Undertone of Need
By Anthony Casperson
Re-reads/re-watches can reveal things missed the first time we experienced the story. Little hints of larger issues in the characters’ lives that seemed innocuous when we first witnessed them, but when we get to the same part of the story with knowledge of the end point, we see the words or actions had revealed so much more.
For instance, if there’s a character in the story who will eventually betray the rest of the protagonists, there are usually smaller actions that point to that trajectory. And only the most fastidious among us might question the possibility.
Or if the character has a large flaw that had yet to be revealed in the story, there will likely be little clues in their words that reveal the beginnings of the issue long before it is fully revealed. Their addictions. Their fears. Or even their psychological need.
This is why—in reality—we need to take serious any statements that speak toward the beginnings of ideation for negative things. A world of hurt or pain can be alleviated if we just listen. And with life, there isn’t really a re-watch.
I was surprised earlier this week as I was reading a story I’d seen and heard thousands of times before. And I noticed a layer of undertone in a person’s words that revealed their need before the story blatantly told us. A woman’s words that seemed to say one thing, but really spoke to a deeper need that I never caught until a little later in the story.
The story is commonly referred to as “The Woman at the Well,” found in John 4:4-42.
Jesus is traveling through the land of Samaria via a shortcut from Judea to Galilee that few Jewish individuals passed, because of racial hatred between Jew and Samaritan. (The Samaritans were descendants of interbreeding between the few Israelites left in the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the displaced people that the Assyrians forced into that land after having conquered the Northern Kingdom. Thus, there was debate as to the place of heritage as God’s chosen people with regard to the Samaritans. And we all know how much racial divides make people like each other.)
While the disciples were off getting some lunch, Jesus sits at a well dug by Jacob. Israel himself. The sun beat down in the heat of the day. And there was plenty of water right there in the well. But Jesus had nothing to draw water out with. You can almost see him whetting his lips while tapping fingers on the side of the well as he wondered where the disciples were.
But then, a local woman shuffles toward the well. Curious as to the reason why the man rests there, but not looking him in the eyes. She doesn’t want to be seen. However, her need of water is great.
Now, how do we know that she doesn’t want to be seen? The time that most people (usually women during that day and age) went to gather their water for the day was early in the morning, before the heat rose. That way they could get cold water for their families to start the day. But this woman approaches the well in the heat of the day. When no one else should be there. No other woman to talk to, or people to engage with.
Her purpose of timing should raise our suspicion as to there being some issue in her life, but that’s not enough to yet speak to her undertone of need.
But the woman fails her stealth check as she nears Jesus. He begins the conversation asking for some water that she’d be able to draw out for him. But she puts up the wall of racial differences. Jesus smiles and turns to a spiritual teaching. “If you knew who asked you for a drink, you’d ask me for living water.” Water that’s better than semi-stagnant well water.
She still doesn’t get his switch from physical reality to spiritual need. And asks how he could draw any sort of water since he can’t even get his own water from the well. Jesus doubles down on his speaking to spiritual needs, telling her that anyone who drinks the water he offers will never thirst again.
The woman’s words in verse 15 are the ones that I saw in a new light during this re-read. The woman asks for the water so that she won’t ever be thirsty again and won’t have to come to the well again.
Did you notice that? So that she won’t have to come to this well again. What’s wrong with the well? Why doesn’t she want to have to come back here again? It’s probably something to do with why she’s at the well when no one else should be there, but what could that possibly be?
The rest of the story shows us that the woman had been passed around sexually by various men, either having multiple divorces, or some questions of why husbands kept dying on her. And the only manner of support she could find was with a man who cared for her so little that he wouldn’t even marry her.
While a woman living with a man who isn’t her husband might not sound that dire of a circumstance to us today, it was dangerous for the woman at the time. There was no security of livelihood. He could toss her out without a single requirement of aid. And social disgrace from everyone else in the town would abound as well. Rumors of being the town slut, even though the circumstances left her without much other choice.
No wonder she didn’t want to have to come back to the well again. It’d be like wanting to delete your social media account after being harassed through every post for over a year.
Her words seemed innocuous. As if it was just a natural assumption that never being thirsty again meant that she’d never have to return to the well. But that additional slip of words spoke volumes of undertone as to her need.
Fortunately for her, Jesus picked up on it. And spoke to her about her present need as well as spiritual. Neither of which had to do with actual water. And she eventually runs to the people of the town to call them to Jesus. From town slut to evangelist in a matter of minutes.
While we could look at the rest of the story as most people would while speaking about the passage, I wanna hang out at the undertone of need. And call us to apply some of the lessons there.
Let’s be sure to listen—really listen—when people speak to us. There might just be undertones of need in their words that we won’t have the luxury of re-reading. But also, if any of us are in need—and nobody seems to be catching the undertones—let’s remember that God knows and wants to bring us an abundant life.
It won’t mean that all of our problems go away with a puff of smoke. But this reminder of utmost value to God should help us put down our fears and realize that we don’t have to be stuck in our need.