
did I get out
last time do I
have a ladder am
I standing on a
platform that raises and
lowers is there a
button why can't I
find this button if
there is one am
I leaning on it
Well it is like
water one moment your
head is above one
below sometimes you fly
high above the surface
sometimes you sink below
into the depths where
air and light are
barely more than memory
but always you return
when you stop flapping
you fall when you
stop swimming you float
where did I get
this stone I'm holding
Well I am in
the water and the
water is in me
I will not drown
or fall but sometimes
oh often I struggle


Sally: I was sitting in Starbucks the other day when Frank came in. Frank, the man I was with just before my life got turned upside down – or rightside up. Five husbands, a pile of boyfriends, and he was the last one in a long string. He was the last one I tried to get something from before I met the man who told me I already had what I was looking for.

Frank: Hey, Sally, what're you doing here?

S: What does it look like I'm doing? I'm drinking tea.

F: Not the kind of thing I'm used to seeing you drinking.

S: And when was the last time you even saw me, let alone saw me drinking anything?

F: I guess it was just around the time you met that asshole guru.

S: Smarten up. I'm a hell of a lot happier. If you listened, you would be too.

F: Yeah, I saw everyone listen, and I saw them all happy and singing songs about how they got saved and everything, now they know what to do with their lives, never going to sin again. And you know what? They're still the same bunch of schmucks. Danced some, sang a few songs, it wore off pretty quickly.

S: I still feel better. It's not easy, you know. He said some people are like rocky soil, and others are like weedy soil, and just some are like good soil.

F: Whatever that means.

S: It means nobody's perfect, and some people are going to be less likely to take to the truth than others.

F: Well, I guess I'm just one of those ones that don't take to it.

S: You haven't even tried.

F: Well, how about you? Have you been perfectly peaceful, contented and happy ever since? You never get pissed off? You only drink tea now?

S: Of course I drink other things. Nothing wrong with a drink now and then. But I'm not turning to it looking for happiness. What I get out of it is what I bring to it, and I know that.

F: Well, you know what you brought to me. You brought me a bucket of shit. How do you think it feels? Morning: "Oh, I love you, lovey dovey, you are my only thing." Afternoon: "Dude, I just met some guy and he turned my life around. So 'bye!" Is this supposed to be compassion? Do you think I felt good about myself after that? Do you think I was happy all of a sudden being stuck with all the rent after you up and moved out on me on zero notice to go and stay with your aunt until you could get a place of your own?

S: At least I know how to look after myself. You still don't. Look, it wasn't perfect. We weren't living together because of what we could give to each other, we weren't even living together because of what we could learn from it, how we could grow and be challenged from the relationship with each other. We were living together because of security. We needed someone else there, it was a physical thing. You know how we argued!

F: Hey, I argued with you because I cared!

S: Have you ever stopped to ask yourself what a stupid thing that is to say? Even if it had been something you were for because you thought it was good for me – which was never the case –

F: Hey, that's not true.

S: You always argued for what you wanted, and I argued for what I wanted, and somehow we thought it was love because we wanted someone there to squeeze. Etcetera.

F: I was madly in love with you. It turns your feelings upside down.

S: You were not. And even if your feelings are upside down, you don't have to immediately take it out on someone, act it out, make it all worse.

F: You have to be true to yourself. You keep saying that yourself. You can't just bottle it all up.

S: It's not a question of bottling it up. It's a question of not fanning the flames. It's a question of not spreading the hurt. When you shout at someone, do you think you see them like a human being? You make them an object. We all make each other objects.

F: And now you're perfect and you don't get angry.

S: Of course I get angry. But I let it go away. I'm not perfect. I just know it makes more sense to spend more time and energy on happiness than on negative feelings. So everything I go through is a challenge, it's my chance to create something.

F: Well, I know what you created for me. A mess. If you're so caring, why don't you care about that? You could move back in with me, you know. I still miss you.

S: I didn't create a mess. The mess was there. I just recognized it. So cleaning up is unpleasant. Look, you drink all Saturday night, you have a hangover Sunday morning. The drinking was fun, but the hangover is the unavoidable consequence, OK? You wanted to stay drunk. Welcome to hangover city. You think I don't still miss you? Or miss having somebody there, anyway? You think every day I find everything I need here, in myself? I know it's there. I know where to find God. But that doesn't mean I always can. It doesn't mean I don't still have all these human feelings. They're my challenges, OK? And I don't think I could move back in with anybody right now. I think I've still got the addiction. It'd be too easy just to get lazy again and make you an object and so forth.

F: There's a lotta good so forthing out there.

S: No.

F: Love is a good thing. Love me.

S: I do love you. And I wish I could make it work in myself. Someday, maybe. But I still have alot of growing to do. I just know what growth is now. Where it comes from.

F: Fine. Well, you just go searching for yourself, and when you find yourself, you call me up and we'll have a drink.

S: Why don't you find yourself and then you won't need to call me.

S: And then he left. And I finished my tea. I don't have the answers. I don't think there are fixed answers. Just new questions all the time and new decisions. It's a well, but it's not a well like a pool of water. It's a spring, it just keeps flowing.


I will never be satisfied,
I have determined that I
will never be satisfied. I
cultivate thirst and longing, I
dream wet dreams of never
being full. It is yearning
that I yearn for, desire
that I desire. Too easy
to get what you want
and be satisfied, too easy
to choose who, what and
how you want to be;
you already know who you
are, it is who you
are not that you wish
to discover. The not yet
achieved promises future rewards; once
you have your goal, you
have nothing to look forward
to, no point in going
on, nothing left but death
or eternity, or find another
goal to pursue. Who wants
the present, who wants free
gifts, who can walk forward
without knowing where forward is?
I am in love with
the possibility, I can only
become by not being, I
choose to lose, I am
my own hole in which
all is lost so I
may find it, it may
spring forth like water I
have never tasted. But always
I must forget so that
I may see fresh, I
must believe I am not
well, I am not hole,
I am only the seeker
longing to find the way
to the spring, wandering through
the desert with the map
forgotten in my back pocket.



All contents © 2000–2004 James Harbeck