Woman at the Well
This is the text of address during a joint service held by churches in Manor Park, London, to mark the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, by the Revd Nicola Vidamour, Superintendent of the Newham Methodist circuit and minister at Pilgrims Way Congregational and Methodist church in East Ham.
“Jesus, tired out by the journey, was sitting by the well.” (John 4:6)
I don’t know how long each of you has been walking the path to Christian unity. I have been committed to that path for about thirty years now - since I was a teenager – and sometimes I feel tired out by the journey. It can seem that however much we pray, however hard we try, however much energy and effort we put in to our relationships with one another locally and nationally and globally – we don’t seem to make much progress. It can be very tiring and discouraging.
Have you noticed what had happened immediately before Jesus started on the journey which led him past the well? He had learnt that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptising more disciples than John? I wonder if it was partly that news which made him tired? Was he exhausted by the competitiveness which there can be between different Christian groups – the comparisons, for example, about the number of people – especially children and youth – in each congregation? Is that something which you are tired of? I certainly get very frustrated when gatherings of people from different churches turn into bragging matches about how amazing their church is in some particular way. These don’t have to be ecumenical gatherings. Groups of Methodist ministers can also be very competitive! I can feel exhausted as a church leader trying to keep up with whatever some so-called successful church down the road or across the world is doing. The ecumenical journey can be very tiring indeed when we spend it comparing ourselves with other churches and other people. We either give ourselves a hard time because we don’t seem to be doing as well as they are or we feel under huge pressure to keep on working incredibly hard at our own mission and ministry so that we can retain our perceived status as the best church in our area! Both of those are exhausting!
Do you feel tired out by that journey? Do you need to come and sit for a while by the well?
One of the most important gifts which we can give both ourselves and one another on the ecumenical journey is the knowledge of what it is that sustains and strengthens us along the way. What are the wells that we draw from when we are feeling tired and thirsty? Where are we able to be re-sourced?
Each community generally has its own well. We might say that each of our denominations is a well. I need to draw regularly from the Methodist well. For me, that means that I need to be able to be part of a congregation which sings hymns joyfully and confidently. I need to be part of a church where lay and ordained both have an equal voice and role. I need to be part of a community where the gospel of grace is proclaimed and celebrated and becomes flesh in practical ways.
Most of the time we drink from our own well and I would love to hear what that means for each of you ….. but in today’s Gospel story, Jesus drinks from a well which is outside his own community and his own tradition.
You may be surprised to hear this from a Methodist but I have to confess that I often mix my drinks! I regularly drink from wells containing Russian Orthodox icons, modern Catholic music, the daily office of the Anglican church, the silent waiting of Quaker meetings, the exuberance of African worship, candles and incense, Gospel choirs, and even the prostrations and rhythm of Muslim prayer. All of these re-source me – and, I hope that your ecumenical journey has enabled you to mix your drinks too!
Many of these wells would have been inaccessible to me if someone from that tradition had not enabled me to drink from them. Jesus has to ask the Samaritan woman for a drink because he has no bucket and the well is deep. I am so grateful to my friends from other traditions who have helped me to drink from their well as the Samaritan woman helped Jesus. Sometimes we are so steeped in our own tradition that we forget how inaccessible it can feel to other people. We need to give people a bucket so that they can drink from our well.
Sometimes this needs to happen in very practical ways and not just on a spiritual level. At Pilgrims Way Church in East Ham we regularly announce at our morning worship that coffee will be served after the service in the Myrtle Hall and that everyone is welcome to stay. However, we do not tell people where the Myrtle Hall is! They know that there is a well somewhere which they can draw from but they don’t know how to find it!
When we meet together on our ecumenical journey, one of our tasks is to enable one another to drink from our wells – to give one another a bucket so that we can access the hidden depths of each other’s tradition – to help one another understand what is it that we are drawing on and why we find it so life-giving.
This is not a competitive sharing. It is a recognition of our common humanity and our shared thirst. When we meet someone from a different tradition, or someone who has come to our church for the first time, or someone who doesn’t go to church at all, let’s say to one another: Give me a drink. Give me a taste of what re-sources your life. Give me a bucket for the well is deep.
I trained for the ordained ministry at Queen’s College in Birmingham which is an ecumenical college. Methodist Anglican and United Reformed Church students all lived, studied, ate and worshipped together. Once a year students from Oscott, the Roman Catholic Seminary in Birmingham would come and spend two weeks with us and our final year students would go and spend two weeks with their Catholic brothers. I can still remember a drama which was enacted by a small ecumenical group during one of the worship services we had at Queen’s when the Catholic students were with us. The group had a large rucksack into which they were trying to cram everything they thought they needed for their ecumenical journey. The Catholics had a huge statue of Mary which they wanted to bring with them. The Methodists had a tray of little communion glasses! The United Reformed Church students had a large wooden cross and the Anglicans had a bag full of books, candles and vestments! It became clear very quickly that it would not be possible to take all these treasures on the journey and that some things would have to be left behind.
When Jesus’ disciples appear and find him talking to the Samaritan woman, she leaves her water jar behind and goes back to the city. Our encounter with others on the ecumenical journey may mean that we also have to leave something behind. That is often the stumbling block. We don’t want to let go of those parts of our tradition which we treasure but which others don’t want to accept. We could come up with a whole list of what these things are. Women Bishops is one recent example
The Samaritan woman was able to leave her water jar behind because she had found something better. She had come to her own well to draw water. At the well, she met someone from a different tradition. She enabled him to drink from her well. He enabled her to leave behind her empty container in order to go back and share the fullness of Christ with her community.
What do you carry home from your ecumenical encounters? Do you carry home water from your own well without having shared it with anyone? Or do you carry home news of an encounter which you are just bursting to share because you have found someone who shares your thirst for God and has given you new insights into the source of your life?
The Samaritan woman leaves behind her container because she herself has become the container. She is bubbling over with the life-giving gospel of Christ.
So if you are feeling tired out by the ecumenical journey, I pray that the story of Jesus’ encounter with the women at the well will revive you and your church and community; that it will remind you of the thirst for living water which we all share whatever well we normally drink from; and that it will re-source you both to share the treasures of your tradition with others and to take away with you something different and even more life-giving than that which you expected to find.
Revd Nicola Vidamour.
Superintendent of the Newham Methodist circuit and minister at Pilgrims Way Congregational and Methodist church in East Ham.
Text used with permission.