On wells and healing waters

On wells and healing waters

A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

Stuart Higginbotham

Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city.

My grandparents had a well in their backyard, and as a child, I would sneak over and take the old wooden cover off. I would lean over the edge of the concrete ring and peer down into what seemed like an endless drop into the abyss. When no one was looking, I would get a rock from my grandmother’s garden and drop it into the well, seeing how high I could count until I heard the plop of the stone in the water. I remember counting to three, but in my mind it fell forever. Who knows how deep the well actually once was before I began slowly filling it with stones over the years. 

I loved how, close to noon each day, I could actually see the sunlight reflecting on the water at the bottom as the bit of light hit at just the right angle. I always remember seeing or hearing water in their well, which means it was a good well with a good vein of groundwater. I would make up stories about people using the well, although my grandparents had only built their house in the 1960s.

I asked them once what it was like to have the well dug. They told me they hired a man who was known to dig wells with a shovel–the only way that wells were able to be dug for a long time. The man had a series of concrete rings that he sat to the side. As he dug down, he would set the concrete ring into the hole he had dug. That ring would give stability to the hole, and he would then start digging again, deeper and deeper, repeating the process of adding supportive rings until the well got very deep. (The metaphors just come at this point).  I’m not sure how long it took, but I was absolutely transfixed by this process. 

I had many questions: What must it have been like when he got to the bottom point where there was a lot of water? What is the deepest well he had ever dug? Did folks pull him out with a rope, or did he know how to shimmy up the solid walls from the bottom? Most of all, I wondered what it must have been like to be that deep in the ground.

Water is necessary to live, and wells continue to be absolutely essential in cultures around the world. During ancient times, they were literal lifelines for caravans across the desert–and still are. The basic experience of life remains the same in much of the world.  Wells are centers of commerce and social networks, serving as hubs of connection for those who come each day to get water–and to catch up on the day’s news. We, in our supposed “progress,” now have sophisticated wells with pipes that have removed this focus point from our lives. Perhaps our souls have grown more parched even as we have expedited the process of getting drinking water.

Wells are also deeply symbolic. They are symbols for the feminine principle in life, meaning they resonate with the deep experience of receiving wisdom, of a posture of spaciousness in life. As such, they have long been seen as connections to the mother goddess, being a portal or entry point to the womb of the earth. Giving access to life-giving waters, many traditions across the world use the symbol of the well as a way to focus attention and devotion in the  nurture of their spiritual practices.  We dig down into the body of the earth and are nourished by the life-force.

These deep associations with wells are important for us as we reflect on today’s Gospel. These are the deep tones underneath the story we may be familiar with. Jesus was thirsty, the story suggests, so he was sitting by a well when a woman came to get water for the day. And the story unfolds from there.

Jesus asks her for a drink, and she questions why he even speaks to her. Jews don’t speak to Samaritans. We, of course, know that Jesus is notorious for crossing social limits imposed by shallow systems, but this lady is shocked. 

You have no bucket, she says. How in the world will you access the water? He continues the conversation and eventually shares with her about the life-giving waters that will quench the deeper thirst that she has. Can’t you feel the conversation getting deeper and deeper?

Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 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.

Please, she says, give me some of this water! Every time I read this part, I am still not sure if the lady is being literal or if she is giving Jesus an opportunity to keep talking. Jesus inquires as to her husband’s thoughts on the matter, and then he tells her that he knows she has had many husbands and is now living with someone who is not her husband. He looks at this seemingly promiscuous and burdened Samaritan woman who has violated so many social taboos–and he loves her.

Jesus tells her that soon, the journey to worship God will not mean traveling long distances to Jerusalem to worship in the temple but will instead mean traveling deep into one’s own heart, into the essence of one’s own life, to worship God in spirit and truth. Devotion to God does not require us to somehow approach God in a container, however beautiful and meaningful the temple may be (remember the deep lesson of the Transfiguration story). Devotion to God invites us to free ourselves of the shackles of shallowness that have constrained us, so that we plunge into the depths of God’s own being to experience healing and hope. 

At that point in the conversation, something happens that gets me every time: Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city.

We are well beyond mere physical thirst now. She has left her jar behind to run and  tell everyone. Can’t you imagine her running in the street, saying: Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! It’s amazing how something so terrifying on face value can actually be an indicator of an absolute transformation of the soul. Would you find it comforting if someone just started telling you everything you have done?

So, what must it have been like for that man my grandparents hired to dig down into the earth to create their well? I know by then he must have done this a lot, so it was old hat to him. But the first time he did it, I bet he was so scared. Who wouldn’t be, digging down foot after foot into the earth with hopes of finding a good vein of water that would nourish thirst for a good long while. What did it feel like to dig down into that darkness, searching for that life-giving flow?

Spiritual practice is exactly like this. If becoming aware of God somehow means I have to become aware of the deepest part of myself, I can understand why so many people choose to remain distracted or stay in shallow patterns that just keep things moving forward for as long as they can. Like we said on Ash Wednesday, who wants to be the first to blink when it comes to the struggles of our lives?

Come and see this man who told me everything I have ever done. If this were what we put on our little “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” signs, I can’t imagine people just yanking the steering wheel on their car to drive over here. It’s not good advertising.

Except that it really does show us what is possible when we have accessed those deeper dimensions of ourselves only to find God’s presence saturating our souls. When we have that spiritual courage to let the Spirit do Her work on us, slowly digging down layer after layer through the muck that has accumulated, through rock and stone, through gnarled old roots, we discover something profound. We learn that the life-giving waters of God’s presence have flowed through our souls this entire time–and we are transformed. Our practice comes alive to us, and we see with new eyes, hear with new ears, live with a transformed life.

At some point, we have to sit quietly with ourselves and acknowledge our thirst. We have to admit that we are thirsty, and then we have to pray for the courage to ask ourselves what wells we have been drawing from–as if they could satisfy our thirst. What are those wells for you? Are they thought patterns, behaviors, ways we spend our time, ways we fill up our schedules?  What are those wells that we return to, over and over again, setting down our buckets into them with the hope that what we draw out will quench the thirst we have? 

We keep going back to these wells of busyness, of distraction, of “success” or “productivity,” wells of social belonging, wells of consumerism, wells of party politics and shallow belonging–there are many supposed wells, and we realize that all of these wells don’t go down very far. They dry up very quickly–if they really have any water at all. They may be very pretty, but once we actually look at them, it turns out that they really are just one of those pre-formed plastic decorations we set on our patio.

Perhaps the spiritual gift we need to pray for these days is spiritual courage, a particular kind of bravery that allows us to dig down into our own lives, into our own souls, with the Spirit’s indwelling presence, and pay attention to what deeper yearning we actually become aware of.

Jesus says: Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 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.

Lent is a time that challenges us to ask this central question: what are we really thirsty for? What are we really hungry for? What are we searching for, hoping for, praying for? What is that deep desire that underlies all our supposed desires? What is the pull or yearning that, as Cynthia mentioned in her sermon last week with Nicodemus meeting Jesus at night, perhaps we can only whisper in the dark–whether it be at night or down in a holy well? 

Where’s your shovel?

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