Last week I drank from Jacob’s Well in Nablus.
I had been looking forward to this, given that the community where I am living for three months is only a few kilometres from Nablus.
In the Christian tradition, we know Jacob’s Well as the well of Sychar, where Jesus had the lengthy conversation with the Samaritan woman. (John 4:4-42.)
It was wonderful to taste the water, and live into the story, and the promise and the gift of “living water” in Christ.
Built over and around the well is Jacob’s Well Orthodox Church. Next door is Jacob’s Well Orthodox Monastery. Actually, the church is dedicated to St. Photina the Samaritan.
(Photina is the name traditionally given to the woman at the well. ) For centuries there has been a church of some kind on the site.
Jacob’s Well church is extraordinarily beautiful. It is rare for services to be held there, as the Orthodox community also has a very beautiful church in Rafidia, the Christian sector of Nablus. Last Sunday we worshipped at Jacob’s Well with a couple of bus loads of Greek pilgrims.
(Two weeks ago in the Rafidia church, I enjoyed one of the most beautiful inter-generational services, I have ever experienced in my life. There was outstanding antiphonal choral work — all in Arabic — by mostly men singing in the two transepts. The half domes of the transcepts above them, caused the music to fill the sanctuary magnificently!)
As near as I can tell from available reports, there has not been a worship service at Jacob’s Well for a couple of years — in part, I understand, because of a tragedy that occurred there in 1979. This is what makes a visit so bitter sweet.
One of the priests, Father Archimandrite Philoumenis, the abbott of the monastery, was brutally murdered in the church by an axe-wielding Zionist. Apparently a “cross” was cut in his face, his eyes plucked out, and the four fingers and thumb or his right hand cut off. The church was also desecrated.
All this came a week after a Zionist group had claimed the church as a holy site and demanded the removal of the crosses and icons. No one has been arrested or charged with the muder.
Now there is an icon in the church, commemorating the martyrdom of the priest. And Father Philoumenis is buried just outside the entrance to the church. His grave is hard to miss on the way inside.
The resident Orthodox priest told me about his continued harassment from Israeli settlers around Nablus. They would like to drive him away.
While it seems like an extreme story, it is not an isolated story, with settler violence unleaseashed against Palestinians, occasionally with a view to reclaiming major and minor holy sites. Sometimes a holy site is the excuse to take a piece of land for a new settlement.
Our team is in regular conversation with a family which is under daily harrassment or attack from Israeli settlers — from the Eli, Shilo and Ma’ale Levona settlements — on their land near the village of Al Luban as Sharqiya. The 85-year-old grandfather has “tabo” — which is undisputed legal title from the days of the Ottoman Empire.
The settlers want his land, the water spring on the land, and an old building, used as a jail by the Jordanian police when Palestine was part of Jordan.
Why reference this situation? Because the settlers latest excuse for continued harassment and wanting to take-over the site, is: “Moses swam in the spring here!”
When I heard this, I burst out laughing; as did a Nablus priest, I shared this information with. We laughed, because scripture and tradition has it that Moses did not reach the Promised Land. (As well, there are many Jews and Christians who understand Moses as a mythological figure.)
Jesus words to the Samaritan woman, over which mountain was the true place to worship God (Mt. Gerizim, or Jerusalem), is somehow quite prophetic in this situation:
“Believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem… God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth.”
It isn’t about mountains — which one is more sacred — or about buildings — or even holy sites! (As helpful as they may be to our worship, and the illumination of the sacred stories.) God is Spirit — above and beyond — who can be worshipped anywhere — anytime —- and will not be contained or limited by, or in, our holy sites!
Ironically, Orthodox tradition has it that St. Photina was a martyr who was tortured and died by being thrown down a well by Emperor Nero.
I keep returning in my mind and heart, to the testimony of Palestinian Christians who remember a day before 1947 when Jews, Palestinian Muslims and Palestinains Christians lived side by side peacefully. They knew each others traditions and were cooperative neighbours who worked together for the commonwealth of their communities.
I fear that memory is fading as an older generation dies off. We need that memory and vision kept alive! It is strangely closer to the vision Jesus gave at the well that day.
“A time is coming…” says Jesus.
May it keep coming! May we discover it anew!
“Phontina” means “the enlightened one.”
Then, let there be Light, that we may be enlightened!
Grace and peace,
I have been sent by the United Church of Canada to participate in the World Council of Churches (WCC) Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). Should you wish to re-postr or publicize any of this content, I welcome your direct request, via the comments section in this blog. Thank you!