The spring of life

I was mulling over what I would say to you today when I met Steven Spielberg for lunch and we started talking about his latest movie, The Fablemans. The film unlocks the meaning of most of Spielberg’s earlier movies – E.T. and Close Encounters, Jaws and Jurassic Park, the Indiana Jones films, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan – so we started talking about what might unlock the meaning of the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4:5-42).

My conversation with Spielberg was purely imaginary, of course – I’ve never met him – but it was nevertheless enlightening. When he accepted the directing prize for The Fablemans at this year’s Golden Globes ceremony, Spielberg said he had been “hiding from this story,” a lightly fictionalized version of his own life, “since [he] was seventeen years old” (NPR, 6 March). His earlier films were metaphors, glimpses of the great, personal story finally revealed in The Fablemans. And I wondered how many of us have been hiding from the story of Jesus and the woman at the well, and how it might really be a thinly disguised story about our lives, and how maybe this is a good time to come to terms with it.

Before we get into the story, we read that Jesus “left Judea and started back to Galilee” but “had to go through Samaria” to get there (vv. 3-4). He didn’t have to go through Samaria; he could have gone around it like any good Jew would have done, good Jews having nothing to do with Samaritans, whom they considered politically and racially inferior and with whom they avoided any contact. So why was it he “had to go through Samaria”? What compelled him to take his disciples there? What does that reveal about our aversions to certain people out of ignorance or fear or prejudice? And what does it tell us about how something in our discipleship might compel us to go into those places and among those people we’ve been taught to avoid?

There’s much to say about that, especially when there are places I want to avoid, like Florida, where the governor and the Republican legislature are trying to establish an extremist version of their idea of Christian theocracy by actively disenfranchising black people, gay people, women, educators, librarians, journalists, and voters. Is there something in my discipleship with Jesus, something in the gospel of reconciliation, that would compel me to go through that Floridian Samaria?

Maybe there is, like there was something that compelled disciples to go through another Samaria years ago, my home territory of the American South in the 1950s and 1960s, to confront the entrenched powers of racism and segregation with the gospel of reconciliation. As we near the anniversary of the Tops Market killings, we need to ask: is there something in our discipleship to Jesus, who embodied the gospel of radical reconciliation, that would move us beyond public proclamations of regret and cause us to go into our East Side or West Side Samaria, to go into those places we might want to avoid, with a deep, transforming love for our brothers and sisters, our own kin, especially for the least, the last, and the lost – for whkome Jesus had such affection and concern? As I said, there’s a lot to say about that.

But there’s another part of the story often passed over too quickly. Yet it’s the foundation of any new Jerusalem, any expression of the kingdom of God, any community of the new creation, any vital congregation, anyone’s life of discipleship. It’s the part where Jesus said that to those who ask, he will give water that “will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (v. 14). If we ask, if we open ourselves to it, there is something Christ provides that becomes in us a gushing source of the dynamic, vital element that quenches our thirst, that fills us to overflowing with the kind of life we can only call “eternal,” a life that spreads like yeast in a loaf of bread, that grows from a seed as small as a grain of mustard until it becomes a tree big enough so birds can build their nests in it.

Joseph Campbell, the great student and teacher of mythology and religion, said, “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive” (The Power of Myth).

What we’re seeking is what St. Irenaeus had in mind when he wrote, “The glory of God is [the human person] fully alive,” the human person experiencing “the rapture of being alive.” We get that not by building walls and barriers we believe will protect us from others who are different but by inviting the gospel of reconciliation to take control of our thoughts, our motivations, our lives. We get that by breaking down walls and barriers that separate us from others, particularly from those by whom we feel threatened. We experience that life by getting in touch with the spring of holy water, the fountain of life, that gushes up within us, and within all people, when we ask for it.

We have within us, each one of us, a life force, a God-given nature that cries out to be freed from its constraints like a bird calls out to be freed from its cage, like Lazarus needed to be called out from his tomb, unbound, and set free for life (John 11:43-44). We live our authentic lives in bits and pieces, in symbols and metaphors, like Spielberg’s earlier films, until we finally with clarity and gumption live fully the life we’re given.

To tap the well of eternal life within us, to be fully awake, fully alive, fully human, is to be continually thrown out of the nest, out of the place where we’ve settled and grown comfortable, so we experience each moment as completely new and fresh. The transforming moment when we begin to live doesn’t always come like an earthquake or fireworks. Sometimes it comes quietly and subtly, as it did for Elijah hiding in his cave, in a still, small voice, or the sound of sheer silence, asking “What are you doing here?” (1 Kings 19:11-13). Or it may come like it came for the woman at the well, when someone asks not-so-simply for a drink of water.

Pay close attention to those questions, especially the ones that keep returning. What am I doing here? Is this all there is? Is this the life I was meant to live? Am I being true to my deep, inner self? What am I really living for, and what’s keeping me from it? You don’t need to have well-developed answers to those questions, you need only to hear the question deeply and develop a living relationship with it. You need only to ask – and to mean it when you ask – “Let me tap into the spring of eternal life within me. Give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty.” ▪

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