Address: St David’s Uniting Church. 23rd March 2014
Wells of living water
Reading John 4 5 – 42
One of the family stories that used to get told from time to time, and probably exaggerated every time, concerns a visit to an ancient well: St Ann’s Well – I forget where it was. I must have been around 12-13 years old. I remember people queuing for their turn to reach the well, cup their hands under the spouting water and drink. Some splashed it over their face – cool and refreshing on a hot day. An inscription on the concrete around the well read ‘whosoever drinketh of the water that I give, shall never thirst’.
When it came to my turn, I cupped my water under the spout as others had done, but the water slowed to a trickle, then stopped altogether. Whether it was the irony of these life giving waters drying up, or the idea of the Almighty making an exception to His promise in my case, I don’t know, but my family found this amusing.
Much could be said about the conversation between Jesus and the woman at the well, that we have heard. I merely want to explore the significance of the site at which it took place: the well. Because the well is a powerful symbol of what we are as a church, and of what a project like Picturing Ponty is all about.
In Wales, many chapels are named after places in the Bible,
Horeb – the mountain on which the 10 commandments, Gods Law was made known.
Penuel – Here Jacob wrestled with an angel. A place of encounter, or wrestling with God
Bethany – home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, where Jesus enjoyed hospitality many a time
Bethesda – refers to the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem, associated with healing.
The names express something about the church’s identity and sense of mission. A kind of non- conformist equivalent to adopting a saints name for the church.
Sychar – may be reference to Shechem, the main settlement of the Samaritans, N of Jerusalem.
Strangely enough Syched in welsh means ‘thirst’. It’s a good name for the site of a well.
I don’t know many churches called Sychar – there may be some. There are some ‘fresh expressions’ churches adopting the name ‘The Well’ and it is a pretty good candidate as a name for a church. It’s where Jesus revealed his identity to a foreign woman and where he made extraordinary promises about life giving water and eternal life. It is the site of Jacobs well, in a field that Jacob had given to Joseph.
Let’s think for a moment about the significance of wells in times gone by. You’ll see, I hope, why I think the well is a wonderful symbol for a church.
1. As Phil Cope points out in his book ‘Holy wells: Wales’, the well would have been the first mirror, in which people could see their own image reflected.
In Picturing Ponty we have done just that – held up a mirror to the community, to look at itself, hopefully in a new way.
2. Wells were the source of water- water for drinking and for cleansing. It is the essential necessity for human, plant and animal existence. Imagine finding a source of water, mysteriously bubbling up from the ground, in the days long before we understood about the water cycle and water tables and geological faults that explain for us where and why spring water is found. This was enough reason to consider them sacred sites- long before Christianity came along.
3. Pre-christian wells in Wales were places of ‘dialogue’, where people interact with one another and with something beyond the here and now. They are places of ceremony and storytelling, of celebration, community and ritual, of presenting gifts – coins, buttons, flowers, all of which might be thrown into the well, and places of healing – sometimes the tying of rags to witness cures. Early Christianity attempted to stamp out pagan practice and many wells became associated with saints names and stories.. like Llanfair.
4. Then some, like Penrhys, became places of pilgrimage associated with prayer and journeying, healing and blessing.
Isn’t there inspiration in all of this for what we can be as a church in the local community?
This has been a place of community and of dialogue over the past couple of weeks. It has been lovely to see people gathered around the pictures and chatting about them. It has been lovely to see people who represent different parts of the community – school, local societies, the council, churches, friends and friends of friends mingling, talking informally and hopefully enjoying themselves.
This was Dan’s hope for the project – that it might be about communicating and about building bridges, as symbolised by the photo we chose to use to depict the project.
My hope is that the pictures, the choir and Beverley’s address may have perhaps connected people, not only with one another but also with something beyond the here and now… with God the source of living water and of eternal life.
If Picturing Ponty has given us just a glimpse of what we could be and of what we can do in and with our community, the question is, what next?