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The Woman at the Well – The Reverend Canon Dr Christopher Collingwood (Chancellor)

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Sunday 5 January 2020 – Choral Evensong
Isaiah 49:1-13       John 4:7-26

I wonder whether you’ve ever been to the Holy Land or even ever had the desire to do so. Despite hearing numerous people telling me over the years how life-changing such a visit can be, I’d never had any inclination to go until about 10 years ago. A former colleague of mine was living in East Jerusalem, where her husband had a posting with the Foreign Office. She’d always said we should take the opportunity to go and stay with them. Then, one day, we had a message to say that if we wanted to do so, we’d better get on with it, because they were about to be moved to China within the next few months.

So just after Easter some 10 years ago, we went. It was a magical trip for all sorts of reasons. One of the unforeseen benefits for us, though, was that because John had the use of a diplomatic car, he was able to get us to places which were otherwise tricky to gain access to. One of those places was Nablus, on the West Bank, where a well – said to be Jacob’s Well – is to be found. You’ll recall from the second lesson from John’s Gospel that Jesus sat down by this well in the heat of the midday sun one day and entered into conversation with a Samaritan woman, which, for her, was indeed life-changing.

As is the case with so much else in the Middle East, different religious groups have vested interests in Jacob’s Well: Jews, Samaritans, Christians and Muslims. In 1860, the site was obtained by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and in 1893 a church was built over the well, with a monastery as part of the complex. That building was destroyed by the Jericho earthquake in 1927. Since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967, the well’s been the focus of considerable acrimony between Jews and Christians. In 1979, the then custodian of the site, Archimandrite Philoumenos, was found hacked to death inside the crypt housing the well. In 2009, the Greek Patriarchate of Jerusalem declared Philomenous to be a saint, since when a new church building has been erected over the well.

As with many of the sites in the Holy Land, you have to take all sorts of claims to be the really authentic place where this or that happened with a large pinch of salt. Whether or not the well in Nablus really is Jacob’s Well, there was, nevertheless, something about it. Hewn out of rock, it was extraordinarily deep, as the gospel narrative states. On the edge of the well was a stone on a string, which you can throw down to see just how long it takes for the stone to hit the water. A long time! And the water tastes unbelievably sweet and good!

The church which was erected over the well by Greek Orthodox Christians in 1893 was dedicated in honour of St Photini the Samaritan – the Samaritan woman herself. The choice of the name – Photini – is incredibly interesting. It means ‘the Enlightened One,’ or ‘the Luminous One,’ Photini being derived from the Greek word, ‘phos,’ meaning ‘light.’ Legend has it that the Samaritan woman was baptised by the Apostles and given the name Photine. Now whether we go along with the notion that the Samaritan woman was an actual historical figure or one constructed as a spiritual archetype by the evangelist is neither here nor there. The important thing is that the figure of Photini offers us a way in to this amazing, utterly engaging, spiritually true-to-life story, and speaks to us of our human condition, of our true nature in relation to Christ, and of the transformation required if we are also to become enlightened or luminous.

Enlightenment isn’t a word much used in Christian circles; it’s rather more associated with Buddhist traditions. In his letter to the Ephesians, though, Paul speaks of the ‘eyes of your heart’ being ‘enlightened.’ Light’s associated with Christ himself, who as the Prologue to John’s Gospel puts it, is the ‘true light, which enlightens everyone.’ So in a Christian context, enlightenment has to do with the discovery of our true nature as the light and life of Christ within us and at the heart of everything. As the prologue also states, this light is mysteriously obscured within us, yet, as everything which obscures the light is cleared away, so the light of Christ, which is already present – just as the sun’s always still present behind the clouds – begins to shine in us, and we discover our luminosity.

It’s here, perhaps, that the Buddhist traditions can – forgive the pun – shed a little light on the matter, for the practice of meditation, which invites a forensic examination and analysis of the workings of the mind and the heart, enables us both to discover the luminous ground of our awareness, and also that which obscures it. And this is exactly what Jesus does with the Samaritan woman.

Anyone who knows anything about Buddhism will almost certainly have an idea that the problem for human beings lies in the nature of desire, but a more sophisticated acquaintance with Buddhism will be aware that it’s not quite so simple. Nirvana, the so-called ‘goal’ of Buddhism, is often assumed to be that state in which desire has been extinguished. It’s actually rather more subtle than that. The problem isn’t so much to do with desire per se as with misdirected or disordered desire. It would be impossible to live without any kind of desire at all. If that were the case, we’d never get out of bed in the morning. No, the real issue concerns the nature of our desire.

In the encounter with the woman at the well, Jesus gently, sensitively and compassionately enables her to discover how the dissatisfaction she feels with her life arises out of her misdirected desires. And the metaphor for her desire is her need for water. In other words, this is all about spiritual thirst.

At the most basic level, she’s fed up with the sheer drudgery and mundaneness of life. She has to trek to the well in the heat of the day to draw water, a fundamental necessity of life, and yet she desires something more. The paradox is that this desire for something more obscures for her the sheer wonder and delight of water itself. Her sense of drudgery obscures her basic appreciation and savouring of the miracle of water. The discovery of that something more would enable her to delight in this practical and manual daily task in a way which eludes her at the time of her initial conversation with Jesus.

Jesus then draws her attention to a more fundamental disorder of desire in her life. For some reason she’s had five husbands and the man she’s with at the time isn’t even her husband. We don’t know what lies behind this and we should be careful not to project back on to her all our contemporary notions of romantic love. The point is that she appears to have looked for the fulfilment of her desire in a succession of human relationships. Such things are necessary and often life-giving, of course, but we find that often they can’t bear the burden of our unrealistic hopes, expectations and desires, and they become a source of pain, hurt and suffering. Jesus shows us that in all this she’s really desiring something more.

That something more is difficult – impossible even – to put into words, not least because it’s the very reality in which we’re grounded and through which we experience life. Suffice to say, the woman discovers this in the person conversing with her, as if he were a mirror in whom she sees herself. She sees in him the luminous ground of her own awareness and realises that this is what she’s been looking for in all the twists and turns of her life. And, paradoxically, even her misdirected and disordered desires, which have left her feeling dissatisfied with her life, have actually had their part to play in the discovery of what she was really looking for all along.

So the Samaritan woman, St Photine, the Enlightened or Luminous One, is really you and me. Her story is an invitation to all of us to discover that what we really want is already present within us. As we read in the letter to the Colossians, this is the ‘mystery hidden throughout the ages and now revealed to his saints – Christ in you, the hope of glory.’ The living water, for which we thirst, is already flowing abundantly in the unfathomably deep well of our being.

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