SASKATOON — Echoing the theme “Jesus said to her: ‘Give me a drink’ ’’ the opening celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in Saskatoon included participants blessing each other with water and a reflection on Christ’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.
Leaders and ministry leaders from a number of Christian denominations participated in the service hosted by Sts-Martyrs-Canadiens Catholic Parish.
The opening celebration included prayer responses in French and the praying of the Lord’s Prayer in each person’s own language or tradition. The service also included a prayer confessing the sins of division, and an affirmation of faith, as well as intercessory prayers for healing, peace and reconciliation.
“Grant us your light, so that we may reform our attitudes and enable our churches to be welcoming spaces, where feast and forgiveness, joy and tenderness, strength and faith become our daily practice, our daily food, our daily movement forward in Jesus Christ,” prayed the assembly, led by Sts-Martyrs-Canadiens pastor Rev. Bernard de Margerie.
Dr. Karen Westerfield Tucker, a United Methodist elder (presbyter) and professor of worship at Boston University was the preacher at the Jan. 18 worship service.
Westerfield Tucker described how the first chapters of John’s Gospel are saturated with references to water, beginning with the description of Jesus the Word, in the beginning with God, creating order and life out of the watery chaos.
“A few verses later, Jesus encounters the wild and woolly John the water baptizer, who in turn recognizes Jesus as the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit,” she said, adding that in the next chapter of the Gospel, Jesus changes water into wine, and then tells Nicodemus that one can enter the kingdom of God only by being born of water and the spirit. “Chapter 3 ends with the Judean countryside awash in baptisms from Jesus’ disciples and from John the Baptizer — and John can see that he must decrease so that Jesus may increase.”
All of this sets the stage for the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in Chapter 4. “Fatigued and thirsty, he stops to take a break by a roadside well — yet another reference to water.”
And this was no ordinary well, she added, but Jacob’s well — “the same Jacob who met Rachel at a well, who dreamed of a ladder stretched between earth and heaven, whose name was changed to Israel, who would be a father of a great nation.”
This particular well was also located in the territory of the Samaritans. “Animosity between Jews and Samaritans ran deep — as deep as Jacob’s well,” she explained. “Samaritans believed their religion to be the true Israelite faith, kept intact and separate from the Judaism that emerged after the Babylonian exile,” Westerfield Tucker said. The two branches of the faith disagreed about sacred texts, and about where to worship: with the Samaritans worshipping on Mount Gerizim rather than at the temple in Jerusalem.
“The Jewish-Samaritan disputes were not only about religious practices. At one time the Samaritans had given aid to Syria in its wars against the Jews, and the Jews in a previous century had burned down the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim.”
So Jesus was in dangerous territory, on Samaritan holy ground, when he sat down at Jacob’s well in the shadow of Mount Gerizim, Westerfield Tucker noted.
“The conversation begins with Jesus asking her for water: ‘give me a drink’ — a deceptively simple request, but in the context, one that required Jesus to cross multiple barriers — Samaritan, gender, a woman at odds with her own community, the prospect of sharing water from an unclean vessel,” Westerfield Tucker said.
“Very quickly in the exchange that follows, the roles are reversed, and she is the one that is asking for a drink, one more satisfying and thirst-quenching than can be found bubbling up in the waters of the ancestral well.”
The Samaritan woman raises the question of where it is right to worship, but Jesus does not enter into a debate about locations. “Instead he declares that the true worship of God is not geographically located or limited to specific ritual practices, but is rather defined by God’s own nature, which is spirit and truth,” said Westerfield Tucker.
True worship, Jesus says, is not about ancestral wells or sacred mountains, “but about the one who is the wellspring of grace and the mountaintop of peace, the one who offers the waters of eternal life, and who, ladder-like, connects earth and heaven.”
The Samaritan woman then goes forth to share Christ’s words with her neighbours. “The one who is different becomes an evangelist, to preach the Gospel of peace to those from whom she was estranged.” And when Jesus resumes his journey, his Samaritan hosts make a remarkable statement: “truly this is the Saviour of the World.”
“As we gather at the beginning of this week of Christian unity, we must admit to our own Gerizims and Jerusalems,” said Westerfield Tucker. “We sometimes insist on guarding our own ancestral wells, finding the taste of their waters to our own liking, and perhaps superior to the waters that flow in other wells.”
“When we look into our respective wells, we see images of our respective ancestors and traditions,” she added, whether that be Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Cranmer, Calvin, Menno, Wesley, Williams or their more recent spiritual descendants. But she urged her listeners to look deeper into their well to see the true source of its living water.
“When you look beyond the surface, each of you will see the face of Jesus,” she said. “The Living Water that supplies your well comes from the one who offers a spring of water gushing up from eternal life. Christ is the aquifer who fills all of our wells.”
Christians are also challenged to go further in the pursuit of unity, she added, noting how Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that the true worship of God is not tied to a particular cult and transcends the particularities of rite and ceremonial. “Christ, the Living Water, overflows all boundaries that we would make,” she said.
“It is the in-dwelling Spirit that makes for true worship, and the same Spirit breaks down barriers and leads to true fellowship,” said Westerfield Tucker.
“And so this week — and every week — people of the Land of the Living Skies, turn to the Keeper of the Living Waters. Reach deeply into your wells. Find the common source, and so proclaim with your neighbour: ‘behold the Saviour of the World.’ ”
Westerfield Tucker, who serves on the international Methodist-Roman Catholic dialogue, is the featured guest speaker for the third annual De Margerie Series on Christian Reconciliation and Unity, held in conjunction with the week of prayer in Saskatoon.
This year the De Margerie series included a workshop Jan. 17 about prayer, song and Christian unity, a session for clergy and ministry leaders on baptism and Christian unity Jan. 19, and the annual De Margerie lecture Jan. 20 at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon.
Other events during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity organized by the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism in Saskatoon include 7 a.m. worship services in various churches every weekday, an ecumenical hymn sing and worship service Jan. 21, a lunch and worship service at Queen’s House Jan. 22, and a concluding celebration 3 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 25 at Ebenezer Baptist Church.