This is part 3 of our series, ‘Out of Silence’. In the first two we’ve looked at the possible meanings of silence and stillness in our Christian spirituality…. Silence as a context for our living, stillness out of which comes potential for creativity and the way of listening for the Spirit of God.
In the next three reflections I will alight on more specific areas of human experience that are affected by silence, or the lack of it…. Inspired (hopefully), as ever, by the lectionary reading for the day – in today’s case, the wonderful story of Jesus’ meeting with the woman at the well, in John 4. In occurred to me recently that I might ask Larry to provide, when possible, a mini-commentary to our Sunday focus-reading, so he has kindly done that today…. Designed to ‘set the scene’ and help us understand the context, and so read the text intelligently and carefully.
Jean Vanier summarises the story this way. .. She is not only part of a despised minority, she is also rejected by her own people. She is a woman with a broken self-image who has deep feelings of guilt, of worthlessness, who feels that nobody could ever really love her. Is it because she feels rejected and mocked by her people that she comes to draw water all alone, at midday, when the sun is at its highest? Most women come to the well early in the morning, but a woman who feels rejected and ashamed will probably try to avoid meeting the other women of the village. She will come to draw water when nobody else is likely to be there. Jesus, we are told, is tired, and is sitting by the well. This is the only time in the gospels that we hear that Jesus is tired. He is alone; the disciples have gone to buy food in the nearby village. He is tired front the long walk in the sun of Judea. Perhaps he is also tired of being with these men who do not seem to understand him and who quarrel among themselves. The Samaritan woman approaches to draw water. Jesus turns to her and says: ’’Give me a drink.“ Jn 4:7
I find it very moving how Jesus meets and welcomes this fragile, broken woman. He knows the depth of her negative self-image. He does not judge or condemn her. He does not condescend or give her any moral lessons. He approaches her like a tired, thirsty beggar,asking her to do something for him. He begins to dialogue with her and creates a relationship with her. She who has lost all trust in her own goodness is trusted by Jesus.
(Jean Vanier: Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John, p67ff)
In the story of the transformation of this woman, we see that Living Water is the symbol of the Spirit, of the very life of God that Jesus came to give us. Jesus is revealing that if we drink from the fountain of the love and compassion of God, we become a fountain of love and compassion. If we receive the Spirit of God, we will give the Spirit of God. The life we receive is the life we give.
Receiving and giving this ‘living water’ is surely the secret of life! If we could only learn to get up in the morning and pour it over ourselves, things would be very different… but we know how challenging and intangible this usually is. I wonder if one advantage of a nurturing of silence and stillness in our lives might be to hear, and taste and see ‘living water’. How might we walk with this beautiful symbol used by Jesus?
This morning at Silent Morning Prayer, we ‘listened’ again for the story – put ourselves, in our imagination, into the sound of the place and the things that took place. And I was drawn to hear the water being drawn, running from the vessel, moving and shining in the heat of the midday sun – such a welcome thing for the thirsty traveller. Not only would it be ‘music to Jesus’ ears’ (imagine being terribly thirsty and hearing the sound of running water) – it is a wondrously musical sound. Running, musical water is the thing I personally remember most about being at the Alhambra Palace in Grenada.
Some of us will remember ‘Sound of Living Waters’ – an influential collection of folky worship songs that came out of the Fisher Folk community in the 1970s. What a great name for a collection of songs. Making music as an offering to God can feel exactly like being refreshed and cleansed and having our thirst quenched. We rightly prioritise it as a Christian community. When I come to look back on my life, I think I’ll be glad of every minute that I spent on making music.. By which I mean much more than ‘I like music’. I think it’s a form of living water. Psalm 95:1 O come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Spot the link to the story of the doubtful children of Israel – and the rock that Moses struck and out of which flowed the reviving water. The psalmist may well be recalling that story, when he mentions the rock of our salvation… and the response is to make music.
[I remember using this reading for a Radio 4 Sunday Morning broadcast from Govan Old Parish Church, and this lovely old Glasgow man reading the Exodus text with aplomb – and particularly how it ended with (all this happened) because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the LORD, saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”]
There is a stillness in this scene. Jesus is resting and we sense we can hear the sound of the water. Living water is offered as balm for the brokenness of the woman’s life. Living water as evocative, for me, of beautiful music.
Bouteneff P133 We are quickly coming to see that beautiful theology – in other words, theology that has emerged from an intelligent silence – is likened to the creation of music. The link between music and silence has been made before: sometimes more than any other sound, music and silence are capable of evincing truth and beauty, speaking of the heavenly and the divine. We think once more of English philosopher Aldous Huxley’s observations on music, echoed earlier by Manfred Eicher (founder of ECM records), that other than silence, it bears the greatest hope of expressing the inexpressible. Words can be useful in lending precision, but they may also bring us to confusion.
There have in fact been some quite stirring and beautiful uses of Part’s music in film and in dance. The most appropriate use of Part’s work in other art forms are those which tap into the fundamental spirit of Part’s music: they bear the traces of inner silence. They tap deeply into the basic brokenness of the world – a brokenness (like that of the Samaritan woman) that is penetrated by sheer beauty.
Scottish minister and author George MacDonald spoke of Heaven as “the regions where there is only life, and therefore all that is not music is silence” Lewis’s ingenious character the devil Screwtape abhors both quiet and music, and so seeks to fill the world with meaningless noise:
‘Music and silence – how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since our Father entered Hell . . . no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise – Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile – Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires. We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. . . . The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress.’ (CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Harper Collins 2001, p119-120)
The melodies and silences of heaven – let’s fill the world with more of those.