Friday, March 27, 2009

When the Well Runs Dry

Father John Sanford, Episcopal priest and son of the late Agnes Sanford, widely known for her healing ministry, tells of an old well at the New Hampshire farmhouse where his family used to spend time each summer.  The house was 150 years old and had never been modernized.  The old well supplied water which was unusually cold, pure, and delicious for the family, and was remarkable for the fact that it never ran dry.  Even during the most severe summer droughts, the old well faithfully yielded up its high-quality water.

When the family decided to remodel the house, modern plumbing and running water were installed.  A new artesian well was drilled near the house.  Since it was no longer needed, the old well was sealed over to be kept in reserve should the new well ever cease functioning.

Several years later, Father Sanford says that, out of curiosity, he removed the well's cover to inspect its condition.  Fully expecting to find the cool, moist depths which he had known so well as a boy, he was disappointed to find the well bone dry.

Researching why the well had run dry, he learned that a well like this is fed by hundreds of tiny underground rivulets, along which seep a constant supply of water.  As water is drawn from the well, more water moves into it along the rivulets, keeping these tiny openings clean and flowing.  But when a well isn't used and water isn't regularly drawn, the tiny rivulets clog up and close.  The old Sanford well, so faithful all those years, had run dry, not because there was no water, but because it hadn't been used.

A person's spirit can be like that.  If the living water of God's presence and peace aren't asked for and used, then we, too, dry up and become barren.  Without God's life-giving joy, there's only sadness and darkness in the human spirit.  Many people today, perhaps more especially in these difficult economic times in our country, find themselves immersed in sadness and darkness.  Some may even eventually adopt the attitude of the young schoolboy mentioned by C. S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity: when asked what he thought God was like, the schoolboy replied, "The sort of person who is always snooping around to see if anyone is enjoying himself, and then trying to stop it."  

On the contrary, faith and God's Word suggest the only solution our sadness and darkness.  The 49th chapter of Isaiah tells of God's faithful servant "saying to the prisoners, 'Come forth,' and to those who are in darkness, 'Appear.'" Isaiah speaks of God in terms of a woman suckling her infant: "Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you."  Jesus, the greatest of God's servants, say in John 5:19-29: "...the Son gives life to whom he will...I say to you, the one who hears my word and believes God who sent me has eternal life...has passed from death to life...for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear God's voice and come forth..."

Sadness and darkness are like a tomb for us.  Like the well, we become dry and dark.  But through living water, the presence of God's Spirit, and through Jesus, the light of the world, the well can once again become filled; the tomb can open and we can walk out.

But there is a price.  Whatever lasts and whatever is of value always has a price.  The servant of which Isaiah speaks and Jesus, God's perfect servant, remember, are both suffering servants.  Perhaps the following story can be helpful:

"One winter day when Saint Francis and Brother Leo were walking along the road to Assisi from Perugia, Francis called out to Leo in the bitter cold five times, each time telling him what perfect joy was not: 'Brother Leo, even if a Friar Minor gives sight to the blind, heals the paralyzed, drives out devils, gives hearing to the deaf, makes the lame walk, and restores speech to the dumb, and what is more, brings back to life a man who has been dead four days -- write that perfect joy is not in that.'  He continued with different descriptions of success -- and even spiritual enjoyment.  When he had been talking this way for two miles, Brother Leo in great amazement asked him: 'Father, I beg you in God's name to tell me where perfect joy is to be found?'

And Francis replied: 'When we come to the Portiuncula, soaked by the rain and frozen by the cold, all soiled with mud and suffering from hunger, and we ring at the gate of our friary and the brother porter comes and says angrily: 'Who are you?' And we say: 'We are two of your brothers.'  And he contradicts us, saying: 'You are not telling the truth.  Go away!'  And he does not open for us, but makes us stand outside in the snow and rain, cold and hungry until night falls -- then if we endure the cruel rebuffs patiently, without being troubled and without complaining, and if we reflect humbly and lovingly that the porter really knows us.  O, Brother Leo, write that perfect joy is to be found there!

And if we continue to knock and the porter comes out and drives us away with curses and hard blows -- and if we bear it patiently and take the insults with joy and love in our hearts.  O, Brother Leo, that is perfect joy! And now hear the conclusion: Above all the graces and gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ gives to his friends is that of conquering oneself and willingly enduring sufferings, insults, humiliations, and hardships for the love of Christ.'"
(from The Fioretti [Little Flowers] of St. Francis of Assisi, Chapter VIII)

Look at the crucifix: there you will see the cost of joy and light.  It will take that to fill the well and open the tomb.  But that kind of hard-won joy will endure.  Just prior to his death, Jesus assured us:  " have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you..."

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