Preacher: Canon Jenny Wilson
In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.
On and around 22 March 2017, the United Nation’s World Water Day, cathedrals and churches worldwide are lifting their voices to draw attention to our obligation to care for God’s sustaining gift of water in all its forms. In our own cathedral during Lent at Evensong, in a sermon series begun by the Dean last week, we are exploring the theme of water in our own stories, in the stories of scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments, and as a profound theme in spirituality and the life of prayer. Finally, and critically, our preachers will explore the theme of water as a life sustaining resource for life on our planet that is vital, and tragically, under threat.
Our reading this evening, from the fourth Chapter of John’s Gospel, is set by a well, Jacob’s well. Jesus and a Samaritan woman have a conversation there.
The writer Margaret Silf is well known as one who explores the way of Ignatian spirituality in a number of her books. In her book Sacred Spaces though, she looks instead at some of the ideas of Celtic Spirituality. Celtic spirituality particularly focuses on the idea of place. A well, for example, is one such place. One of the well known expressions of Celtic spirituality is that of a “thin place”. Margaret Silf writes:
“For the Celts there was never any shadow of doubt that … the visible and the invisible, the material and the spiritual [worlds] were one. In every way the visible and the invisible were interwoven … The invisible was separated from our sense perceptions only by the permeable membrane of consciousness. Sometimes that membrane could seem as solid as a brick wall. Sometimes it could be very thin. Indeed we speak of some places as being ‘thin places’ meaning that the presence of the invisible and the spiritual is almost palpable. Our Celtic forebears revered such thin spaces as ‘sacred space.’”
A thin place, in other words, is one where God seems particularly near, and particularly near over time. In her book, Sacred Spaces Margaret Silf explores seven sacred “places” of importance in Celtic spirituality. The place that will be of interest to us, as we ponder the theme of water and the spiritual life, is the well.
A number of significant events in the Jewish scriptures took place at wells. Although the primary function of wells in ancient Israel was to supply water for the household, the central, open location of wells allowed them to serve as places where people gathered. The scriptures recount the stories of several women meeting their future spouses at wells. Abraham’s servant stopped at a well and met Rebekah there. Jacob met Rachel at a well where she came to water her father Laban’s flock of sheep. Moses, too, met his future wife, Zipporah, at a well when she came with her sisters to water their father’s flock. Marriage is about new life. Wells, the sources of water so essential for life, serve as the locations for the finding of the new life that marriage represents.
Jesus and the Samaritan woman, we remember, have a conversation by a well. Jacob’s well.
The importance of a well is that it is deep. Those who seek water there, at a well, must find a way to reach into that deep place. Margaret Silf writes that wells are sacred spaces that invite those who go there to find God in the depths, and perhaps the struggles, of their experience. The Samaritan woman who found herself in conversation with Jesus at Jacob’s well may have resonated with this idea.
Jesus is returning from Judea to Galilee via Samaria. It has been a long journey and he finds himself resting beside Jacob’s well “at about noon”, in the heat of the day. Jesus breaks several cultural boundaries by speaking to this Samaritan woman. ‘Give me a drink’. He says. Already her encounter with Jesus is taking her into the deep places, is challenging her. ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ She replies. Jesus’ challenges of her, though, have only just begun.
Jesus answers her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman is understandably puzzled. “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again,” Jesus continues, “but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”
Jesus asks this Samaritan woman for water and then immediately reverses his and the woman’s roles. It is he who will give her water and that water will be a spring that will nourish her for all her life, in every aspect of her life. That water will be about the depth of life and the love and struggle of life. That water will be from the spirit of God and for life in the spirit of God.
The woman says to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’
Only, as she said just a little while before, the well is deep. And Jesus, surely one the Celts would name himself a “thin place”, knows that this woman needs to face the truth of her life, descend into this well of life, if you like, a little more, before he can give her the water of life. And so he “tells her everything she has ever done,” as she put it later to her Samaritan friends, a group of outsiders to the Jewish faith, who come to believe in Jesus because of her testimony. He tells her everything she has ever done.
‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ He says. The woman answers him, ‘I have no husband.’
Into the depths of this well, of her life, she goes with Jesus who must help her look at who she is, and how she has lived, and do that painful looking with him beside her. Didn’t he say in another place “The truth will set you free”? Isn’t that what he does? Tells us about our whole life, all the depths of it, all the joys of it too, and forgives and helps us treasure this gift of life and help us thrive knowing ourselves forgiven. Isn’t that what wells are about? Isn’t that the living water Jesus longs to give us there?
In this evening’s psalm, number 139, the psalmist speaks of the one who accompanies us in all things. The psalmist speaks of God.
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away. (Psalm 139:1-2)
The words spoken in the psalm might well be those of this woman, this woman who is taken down into the well of her life, if you like, by Jesus.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
He told me everything I have ever done, the woman said. He was indeed acquainted with all her ways.
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. (Psalm 139:3,7-9)
The psalmist is one who has journeyed to the depths of the well and has found living water there, life in God there.
“Sir, give me this water,” a Samaritan woman said to Jesus as they stood beside Jacob’s well and pondered the possibility of his gift of water, a gift that would leave the one who drinks it sustained for the rest of their life.
Thin places. Places where God is near and the source of eternal life that water represents is near. As we ponder this Lent the gift of water as essential to life, and as an image of life, let us ponder the idea of the well. That sacred place that invites those who go there to find God in the depths and perhaps the struggles of their experience. That thin place where the living water that is of God will gush up and bless us with eternal life
 Margaret Silf Sacred Spaces: Stations on a Celtic Way p9.