Curlew Creek Park is a county park a few miles west of the parish campus. It’s a very small park that contains a rare vestige of an earlier era in Florida. In the park is a small natural spring that still produces artesian water. Curlew Spring feeds into Curlew Creek which empties into the Intercoastal Waterway. A century ago natural springs were common in Florida; they gave rise to the Spanish Conquistadors’ fantasy of the Fountain of Youth.
A natural spring is an amazing thing to see. Water flows up from hundreds of feet below ground level. Watching a natural spring gives the impression of limitless water that might flow forever in an unending stream. Jesus used the image of artesian water coming from a seemingly perpetual source as a metaphor for the kind of religion and spirituality that he preached. He said, “whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)
This quote from Jesus is contained in the section of John’s Gospel that is an extended catechesis on Baptism. Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well is a practical demonstration of exactly how Baptism is the “spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)
The woman at the well had given up on life. It is not possible to know with certainty whether her four previous husbands had died or simply abandoned her, but a detail in the story provides a great deal of information about her character. She went to the well at a time when respectable women would have been at home. (John 4:6) At midday public places such as the well in the story would have been occupied only by men. The fact that she went to the well in the middle of the day indicates that she had long ago abandoned any attempt to maintain a respectable reputation.
Jesus’ offer of “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14), probably seemed completely implausible to someone who had given up on life itself. Perhaps that was the point of the metaphor; a natural spring, artesian water, is a rather implausible sight.
At first, the woman seems to have thought Jesus was mocking her. (John 4:15) When Jesus mentioned her four previous husbands and her current boyfriend, it was her turn to take a mocking tone. She said, “I can see that you are a prophet.” (John 4:19) Given the animosity between Samaritans and Jews, she probably meant, “I can see that you are a religious fanatic.”
The course of the conversation changed dramatically when Jesus spoke about a new form of worship “in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:23) When the conversation was interrupted by the arrival of the disciples, the woman seems to have been willing to give credibility to Jesus’ claim that he was the Messiah sent by God. (John 4:26) Her change of heart was so dramatic that it inspired the people of the town to come out to see Jesus. (John 4:39)
The woman’s new found faith was motivating and contagious. This is precisely what Jesus had in mind when he compared the Baptismal covenant with “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14) Jesus offered a life-giving, growing and self-sustaining faith to all who were willing to believe in his words. The covenant we entered into at our Baptism is intended to be precisely this for each of us individually and all of us as a church community: a life-giving, growing and self-sustaining relationship with God and one another.
I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but when I look at the Church today I see something that is closer to a stagnant pool than an artesian well. I don’t get the impression that most Catholics’ faith is self-sustaining. The number of, and attraction to, devotional books, popular piety and self-proclaimed experts in spirituality tends to indicate that many church-goers have yet to find a faith that is life-giving and a spirituality that is self-sustaining.
Again, I’m not trying to be judgmental, but when I look at secular society I see a spiritual desert populated by people who have given up on life. If human existence is nothing more than an unsatisfying effort that ends in despair, we are the most pathetic creatures in the universe. God does not intend for us to search constantly for a faith that is elusive and ethereal. Certainly, God does not intend us to bear the crushing burden of nihilism.
Jesus described God’s will in terms that are both astounding and hopeful; he said that it is God’s will for us to find “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14) The astounding nature of this offer roused the woman at the well from a life of resignation and loss. Jesus’ offer can have the same effect for us, if we are willing to believe.
An adequate Catholic spirituality is life-giving, self-sustaining, constantly growing and never exhausted. If you find that you have to make repeated trips “to the well,” but remain thirsty for spirituality, you might be drawing water from the wrong well. If your daily prayer or Sunday Mass attendance is more like laboring under a hot sun than having your thirst slaked, you might be listening to the wrong voice about religion.
The spring of spiritual water that wells up to eternal life comes only, and directly, from Jesus, the One sent by God. Every other prophet, preacher, teacher or expert can offer no more than the experience of growing thirsty again. (John 4:13) Listening only, and directly, to Jesus’ words is the one path to a life-giving faith and a self-sustaining spirituality.