The thirst for living water in a dry land

Obery Hendricks's debut novel imagines the life of that woman who met Jesus at the well - and drew up more than she bargained for

In ancient Greece, some time before a mob threw him off a cliff, Aesop noticed that familiarity breeds contempt. In Judea, six hundred years later, before a similarly violent death, another captivating storyteller complained that the ears of his audience had grown "dull of hearing."

It's a problem peculiar to the devout that their sacred tales risk growing stale when exposed to the air of constant reverence. We all know how hard it is to find shelf space, but what curious Christian can help feeling that the four Gospels are a little sparse when John signs off by claiming, "There are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written."

Today, denied access to those "many other things," one of the ways the Gospel stories can be multiplied is by peering into the tantalizing gaps between them. It's an act of literary imagination that takes us into the ancient texts and our own contemporary concerns.

Obery Hendricks's debut novel, "Living Water," boldly wades into the life of the unnamed woman whom Jesus met at a well in Samaria. Their brief encounter, as told only in the Gospel of John, sparkles with irony and word play. It also raises a number of fascinating questions about this spunky woman who dares to banter with a strange man, confront the prejudice between their peoples, discuss her shameful marital history, and proclaim his divinity.

In Jesus' career, this is not a particularly significant conversation - it makes a point about his messiahship that's made just as well elsewhere. But by imagining the events that led her to this encounter, Hendricks takes us into a world of startling savagery and demonstrates the healing power of Jesus' message in a wonderfully dramatic way.

The novel begins with the woman's childhood in a "small slice of the land of Samaria from which whole families spend their lives coaxing their subsistence and struggling to survive the greed and brutality of the legions of Caesar." She's an unusually happy little girl in a culture that usually crushes the happiness of little girls. As she skips home singing out greetings, the village men stop weeding their gardens, click their tongues, and warn their own children that no girl should act so gibora.

The narrator explains, "When applied to a man, this Hebrew word gibora is a good thing. Evocative of strength, bravery, and boldness, in the Scriptures it anoints men as heroes and is even used to praise the strength of God. But when applied to a female of any age, gibora is not a pleasing thing. For a woman to be called gibora means that she is 'mannish,' that she does not know her place, that she speaks up and talks back, and that she is committed to the blasphemy of daring to claim the same standing before God as men."

Fortunately, nowadays we've made so much social progress that no one need weed his garden by hand. But Hendricks's novel still manages to deliver powerful points about the destructive force of sexism that are disturbingly relevant. Indeed, the novel's focus on that issue may turn conservative readers away. Hendricks, a past president of the Payne Theological Seminary, the oldest African-American seminary in the United States, preaches hard on gender equality in this novel, and he wants to make sure that everyone hears the sermon - even in the back.

He follows his young heroine through her first cruel lessons on submission and then through five ghastly marriages that rarely rise above sanctified rape. Most of the novel explores the origins of male chauvinism and the way it's perpetuated through theology and custom, always with the same result: the destruction of women's spirits and, ultimately, men's happiness.

Hendricks is not a particularly subtle writer here, and there's a tendency toward clichéd phrasing and psychological shorthand that more aggressive editing might have alleviated, but he's always terrifically engaging, and the points he wants to hammer home are dramatically conveyed in the trials of this poor woman's life.

His fundamental thesis is that repression (in this case, the Roman subjugation of the Samaritans) forces humiliated men to turn on the loved ones they cannot protect or provide for, setting in motion a cycle of domestic abuse that gradually justifies itself until it seems normal and even necessary for social stability. For American readers, his daring decision to write all the dialogue in a black Southern dialect lends special resonance to their plight.

Despised and rejected of men, the unnamed heroine eventually falls into the care of a group of women on the edge of town who are secretly exploring the feminine side of God. "If Moses' wife Zipporah had gone up on to Mount Sinai with him," one of the leaders speculates, "she could have brought back the instructions to women that Moses didn't have the ears to hear." She even manages to find a brave man with a "womb-spirit" who's willing to live with her outside the miso-gynist marriage covenant of Moses.

All this leads up to her transforming conversation with a Jew at the well of Jacob, an encounter handled so effectively, with such refreshing wit and enlightenment that you'll never read the Gospel story the same way again.

Hendricks avoids both Miltonic blandness and offensive irreverence in his portrayal of the Son of God. He presents a Messiah who's at once happy and strong, loving and funny, charismatic and patient. He doesn't arrive till the last chapters - when the night is far spent and the day is at hand - for an inspiring finale to a provocative novel.

The arguments implicit in this biblical re-creation are more social than theological, but "Living Water" should stir the settled deposits of anyone's devotion, clarifying one's faith even if it doesn't change it.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csps.com.

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