John Bennison Words and Ways | Subterranean Homesick Blues

Subterranean Homesick Blues

Subterranean Homesick Blues

A Commentary for Lent  III, Common Lectionary, Year A

[For context it will be extremely helpful to be familiar with the Common Lectionary Texts assigned for this observance, found here. You can print and/or read a pdf version here.]


The woman said to Jesus, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water.”  John 4:11

  “You don’t need a weather man,

To know which way the wind blows.”

Subterranean Homesick Blues, Bob Dylan, 1965


Above: Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well – He Qi

Just as it is, it rains,
I get wet,
I walk.
Well, which way
should I go?
The wind blows.
Going deeper,
and still deeper –
The green mountains.

Three Haiku, MountainTasting, Santoka Taneda (1882-1940)

 translated by John Stevens


 Water. Sometimes you can’t get enough of it.  Drought conditions in the East African nations of Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya are having devastating effects on entire populations of marginalized and forgotten peoples.

Water. Sometimes there’s too much of it. Couple it with an earthquake and a tsunami can cripple a country, and this time send detectable amounts of radiation levels around the globe.

Water.  Sometimes you can’t get rid of it.  The winter rains have so saturated the soil around my house, it’s taken three sump pumps to keep us high and dry.

Water.  Modern science tells us the human body is about 60% water in adult males, but only 55% in adult females.  I do not presume to know the reason for the difference.  Regardless, this is obviously a slightly more significant issue for us guys.

Given that (and culture), I bet that’s why it was most likely all the male Israelites who quarreled with Moses at Raphidim about a shortage of water in the desert. In the desert, hello?  And, I bet they were first in line to slake their thirst when life-giving water gushed from a rock, of all places. (Exodus 17:1-7)

I bet that’s also why there would have been no more natural, nor mundane, a setting for a tale about Jesus and the woman at the well than the one told in John’s gospel; with all the elaborate symbolism woven throughout the storyline by the interpretation of this early community of Christian believers.

It is this highly-stylized portrait of Jesus throughout John’s gospel that develops our living relationship to the one who is now (as then) among us only in Spirit, so it’s best not to take anything literally; where here Jesus is a vine, and we are the branches.  He is the way, and we are his wayfarers.  He’s the light of the world, and illumines our way. He is the sure provision for our journey; for he is bread of life and living water.

It is this highly-stylized portrait of Jesus …  that develops our living relationship to the one who is now (as then) among us only in Spirit, so it’s best not to take anything literally.

What better setting to help us imagine a deeper way to journey into a more abundant life with one who shows us the face of God, than a water well that does not run dry; but where one digs deep, to reach the most natural of springs, such “living” waters.  These are the “sure provisions” that have been there from the first day of creation; when the primordial waters separated from dry land, and it was all deemed to be good.

So here’s how I have re-imagined that “subterranean goodness” that might be found in this gospel tale, if one has a thirst to reach a little deeper, and draw something more from such a wellspring:

Jesus is alone by the time he reaches the next town on his journey.   Everyone’s hungry, so his travelling companions have gone off to forage for provisions, and presumably return at some point.  So the story of this private exchange about to take place clearly moves us into another realm of truth-telling; about what is “true,” and what really happens again and again, regardless of the names of the characters, time and place.

It’s the heat of the day. Jesus is weary and foot-sore from trekking miles on those hot, dusty back roads. The thick dust sticks to the sweat of his body. His mouth tastes like sawdust. He’s thirsty.  He’s just thirsty.

He collapses beside a well, and looks around. Then he shrugs his shoulder, with a sigh. “Wouldn’t you know it?” he laughs to himself.  “No bucket.”

A woman approaches this stranger. She’s got a bucket, and a look in her eye.

His throat is parched and his voice is hoarse, but he gestures with his hand, and gets out a few words, “Water, please.”

Swinging her bucket in front of him playfully, she dares to engage him in conversation.  “You’re not from around these parts, are you?  We don’t see your type very often; especially talkin’ with someone like me.”

Jesus takes a deep breath, and the dry heat almost bakes his lungs. He sighs again.  He’s just hot, and tired, and thirsty.  He knows her type, and has little interest in playing games.

Oblivious, she teases and taunts him.  “Know what?  You have no bucket, and this well is mighty deep.  Betcha didn’t know that.”

In exasperation, Jesus mutters under his breath, “Apparently, the well is deeper than you can fathom.”

But then he looks at her again, standing there with her shallow guile and sad, simple smile.  And – as happens to him again and again, he just can’t seem to help himself — his heart goes out to her.

But then he looks at her again, standing there with her shallow guile and sad, simple smile.  And – as happens to him again and again, he just can’t seem to help himself — his heart goes out to her.

 Mind you, he has no problem breaking with social convention and ethnic taboos speaking with this woman in public.  Centuries and centuries before either of them had ever set foot on this earth their common ancestors had split up, when some of them in Samaria had intermarried with the Assyrians.  They hadn’t been on speaking terms since.  They wouldn’t even drink from the same cup if it killed ‘em.

But this itinerant preacher’s sermons have had a very different message and vision for Jew and Samaritan; for men and women, for those who are considered acceptable by some and those who are deemed unacceptable.  His message imagined another kind of place that went far beyond such rigidity of the heart; or people telling other people who they should or shouldn’t marry.

And, at that moment, it was something that just went so much deeper than the banal drivel and cheeky behavior of the one standing before him, who longed to buck against her station in life; who only had the same old bucket, for the same old well their ancestors had provided.

At the same time, clearer than anything else at that moment was that Jesus just wanted a drink of water.  Here was a well.  There was a bucket.  What is the problem?

If there was a problem, it belonged to the Samaritan woman, who couldn’t look at a man without seeing a potential future husband. Again.  Whether previously widowed or divorced by a note of dismissal, she’s still convinced a man in her life will make her a whole person.  Given the custom and culture of which she is a part, she’s right.  Unmarried, she is regarded as nothing more than something to be bartered and owned, at best.

Lord knows, she’s already tried five times, and working on number six.  It shouldn’t take a fortune-teller to figure out her sad and misfortunate circumstances.  As Dylan put it, “You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.”  You just first need to know the wind is blowin’.  And then, it just takes a little heart; heart for this woman who’s clearly dying of a whole other kind of thirst.

“You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.”  You just first need to know the wind is blowin’And then, it just takes a little heart … for this woman who’s clearly dying of a whole other kind of thirst.

It seems to me the significance of this story about Jesus and the woman at the well is typically interpreted in such a way that it’s all about Jesus, who he was, and how his messianic coming into this world was meant to be expanded (in the Hellenistic perspective in which John’s gospel was written) to Samaria and the wider world.

So, as the story gets elaborated, the local townspeople ultimately don’t take the woman’s word for it. Beyond her lack of credibility because she’s a woman, they probably all know full well she has a certain reputation.  Just ask her ex-husbands.

So they establish their own testimony about who Jesus the magician is, who can draw water from a bottomless well.  About this fortune-teller is, who can see right through us and expose our most intimate secrets.  About this worldly foreigner is who seems to speak with such knowledge and authority.  About this notorious stranger is, the one who comes to so spectacularly save the world.

However — given the fact that the earliest sources we have about what was most nearly the original voice of Jesus rarely has him talking about himself — makes me suspect the origins of this tale had more to do with the people Jesus encountered, and their story.  So it is that this story has more to do with this no-name Samaritan woman of questionable character.

Later we have John’s early faith community looking back and interpreting who Jesus is for them, as “living water” and world savior.  But like all those stories we find in the earlier (synoptic) gospels, it’s all about the circumstances of the people Jesus encounters; about the afflictions from which they suffer and he heals and relieves them; and about the parables he spins for them, about a different way of living their lives.

If this hot, tired and thirsty Jesus is out to save the world on the back roads of Galilee and Samaria, he clearly seems to be doing it one person, or one town, at a time.  The later development of some grand, cosmic soteriology seems to have originally risen out of just such an encounter with one plain-faced, half-breed peasant woman at a well.

If this hot, tired and thirsty Jesus is out to save the world on the back roads of Galilee and Samaria, he clearly seems to be doing it one person, or one town, at a time.

In his exchange with this one woman, Jesus encounters her in the common drudgery of her daily life.  She is schlepping water in an endless trek from well to hearth, and back again. She wants a way out, but the only way she knows is one that keeps her going in circles.

So, with her own insufferable life, he invites her to go deeper; to draw deeper from that which I simply imagine might have been the well of her own tears and heartache, disappointment and self-loathing, from her own “subterranean homesick blues.”  Paul writes,

And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

The Jesus of John’s gospel says elsewhere he is light to the world. Who wouldn’t want a little light?  Or a little “living water.”  The Samaritan woman thought she came to the well to fill up the same old bucket.  Jesus takes one long, pitied look at the woman and her insufferable life, and suggests she go deeper into her suffering, and be enlightened, or refreshed.  (Romans 5:3-5)  As Franciscan guide, Richard Rohr writes:

Enlightenment … is always given from another.  Wisdom is not a do-it-yourself project.  The Spirit blows where it pleases, and for those of us on the journey, all we can do is listen for the lessons and remain open.  Jesus called this faith.  All we can really do is ask for the grace to be open and willing enough to recognize the doorways …  The door is almost always some form of suffering—physical, relational, emotional, intellectual, or structural.  I define suffering as what happens to you whenever you are not in control. Enlightenment is not about knowing as much as it is about unknowing; about entering the mystery than arriving at a mental certitude.

On the Threshold of Transformation


Santoka Teneda was a reknowned 20th century free-style haiku poet.  He was also a Buddhist monk.  It figures.  Such severe economy of words used in the practice of writing a haiku is a maddening discipline for more verbose word merchants like myself. More contemplative types are better able to go deeper with less, and set loose the imagination that springs from between a few well-placed syllables.

 Just as it is,
it rains, I get wet,
I walk.

 But long before Teneda reached middle age and began what would be a pilgrimage the rest of his days, his life story was extraordinary only to the extent it included more than its share of ordinary tragedies.  As Nonin Sensei, Abbot of the Nebraska Zen Center, relates it:

When he was eleven, Santoka’s mother committed suicide. His father, a notorious womanizer, mismanaged the family’s property and eventually lost everything, with Santoka’s help – for the young man became an alcoholic at an early age and helped ruin the business he was involved in – a sake brewery. Santoka’s younger brother also committed suicide, and Santoka’s marriage was a disastrous failure.

Near the end of December 1924, Santoka, drunk and intent on committing suicide, stood in the middle of some railroad tracks, facing an oncoming train. The train screeched to a halt just in time, and Santoka was pulled out of the way. He was taken to a nearby Zen temple call Ho-on-ji. The head priest there, Gian Mochizuki Osho, did not reprimand or question Santoka; he didn’t even ask his name. The monk fed Santoka, and told him he could stay at the temple as long as he wished.

A year later, Santoka was ordained a Zen Buddhist priest by Gian. He was 42 years old. For the rest of his life, Santoka wandered throughout Japan, living from hand to mouth, and composing a remarkable body of free-style haiku.

 Well, which way
should I go?
The wind blows.

If this sounds too ethereal, I am sobered by the fact that in other ways Teneda remained a living testament to the fact that in this life, it’s a mixed bag.  He never completely escaped his suffering, as addiction remained an unwelcome companion to the end.

At the same time, it seems evident when there were days when he was hot, weary and footsore from his travels, he came to know a different kind of thirst.

For, I bet he could still remember that night of insufferable despair, and the enlightened encounter of the temple priest who neither rebuked, nor judged him; but simply accepted him, took him in, and provided for him.

I can imagine it was not unlike the woman’s encounter with Jesus at a well.

Going deeper,
and still deeper –
The green mountains.



© 2011 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.  All rights reserved.

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