A few years ago, three friends joined me on a trip to Scotland. We were playing some rounds of golf at some of Scotland’s notable holy sites.
On a particularly “dreich” day (Scots for crap) I guided the group to the ruins of a cathedral and monastery in St Andrew’s. While St Andrew’s is a holy site for golfers, this ruin has become a special place for me. It is a place of sadness and warning.
We tried to imagine ourselves back in the 1500s when the battle between Catholics and Reformers was at its zenith. We walked the worn path the monks would have walked around the monastery and into what remains of the cathedral. We stood in the centre of the cathedral space imagining what it would have been like when it rivalled Paris’ best.
It was a mob who made this place a ruin. Inspired by a sermon preached by a childhood hero of mine, John Knox, the reformers were antagonistic to the sacramental, monastic life that was centred in the cathedral and monastery. A brief time before the sermon by Knox, one of his close associates had been executed in front of the cathedral by its administration. They were playing hardball spiritual competition. The mob destroyed as much as they could of anything that represented the papacy.
WE ALL HAVE SIMILAR EXAMPLES IN OUR LIFE HISTORY, OF DEEP-ROOTED CONFLICT
We talked, reflecting how easily the veneer of civility can be torn away and we discussed the sometimes horrible things done in God’s name. It made sense five centuries ago to kill and destroy to win a theological fight. The fruit of that conflict is still felt in many parts of Scots’ life and culture – sensitivities across denominational lines shaped even my own childhood in Canada. My mother’s Free Church upbringing had a deep anti-Catholic bias. That bias deepened in her church culture as an adult in Canada. It took me years to gain what I now consider a healthier attitude about these things – but I may be as blind as those knocking down the cathedral in the 1500s. As we talked that day in the quiet of the cathedral ruins, we were sobered to consider how we can contribute to similar conflicts.
We all have similar examples in our life history, of deep-rooted conflict. These spots can be important places for conversation with Jesus as we seek to find ways to serve our loving God without being destructive and creating more wounds than already exist in the world. Jesus spent a good part of his earthly ministry trying to create openness to change and a true understanding of God that had been lost in the accretions of law and culture that produced the religious practices of his day. John, the gospel writer, spends a significant portion of his writing on conversations.
When Jesus wandered into Samaria and encountered the woman at the well, it was against a background full of conflict, similar to church divisions encountered elsewhere in history. Palestine in Jesus’ day was divided with Galilee to the north, Judea to the south and Samaria in the middle.
The Samaritan community had lost their racial purity in 700 B.C. when Assyrian forces invaded the northern kingdom, deported inhabitants and moved in other groups. Racial purity was lost both at home and in deportation through intermarriage. Eventually the polytheism of the Samaritans merged with Jehovah worship and the first five books of the Old Testament became their scripture.
Something similar happened in the southern kingdom with Babylonian captivity, but racial purity was preserved. When the survivors returned from their captivity, they rebuilt the nation and worked to restore the temple in Jerusalem. Having experienced the same victimization from marauding armies, the Samaritans offered to help with the rebuilding of the temple. They were rebuffed. They were excluded from the key place of worship they had in their own history.
LET’S IMAGING JESUS’ ENCOUNTER WITH THE SAMARITAN WOMAN 2000 YEARS AGO
So, 400 years before this conversation between Jesus and the woman, the Samaritans built their own temple, on their own temple mount. Similar to what happened in Scotland and many other places throughout history, a Jewish general destroyed the Samaritan worship building. That drama of destruction unfolded 130 or so years before the conversation Jesus had with the woman at the well. Estrangement, judgement, rejection, mistrust and resentment had festered for 400 years before their exchange. Duelling approaches to worshipping God had developed, even dueling holy mountains.
Standing in the rain in St Andrews that day, our imaginations allowed us to experience the story that was explained on the signage around the ruins. We were led into deep engagement with the humanity and tragedy of it all as we walked where the monks walked, stood where the worshippers gathered, gazed around where the beauty of the architecture once had been.
Let’s imagine Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman 2000 years ago
John, the gospel writer, obviously thought this exchange was important because this story is one of the first he records in his gospel.
We are only a fifth of the way through his gospel, and John has already introduced us to Jesus without the birth stories – John launches into “In the beginning was the Word.” Then the writer introduces John the Baptist’s role as bulldozer preparing roads for Jesus. John has a lovely set of stories about John the Baptist pointing to Jesus and releasing some of his ministry team to follow Jesus (Andrew, Peter, Philip, Nathanael). He tells of Jesus’ clearing out the temple, turning water into wine and then having a clandestine meeting with a religious leader who wanted privacy when he chatted with Jesus. And now this trip through hostile, foreign territory on Jesus’ way back to the scene of his first miracle.
MUCH MORE IS GOING ON BENEATH THE SURFACE OF OUR LIVES THAN IS EASILY OBSERVED BY OTHERS
Imagine Jesus, dog tired on his walk from Judea to Galilee. It is midday and he is thirsty. A woman arrives to draw water from the well and he asks politely for a drink of water. At this point the historical wounds emerge quickly. She is surprised at his request. He’s Jewish and she’s a Samaritan. Jesus is male and she is a woman. Two strikes exist against this conversation already. The woman directly addresses this social and racial divide and the rest of the conversation develops rapidly. Clearly, the religious and gender divides were accepted by the culture but not by Jesus.
The conversation develops momentum. They began at cross purposes but move quickly into full engagement. Jesus’ presence is shaped by his intimacy with the Father, sensitivity to the Spirit and sensitivity to the fragility of human life. Although the Samaritan woman appears to be shaped by eclectic personal choices, she obviously has some inner spiritual exploration percolating below the surface. She is not a simple person by any means.
She is a lot like you and me. Much more is going on beneath the surface of our lives than is easily observed by others, and sometimes often not even recognized ourselves.
I was on a retreat with some friends at a Muskoka lake and during a time of silent meditation spent some of the time standing on a lakeside dock. The water was clear, the sun was bright and as I noticed a single lily pad, I looked beneath the surface and saw a brightly coloured rocket shaped plant near its roots on the lake bottom. Most of the time I experience lily pads in large groups that impede canoe paddles and snag fishing lures. But this single plant allowed me to see the beauty beneath the surface.
JESUS PATIENTLY MOVES THE CONVERSATION FROM WATER IN THE BUCKET TO THE LIVING WATER
We often are like the woman at the well – we have a deep well of longing for relationship with God that bubbles under an unlikely exterior. You might want to try this – put yourself in this story in a conversation with Jesus. If we are honest we may have to start with what we think he wants and what he needs from us, but it will quickly morph into an opportunity to learn about ourselves and those around us at a deeper level.
The woman at the well is a powerful, combative conversational partner, but Jesus patiently moves the conversation from water in a bucket to the living water that he wants her and us all to experience. I love her response of, “You haven’t a bucket or a rope,” as she expresses her initial doubts about his offer.
This is a person-to-person conversation. My spiritual director often asks me as I bring to her my worries or questions: “Have you spoken to Jesus man to man about this?” Here, it is a man to woman conversation that breaks stereotypes and gets beneath the surface.
Tradition, social conformity and religious tradition have been barriers to understanding, but they get addressed in a wonderful way. The woman says she wants whatever water he is offering, so she doesn’t have to do this chore every day. Jesus moves to her spotty marital record, but in a way that is liberating, not condemning and defeating.
I have a friend who says that for years he only heard condemnation and judgement in the words of Jesus – however gentle. It was years of a particular type of spiritual formation that led him there. The woman at the well could have had the same response, but somehow Jesus’ insight into her many domestic partnerships opened her up to what was to come next.
JESUS CONVERSATION WITH THIS WOMAN BECOMES AN INVITATION TO COME FREELY WITH WHATEVER LUGGAGE WE’RE CARRYING
Her next question is around the competing claims for worship mountains and traditions. Jesus moves the conversation to a new level with his elimination of location as the key issue. The franchise we follow isn’t important to him, it is worship of his Father in Spirit and in truth.
Jesus now declares that he is the Messiah to a woman who is the last person who should be the steward of this revelation, according to the boundaries of the day. He doesn’t share his revelation with the religious establishment of Israel, but with an outsider from the wrong side of the religious boundaries.
This remarkable woman, scarred by years of religious prejudice, rejection for her personal choices, excluded from the normal life of her community is liberated in a conversation with the God who loves her.
When we are sure we aren’t in any shape to pray or serve God because of our own embarrassment or shame, Jesus’ conversation with this woman becomes an invitation to come freely with whatever luggage we are carrying to find freedom and renewal in him.
Her exuberance knows no bounds as she drops her bucket and heads back into her home village – she’s running in the heat of the day! Everyone she encounters hears her say she has just met a man “who told me everything I ever did!” And this meeting did not lead to exclusion, rejection or condemnation – it led to freedom.
TWO IMPORTANT THINGS ARE HAPPENING AS WE EXPERIENCE THIS STORY
She is not embarrassed. She spreads her excitement to her fellow citizens. They are seeing something in her they have never expected to see. They hurry to the well to explore what the commotion is about. Her story had them believing in Jesus, but they wanted to see for themselves.
John catches my imagination with a line mid-way through the story of the woman at the well. “They begged him to stay in their village. So he stayed for two days.” It is wonderful to imagine those two days.
This is a remarkable part of the story. A woman with a questionable reputation starts the ball rolling and eventually infects her whole community. She goes from being a solitary drawer of water at a well, to the center of a community move toward hospitality for Jesus and his friends.
Two important things are happening as we experience Jesus in this story. We see his patience with one person’s story as he opens up about himself, she becomes more open too. We also see that when he is offered hospitality he accepts willingly. But then an important transition happens for the rest of the community. They go from taking the woman’s word for who Jesus is, to belief because they have heard him themselves.
He spends two days of his short ministry life with this group. Receiving their hospitality, living under their protection with his friends billeted in homes around the village was radical in the extreme. His people had nothing to do with these folk and the feeling was mutual. We can try and imagine what the conversations around cooking fires, in the shade of a dwelling and in the centre of the market area sounded like. But it ended with a deep loving experience of Jesus.
BUT THE MOST IMPORTANT THING WE CAN DO IS ENCOUNTER, EXPERIENCE, LISTEN TO JESUS DIRECTLY
Prayer in some ways is an offer of hospitality to Jesus. We open the door and welcome him in. We hold nothing back. It is encountering him ourselves in Scripture and our own reflections. It is one thing to listen to sermons, read books like this one, look for the right answers. But the most important thing we can do is encounter, experience, listen to Jesus directly. If we are like the woman at the well, we then share what we are experiencing with good friends and it becomes a wonderful bond in friendship.
Praying is not just thanking, confessing and asking. It is visualizing ourselves in the many aspects of a gospel story. These encounters are about friendship in the flow of life. They are casual encounters that may go deeper in unexpected and surprising ways. When we enter into them with all our own weakness and pain, we encounter Jesus as well, and in unexpected and surprising ways.
We have much to learn from Jesus in how he engaged this person he hardly knew. We are not only learning how to listen to him, but we are also learning how to speak meaningfully to others. Jesus’ casual encounter may be like many we have, if we just listen carefully and respond to the real needs and concerns expressed by the person coming across our path.
SOME THINGS TO CONSIDER ABOUT OUR OWN PRAYERS FROM THIS STORY
1 Jesus began the conversation with a request from the woman. Can we imagine as we sit in the quiet that he is asking us for a few minutes of uninterrupted conversation and attention?
2 Silence and inner stillness are often very different things. But when we are feeling frenetic in what is going through our minds, can we be like the woman and just tell Jesus what is on our mind?
3 As we reflect on a gospel story, the words and actions of Jesus will elicit questions and concerns – we can let them emerge naturally. And then we can speak about them person to person with Jesus.
4 Prayer is the place to confront our own narrowness and rejection of others. Prayer is a healthy place to release and explore long-held beliefs that may not be central to the worship of God in spirit and truth.
5 We often play the role that Jesus did in this story with others. We will be invited to explore paths with others, at their invitation, and we may all be surprised at how deep we go together.
6 All of this happens more frequently and naturally when we have our own face to face encounters with Jesus.
7 Consciously creating hospitality for Jesus – welcoming Him in – can inspire us to widen our own circle of those with whom we are comfortable.
8 Sharing what we are experiencing with Jesus in conversation with other friends helps us avoid being self-centered and allows for the credibility of our thoughts to be tested.
9 Sharing of this sort is best done at the invitation of another. Assaulting others with our latest experience is not usually helpful. If the transformation in our journey is significant, the invitations will come.
If our conversations with Jesus don’t lead to openness to a wider and perhaps unexpected circle, speak with Jesus about that too.
Listen to the “On Further Reflection with Norm Allen” Podcast
I invite you to listen to “Speaking with Jesus Person to Person”, and encourage you to share it with a friend or colleague.
Find it here on iTunes or below on SoundCloud