By Anne Wilson
As a ’90s kid, there were only a few singers most blonde, blue-eyed girls dreamed of becoming—and at the very top of my list was Celine Dion. I ran all around my house pretending to be her sidekick; I knew every word and music video cue. No matter what I was doing, Celine’s voice and lyrics were not far from my imagination or actions. Every chore became an opportunity to reenact Celine’s music videos—from wiping off kitchen counters to cleaning up my room, there was always time for another rendition of “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.”
Eventually my brother, who I think was annoyed by me for 90 percent of our childhood, nicknamed me Celine Wannabe and told all of our friends that I thought I could be her. His intention, of course, was to embarrass me—but she was my idol; it was endearing at first. Until one of his friends laughed and said I’d never sound like her and that my voice reminded him of a billy goat. Then Celine Wannabe had a different ring to it and came with a bit of a sting. My childhood dreams were crushed.
What’s in a Nickname?
That wasn’t the first time I’d been given a nickname of course, and some others throughout my adolescent and college years weren’t nearly as endearing. I’m guessing you’ve been given a nickname somewhere along the way too—maybe one that you asked for or one you didn’t. The thing about having someone say something about you is that sometimes it has a way of sticking in ways you didn’t intend. We not only take words on as part of who we are, but we carry the weight of the nickname, the identity, and sin from our past and into our present sometimes without even knowing it.
This is nothing new. In John 4 we see this same narrative with a woman whom Jesus met near a well. While we don’t know a lot about her history, we do know that her past defined her. Somewhere along the way, whether it was by her choice or because of events that happened to her—this woman from Samaria became known as a scandalous woman, and there’s no doubt that this identity affected what she believed about herself.
When she came to draw water, Jesus approached her and asked her for a drink—and we quickly realize this is one of those conversations everyone would have been eavesdropping in on. Not only because she was a woman and from Samaria, but because she was a woman who struggled with sexual sin. Three strikes. Jewish men like Jesus (especially rabbis), didn’t talk to women in public, and Jews and Samaritans didn’t get along—so there were plenty of reasons for Jesus to dismiss her and move along.
Things Get Personal
As they began the conversation, what started as a simple conversation about water turned into something bigger, and Jesus continued to dig and ask questions that peeled away the surface. In this encounter Jesus saw through all of her baggage—all of the nicknames and old stories she’d carried with her to the well that day. In verses 16 through 18, we read:
“He told her, ‘Go, call your husband and come back.’ ‘I have no husband,’ she replied. Jesus said to her, ‘You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.’”
Right away, Jesus set up the stakes: he knew everything about her—the stories, the gossip, the husbands, and the failures. I love this exchange because Jesus got personal almost right away, and she tried to sidestep and back away—but Jesus kept pressing. She threw out a theological question about where to worship, and Jesus steered her in a different direction. He not only answered her question, but he also gave her something more to think about. He started pointing her toward the fact that he was the Messiah, the Christ.
Jesus Wrote a New Story
Not only had he laid the groundwork that he knew her and everything she’d ever done, but he was also God. In verses 28 through 30, we read:
“Leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?’ They came out to of the town and made their way toward him.”
We don’t know everything about this woman’s story; I wish we did. I wish we knew what nickname her siblings gave her or what she was like as a teenager, a first wife, and a third wife. I wonder if the men she married called her names or if she unknowingly took on an identity she was never meant to carry. We don’t know if she was told at a young age this was all she would ever be or if she fell into a cycle of sin that led her to this place.
What we do know about her, though, is this: she came to the well that day for one purpose—to fill up her water jar. She was ready with her utensils and her jar, and after spending mere moments with Christ, she left it all to tell people about him. She left that day no longer the woman with five husbands, but as a woman with a past who had been redeemed by Jesus.
In one conversation Jesus wrote her a whole new story. So often we think we have to clean everything up before we come to Christ, but it’s the opposite. We come to Jesus broken, and as we spend time with him, we get a taste of this living water he was telling the woman about. Jesus knew she was empty, which is why he piqued her curiosity by offering her living water—a life of abundance and real freedom. Once she realized who he was and what he’d done, she immediately dropped what she had to tell others about what she’d seen and heard. When you’ve been set free by Jesus’ grace, you can’t help but set others free as well.
Drop Your Past Behind
Some of us have been retelling and rewriting old stories about ourselves for years. Maybe you, like me, have believed you weren’t qualified, worthy, talented, whatever—and while you’ve been walking with Jesus, you still haven’t let him come into your life and take away narratives that have no place in your life anymore. What we see in this exchange is a woman who dropped her old story, one that someone else gave her, and stepped into a story Jesus was writing.
The entire future of the village changed because of what Jesus did for this woman at the well in the middle of the day. Verse 39 reads, “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I ever did.’”
When we get a taste of real, true freedom, this is our natural response. We can run free, drop our past behind, and give that which we cannot carry to Christ. He gives all of us a story of freedom to share with others, and the more we spend time with Jesus, the more we’ll be glad to give up.
What identity have you been living in that no longer belongs to you? How can you use the pain, hurt, and story God has written in your life to set others free? What holds you back from trusting Jesus with your story? I wonder what our world would look like if those who follow Christ stepped confidently into the lives Jesus died for us to have—to lay aside old narratives and storylines that no longer belong to us and exchange them for freedom. If Jesus has set you free, don’t let it stay with you. Drop your utensils and tell your story to set others free.
Anne Wilson is a wife and mother and serves as the content director for Traders Point Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.