Water and Light

In my academic career, I must confess to never having been tasked (or, is it tortured?) with reading The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Samuel Coleridge’s epic of death and guilt on the high seas may not have been part of your formal education either, but without a doubt you’ve used one or both of its most famous lines more than a few times in conversation. For the intellectually curious (or anyone who likes word-search puzzles), check out the poem in its entirety and look for the familiar lines. One of them (with which I’ll “whet” your appetite in a moment. Hmmm…is that a clue?) came to mind as I reflected on this Fourth Sunday of Pascha (Easter, for Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Christians), in which we commemorate Jesus’ encounter with the Woman at the Well.

You probably know the story, but if not you can read the Gospel account here. The upshot is that a sinful woman is ostracized by the people in her town – and likely the subject of a lot of gossip. As a result, she comes to draw the day’s water from the common well when the sun is at its hottest, guaranteeing that she won’t meet anyone along the way, or suffer ridicule as she simply fulfills a daily duty. It’s hot, and the woman might mumble some choice words as she struggles to bring up her bucket from the deep well. Sweat soaks her clothes, her muscles ache, and her frustration sizzles in the hot sun. Her trips to the well aren’t just exhausting; they’re deeply isolating. There’s no small talk, no laughter, no catching up on the day’s news for this Woman. Yet isolation beats having a mirror held up to her by the other women; a mirror reflecting her every sin and mistake. If only she could escape this place – these people – and their judgment. If only she didn’t feel somehow convicted by their words. If only she didn’t have to return to this well again and again, a reminder of her status as an outsider. If only she didn’t need water.

The Gospel doesn’t reveal the inner life and dialogue of the Woman, but it’s easy to imagine these thoughts and feelings, because they’ve so often reflected my own. Sure, I’ve been judged unfairly by others, and made to feel inadequate by people whose purpose was just that. But I’ve also been convicted of my sins by the Holy Spirit (Jn :7-9) through the words and counsel of others. Sometimes we need someone to hold up a mirror in front of us so that we can see more clearly what we often know in our hearts to be true. But when Jesus meets this Woman, He’s not holding up a mirror the way the people in town do; nor is He holding up the same one. His mirror is very different, and reflects to the Woman not only her sins, but her beauty. Jesus wants her to really see herself the way He does. Jesus wants to restore her sight, and help her to “see rightly” from now on. He doesn’t tell the Woman that’s what He’s doing, and He doesn’t even tell her that her vision is impaired. He doesn’t present her with a full account of her sins, rendering judgment on the spot. Instead, He asks her for a drink of water. This simple gesture – baffling to the Woman at first – is not meant to fulfill Jesus’ need, but hers.

…which brings us back to Coleridge (remember him?), and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. One of the lines from the epic poem that most of us know (and misquote) describes what Jesus reveals to the Woman as she struggles to pull up her bucketful of this necessary nuisance:

Water, water, every where,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.

 

I’m not a literary scholar, but I’m confident Coleridge didn’t have the Woman at the Well in mind as he wrote. Yet these words describe the Woman’s situation, and mine and maybe yours, and our world’s: that there is so much water around us – possessions, technology, opportunities to self-medicate our physical, emotional and spiritual pain – so much water that we feel as if we’ve nothing at all to drink. We greedily gulp this water and find we’re thirstier than ever. Like the Woman, we’re tired, we often feel isolated, and we smash the mirrors that reflect poorly on us, unable to look at ourselves honestly as sinners – and to believe we are beautiful images of God.

If you don’t know the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Woman, please read it. If you do know it, read it again. Image yourself in the scene; imagine yourself in your daily life, your work, your innermost thoughts, fears and desires. Consider which “wells” you consistently draw from and whether they contain the Water of Life, or the stagnant, polluted stuff that leaves you sick at heart and still thirsting. Now imagine it is you whom Jesus encounters, you whom He asks for a drink. He’s not really concerned with His comfort, or in getting something from you. That’s not why He approached the Woman at the Well either. Jesus offers Himself as the cool, pure, refreshing Water in which we see our reflection – our true reflection. Jesus doesn’t dismiss or ignore our sins and our weakness (He certainly didn’t tell the Woman her sins were no big deal.) But He leads us gently – as He did the Woman – inviting us to realize that nothing satisfies us like He does. We settle for a lot of dirty water in our quest for meaning, for comfort, for love – for forgiveness and redemption. Even the “good water” (positive relationships, charitable acts, noble pursuits) can leave us dissatisfied when we pursue and enjoy them apart from Christ; when we don’t rely on Him to sustain us, and put all our faith, our hopes and expectations in anyone or anything other than Him.

The Gospel shows that her encounter with Christ opened the Woman’s heart so that she could finally see herself reflected in Him. She no longer saw her sins as the “brand” marking her isolation, but Jesus’ “way in” to her lonely pursuit of something (Someone) she couldn’t find – and didn’t realize she was seeking. She is emboldened, no longer fearing the words – or the mirrors – of others, because she has become a reflection of Christ. By Tradition, we know that Jesus literally “turned the light on” within the Woman, now known as Photine (the Enlightened One), making her a fierce and fearless witness to His merciful love, boldly proclaiming the message of the Gospel and the converted life. That’s precisely what Jesus thirsted for: not water from a well, but that the Woman would realize who she is, who she’s meant to be, and how much He loves her. Jesus wants the same for us. He meets us at our well, in the isolation and dissatisfaction we don’t even realize we live in anymore, so used to “never enough” we are that we’re resigned to its endless, pointless pursuit. Jesus sits with you, at this very moment, wherever you are, whatever your thirst. Jesus offers you the Water and the Light that will cleanse, heal and sustain you.

Water, water, everywhere…. Jesus is asking you to satisfy His thirst for you by drinking deeply of His merciful love.  Will you give Him a drink?

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

Betting There’ll Be a Big Safety Net

Almost fifty years ago, movie cop “Dirty Harry” Callahan asked “Well, punk, do you feel lucky today?”  Sometimes Harry’s crooks chose wisely not to resist arrest, but others tried their luck and lost.  A lesson lurks there about avoiding mindless violence.  Harry possesses superior (fire)power—why fight back? Make a better decision because the only alternative is swift, violent retribution.  This line, shorn of the violent scenes, came to me reflecting on today’s readings.  The Second Sunday of Easter features readings from Acts, Psalm 118, I Peter, and the striking post-Resurrection scene with “doubting Thomas” in John 20.  Every Scripture offers a rich banquet, but this day particularly so. Even before we reach the Gospel we encounter “the stone the builders have rejected” which becomes the cornerstone and an account of the Church featuring the works of mercy.  It is this passage in Acts 2 from which Cardinal Ratzinger/Benedict XVI launches his discussion of communion ecclesiology in Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith (2005). The Church’s communitarianism—spiritual and material—constitutes, Benedict states, the true freedom found only in the Trinity (p. 58).

Thus “Do you feel lucky today?”—because God’s mercy comes only through the Church, why gamble on it being any wider?  Every reading today instructs us to make wise choices. I Peter makes this particularly clear: through mercy, God in Christ bequeaths us “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith, to a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the final time”. Thus the communion of the Church is far more than mere material assistance, but a foretaste of the Trinity’s communion.  Don’t bet on finding this anywhere else (and, for any Schleiermacherian readers out there, this applies especially to our idiosyncratic experiences).  There’s no need to gamble on God’s mercy—we know where to find it. Better than Dirty Harry’s offer, too, because why issue a threat when God’s offer far surpasses anything we know?

Perhaps that rosy vision might seem too Pelagian.  “Come on, all you need to do is stay within the Church and presto! Mercy!”  No, the Gospel promises that God helps those who cannot help themselves.  This, of course, includes all of us. It becomes all the more important to remember that today is also Divine Mercy Sunday, a fitting celebration of God’s mercy following the Triduum.  While the novelty has not yet worn off, Divine Mercy Sunday likewise has gained a popular following in parishes and online.  Beyond the devotional practices—venerating the image, praying the Chaplet—the Divine Mercy tradition contributes an astonishing reminder.  St. Faustina records Jesus stating His mercy extends to all, especially those souls apparently furthest from Him.  “Let the greatest sinners place their trust in My mercy. They have the right before others to trust in the abyss of My Mercy” (Divine Mercy in My Soul, #1146). And “the greater the misery of a soul, the greater its right to My mercy” (#1182).  At one level this is not new—the Gospel like today’s reading teaches us the very same point about salvation in Christ through faith.  It is, though, a refreshing jolt to have this universal message conveyed through such a particular channel like St. Faustina. Her experiences are not merely spiritualized escapism. Like the early Church in today’s readings, actual corporal works of mercy must accompany prayer (#742).  Obviously we are a far distance away from “Do you feel lucky today?”, but also obviously the breadth of Christ’s mercy extends more widely than we know or admit.

An indication of my inner Augustianism is my stubborn refusal to recognize that I, the trained theologian, might have construed God’s mercy much more narrowly than St. Faustina, “merely” a nun in interwar Poland.  On the surface, the Divine Mercy seems like yet another expression of Catholic devotionalism.  One more image, one more set of prayers, etc.  Our elitism, though, should not blind us to Divine Mercy’s lesson:  that through the very particular, God conveys the very gift of His all-encompassing mercy.  Again, the Gospel already proclaims this.  Jesus does not merely offer salvation in some general fashion; He accomplishes it by being a Jewish carpenter from Nazareth who dies in a particular (and particularly awful) way and then rises on the third day. Thus “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”

Next month the Church will recognize the centenary anniversary of another devotional expression of this same lesson.  The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to three young children shepherding near Fatima, Portugal, in May, 1917.  Pope Francis will canonize them next month as part of the one hundredth anniversary celebration.  The Fatima apparition, appearing during the First World War and requesting spiritual resistance to Bolshevik aggression, resembles the Divine Mercy in its devotional popularity and scholarly skepticism.  On the other hand, St. John Paul II, clearly a scholar, expressed firm devotion to both!  The “Fatima Prayer”, requested by the blessed Mother to be added to the end of each Rosary decade, expresses the same sort of radical inclusivism we find in Divine Mercy.  “Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of Thy mercy.”  This is one of those instances where the literal interpretation is also the scariest:  that could mean anybody.  It is our fallen nature that pulls back, that hesitates.  We all know people—public figures as well as personal friends and acquaintances—who fit the bill “those in most need of Thy mercy”.  When we are honest with ourselves, we realize this include us, too.  This also dismisses utterly any lingering “Do you feel lucky today?” resentments.  We remain called through today’s readings into the Church and thus God’s great, unmerited Gift. Fatima and Divine Mercy remind us of another Scriptural reminder:  that God’s mercy through Christ extends far beyond our comprehension to those who appear much farther astray.  Yet we should not presume, betting on God’s mercy (Romans 6:1).

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.