‘Jacob’s well is there and Jesus, tired by the journey, sat down by the well.’
The good news is: the well is still there. It still exists. It’s certainly very old. It’s 100 feet deep and is fed by an underground stream. It’s in the city of Nablus, in the West Bank, and it’s now within the complex of a Greek Orthodox monastery. There it is, the very well where Jesus sat.
In this part of the world, we’re never short of water – as the poor people in Somerset know so well. But in Palestine it’s otherwise. There’s no great river there, no Nile, no Tigris, no Euphrates, no Congo. So Palestine depends on rainfall and on what’s beneath the ground. No wonder then that the Old Testament is full of wells and stories of wells. Socially, they were part pub, part restaurant, part supermarket, part petrol station; in any case, a good place to meet. And especially a good place for a boy and a girl to meet. It was by a well Jacob met his beautiful Rachel. A good place for God’s plans for someone’s life to move forward. Mary, some say, was drawing water from a well when the angel came to her. In the New Testament, though, there’s only one well mentioned – this one. And here a man and a woman meet, just the two of them, under the midday sun. A setting for romance, but that’s transmuted into something more. We’re beyond the erotic here. We’re on another level and the story expands as it unfolds. Here’s a man and a woman, a Jew and a Samaritan. But the connections build between them. Jesus becomes more and more in the woman’s eyes: first Sir, then a prophet, then the Messiah. And more and more of herself comes out. She’s real and symbolic all at once. ‘Let’s recognise ourselves in her,’ says St Augustine. She’s each and all of us. Yes, this woman now on her sixth man and with her mixed-up religion. Looking for life here and then there and then somewhere else again, looking for more than any other person can give, hewing out cisterns for herself, broken cisterns that can hold no water (cf Jer 2:13), worshipping what she doesn’t know, seeking God but in the wrong places. Don’t we recognise her? Doesn’t our heart go out to her?
It’s worth pausing by this well. The whole of our religion’s here, the whole of prayer. ‘What is Prayer?’ asks the Catechism. And answers: ‘The wonder of prayer is revealed beside the well where we come seeking water; there Christ comes to meet every human being…Whether we realise it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him’ (CCC 2560).
Yes, beside the well, two desires are coming together. In this sense, it is a marriage that’s being prepared. Jesus wants water from the woman. The Father, he says, wants worshippers in spirit and in truth. This woman is being gently wrapped in God’s longing for her. And she in turn begins to long for the mysterious water that pours from this strange man: ‘Sir, give me some of that water, so that I may never get thirsty again.’ Deep is calling on deep. Christ’s mission is expanding: in her he sees the fields ‘ready for harvest’. And she is growing too. God loves us as we are, but he loves us too much just to leave us as we are. And by the end of the story, she’s an apostle too.
‘By faith we are judged righteous and at peace with God’ (Rom 5:1), says St Paul. It is our faith Christ thirsts for. Faith professed: ‘I who am speaking to you, said Jesus, I am he.’ Faith lived: order in our human and sexual relationships. Faith prayed: worship in spirit and truth. It’s trust – what Isaiah calls, ‘the waters that flow gently’ (Is 8:6); ‘in returning and in rest, you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength’ (Is 30:15). This faith, professed and lived and prayed, is what the Church asks of catechumens beside the baptismal well. And of all of us. And meeting that faith, that quietness, that trust, comes the living water from the broken rock of Christ’s heart. ‘The love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit’ (Rom 5:5). Faith welling up from us to him, the Spirit running down from him to us. The marriage of God and man, Christ and the Church. That’s Easter.
Jacob’s well is still there: within the grounds of a monastery, a place of prayer. That’s good, but better still it can be here in our hearts, our lives, our experience. Every time we pray. Every time our desire and God’s desire flow into each other. Every time there’s a baptism. In the Gospel, the Samaritan woman doesn’t have a name. In tradition, she has: Photini – ‘enlightened one’. Lucia or Lucy would be equivalent, or in Russian Svetlana. In Christian language, ‘enlightened’ means ‘baptised’. Her name is ‘the baptised one’. She’s St Photini, complete with a feast day. And the monastery around the well is dedicated to her.
On the 1st Sunday of Lent we had a desert, on the 2nd a mountain, today it’s a well. There’s a sense of God coming nearer. And at the Easter Vigil, we’ll be by Jacob’s well again.
‘O almighty Saviour, who poured forth water for the Hebrews from the rock,
You came to the land of Samaria and spoke to a woman,
and attracted her to faith in you.
And now she has reached everlasting life in heaven’
(Kontakion for the feast of St Photini).