In Gathering Sunday

Our services for all ages often feature a story, accompanied by music provided by our wonderful Music Director Gregory Hayes, and acted out by members of the congregation.  Here is "The Woman at the Well," adapted from the poem "The Woman of Samaria" by Joy Cowley.



Once upon a time, somewhere, (it could have happened anywhere) there was a woman who lived by herself in a small village.  Every morning she went to the well to fetch water for her cooking. She swept, and worked her small garden plot, and ground the grain for her daily meal. Sometimes she gossiped with the neighbors and sometimes she stayed by herself.

On the Sabbath day she went to the center of the village, where people gathered to sing songs and hear ancient stories. Some of the stories were about their ancestors and their god. And some were about terrible wars and times of exile.  (Let's sing one together now.)


The woman loved to listen to those stories. There were ones much older than the stories of exile – stories about Abraham and Sarah, who had traveled far from their home land. Sarah and Abraham were very, very old, and Sarah had not been able to have a child. And then, an angel had appeared, and told Sarah she would soon have a son. Sarah had laughed at that – but it came true. Her son’s name was Isaac.

Isaac had a son named Jacob. There were many stories about Jacob. Jacob had twelve sons – and one of those sons was the ancestor of the tribe the woman belonged to. The stories reminded people that the sons had been jealous of each other and hadn’t always gotten along. A thousand years later, the tribes of their descendants didn’t always get along either. They had argued about how and where their god should be worshiped. They had fought against one another.

The woman thought about these stories as she walked home. She wondered why people argued and fought. She wished it could be different. She wished someone could teach her how.

That night, she went to sleep, still thinking about the stories and the disagreements and bitterness. And she had a dream. She dreamed that a great teacher, a holy man, was coming to see her. He was famous. He would teach her so many things she wanted to understand.  Maybe even how the world could be a kinder place.  And he was coming just to see her! He would meet her at the well, tomorrow.

She woke up, excited. She would prepare a feast, to welcome him. She went out into the countryside in search of sweet berries. She picked the vegetables from her garden and cooked them into a delicious stew. She prepared the finest loaves of bread she could bake. She bartered with her neighbor for a bottle of fine wine. That night, when she went to bed, she could hardly sleep.


In the morning the woman woke early, gathered all the food she had prepared, and went to the well to wait.

As people arrived to fill their jugs, the woman scanned the faces eagerly. No one she recognized, not yet. A child saw one of the loaves of bread in her basket and asked for a bite. She brushed him off, annoyed.

The well was an unusually busy place that day. People seemed to keep coming and coming. Some looked hungry and tired. They eyed the feast she had prepared, the bread, the sweet berries, the tempting stew, the wine. A few reached out their hands – and she turned away, protecting the banquet for the holy teacher who was coming to see her. The food was for him.

Other people wanted to talk with her, or show her something. Impatiently, she shooed them away. All day long, people came. The woman waited. She began to worry. She grew hungry and tired herself. Finally, the sun set. There was no one in sight. Dejected, she headed home and lay down to sleep.

And again, she had a dream. The holy man appeared. “What happened to you?,” she asked. “You said you were coming to see me, to meet me at the well! Why didn’t you appear?”

“I did come,” he said. “I was there at least 100 times today.”

The next morning, the woman got up. She sat in her doorway and thought hard. She knew the dream was real. The holy man would never lie. But what did he mean? How could he have been there 100 times? She had been at the well all day and hadn't seen him even once.

And so she sat in her doorway, and thought.



What do you think? What did the teacher mean, that he had been to the well 100 times that day? Did you see him there?

I based our story on a poem written by a woman named Joy Cowley. She lives in New Zealand, and she writes children’s books, and poems, and prayers. People familiar with the Christian Bible would recognize in her poem a story about a woman from Samaria whom Jesus meets at a well. But the way Joy Cowley tells the story is not at all the way it happens in the Bible. In the Bible, the woman has no idea a great teacher is coming. In the Bible she meets him, they talk, and she goes off to tell people about their encounter.

Unitarian Universalists take their inspiration from many sources, including the Jewish and Christian scriptures, and including imaginative leaps beyond them. In the Joy Cowley’s poem, and in our story, the woman is excited because she is sure she’s going to meet this holy man. He is coming just to see her. Maybe he’s going to solve all her problems. Maybe he will tell her the meaning of life. She prepares a feast to show him how important he is.

And who comes? Ordinary people. People who are young, old and in-between. People of many different backgrounds and beliefs; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and straight. People like you and me. Some of them are hungry. Some of them have a story, or something to else to share. She spurns them all. She doesn’t offer her food to the ones who are hungry, and she doesn’t listen to those who have something to share. They aren’t the ones she’s been waiting for. She’s waiting for someone much more important than any of them.

Just think – what if she had treated every person who came to the well as if each of them was the holy teacher? What do you suppose she might have seen and learned? And what about the people who were hungry? How would they have felt if she had shared some of her grand feast with them?

Was the holy man telling the truth? Did he come to the well 100 times that day?

I wonder what the woman decided. I hope she decided, after thinking for a while, that every person is holy, and each one has something to teach. We are here to feed each other – in mind, spirit and body. We are here to listen and learn from and love one another. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for, all along.