The Samaritan Well

James Palmer

Central Scotland February 24, 2017

For the last three years now I have run a book group in a pub in Bathgate. We meet weekly, eat together and talk about the books we’re reading. The books are chosen democratically and I reflect theologically on them. We have read a wide spectrum of fiction from The Iliad of Homer to After the Crash by Michel Bussi. Each book gives the group a fresh perspective to discuss and consider. Each book is an opportunity to reflect on our own beliefs and explore a Christian perspective on the plot, an issue, or a character.

The woman at the well and third spaces

While in Jerusalem Jesus hears of a growing response to his message and miracles in Galilee. On the way there he stops at Jacob’s well near a Samaritan town to rest and eat lunch. At the well he meets a woman and offers her living water that will bubble up within her, rather than from any sacred place. In other words, he offers her an opportunity to be filled with God right here rather than having to travel long distances to meet him. This is a ‘third space’. Third spaces are distinct from homes and workplaces. Our family relationships happen in our homes and our commerce happens in our workplaces, but our culture happens in third spaces. Third spaces are places for recreation and self‑reflection about our human condition not only as individuals but also as a society. What goes on in third spaces reflects who we are and what we aspire to be as a culture. Third spaces are places of cultural and social identity. They include pubs, clubs, restaurants, museums, galleries, theatres and cinemas. The Samaritan well is a third space, it’s a watering hole where the local women would gather water in the morning and chat. It is a place where life happened in what the church now often calls secular space.

Our book group is a social and cultural third space where life happens. The local pub a busy active environment full of people from all walks of life. Our group includes people of different faiths, political and economic circumstances and sexual orientations, each bringing their own flavour of values and beliefs to the table. At the heart of book group is friendship. Book group is fun and enjoyable not because of the heavy discussions but because of the chance to be around friends.

Third spaces as storied places full of rich cultural and spiritual meaning

In his book Bible and Mission Richard Bauckham describes mission happening in two ways. In the Old Testament it worked centripetally (‘come and see’), but in the New Testament the church is centrifugal, commissioned by the Holy Spirit to ‘go and tell’. Too often the experience of contemporary church has been to ask people to ‘come and see’: drawing people toward itself and away from the world, instead of scattering them to go into the world. The sad fact is that the church has all-too-often withdrawn from third spaces. And in the process they have often overlooked the storied meaning of such locations for the spiritual life of their users. The Samaritan well isn’t just a place of communal living or cultural understanding. It’s not just a secular space, easily dismissed as a consequence. This is Jacob’s well; the Jacob who saw angels ascending and descending to and from heaven; the Jacob who wrestled with the ‘man’ and displaced his hip joint. The Samaritans drew their cultural and spiritual identity from this mundane third space. As the woman reminds Jesus, “we worship on this mountain”. In meeting her there he enters into the rich and storied meaning of her own spiritual journey.

An encounter at a contemporary well

At book group one evening, I was talking to my pagan friend about an assignment I had at university on the first chapter of Job. She read it and immediately said, “I don’t get it. Your God doesn’t make sense. How can you believe in one God?”

I asked her, ‘why do you believe in many gods? Why are you pagan?’

She replied: “because I can see my gods. When the thunder claps I know Thor is on the move. When the sea roars we know it’s Wade. I can see nature moving and changing and I know it’s the gods. But your God isn’t known, he can’t be seen. Your God, in my mind, doesn’t exist because he can’t be identified.”

There are ways to refute her argument and talk about how a transcendent being breaks us free from nihilism, gives us a higher purpose, and destroys tribalism. And is identifiable through Christ himself, who lived in the flesh on earth. But I also had to admire what she had to say. She is, in many ways, right! We have so disembodied God from creation that he can’t be seen. Yet the Psalmist says the voice of the Lord makes the deer give birth (Ps 29:9). He feeds the birds (Matt 6:29). He makes rain to fall and moves the seasons. God is involved in creation and can be seen in it. I learned that day that if I humbly engage in dialogue not only will I alter the opinions of others but my own faith can be enriched and deepened. I too can have a Samaritan well experience. It’s a two-way process.

Mission as encounter not expansion

The Samaritan well is a place of encounter. The woman meets Jesus, yes. But more than that, Jesus describes a paradigm shift in how God is encountered and worshiped. Water isn’t drawn from the well, it’s drawn from God’s presence within us. The well is a place where we draw exhaustive sources of water that we need to return to, but Jesus offers and encounter of himself in the everyday, in the mundane, in the third space. “For a day is coming where true worshippers will worship in spirit and in truth.”

Gene Weingarten suggests a series of interrelated and interesting questions: “have we become too busy to notice beauty? Furthermore, have we, as a culture, trained ourselves to not even see beauty if it’s anywhere other than where we expect beauty to be? Would we see a painting, that is, if it were removed from a museum and hung in a restaurant? Can we ever hear beautiful music if it’s not surrounded by a concert hall? And what do our answers to these questions reveal about us?”

I would add: are we only able to notice God in church or can he be seen in the films we watch and the books we read, the conversations we have and the work we do?

If the Samaritan well is a third space where an unexpected encounter happens, can we dare to cross the boundaries of our churches and seek an encounter with the living God in the third spaces of our society? Do we dare to believe in the hope that we have a God that does not live in “houses made by human hands” (Acts 7:48)? A God who has instead chosen to reveal “the glorious riches of this mystery, Christ in you the hope of glory” (Col 1:27)? Can we believe that third spaces may not be merely secular space but a space of deep encounter where the God of all glory is active in the mundanity of our daily lives?

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James Palmer

James Palmer

I am James Palmer, a student at the Scottish Baptist College. I run a book group in a local pub where I try to share my faith as we reflect on the books we read.