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.