Only once in rural west Africa did I see anything like this--a man, a male, at the community well--and this time there was good reason. We were in an isolated village in Mali, far off any easily traceable beaten track, when the men, the powers-that-be, insisted that we, their honored guests, visit their wondrous village well, a gift by the way of the Japanese, the sign said.
They didn't say it, but it was clear they were bust-your-buttons proud of that well's modernity. No ropes, no pulleys, and no buckets, save the buckets they used--the women that is--to lug all the precious cargo back to their huts.
We had to walk a ways in a desert sun so intense I wished I'd worn a cap or cape. Emphasis on had to--there are things honored guests simply have to do, and we had to witness the glory of their blessed village well.
"We don't really have a choice, do we?" I said quietly to my yankee traveling companion as we walked in heat that was almost unbearable.
He tipped his head and smiled knowingly. "No question," he said, "but out here remember, water is life."
What came to me immediately was the story of a Samaritan woman with a history of five husbands and, most recently, a live-in partner, the woman at the well, the gospel story.
At dozens of villages along the road only women did the drawing. Gender roles in an Islamic society are, to say the least, well-defined. I don't remember ever eating a meal with an African woman at the table; they prepared the food and served it up, sumptuously poured it or spooned it onto our plates, but never sat beside us. Such is Islamic life even in Christian homes.
All of which simply enriches the old gospel story, doesn't it? That Jesus was there at a well like this one was itself quite something, if I can extrapolate a bit. That he, a man, actually talked to her, a woman, had to be newsworthy. But what trumped everything was that the woman was a Samaritan, and a tough one at that, a "hard woman," my mother might say, a woman with a record she'd likely rather not print up. Jesus the Christ, the only human with clearly divine parentage, trashed all the rules, broke every last one of them, by doing little more than being human.
There they were, the two of them, at places like this, where I had to be reminded that water is life.
It goes without saying that if you travel abroad, almost anywhere, you just don't drink the water, a rule especially difficult in overheated sub-Saharan Africa, where you simply have to drink even if you're not thirsty, a region where water is life.
That village elder at the top of the page offered us a drink of the water that blessed pump poured out richly. Warning lights flashed in my head; alarms blared in my ears. But when our Ghanian guide and friend hunched over and drank from the well, then looked at me and insisted this well was very deep and therefore safe, I drank too, hesitantly but, eventually, bountifully, the only time I actually drank the water in Africa.
Water is life after all, I reminded myself.
When we walked back to the village, I couldn't help but wonder what the Samaritan woman thought when on that exceptionally strange day she met the exceptionally strange Jew at the well, a man she said she could tell was a prophet, a man who actually spoke to her and told her in no uncertain terms that he was, of all things, the Messiah, the promised one.
When she got back to the hut, I wonder what she said to that guy she was sleeping with. I wonder how she might have explained to him the living water because she had certainly heard something and seen someone she'd never, ever heard and seen before.
Even now, a couple weeks later, that whole wonderful gospel story is clearer, peopled by vivid characters I can see at wells I've visited firsthand.
Like anything else, I suppose, the phrase "living water" can wear itself altogether too easily into cliche.
Maybe it goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: when I stood there in the hot African sun, at that precious village well, I was, that afternoon and am yet today, greatly refreshed.