Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Well includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Stephanie Landsem. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In the small Samaritan village of Sychar, the well is the place where women gather to draw their water and share their lives with one another—but not for Mara’s family. Shunned for the many sins of her mother, Nava, Mara struggles to keep her family alive in the face of starvation and the threat of exile. Then their lives are forever changed with the arrival of two men: Shem, a wealthy young man from Caesarea with an air of mystery; and Jesus, a Jewish teacher who transforms Nava’s broken spirit with his talk of forgiveness. When Nava is stoned for her mistakes, Mara embarks with Shem on a journey to seek Jesus’ help—a journey that brings unexpected love and unimaginable heartbreak.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Nava’s family is both shunned and sustained by their community. Discuss how charity is often a double-edged sword in the novel.
2. In the novel, marriage and friendships play an important part, especially for women. How has this changed from Mara and Nava’s time to today? How is it the same?
3. Did hearing it from both Shem’s and Mara’s points of view change the story for you? Did hearing it from Nava’s point of view for one chapter make you more sympathetic to her? Is there another character you would have enjoyed hearing from?
4. How would the novel be different if it were told from Nava’s perspective, given that she is the most affected by Jesus’ arrival? Do you think readers could sympathize with her as much as they do with Mara?
5. Jacob’s well is important both as a source of water and gossip and as the site of Nava and Jesus’ meeting. Is there a modern equivalent in your community?
6. What surprised you most about life in Sychar?
7. How does Shem’s attitude toward the simpler life of his grandfather change throughout the book?
8. Would Mara have married Jobab if she hadn’t met Jesus or Shem? Is finding a place in the community and supporting her family worth the loveless marriage?
9. When Jesus first arrives in Sychar, no one believes Nava when she says the Taheb has arrived. “Jews don’t even speak to Samaritan men—never to women” (p. 108). What parallels do you see to the tensions between religious groups in modern society? Do you think the author has done this deliberately?
10. “She must make him see—he had been called by the Taheb, to Jerusalem. To do what, she didn’t know any more than he did. But it was important. More important than her dreams of a life with him” (p. 235). Do you agree with her? How does she hope to accomplish this?
11. When attacked by Tirzah, Nava acknowledges her faults, even though she risks death or exile for her family. She says Jesus “did not condemn me but called me to repent and start again. He forgave me” (p. 127). Would you have the strength to admit your sins to someone out for revenge? If it meant your family might suffer?
12. Do you think Mara is right to marry Enosh, given that she loves Shem? Why, or why not?
13. Does Shem have a more difficult time accepting Jesus and his faith because he is a scholar? Discuss the differences among Mara’s, Nava’s, and Shem’s acceptance of Jesus as the Taheb.
14. Did the epilogue surprise you? Discuss your reactions as a group.
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Discuss the story of Stephen, the first martyr of Christianity, and compare his life and death as related in the Bible to his youth in The Well.
2. Mara and her family survive because of the grudging charity of their neighbors. In keeping with the tradition of being a “good Samaritan,” volunteer with a group that helps those in need.
3. Create a virtual trip that follows the path Shem and Mara followed to find Jesus. Imagine what their journey must have been like by researching their trail.
A Conversation with Stephanie Landsem
The Wellis your first novel. Did your original plans for the novel differ from what you ended up with?
I was very much surprised with how the novel changed and developed as I wrote it. Research is a great source of inspiration for me. As I dug into the history and culture of Samaria, I found fascinating story elements just waiting to be used. I love it when that happens! As to the characters, they changed as well. Mara became stronger while Shem showed more of his weaknesses. Asher’s role expanded, probably because I just loved him so much.
What inspired you to write the story of Mara and Shem?
When I read the Bible, I’m sometimes left with many questions. In some passages, so much of the story is not told that it seems to beg me to fill in the gaps. The Samaritan woman at the well is one of those. Who was she? What had happened to her and why? And why did Jesus stop on that day, at that particular well, and speak to her? I couldn’t resist filling in the details. And when I did, there was the story that I wanted to write.
You include a lot of specific details in your novel, lending authenticity to your settings and characters. How did you conduct the research for this story?
I absolutely love the research part of writing. In fact, I can get so caught up in research that I spend days deep in books. The Internet is useful but I love finding books that are written by historians, archeologists, and anthropologists. There is nothing as thrilling as discovering that little kernel of historical detail that puts the reader right into the story, experiencing it firsthand. Besides, with piles of books all over my desk, I always have a good excuse to avoid laundry and dishes.
The characters of The Welltravel across the ancient world from Caesarea to Galilee and Sychar. Have your own travels changed your writing? In what ways?
I’ve traveled since I was a teenager, and it never fails to amaze me that as diverse as people are—in language, clothes, food—we are more alike than we are different. We all search for love, for happiness and security, and ultimately we all search for God. No matter what our cultures or geography, God has given each human a hunger to find him. Like Mara and Shem, we are all on a journey to discover his plan for us, no matter if we live in Minnesota, Sychar, or Timbuktu.
Mara was often outside the community of women, though she longed to be part of it. Do you have a community you rely on, both in life and for your writing?
Absolutely, and I’m blessed that my writing and faith communities intersect so much that sometimes I can’t tell them apart. My family is a huge support and always there to lift me up. Friends who have helped me through pregnancies and child rearing are now glad to be my first readers and my biggest fans. In the past few years, many of the talented writers I’ve met have become instant friends because of our shared love of words, but even more so because of our shared faith. Of course, my larger church community is a huge source of strength and inspiration and is where I go for spiritual rest and peace.
Was it difficult to write Jesus as a character in your novel?
Yes and no. I’m always excited when Jesus enters into the story. He’s the only character who is not only real but present—here and now. I love to imagine what it must have been like for my characters to meet the Incarnation face to face. On the other hand, he’s not fictional. I can guess what he looked like and imagine what he wore, but I’m not comfortable putting words in his mouth. Surely Jesus said much that wasn’t recorded, but I don’t want to guess what that might have been and I don’t think readers want that either. So I stick to what was actually written down in the Bible.
Not much is known about Stephen the Martyr’s conversion to Christianity. Why did you choose to have him encounter Mara and the Samaritan community?
That was one of my most amazing moments as I researched The Well. At first, Shem was just a wayward Samaritan, unsure of his faith and sent to Sychar in shame. But as I began to research the Samaritan people, I came upon a debate among scholars (scholars do tend to debate). Some Samaritan and Bible scholars, after examining Stephen’s speech against the Jews in Acts, believe that Stephen could have been a Hellenized Samaritan—a well-educated Samaritan from a Greek-speaking, cosmopolitan city, such as Caesarea. It fit so well with my mental picture of Shem, I still get goose bumps. We don’t know much about Stephen, which is why it was exciting to imagine what he might have been like and what might have inspired a faith so strong that he was willing to be the first to die for Jesus.
Were you tempted to give Mara and Shem their happy ending?
No one wants to see their favorite characters die or be separated, even the author! But sometimes what the world considers a happy ending is different from THE happy ending: eternal life with Jesus. That is the happy ending that I always want—for my family and friends, my readers, and yes, even for my characters.
The different religions and groups portrayed in The Wellseem to be at constant odds with each other, from the Jews, to the Samaritans, to the Romans. Did the religious tensions of the modern world affect how you chose to portray this issue?
We’ve all experienced religious differences—in our communities, among friends, and even within our own families. Since our belief in God is so fundamental to who we are, I think those differences can divide us more deeply than, say, cultural or language divisions. Nava found that believing in Jesus in the midst of disbelief in Sychar required both faith and humility. Humility—not self-righteousness or judgment—is just as important today as we live among differing views of Jesus, God, and religion.
How does your faith influence your writing?
I hope that it influences everything I do, from loving my husband and kids to volunteering at school to battling the daily household mess. And so, when I sit down at my desk to write, my prayer is pretty simple: Here I am, Lord, I come to do your will.
Are you working on another book? Can you tell us anything about it?
Yes, and I’m really excited about it. It’s called The Thief and is set in Jerusalem. Like The Well, it is told from two points of view and one is that of a familiar character: the red-haired Roman, Longinus. i>The Thief is about a Roman centurion looking for peace and a Jewish woman hiding a terrible secret. When a miracle at the Pool of Siloam brings them together, her secret will keep them apart and ultimately lead them both to the foot of a cross on Calvary.