Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I will give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.
One of the high points of my recent walk in south Wales was arriving at Penrhys in the Rhondda valley. There, close to a golf course and with some modern housing nearby, a tall and dignified statue of Mary and the Christ child, erected in the 1950s, marks the site of a medieval shrine. In its heyday 600 years or so ago, this was a very popular place of pilgrimage; now, in what might seem to be rather unpromising surroundings, pilgrims such as me are returning.
Unfortunately, the only remnant of what must have been a considerable complex of structures in the Middle Ages is a small well chapel on the hillside below the statue, this being accessed down quite a steep path. Here, long ago, a mountain spring was enclosed by a small building, with its healing waters being given the name Fynnon Fair, meaning Mary’s well. However, I must admit that I was a little disappointed when I got there to find that the well chapel was surrounded by railings with a locked gate; it was just possible to peer inside and see a small pool in the gloom.
Nevertheless, towards the end of what had been quite a long day, I sat quietly on the paved area that surrounds the well and took a few sips from my water bottle. Having walked to such a significant place, I wanted to enjoy a few minutes of quiet prayer and reflection before continuing on to my accommodation for the night.
But suddenly, I was no longer alone; a slightly-built young man had appeared as if from nowhere and asked if I was in any difficulty. Of course, I was fine, but I was very touched by his concern; on seeing me from a distance and thinking that I might be in need of help, he had rushed down to me and, in his haste, he had fallen and badly scratched his forearm which was also muddy from the damp ground.
Together we decided that we needed to try to clean his arm but, in a place where we should have had plenty of water, we only had what was left in my water bottle; what should have been the place of a gushing, sparkling spring of water bubbling out of the hillside was little more than a stagnant pool that was impossible to get to.
In the circumstances, we just had to make do with the water we had but I found myself recalling the story of Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman at a well and asking a drink of her; the young man and I seemed to be in some sort of bizarre, alternative version of this passage from John’s gospel.
But why was this the case? Obviously, at some point someone had decided to put railings around the little chapel-perhaps for reasons of safety or because the site was being misused. And, even if the barrier hadn’t been in place, the water level may have been low due to the hot summer or perhaps because of longer-term geological changes. However, I still found myself wondering what happened to that mountain spring that hundreds, or even a thousand years ago or more, was a source of healing and refreshment?
There is no simple answer to this question but I speculated on what Jesus would say if he had found himself at Penrhys. Would he have torn down the railings and let the mountain spring flow again or perhaps commissioned an enquiry into environmental reasons for the lowering of the water table?
We are, of course, blessed to live in a country where we can get safe, palatable and seemingly endless water from a tap but how often we seem to have lost sight of the life-giving water that comes from the presence of God. So much of the time we content ourselves with a locked and dank pool when we could, if we chose, drink from the waters that will quench our thirst not only today but for ever.
In the words of the Samaritan woman at the well: Lord, give me this water