Go to the well!
“Wells are where God starts something new.”
Rachel Held Evans
On a beautiful Van Gogh sky day, in the biggest heat wave to hit France in a hundred years, I made my way to the spiritual “well” of Lourdes. I carried my empty plastic gallon bucket, emblazoned with a stamp of the Virgin Mary. Every year six million people make this same pilgrimage to the sacred watering hole of Lourdes nestled at the base of the Pyrenees Mountains. We all come for the water. And we all leave with so much more.
In 1858, it was reported the Virgin Mary miraculously appeared eighteen times to a poor shepherd girl named Bernadette. In one of the visions, the Virgin Mary caused a spring to spontaneously burst forth inside the grotto, once a lowly shelter for pigs. Mary directed Bernadette to drink and bathe in these special waters. Since that day, an astonishing number of people have reported healings after visiting the spring. There have been so many claims that the Catholic Church established in 1905 an international medical committee, composed of the leading scientists, doctors and theologians of the world to study and document the thousands of incidents reported every year.
This summer was my third pilgrimage to Lourdes. I was introduced to this sacred place seventeen years ago. I had received in the mail a bottle of Lourdes holy water for my son Charlie then undergoing treatment for cancer and knew one day I would go there myself. Lourdes has since become a spiritual touchstone for me, a place where I feel the presence of God, and I leave with a renewed faith and peace.
On this particular day this past June I was one in a multitude of seekers. I joined the morning procession through the gates, alongside an elderly couple holding hands, in matching wheel chairs, a pair of Chinese priests, a foursome of Italian nuns, all smiles and rosaries twirling, a band of villagers from Chile, in matching t-shirts and finally a woman from Africa regal in a colorful tapestry headdress. All of us were making our faithful way, empty bottles in hand, to the well for the holy water.
My first stop at Lourdes was the baths, where you fully immerse yourself in the waters. The wait to go in took over three hours, because the sick, physically and mentally challenged and children have priority. And this is where I met Irish Mary. We sat together on the wooden benches outside the baths waiting our turn together. No wings could I see, but she was an earthly angel if ever there was one. What I did notice instantly was the reassuring smile, the sweet Irish lilt lifting a Hail Mary and an overall aura of goodness and purity. She gave me a hug as if we had known each other all our lives. It didn’t take long before we had shared our souls. Mary is a seventy-eight year old nurse from County Cork, Ireland. This was her thirty-third pilgrimage to Lourdes. This year I believe she had come for me. For twenty years she made the pilgrimage for healing with her soul mate John whom she met on the trauma floor of the Country Cork hospital forty years ago. Her specialty was spinal injuries and John, having fallen off a stone wall as an adolescent, was paralyzed from the neck down and a frequent patient on the floor. John spent his life navigating his precarious physical condition, but that didn’t stop him from pursuing his passion to teach college students Irish literature and poetry.
Mary giggled, “I knew the rules. No fraternizing with patients. But John was just so funny, a brilliant conversationalist and had this incredible joy. A joy that never left him.” Mary shared that she was coming up on the seventh anniversary of his death. I squeezed her hand. “I’m so sorry, Mary. That must have been really tough caring for him.” Her response: “Are you kidding? God gave me a love story of the best kind.”
Mary wanted to know all about my life. She loved that I was an O’Farrell with real Irish blood in my veins. I showed her pictures of my family, talked about my writing and pastoral ministry. We delighted in our connection like school children, laughing about my three-year old Finn’s temper tantrums and teenage shenanigans! I shared with her about my friend Isse’s battle with cancer and she said, “I’ll be knocking on heavens door in prayer for her from County Cork, you can be assured of that!”
Irish Mary was joy in a bottle.
But then our conversation took a theological turn. “O’ Farrell, love,” she said in that musical accent of hers, “Why have you come to Lourdes, with that gallon jug of yours? What do you need?” It took me a moment to answer the question. “I guess, Mary, I have come for what the world can’t give me. I have come for peace. I have come to refill on hope. I have come to feel closer to God.”
Mary’s response: “Knock and that door will be opened to you.”
Mary reminded me of the Irish poet and mystic, John O’Donohue who wrote in his book Anam Cara:
“Once the soul awakens, the search begins and you can never go back. From then on, you are inflamed with a special longing that will never again let you linger in the lowlands of complacency and partial fulfillment. The eternal makes you urgent. Where before there was anonymity, now there is intimacy; where before there was fear, now there is courage; where before in your life there was awkwardness, now there is a rhythm of grace and gracefulness; where before you used to be jagged, now you are elegant and in rhythm with yourself. When love awakens in your life; it is like the dawn breaking within you.”
Mary and I parted ways at the entry to the baths. I went one way and she went the other, but not before she flashed me that knowing smile and said, “O’ Farrell, wouldn’t it be grand if everyday was like today. We showed up with our souls, not our egos. We’d be kind, kind, kind (and she said it three times) to one another. It would be mercy given instead of so much judgment. There would be peace knowing everything will be okay, for all of us. God’s promise. And Love—-our daily purpose. Heaven brought down to earth!” She looked at me with twinkling eyes then and said, “It’s up to us, O’ Farrell!” And then she disappeared behind the curtain.
It is curious the creative ways God communicates with me! Irish lilt and all!
Inside the cloisters at Lourdes, there are several compartments, each with its own stone bath and four attendants. One of these women helps you undress and then wraps you in a linen sheer. Another takes your hand and walks you up to the rim of the bath. You are invited to say a private prayer, and solemnly assured that they will be praying for you too. And then in you go into the cold! When I came out of the waters this time, the women were singing. Maybe I had one foot in heaven I thought. I was sure God had inserted a drop of light into every cell of my being. These words came to mind, “May the water I give become in you an eternal spring.”
Over 2,000 years ago another woman, from the Samarian town of Synchor, made her own pilgrimage to a well for water. She too came with an empty bucket to be filled and miraculously left changed. God was waiting for her at the well that day, and her common wooden bucket wouldn’t suffice for what God was about to gift her. The Orthodox Greek and Eastern Catholic Church give the Samaritan woman a name, Photine, meaning light-bearer. She would go on to become what many believe to be the first female apostle. The story concludes with the words, “And many came to believe in him (Jesus) because of her.”
The story unfolds with a woman who follows the well-traveled path up to the town well to fill her bucket with the day’s water. To her surprise, she finds a strange man at the well. Jesus is on his speaking, healing, teaching tour and is in transit from Judea to his home base in Galilee. He has sent his disciples into town to gather a picnic lunch for them. Jesus startles the woman with a request for a drink of water. Caught off guard, she says, “I’m surprised that you, a Jew, asks a drink of me, a woman of Samaria.” At the time, good Jews did not fraternize with Samaritans. They were the “Scarlet A” Jews because of their history of intermarrying with the Assyrians and practice of Judaism. With no access to twitter, Facebook or Instagram, the woman was in the dark as to whom she was speaking with and certainly had not heard a thing about his bold vision to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth.
Jesus’s response to the Samarian woman tells us all we could ever possibly need to know about God. Jesus says, “If you ask I will give you exactly what your soul needs. With my water, you will never be thirsty again. I will create in you a living spring gushing up with eternal life.” “Sign me up!” exclaimed the Samaritan woman. In the words of the Psalmist, she had come to God in her narrowness and God had answered her with a vast response.
Many vignettes of our human lives we feel small and pinned to the earth and our circumstances, but deep within us—-there is this longing for the sacred, the transcendent and the eternal. God is always luring us to the well!
Rachel Held Evans, in her book, Inspired, Slaying Dragons, Walking on Water and Loving the Bible Again, wrote, “Wells are where God starts something new.” Suddenly, this Samaritan woman’s life was full of new possibilities! In her eagerness to share the good news, she forgot her bucket. Jesus must have smiled, knowing she wouldn’t be needing it anymore!
What did that Samaritan woman find at the well that day? What will you and I find if we bring our hearts’ container to God?
I admire the Woman at the Well story for many reasons. It says so much about who God is, how much God loves us, and what God genuinely hopes we will accomplish with this one precious life of ours. First off, I love that the protagonist in the drama is a woman. She is no saint when she arrives to the well. Who of us is? Along with her bucket she lugs a complicated past and present. This woman has known her fair share of heartbreak and disappointment. She is a human being in all of her beauty and imperfections. What does God see? Potential! What does this tell us? It doesn’t matter when the last time you reached out to God. It doesn’t matter if you come with a sad rap sheet a mile long. It doesn’t matter if you have doubts. It doesn’t matter if you are unsure of what to believe or to say. You just have to show up.
No posturing, no bells and whistles, no fancy words. Just imperfect me and you with our hearts in our hands. God already knows the true us anyway. God already knows what we need to fulfill God’s dream for our unique and precious lives.
I’d like to say a quick word on the locale of “spiritual wells.” First, it doesn’t take an Air France flight to visit one. Although, I would love to bring all of you with me on my next visit to Lourdes. There are many ways to make an interior pilgrimage to the well to meet God. Weekly, I go to a personal well at Percy Warner Park or Radnor Lake, or Sunday at the Communion table, or when I read scripture, poetry, practice yoga and silently pray. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says, “Go into your room, shut the door, and reveal your heart to Your Father. And your Father who sees everything, will reward you.” Spiritual wells are everywhere.Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, “Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.” I like her vision: God will meet us anywhere!
The immediate rapport between Photine and Jesus especially speaks to me. He made her feel welcome and set her heart at ease. I imagine them sitting on the side of the well in that Middle Eastern dust, sun beating down with the empty bucket between them. There was an intimacy between them that I long for. This is what prayer is supposed to feel like. A conversation between souls who love one another. God already knows everything about you, every transgression, every doubt, every selfish thought, every loss, every defeat. All that you love, dream and spiritually long for. God meets the whole of you with nothing but love and acceptance. Imagine if this was the model for our earthly relationships.
Another image I love in this story is the Samaritan woman arriving at the well with an empty bucket, but we are told in the story that she is so moved by the experience that she departs the well, leaving the bucket behind. Jesus had given her something that could not be contained in a wooden bucket or for me, a plastic water bottle. She was now a living spring.
I believe we are all guilty of too low expectations of God and what God can do in our lives. Or maybe we think we only deserve a thimble’s worth of God’s grace. Or maybe we are afraid of completely surrendering our body, mind and soul to God, like the Samaritan woman surprised herself and did. Because that would mean we would have to check our pride and loosen our tight grip of control. We could no longer keep the front and serve two masters: the world and God. Being human has its limitations. Our intelligence, imagination, even our faith is no match for God’s incredible and expansive plan for our life and for all of creation. Sara Bareilles asks in her hit song, “How big is your brave?” The Samaritan woman went to the well and found courage and unrealized inner strength. She was changed. Can that happen in your life?
Jesus was looking for transformation in the woman at the well. To become the best version of herself. God wants the same for you and me. And that means with God we are going to love in the face of hurt, experience triumph at the price of our brokenness. But never alone. Invite God to pour some water into your interior bucket and suddenly the possibilities are endless.
I love the idea of an eternal spring, a little bit of heaven inside you and me with the expectation that we like the woman at the well will not keep it a secret or horde the grace, but will return it to the world. The Samaritan woman left the well that day and spent the rest of her life spreading the good news: With God there is always hope and possibility. She would die a saint. In the Eastern tradition, she is venerated on the fourth Sunday after Easter. In many places around the world on this day, churches, schools and even businesses celebrate her by giving away fruit drinks to passers-by.
As many of you know, I am the poster child klutz. This Summer I was racing the kids in the pool, not looking where I was going. I swam straight into the pool wall and literally cracked my front tooth into jagged pieces. It was funny and it was not so funny! I had my twenty year reunion for my graduate school in London the next day. Not too mention it hurt. Thankfully my French friend was able to get me into her dentist 8:00 am the next morning. The dentist office was in a medical building that included orthopedics, psychiatry, OBGYN, heart specialist, and oncology. You name your ailment, they had an office. All of the doctor offices shared a communal waiting room.
When I nervously exited the elevator onto the second floor, I was met with a cacophony of Bonjours. Bonjour! Bonjour! Bonjour! As if I was someone important! I suddenly felt a part of something warm and encouraging. I even could smile with my snaggle-tooth face. I checked into my office and returned to the waiting room to join the multitude of patients until my name was called. The elevator door then opened again and an older gentleman in a 1950’s hat like the one my grandfather used to wear stepped off. I could see he was in pain. Before he could even take a step, the cheering section erupted again. Bonjour! Bonjour! Bonjour! He smiled. His chin lifted, his body squared up. He was given a dose of hope to face whatever lay ahead.
Who knew a friendly bonjour could do so much. A healing balm that said you are not alone and we care about what is happening in your life. This human journey is challenging. But God gave us to each other. We go to the well for ourselves, but even more important so we can fill one another’s buckets with hope! The poet William Blake said it beautifully, “We are put on a earth for a little space that we may learn to bear the beams of love.”
God is waiting for you and me at the well. God says at the well: I know you. All of you. I’ve got you. I love you. Fill your inner bucket with My hope and peace and then help me bring heaven to earth.
If you would like to listen to Farrell’s sermon video link is here: https://youtu.be/VSHDTqQeAX