When I was a kid one of my least favorite jobs was cleaning out the cistern. For those of you too young to remember what a cistern was like, it is a hole in the ground, lined in concrete that catches the rainwater off the roof. The water is then pumped into the house for drinking water.
Once a year my grandfather and dad would lower me into the cistern with a porcelain bucket and a ladle on a board fixed to a rope. I’d scoop up anything that had fallen or was washed into the cistern over the previous year: leaves, sticks, bugs, frogs, lizards and the occasional dead bird. It was creepy enough to be lowered several feet down in the cold, dimly lit pit of water but that unsettling feeling compounded as soon as the realization sunk in that all this debris was in the water we had been drinking!
For my grandparents, a cistern was an improvement over the old days of a dirt well or creek water on which their parents relied. Until they finally got a well in the early 1980’s they didn’t know how much better the water could get. I was recently reminded of this memory, one I likely purged, when re-reading the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.
You will recall that Jesus asked a Samaritan woman for a drink which was in and of itself unusual because Jews didn’t associate with Samaritans for a variety of reasons including the fact the Samaritans built a temple to rival Jerusalem’s claim as the true house of God. The puzzled woman began questioning Jesus as he remarked that she should instead be asking for living water. The Samaritan woman reminds Jesus the well was dug by none other than “our father Jacob” who “drank of it himself.” Jesus replies that the water from the well of her ancestors will not quench her thirst but the water He offers brings eternal life.
Like the cistern of my grandparents, the waters were good enough for the Samaritan’s ancestors and thus sufficed for her. I wonder how many of us are or have been like the Samaritan woman, getting by drinking only from the debris-filled cisterns of the lives we know. How many of us keep returning to the same generational wells of our parents and grandparents? Are you still drinking from the well of poverty, abuse, divorce, poor decisions and bad habits? It’s a place I have known well over the years.
The Samaritan woman, like many of us, didn’t realize Jesus was offering her something new and refreshing to not only satisfy her thirst but to rejuvenate her soul. The well of which Jesus speaks is not tied to place (and thus setting aside ancient differences) but to Spirit. Therefore, we don’t have to return to the well of our parents or our past. We don’t have to drink water filtered with the debris of our life up till now. Let’s cap the cisterns once and for all and drink freely from the eternal spring!