It’s hard to believe, but we have reached the final part of our Bible study based on Love Letters from God: Bible Stories for a Girl’s Heart. This book will be published TOMORROW! I feel like the woman in our Bible story for today…..happy! But, of course, Mary Magdalene had so much more to sing about than a new book release… Jesus, the King of the world, and the Lord of her life had just been released from the grave. Let’s tiptoe to that quiet hillside with Mary and see what she sees…
Welcome! I’m so glad you’re joining us for this seven-week Bible study based on Love Letters from God: Bible Stories for a Girl’s Heart. We’ll be studying the lives of seven incredible New Testament women. It’s the perfect way to journey through Lent together.
The Samaritan Woman at the Well: The Thirsty Girl
Read: John 4:1-29
Israel, March 2015. The coach pulls to a stop, the doors open and we all spill out, cameras at the ready. We are British and America tourists, anxious to capture a photograph to prove that we’re standing beside the famous Jacob’s Well.
It wasn’t in the middle of a field, as you might expect. The well where Jesus sat, over two thousand years ago, and had that holy conversation with an unknown Samaritan woman, is now located in a church which serves to preserve this holy site.
We dropped a stone down the deep, deep shaft, and heard it splash 135 feet below. It was Betsy who turned the crank to wind the bucket back to the surface. And she tasted that water. I tasted that water. My sister tasted that water. We all tasted that water: the very same water that Jesus drank, all those years ago.
Don’t you think that’s incredible! After more than two thousand years, Jacob’s Well is not dried up. The water is still flowing. And if that’s not a picture of God’s never-ending, everlasting, soul-quenching love for us, I don’t know what is.
Let’s find out more about our Thirsty Girl…
I will not buy a glass of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. I will not. Even though I know how delicious it is, and I really do want one. I turn away from this tempting stall even though I can smell its juicy, ripe fruit from here, and try to focus.
I’m standing in one of Jerusalem’s tiny, fascinating, cobbled streets. This route is called the Via Dolorosa. I’m one of a group, trying to listen to our tour guide as we follow in the last footsteps of Jesus. The triumphal procession and celebration of Palm Sunday is long gone for Jesus. What lies ahead is horrific, and unbelievable, and unimaginably cruel.
These are the very streets through which Jesus dragged his heavy cross, stumbling under its weight, bleeding onto the cobbles, while people watched and laughed and cheered.
We’ve just emerged from the darkness of an underground room, the place where Pilate condemned Jesus to death. We’re ready to go where Jesus went. I’m behind my sister-in-law and I hear her whisper to my brother, as she slips her hand in his:
Let’s follow the footsteps of Jesus.
I’m already feeling emotional as I really think about where his footsteps would take him.
But as soon as we emerge on to those busy Jerusalem streets, that’s when I see the pomegranates, and the scarves, and smell the coffee. And that’s when I lose my focus.
The narrow, winding alleys are simply filled with life, and color, and busyness, and sound. Everywhere I look there are stalls filled with things I want….
I see that fruit and suddenly, instead of thinking about the sour vinegar- the last drink that Jesus would have- I’m thinking about that freshly squeezed pomegranate juice I could have.
I see a myriad of colorful scarves, blowing in the wind, and suddenly, I’m not thinking about the crown of thorns that Jesus wore- I’m thinking about the pretty blue scarf I could wear.
I see the little Israeli coffee stall and suddenly, I’m not thinking about the smell of blood and sweat as Jesus fell to the cobbles under the weight of his cross- I’m thinking about the delicious aroma of freshly ground coffee mixed with cardamom seeds.
Let’s follow in the footsteps of Jesus, she said.
But I’m terrible at it.
It’s so very hard… to walk with Jesus through this Holy Week, to truly contemplate the meaning of Maundy Thursday, and to experience the grief of Good Friday. But for Jesus, it was the only way, the only way, to that empty tomb, to Resurrection Sunday.
And if I wanted to, I could skip right through Holy Week. I could jump straight from Palm Sunday to Easter morning. I don’t have to go through any of it… because Jesus did it for me.
Help me, God, amidst the busyness and distractions of Holy Week, to try to remember that.
It feels like a dream come true. And it is.
Here I am… standing on the banks of the lake, on a beautiful spring, Saturday morning, under blue, blue skies with hardly a cloud in sight.
We have been in the Holy Land less than one week. But already I know that this is my favorite place.
This is Lake Galilee: the same hillsides, the same water, the same waves; the very same place where Jesus fished, and walked, and cooked, and prayed. No holy shrine or church is built on this site…at least not on the shores where I stand.
We climb aboard the wooden boat and sail out across these famous waters.
I can’t quite believe that I’m here. I look out at this picture postcard view of the very slopes where Jesus fed five thousand hungry people; the green hillsides where crowds once gathered to hear his voice, and the mountains he climbed to pray.
I’m holding Love Letters from God and I stand to read the story of how Jesus calmed the storm on Lake Galilee. I remember penning those words long ago, and if someone had told me back then that one day, I would be reading that story in the middle of the very same lake where the events took place, I never would have believed them.
But here I am, reading the story called Wind and Waves. Except there is no wind. And there are no waves. I finish talking and close its pages. We all close our eyes. And for the next few minutes, it’s hard to imagine that we are on a boat at all. Something magical happens.
There is no movement. And there is no sound.
No seagulls call. And no breeze blows.
No water laps. And no engine drones.
No fishes splash. And no voices speak.
There’s only silence. And stillness. And God. And our thoughts.
And everyone can feel it…. something powerful in this moment, something we cannot hear, or see, or articulate. But it’s here.
And in the silence, I seem to hear the whisper of those two little words, echoing down through the ages, spoken in this very place, over these very waters, all those long years ago.
And it’s in the stillness that I hear the call; I feel the power; I know the peace.
Of One who once walked on these waters, and calmed its waves, and whispered into the wind.
Of course it helped that the sun was shining that day; that birds were singing high in the treetops; that blossom was blowing in the wind; that voices were raised in song, echoing around The Garden Tomb in Jerusalem and filling it with peace.
We wait patiently in line for our turn to step inside. I see the small doorway cut out of the rock; I see a huge circular stone standing nearby, like the one that would have been used to seal the entrance;
I see people stepping out of the tomb. They are smiling.
And then it’s our turn.
We step inside. It is quiet. And empty. And for a moment, we don’t say a word.
But when we do, it’s my sister that says,
This is a happy place.
And I laugh at her perfect pronouncement. She is so right! And I don’t feel like I have to whisper in here, as I have done at most of the holy sites. And I don’t feel like I have to tiptoe in here, like I did as a child in the graveyard, afraid to step on the tombs of the dead.
This is a happy place! This is not where we find the dead, but the living!
And we step out through the open door, just as Jesus did, two thousand years ago, where sunshine waits to greet us, and promise whispers in the air.
We step from darkness into light, and celebrate with every spring flower who has pushed her way out from darkest earth to find the place where she can bloom.
JESUS IS ALIVE!
Even though the sun is shining today, it’s cold in this pit. I knew it would be. I already had the chills when I read the sign announcing One Way Crypt.
We’re underneath the house of Caiaphas. descending into its lower depths by the stone circular steps. But this is not the way Jesus came in here. There was only one way in for him. And only one way out.
Jesus was lowered through a narrow hole in the roof. There would have been nothing careful about it. He was dangled on a rope, dropped in the darkness on the cold stone floor. And left. Alone.
This is the pit where Jesus spent the last evening of his life. It’s just one of the many prisons underneath the house of the High Priest. But it’s the deepest. And probably the darkest.
And as I run my hand over these rough, icy stones I wonder…if they could speak, what would they tell of a young man from Galilee?
Did he run his hands over these same stones too? Because those were powerful hands!
Weren’t they the hands that first molded the mountains and swelled the seas? Weren’t they the hands that scooped up dirt to give sight to the blind; that commanded a storm be still; that healed the lame with just one touch?
And if all that is true, then surely this pit did not need to be a One Way crypt at all. There would have been several ways out for Jesus. He could have dissolved the stones with his little finger; molded a stairway in an instant, or commanded the pit disappear.
But he didn’t.
I doubt if he even curled those powerful hands into fists and pounded on these walls, as I surely would have done.
In a moment I’ll climb those steps and leave this horrible place. I will probably sip on a cappuccino and maybe browse the gift shop, as tourists do. I’ll sit in the sunshine where it’s light and warm. My escape from the pit will be an easy one.
And his could have been too.
But instead Jesus chose to wait until they hauled on that rope, and dragged him through that narrow hole, his body banging and scraping and bleeding against those icy stones….on his way to the cross.
And it’s not until I’m actually here, in this horrible pit, that I realize the enormity of the choice he made.
The one way. The only way.
And that it was for me.
His name is Fadi. In Arabic, it means Redeemer.
Fadi lives above the busy market place in the streets of old Jerusalem. His father has a shop, as many do, where he makes a living by selling olive wood ornaments, and jewelry, and icons, and beads.
We meet Fadi as we are shopping on the Via Dolorosa. He is a Coptic Christian, whose family came from Egypt. As we talk, I am mesmerized by twelve stone steps under a big arch that lead up to a hidden courtyard. I can see plants. I can hear laughter. I know that this is where Fadi must live. I take a photograph, and I ask, falteringly:
Would it be okay if I just go up those steps to take a picture?
He laughs, and nods, and says:
Come, see. I will take you all up there. Come up to the rooftops of Jerusalem. Come see my home where my family has lived for hundreds of years.
And this is what we do. All six of us. We follow Fadi up those secret steps and onto the roof of his house, where birds fly high over Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque and the famous Mount of Olives rises in the distance. We have a private tour of Jerusalem that surely no American or British tourist has been treated to before.
And then he takes us into his home. He opens wide the door, as delicious earthy smells emanate from a tiny kitchen. His mom steps out smiling, brushing her hair from her forehead with the back of her palm and wiping her floury hands on a well-used apron.
Welcome, welcome to our home, she says, as if foreign visitors invade her house every day.
And he takes us through the tidy bedroom, where huge grape leaves lie drying on newspapers draped over the edge of the bed; and into his living room, where dried pomegranate skins sit in a silver bowl – looking, and smelling, far more wonderful than any store-bought potpourri.
The small front window looks out onto the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest Christian site in all Jerusalem…one of the places where it is thought that Jesus died and rose again.
We stand in Fadi’s home. Next to him. We are strangers; we are foreigners; but we are treated like family.
His name is Issa. In Arabic, it means Jesus.
Issa sells scarves in a tiny stall on the Via Dolorosa. He is young, and shy. He is not pushy, as some of the other vendors can be. He tells us he is studying journalism at university. When he graduates, he will seek work in Dubai. We buy our scarves, and Issa says:
You would like coffee?
He disappears while we shop and reappears holding small cups of strong Arabic coffee, roasted with fresh ground cardamom seeds. It’s not Starbucks. It’s delicious.
And suddenly, he smiles with his eyes and asks:
You want to see something special?
Well of course we do! He opens a door in the walls of the street just near his stall and whispers to someone inside. Above the door we see the sign that denotes the eighth station of the cross – the place where Jesus fell under the weight of the wood.
And seconds later, the door is opened to just the six of us. We step inside and our breath is taken away. It’s a tiny church, hidden inside the city walls. While shoppers buy, and haggle outside; while hustle and bustle reigns beyond these walls, we lift our voices and sing in the quiet…
Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.
And it does.
We say goodbye. We carry on walking, and laughing, and shopping, as tourists do. But I turn and run back to Issa, whose name means Jesus. And I ask. I just want to know. I am interested:
Issa, are you Christian, or Muslim?
I’m Muslim, he says, touching his heart. Is that a problem?
No, no! I reassure him. You’re Muslim. I’m Christian. You’re my brother. I’m your sister.
And Issa smiles, and touches my arm. He is young. But so mature.
Here in Jerusalem, he says, we don’t ask. We just live together…as one.
And every time I wear my scarf, I will think of Issa, whose name means Jesus. And every time I see my olive tree ornament that says Peace, I will think of Fadi, whose name means Redeemer.
And I know I have two new brothers who live in the old city of Jerusalem.
The preacher places her hand on our young heads as we kneel side by side. We don’t really know what this means. We are just girls after all. We will not remember her words. But we will never forget the moment.
I’m fifty-five years old now. She is not yet fifty-eight. She takes my hand and we step into the river and fall back in surrender.
We’re much, much older than the day when we knelt at the altar. Many things have changed. We’re no longer girls, but grandmas. We have gray hairs where blonde used to be. We have laugh lines and wrinkles and our knees cannot bend quite as fast as they once did.
But our hearts have not changed.
And God’s Holy Spirit, who first drew us to the altar all those years ago remains the same. It still whispers to us and calls us by name and echoes through these four decades that have passed so quickly by.
And when we emerge, dripping and sodden, from the exhilarating cold of the Jordan River; in the very same place where Joshua crossed the waters to claim the Promised Land; in the very same spot where Jesus waded out to John the Baptist; on this sunny afternoon in the company of blue skies and bulrushes, my sister and I turn to each other and laugh, and hug.
Just as if someone had opened heaven’s doors and set them free.