Encuentros at the Well
Jesus’ encounter (encuentro) with the Samaritan woman at the well led to an experience of community that was like living waters. During the current pandemic, we are thirsting for this water, and can find it if we are willing to cross barriers that divide us and share what we have with others.
Good morning. Buenos dias! It is always a comfort to arrive in the warmth of Daniels Run Peace church, especially so on a chilly mid winter morning. But I remind myself 1that at this time of year even though the cold is at its height, each day the dawn arrives a few minutes sooner, and each evening the dusk falls later. Nature seems in sync with the mood of the country as a healing vaccine slowly flows into people’s arms and a peaceful transfer of power becomes a reality, bringing the hope of dawn to this long dark night.
It is a privilege to be invited to speak here this morning, I was honored when Pastor Tig invited me to share my reflection about this morning’s reading of the encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.
This gospel story is a familiar one to me and to most of us, and like a beautiful gem, it shines its light in myriad hues and tones. As I turned it gently in my palm this week, holding it in the light of almost a year of isolation and division and pandemic, that what struck me with force was the fact of encounter itself. Or of encuentro, as we say in Spanish. Having lived far more than half my life in Latin America, my brain – and especially the faith part of it – seems more wired in Spanish.
I wondered why this word sat with me better in Spanish and decided to check it out online. Indeed, the favored translation for encounter is encuentro, but oddly, the first synonym listed for encounter is confrontation, whereas for encuentro is reunion. The opposite.
What a collective thirst we as a world have for encuentro, as we use that word in Spanish. For reunion. We have, on one hand, deepened our encuentro with the familiar – our home, our close family, our pets, our pod. But an encounter – an encuentro - such as that between Jesus and the Samaritan woman – with the unfamiliar – an encuentro between strangers, between different cultures, different traditions, different histories, different realities, now that seems like a radical idea in these times of great isolation.
The encuentro at the well of Jesus and the Samaritan woman was an unexpected encounter for both. En route from Judea to Galilee, Jesus makes the unusual decision to pass through Samaria, an area usually avoided by the Jews because of historical antagonisms. The encounter takes place at noon when the sun must have been fierce in a desert climate. Jesus opens the dialogue, asking the woman for water, from a very intimate source – the ancient well of her ancestors. The woman responds with feisty strength of character and real dialogue ensues. Soon, it becomes clear to the woman that Jesus knows fully who she is, and accepts her completely. That allows the woman to see Jesus for who he is. The woman then asks to drink from his living waters. She goes forward bring many followers to Jesus, Jesus and the Samaritan woman are both radically transformed by this encuentro at the well.
And so I find myself wondering, what are the wells and encuentros that have transformed each of our lives and provided us with living waters? Like many of you here at Daniels Run Peace Church I have had the tremendous privilege of encuentros at “wells” of many distant lands. Several have radically transformed me and brought me to living waters. I wanted to share stories of two such encuentros with you.
The figurative “well” of the first encuentro I will share was that of a breakfast table in Cuernavaca, Mexico. It belonged to a family where I boarded while on a semester abroad program many decades ago. I had just finished the program and made plans to return home to Virginia. I had shared this plan with Maria, a middle aged Catholic nun who was staying at the same Mexican family’s home, and she happened to join me at breakfast the next morning. The encuentro that ensued appeared spontaneous, but perhaps Maria had it planned, like Jesus at the well.
While sharing a breakfast of tortillas and frijol and crema, Maria asked if she could read a letter to me. I thought that was a bit strange, but told her yes. She obviously knew me better than myself.
The letter was from a fellow Mercy sister named Caridad in a tiny mountain village of Chanmagua, Guatemala. Sister Caridad narrated her efforts to try to find several young catequists who had been “disappeared” by the military, much as was happening in neighboring villages. Repression was closing in on anyone who questioned the brutal dictatorship that had been propped up by my country.
For no logical reason whatsover, I asked Maria, could I go and visit Sister Caridad? Of course, she said, knowing before I did that this would be my reaction. She had shared with me a truth, much as Jesus did with the Samaritan woman, and knew, likewise, that I would not remain still with this knowledge.
And so it was. I cancelled my train ticket, found the name of the village on a map , and set out with my thumb as my mode of travel. Several days later I stepped off the back of a pick up truck in a dusty plaza in front of an adobe church, and from behind the church came Sister Caridad , arms stretched out. She had no idea who I was, nor why I was there, but only said: today I cleaned the room behind the chapel and set up a cot, you are welcome to stay.
The next three months I watched as my life’s stage slowly rotated 180 degrees. The warmth and generosity of my extremely poor neighbors drew me in. Daily, baskets of tortillas, eggs and beans were delivered to our table. Each Sunday we sat together in the small chapel and Monsenor Oscar Romero, a newly ordained bishop, said mass from a radio placed on the wooden altar, since the local priest came only once a year. Romero’s words both challenged me about how I should concretely live out my faith in situations of unjustice and comforted my neighbors that they were not alone. I felt a desire to share their journey, to drink the waters of faith that so clearly sustained them in such difficult situations.
That 180 degree turn remained my new path, and a few years later I became a Catholic lay missioner , something I never imagined before my encounter with Maria at the breakfast table. For the next 21 years, I shared life and faith with many communities in several countries, raising my children in their wonderful embrace.
Years later, I had another special encuentro at a different “well”, this one being the hole I was digging for a small mango tree I wanted to plant on my farm in Venezuela’s Andes mountains. As I began to dig the hole my nine-year-old neighbor Fabi dropped by and asked if she could help. It soon became clear not only that Fabi had much more strength than I, she had a deep knowledge of nature and knew exactly how to shape the hole and mix the dirt with compost. We finished the mango tree hole and with her encouragement, we dug a dozen more for other fruit trees, the location of each wisely determined by Fabi.
As we worked and sweated in the noonday sun, we shared stories. Of growing hunger at her home. Of scavenging for potatoes in other fields, as her family had no land. Of her love of books. Of being overlooked as the youngest of eight. Of how she preferred to dance in the boy’s line in a tamunangue, bringing on merciless teasing from her sisters.
Before she finally headed home that day, Fabi asked me: Lisa, when are we going to plant something that more quickly becomes food? Food shortages and hunger were raging through Venezuela and our community and her home. And a mango tree took some six years to bear fruit. And Fabi’s family had no land and I had plenty.
How about tomorrow Fabi? At 6 am the following day, Fabi was there, with her cousin JonJon and sack of sheep manure and handful of bamboo and in no time had created a large raised bed. They returned the next day and the next, each time with an additional sibling or cousin. Fabi might have been the youngest of eight, but she was clearly a leader.
In a few months a first harvest was shared among the now 40 or so young gardeners With seeds saved from this harvest, they planted other food gardens in their homes, and in the homes of their cousins and grandparents, producing healthy food for many tables in our village.
The encuentro between Fabi and at the “well” of a new mango tree yielded much living water, for Fabi, for her fellow gardeners, for their families, for their community. Often, living waters overflow to others when this real encuentro happens. Fabi and I are separated by five decades of age and worlds of experience and culture. But, at this well, we opened up and saw one another. This encuentro transformed each of us, and also transformed others.
Today in the midst of a pandemic, so many of these “wells” at which we might gather are roped off to us. Public schools. Cultural events. Libraries, Sports.
The lack of these “wells”, these spaces of real encuentro, has been devastating both on a personal and societal level. Perhaps this has contributed to the opposite kind of encounter, the kind I found online defined as confrontation. One group of people against another group, a group perceived to be “the other”. We saw this so painfully over the summer , during the presidential election, and so recently right here in Washington.
And so, for all the more reason, I give thanks for Daniel’s Run Peace Church, a deep “well” whose living waters are precious and available.
I am mindful too how we as individuals can also be “wells” that invite encuentro. I see beautiful examples of that right here today. Emmanuel’s piano is a well that draws us to living waters, as is Kari’s guitar. Pastor Tig’s sermons and his warm sense of welcome. Johnny’s computer skills that allow more to come to this well near and far.
This pandemic that has wrought such destruction has also left many lessons in its wake. Perhaps one is the recognition, more than ever before, of the essential need for real encuentro. Of creating and supporting places and spaces where we can see and accept and love and transform one another.
And while we await the light and life of this much anticipated springtime, perhaps we can offer our own talents and skills as wells of living waters to those within our reach who thirst. . Everywhere can be Jacob’s well at noon, and each of us can make real encuentro possible.