The first part of this chapter is one of my favorite stories from the gospels. I think this is because it lends itself so well to placing myself in the location.
We all probably have an image of a well in our head that originates in the fairy tales of our youth. Mine includes a garden with plants in riotous bloom and a backdrop of shade-giving green leafy trees. The well is circular and has stone walls a little less than waist high. It has a wooden structure over it with a sloped and shingled roof above and a winch below. The winch is wound with rope and the rope is attached to a wooden bucket sitting on the edge of the masonry wall, ready to be lowered into the well and then retrieved full of water.
I doubt the well that Jesus sat next to looked much like that. It was more likely on a barren hillside and not in the midst of a lush garden. It probably did not have waist high walls or any structure over it. But still, it’s relatively easy to see Jesus sitting on a low, stacked wall with an open stone lined cylinder behind him. The sky above is a vast deep cloudless blue and a woman approaches the well with a container on her hip. She has one arm across her body so that she can hold the handles at the top of the jar with both hands.
You can be right there as Jesus says to her, “Will you give me a drink?” You can watch her give him that drink of water and then follow the whole exchange that ensues.
Hopefully, you also found it easy to enter the scene and find a verse that spoke to you. Hopefully, when you asked Francis or Clare for assistance, they readily obliged. And hopefully, you encountered Jesus successfully while reading this Chapter of John.
John Chapter 4, Verse 42:
“They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”
This is the last verse in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. She has met and talked to Jesus and experienced her conversion. She has also introduced Jesus to the people of her town. Jesus stayed with them for two days and “many more became believers.”
The story, at its core, is about encounter with Jesus and the direct conversion that results from it.
The SFO Rule, in article 5, makes it clear that encountering Jesus is central to the life of a Franciscan:
Secular Franciscans, therefore, should seek to encounter the living and active person of Christ in their brothers and sisters, in Sacred Scripture, in the Church, and in liturgical activity.
The article goes on to emphasize liturgical activity by mentioning “eucharistic life,” but the language is clear that Jesus can be found in all these other places as well. He is found in the smiles, and even frowns, of every person we encounter every day. He is found in the Church, with the word Church having that broad meaning that includes you and me and all our merciful, charitable and loving work within its definition. And He is found in the Sacred Scripture. “Therefore” in the quote above refers specifically to the last sentence in the preceding article 4, which exhorts us to “careful reading of the gospel, going from gospel to life and life to gospel.”
The Gospel. The Gospel. The Gospel.
It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of the gospel in how a Franciscan arranges his or her life.
Just two articles later in the Rule, the gospel is again prominent:
….motivated by the dynamic power of the gospel, let them conform their thoughts and deeds to those of Christ by means of the radical interior change which the gospel itself calls “conversion.”
Chapter Two of the Rule, which encompasses articles 4 thru 19, is the meat of the Rule. It has the overall heading “The Way of Life.”
That “way of life” has many components, but none of those components is really possible without being committed to the principle contained in these two passages.
We have to encounter Jesus in the gospels! And that encounter has to lead conversion!
In other words, we have to experience exactly what the Samaritan woman and the residents of her town experience.
We have to meet Jesus. We have to serve Him in whatever way He asks. We have to accept that He wants to engage us no matter how much we (as proverbial Samaritans) think that He is distant and different from us. We have to be ready to accept the Grace, the Living Water that He offers. We have to listen to His words with an open heart and recognize, when He says to us the equivalent of “you are right when you say you have no husband,” that He knows us better than we know ourselves. We have to worship in Spirit and Truth as He asks. We have to be ready to give testimony to others when appropriate. We have to invite him to stay with us.
And then, when all of this is done, we should find ourselves converted to such an extent that we can enthusiastically and energetically exclaim along with the Samaritans,
“We have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world!”
It’s now time for me to confess that I am at least a little jealous of Francis. This is because he came much closer to experiencing the actual presence of Jesus as the Samaritans did than I ever expect to. Francis actually had a physical encounter with the voice of Jesus. How spectacular, how joyful, how humbling, how transformative it would be if that somehow happened to me!
Chapter Five of The Legend of Three Companions describes the scene like this:
A few days had passed when, while he was walking by the church of San Damiano, he was told in the Spirit to go inside for a prayer. Once he entered, he began to pray intensely before an image of the Crucified, which spoke to him in a tender and kind voice: “Francis, don’t you see that my house is being destroyed? Go, then, and rebuild it for me.” Stunned and trembling, he said. “I will do so gladly, Lord.” For he understood that it was speaking about that church, which was near collapse because of its age. He was filled with such joy and became so radiant with light over that message that he knew in his soul it was truly Christ crucified who spoke to him.
You can already see the beginning of conversion here, but in the next chapter we have it definitively confirmed:
Overjoyed by the vision and hearing the words of the Crucified Christ, he got up, fortifying himself with the sign of the cross. And mounting his horse and taking cloth of different colors, he arrived at a city named Foligno and, after selling there the horse and everything he was carrying, he returned immediately to the church of San Damiano.
After he found a poor priest there, he kissed his hands with great faith and devotion; he offered him the money he was carrying, and explained his purpose in great detail. The priest, astounded and surprised at his sudden conversion, refused to believe this, and ……
The execution is not perfect, but the sentiment is pure. This episode leads directly to Francis stripping himself bare as he rejects his earthly father in favor of his heavenly one. After encountering His voice, there was no undoing the conversion that Francis experienced.
Thomas of Celano also speaks of this incident. The words from Chapter Two of The Treatise on the Miracles of St. Francis are especially eloquent:
At the beginning of his conversion, when he had decided to take leave of the allurements of this life, Christ spoke to him from the wood of the cross while he prayed. From the mouth of Christ’s image a voice declared: “Francis, go, rebuild my house, which, as you see, it is all being destroyed.” From that moment the memory of the Lord’s passion was stamped on his heart with a deep-brand mark, and as conversion reached his deepest self, his soul began to melt, as his beloved spoke.
Again, the words of Thomas are spell binding. Tell me you don’t long for your “soul to melt” from hearing the voice of Jesus, your beloved!
At first, when I read this, I thought “his deepest conversion” took place down the line. I thought it took time for his conversion to unfold. But as I reread it, I wonder? I think that maybe that deep conversion happened immediately, just as it did for the Samaritans. I think maybe the sound of Jesus’ voice caused deep conversion in Francis instantaneously. How does it read to you?
I want to be like the Samaritans. I want to experience His presence and hear for myself and be sure.
I want to be like Francis. I want to hear His voice, and I want to do silly things in an abrupt attempt to follow His instructions exactly, no matter how much I miss the mark to start with.
“His soul began to melt, as his beloved spoke.”
I want that deep conversion to happen to me. I want to encounter Jesus in such a powerful way that my soul melts. I want to encounter Jesus in such a powerful way that conversion is no longer something to be decided upon and pursued in fits and starts, but something that is inevitable and unavoidable and immediate.
At the end of the first chapter of the first book of The Life of St Francis, Celano tells us just how important Francis is in the spectrum of conversion.
Then the Lord looked down from the heavens and for the sake of his own name He removed His own anger far from him, and for his own glory he bridled Francis’ mouth so that he would not perish completely. The hand of the Lord was upon him, a change of the right hand of the Most High, that through him the Lord might give sinners confidence in a new life of grace; and that of conversion to God he might be an example.
At some unconscious level, I think this feeds my attraction to Francis. I think, without having read it explicitly before, I knew that Francis was an ultimate example of conversion.
My desire for conversion makes Francis the perfect spiritual father for me. When I immerse myself in the life and history and charism of Francis, I have the best chance to experience the conversion I am longing for above. In particular, when I focus on immersing myself in the gospels as that charism demands, when I encounter Jesus as a result of that immersion, I give myself a chance to experience conversion not as a choice I make, but as a natural and organic extension of living the precious life that God has blessed me with.
Maybe, just maybe, if I follow Francis closely enough, my soul will melt just as his did.