“… this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity must be something more than coming together for moments of praise, only for us to return unchanged back to our various Christian communities. Let it not be, as it is for a film or a show, ‘for one week only’. …”
These words were spoken earlier in the week by Fr Damian McNeice at the Dublin Council of Churches’ (DCC) Inaugural Service of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, at St Bartholomew’s Church of Ireland.
The theme of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is ‘the well is deep.’ It is based on the passage from John Chapter 4 where Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well.
Quite a few years ago now I attended a residential in Belfast organised by Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland (ECONI), now called Contemporary Christianity, where over several days we were asked to reflect on that passage and what it meant for Jesus, as a Jew, to interact so closely with a Samaritan, the traditional ‘enemy.’
We were obviously prompted to think about the lack of interaction between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland – particularly since the residential was held at the Farset International hostel on the Springfield Road, so close to one of the city’s major peace walls. We also thought about the gender dynamics of the encounter, and the inequalities between men and women.
Below, I’ve selected some passages from McNeice’s homily, which can be read in full on the website of the Archdiocese of Dublin. What strikes me – and what resonates with my memories of that ECONI residential – is McNeice’s admonition that what Jesus is telling us we must do is to seek encounters with traditional ‘enemies.’
That means going out of our way to speak with them, listen to them, and try to understand their perspectives – even if that means going physically and spiritually where we haven’t gone before.
Much can keep us embedded on our usual paths and routines – apathy and lack of time can conspire to limit our encounters as much as hostility to befriending the ‘other.’ That’s why the upcoming 4 Corners Festival in Belfast (29 January-8 February) is such a great opportunity to venture where you haven’t gone before – and hopefully help you ponder one of the questions McNeice raises: ‘Where is it ‘necessary’ for us to walk now?’
Fr Damian McNeice’s Meditation on John Chapter 4
… Our Gospel opens with Jesus on the move – not passively waiting for people to come to him. He always takes the initiative to invite us into his company. We hear in the Gospel that Jesus had to pass through Samaria. It ‘was necessary’ for him. This was not just a geographical necessity. Jesus could have taken another route along the Jordan Valley back to Galilee. But ‘it was necessary’. We hear this imperative also in John 3:14 “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert so it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
The Samaritans were considered by the Jews to be in a kind of schism with them. They had built their own place of worship and incorporated ‘foreign’ practices. We remember how when Jesus wanted to ‘wake-up’ his Jewish listeners, he told the parable about a Samaritan who proved himself a neighbour to a wounded person [Luke 10:25-37]. We see in Jesus, God gathering to himself peoples suffering from centuries-old separation. He can do the same with us.
To whom is Christ urging us to go? Where is our ‘necessary Samaria?’ Is it those whom we consider to be unorthodox, schismatic or as Pope Francis puts it: people on the ‘perififerie’ on the margins, outsiders?
… And at the end of this Gospel passage we see people who had been estranged entering into communion with one another by opening themselves to Christ. They all gather at the well, the Samaritans asking a Jewish Rabbi and his disciples to stay with them, a most unlikely scenario!
This Gospel thus challenges us:
Where is it ‘necessary’ for us to walk now?
Where is our necessary Samaria?
How will the Lord astonish us with newness? Will we allow Him?
What unnecessary buckets will we have to put down?