Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Beach walks in Skerries and Spiritual Refreshment

On the lengthy beach at the South Strand at Skerries, the sand is packed and deep-coloured throughout the winter months but turns to golden hues in the sunshine of spring and summer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

For the past few years, I have had an almost-weekly pleasure of walking the beach in the small fishing villages of north Co Dublin, so I was familiar with Donabate and Portrane and the pleasures of walking the beaches and cliffs there when we went there last year for our Ash Wednesday retreat.

This year, we spent Ash Wednesday in Skerries. Once again, it offered us opportunities to take time out, to walk the beaches of an old fishing village, to enjoy its harbour and its cliffs, and to end the day with the Eucharist in the local parish church.

I brought a group of people working at the primates’ meeting in January to one of my favourite restaurants in Skerries at the end of January. But it was late, they were tired, and no-one joined me for a walk on the beaches of Skerries or around its harbour.

Skerries has two beaches, a harbour, and an island joined to the town by an isthmus at the Sailing Club, which was the venue for our retreat. A Celtic monastery associated with Saint Patrick was first located on the islands off Skerries, although the name Skerries comes from the Danish words skere (rocks or a reef), and ey (an islet or small island).

On the lengthy beach at the South Strand, the sand is packed and deep-coloured throughout the winter months but turns to golden hues in the sunshine of spring and summer, when the sun casts a golden, shimmering light on the sea and the beach. From the South Strand, it is easy to imagine you could swim out to the islands of Skerries, including Saint Patrick’s, Shenick, Colt Island and Rockabill.

Up on Red Island, there are views as far as the Mourne Mountains on a sunny day. Looking back, the windmills of Skerries, the spire of Holmpatrick Church and the tower behind the church are ever-present, graceful features on the skyline.

At the North Strand, the beach is small, but when the tide is out it is worth taking a stroll and enjoying the tranquil views of Skerries Harbour (Photograph; Patrick Comerford

Strolling from Red Island down to the Harbour and the North Strand, the beach is small. But when the tide is out it is worth taking a stroll and enjoying the tranquil views of Skerries Harbour.

At the end of the day, we strolled back down the length of the South Strand to Holmpatrick Parish Church, a gothic revival, pre-disestablishment church built in 1867. It has an ornate interior, with neo-mediaeval decoration, and interesting stained glass windows, especially those on the balcony.

The church also has some memorial tablets from an older church that stood nearby. One describes James Hamilton of Holmpatrick as a “gentleman who during a long and most active life displayed that zealous energy and ingenious integrity that forms a useful and virtuous man … He died the 20th of October 1800, in the 73rd year of his age … Of the uncommonly numerous offspring of thirty six children he was survived by eight sons and eight daughters.”

I think he gave new meaning to “zealous energy”! Hamilton’s descendants include Richard Branson, but with his “uncommonly numerous” 36 children born over 200 years ago, Hamilton must be the ancestor of thousands upon thousands of people living in Ireland today.

Behind the church stand the ruins of an earlier church built in 1722 by the Hamilton family after they acquired Holmpatrick from the Earls of Thomond in 1720. When the church was demolished in the 1860s, the square tower was left standing – supposedly as a landmark for ships, although it is also a reminder of the mediaeval monastic past of this site.

Local lore says that when Saint Patrick was expelled from Wicklow he moved to Saint Patrick’s Island off Skerries in 432 AD. Legend says that one day, while Saint Patrick was on shore buying groceries, the people of Skerries rowed over to his island where he kept a goat for milk, stole the goat, took her back to the mainland and ate her. When Saint Patrick returned he was angry, and with one great step he bounded from his island to Red Island. There he questioned the local people, and when they denied their theft he took away their powers of speech. They could only bleat like goats, until they eventually admitted their crime.

It is said that on Red Island there is still a mark on the rock that is nothing less than Saint Patrick’s footprint. Can you believe it? I have failed to see the saint’s footprint on Red Island during my walks in Skerries. If you ever visit Skerries have a look out for it … and may your silences be for different reasons.

Skerries ... a place for spiritual silences and reflection (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay and these photographs were first published on 16 March 2011 in the Spring 2011 edition of CITI Review, Church of Ireland Theological Institute e-magazine.

John 4: 5-42: The Samaritan woman at the well

The Samaritan Woman at the Well ... an icon in the Church of Aghios Nikolaos in Vathy on the Greek island of Samos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

John 4: 1-42


5 ἔρχεται οὖν εἰς πόλιν τῆς Σαμαρείας λεγομένην Συχὰρ, πλησίον τοῦ χωρίου ὃ ἔδωκεν Ἰακὼβ Ἰωσὴφ τῷ υἱῷ αὐτοῦ. 6 ἦν δὲ ἐκεῖ πηγὴ τοῦ Ἰακώβ. ὁ οὖν Ἰησοῦς κεκοπιακὼς ἐκ τῆς ὁδοιπορίας ἐκαθέζετο οὕτως ἐπὶ τῇ πηγῇ· ὥρα ἦν ὡσεὶ ἕκτη.

7 ἔρχεται γυνὴ ἐκ τῆς Σαμαρείας ἀντλῆσαι ὕδωρ. λέγει αὐτῇ ὁ Ἰησοῦς· Δός μοι πιεῖν. 8 οἱ γὰρ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ ἀπεληλύθεισαν εἰς τὴν πόλιν, ἵνα τροφὰς ἀγοράσωσι. 9 λέγει οὖν αὐτῷ ἡ γυνὴ ἡ Σαμαρεῖτις· Πῶς σὺ Ἰουδαῖος ὢν παρ' ἐμοῦ πιεῖν αἰτεῖς, οὔσης γυναικὸς Σαμαρείτιδος ; οὐ γὰρ συγχρῶνται Ἰουδαῖοι Σαμαρείταις. 10 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῇ· Εἰ ᾔδεις τὴν δωρεὰν τοῦ Θεοῦ καὶ τίς ἐστιν ὁ λέγων σοι, δός μοι πιεῖν, σὺ ἂν ᾔτησας αὐτὸν, καὶ ἔδωκεν ἄν σοι ὕδωρ ζῶν. 11 λέγει αὐτῷ ἡ γυνή· Κύριε, οὔτε ἄντλημα ἔχεις, καὶ τὸ φρέαρ ἐστὶ βαθύ· πόθεν οὖν ἔχεις τὸ ὕδωρ τὸ ζῶν; 12 μὴ σὺ μείζων εἶ τοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν Ἰακώβ, ὃς ἔδωκεν ἡμῖν τὸ φρέαρ, καὶ αὐτὸς ἐξ αὐτοῦ ἔπιε καὶ οἱ υἱοὶ αὐτοῦ καὶ τὰ θρέμματα αὐτοῦ; 13 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῇ· Πᾶς ὁ πίνων ἐκ τοῦ ὕδατος τούτου διψήσει πάλιν· 14 ὃς δ' ἂν πίῃ ἐκ τοῦ ὕδατος οὗ ἐγὼ δώσω αὐτῷ, οὐ μὴ διψήσει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα, ἀλλὰ τὸ ὕδωρ ὃ δώσω αὐτῷ, γενήσεται ἐν αὐτῷ πηγὴ ὕδατος ἁλλομένου εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον. 15 λέγει πρὸς αὐτὸν ἡ γυνή· Κύριε, δός μοι τοῦτο τὸ ὕδωρ, ἵνα μὴ διψῶ μηδὲ ἔρχομαι ἐνθάδε ἀντλεῖν.

16 λέγει αὐτῇ ὁ Ἰησοῦς· Ὕπαγε φώνησον τὸν ἄνδρα σου καὶ ἐλθὲ ἐνθάδε. 17 ἀπεκρίθη ἡ γυνὴ καὶ εἶπεν· Οὐκ ἔχω ἄνδρα. λέγει αὐτῇ ὁ Ἰησοῦς· Καλῶς εἶπας ὅτι ἄνδρα οὐκ ἔχω· 18 πέντε γὰρ ἄνδρας ἔσχες, καὶ νῦν ὃν ἔχεις οὐκ ἔστι σου ἀνήρ· τοῦτο ἀληθὲς εἴρηκας. 19 λέγει αὐτῷ ἡ γυνή· Κύριε, θεωρῶ ὅτι προφήτης εἶ σύ. 20 οἱ πατέρες ἡμῶν ἐν τῷ ὄρει τούτῳ προσεκύνησαν· καὶ ὑμεῖς λέγετε ὅτι ἐν Ἱεροσολύμοις ἐστὶν ὁ τόπος ὅπου δεῖ προσκυνεῖν. 21 λέγει αὐτῇ ὁ Ἰησοῦς· Γύναι, πίστευσόν μοι ὅτι ἔρχεται ὥρα ὅτε οὔτε ἐν τῷ ὄρει τούτῳ οὔτε ἐν Ἱεροσολύμοις προσκυνήσετε τῷ πατρί. 22 ὑμεῖς προσκυνεῖτε ὃ οὐκ οἴδατε, ἡμεῖς προσκυνοῦμεν ὃ οἴδαμεν· ὅτι ἡ σωτηρία ἐκ τῶν Ἰουδαίων ἐστίν. 23 ἀλλ' ἔρχεται ὥρα, καὶ νῦν ἐστιν, ὅτε οἱ ἀληθινοὶ προσκυνηταὶ προσκυνήσουσι τῷ πατρὶ ἐν πνεύματι καὶ ἀληθείᾳ· καὶ γὰρ ὁ πατὴρ τοιούτους ζητεῖ τοὺς προσκυνοῦντας αὐτόν. 24 πνεῦμα ὁ Θεός, καὶ τοὺς προσκυνοῦντας αὐτὸν ἐν πνεύματι καὶ ἀληθείᾳ δεῖ προσκυνεῖν. 25 λέγει αὐτῷ ἡ γυνή· Οἶδα ὅτι Μεσσίας ἔρχεται ὁ λεγόμενος Χριστός· ὅταν ἔλθῃ ἐκεῖνος, ἀναγγελεῖ ἡμῖν πάντα. 26 λέγει αὐτῇ ὁ Ἰησοῦς· Ἐγώ εἰμι, ὁ λαλῶν σοι.

27 καὶ ἐπὶ τούτῳ ἦλθαν οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἐθαύμασαν ὅτι μετὰ γυναικὸς ἐλάλει· οὐδεὶς μέντοι εἶπε, τί ζητεῖς ἤ τί λαλεῖς μετ' αὐτῆς; 28 Ἀφῆκεν οὖν τὴν ὑδρίαν αὐτῆς ἡ γυνὴ καὶ ἀπῆλθεν εἰς τὴν πόλιν, καὶ λέγει τοῖς ἀνθρώποις· 29 Δεῦτε ἴδετε ἄνθρωπον ὃς εἶπέ μοι πάντα ὅσα ἐποίησα· μήτι οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ Χριστός; 30 ἐξῆλθον οὖν ἐκ τῆς πόλεως καὶ ἤρχοντο πρὸς αὐτόν.

31 Ἐν δὲ τῷ μεταξὺ ἠρώτων αὐτὸν οἱ μαθηταὶ λέγοντες· Ραββί, φάγε. 32 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς· Ἐγὼ βρῶσιν ἔχω φαγεῖν, ἣν ὑμεῖς οὐκ οἴδατε. 33 ἔλεγον οὖν οἱ μαθηταὶ πρὸς ἀλλήλους· Μή τις ἤνεγκεν αὐτῷ φαγεῖν; 34 λέγει αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς· Ἐμὸν βρῶμά ἐστιν ἵνα ποιῶ τὸ θέλημα τοῦ πέμψαντός με καὶ τελειώσω αὐτοῦ τὸ ἔργον. 35 οὐχ ὑμεῖς λέγετε ὅτι ἔτι τετράμηνός ἐστι καὶ ὁ θερισμὸς ἔρχεται; ἰδοὺ λέγω ὑμῖν, ἐπάρατε τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς ὑμῶν καὶ θεάσασθε τὰς χώρας, ὅτι λευκαί εἰσι πρὸς θερισμόν. ἤδη. 36 καὶ ὁ θερίζων μισθὸν λαμβάνει καὶ συνάγει καρπὸν εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον, ἵνα καὶ ὁ σπείρων ὁμοῦ χαίρῃ καὶ ὁ θερίζων. 37 ἐν γὰρ τούτῳ ὁ λόγος ἐστὶν ὁ ἀληθινὸς, ὅτι ἄλλος ἐστὶν ὁ σπείρων καὶ ἄλλος ὁ θερίζων. 38 ἐγὼ ἀπέστειλα ὑμᾶς θερίζειν ὃ οὐχ ὑμεῖς κεκοπιάκατε· ἄλλοι κεκοπιάκασι, καὶ ὑμεῖς εἰς τὸν κόπον αὐτῶν εἰσεληλύθατε.

39 Ἐκ δὲ τῆς πόλεως ἐκείνης πολλοὶ ἐπίστευσαν εἰς αὐτὸν τῶν Σαμαρειτῶν διὰ τὸν λόγον τῆς γυναικὸς, μαρτυρούσης ὅτι εἶπέ μοι πάντα ὅσα ἐποίησα. 40 ὡς οὖν ἦλθον πρὸς αὐτὸν οἱ Σαμαρεῖται, ἠρώτων αὐτὸν μεῖναι παρ' αὐτοῖς· καὶ ἔμεινεν ἐκεῖ δύο ἡμέρας. 41 καὶ πολλῷ πλείους ἐπίστευσαν διὰ τὸν λόγον αὐτοῦ, 42 τῇ τε γυναικὶ ἔλεγον ὅτι οὐκέτι διὰ τὴν σὴν λαλιὰν πιστεύομεν· αὐτοὶ γὰρ ἀκηκόαμεν, καὶ οἴδαμεν ὅτι οὗτός ἐστιν ἀληθῶς ὁ σωτὴρ τοῦ κόσμου.

Translation:

5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ 11 The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ 13 Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ 15 The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’

16 Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ 17 The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ 19 The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ 21 Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ 25 The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ 26 Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’

27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ 28 Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ 30 They left the city and were on their way to him.

31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ 32 But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ 33 So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ 34 Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35 Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36 The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37 For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” 38 I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’

39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. 41 And many more believed because of his word. 42 They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’

A traditional Greek Orthodox icon of Christ with the Samaritan woman at the well

Introduction:

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings for Sunday week, the Third Sunday in Lent (27 March 2011), are: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5: 1-11; John 4: 5-42.

The Gospel story is a story that should be familiar to each of us – the story of the Samaritan woman at the well.

The Samaritans are religious and cultural outsiders for the Jewish people in the New Testament period. Although these two people share the same land, the Samaritans are strangers and outsiders. Although they share faith in the same God and share the same Torah (the first five books of the Bible), the Samaritans are seen as having a different religion. But Jesus tries to break down those barriers.

For example, the Good Samaritan is not a stranger but is the very best example of a good neighbour (Luke 10: 29-37). Among the Ten Lepers who are healed, only the Samaritan returns to give thanks, and this “foreigner” is praised for his faith (Luke 17: 11-19).

The Samaritan woman at the well:

In this story in Saint John’s Gospel, the Disciples are already doing something unusual: they have gone into the city to buy food; but this is no ordinary city – this is a Samaritan city, and any food they might buy from Samaritans is going to be unclean according to Jewish ritual standards.

While the Disciples are in Sychar, Jesus sits down by Jacob’s Well, and begins talking with a Samaritan woman who comes to the well for water. And their conversation becomes a model for how we respond to the stranger in our midst, whether they are foreigners or people of a different religion or culture.

Jesus presents the classical Jewish perception of what Samaritans believe and how they worship. The Samaritans accepted only the first five books of the Bible – the Pentateuch or Torah – as revealed scripture. For their part, Jews of the day pilloried this Samaritan refusal to accept more than the first five books of the Bible by claiming the Samaritans worshipped not one the one God revealed in the five books but five gods. Jesus alludes to this – with a sense of humour – when he says the woman had five husbands.

In other circumstances, a Jewish man would have refused to talk to a Samaritan woman or to accept a drink form her hands; any self-respecting Samaritan woman would have felt she had been slighted by these comments and walked away immediately. Instead, the two continue in their dialogue: they talk openly and humorously with one another, and listen to one another.

Jesus gets to know the woman and she gets to know Jesus.

All dialogue involves both speaking and listening – speaking with the expectation that we will be heard, and listening honestly to what the other person is saying rather than listening to what our prejudices tell us they ought to say.

When the Disciples arrive back, they are filled with a number of questions but are so shocked by what is happening before them that they remain silent. Their silence reflects their inability to reach out to the stranger.

But there are other hints at their failure and their prejudices: the woman gives and receives water as she and Jesus talk, but they fail to return with bread for Jesus to eat and they fail to feed into the conversation about faith and about life.

They are still questioning and unable to articulate their faith, but the woman at least recognises Jesus as a Prophet. They made no contact with the people in Sychar, but she rushes back to tell the people there about Jesus. No one in the city was brought to Jesus by the disciples, but many Samaritans listened to what the woman had to say.

A note on tradition

Orthodox tradition names the woman at the well in John 4 as Saint Photini (Svetlana in Russian), and honours her as “Equal to the Apostles.” Her name means “light,” because she received the light from the Christ the Light-Giver, and she spread it wherever she went.

It is said that she was baptised after the resurrection.

Her two sons, Victor and Josiah, and her five sisters, Anatolia, Phota, Photida, Paraskeva and Kyriake, all followed her into faith in Christ and her zealous apostolic witness, ministry and mission. They went to Carthage in North Africa, and there they were arrested for sharing the Gospel. They were taken to Rome to suffer before Nero.

It is also said that Saint Photini brought Nero’s daughter, Domnina, to faith in Christ. All of them were martyred after being cast into prison and being tortured at the hands of Nero’s officers.

Because of her testimony, it is said, Saint Photini was thrown into a well, and buried alive in Smyrna (Izmir) in Anatolia, the location of one of the Seven Churches of the Book of Revelation. And so she entered into the Kingdom of the never-ending Day of the Lord.

Points for discussion:

The Samaritan Woman at the Well is known in Orthodox tradition as Saint Photini

The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is a model for all our encounters with people we see as different or as strangers.

Am I like the Disciples, and too hesitant to go over and engage in conversation with the stranger who is at the same well, in the same shop, at the same bus stop?

If I am going to enter into conversation with the stranger, am I open to listening to them, to talking openly and honestly with them about where they come from and what they believe?

When the conversation is over, will they remain strangers?

How open am I to new friendships?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study with MTh students in a tutorial group on Wednesday 16 March 2011.