With you, O God, is the well of life, and in your light shall we see light.
AT A sharp bend in the road, just by the glue-factory entrance in my village of Duxford, a small shore opens out on to the River Cam. Where we live, the river is just a pebbly stream, edged with trees and rushes, and, in warmer weather, it is a favourite place for picnics and paddling. In the summer, there are often damselflies flashing against the water; further up, Spitfires from the Air Museum drone in formation.
Last summer, I saw something I had never seen before: curved lines of light, like scallop shells, flowing down the branches of a weeping willow. They dripped off the end of its longest branch into the stream. It was the reflection of the current in sunlight, falling back over and over again, into itself.
My intermittent sense of God’s presence has nearly always visited through light and water together — not usually in full sunlight. More often, it is a duller shine: matt, lead-pencil-grey puddles; the see-through black of water when it is nearly dark.
This prayer fits with that in-between state. It is a beginning prayer, a way of stepping towards attentiveness. The light with which we see leads us towards seeing itself, but as something utterly new. We look for God, who is already there in the looking. But see me through my eyes, God says; watch the world shift into backdrop, a fragile container for the brightness of my presence.
I say these words from the Psalm, alone or in communal liturgy, as an invocation. At the annual All Souls’ service for the bereaved, it was a responsory. The village church was almost full, a different crowd from usual — dull-eyed teenage grandchildren, many more men — together on a grey night, saying: “In your light shall we see light” (v.9b).
They spoke with an unnerving, hushed concentration. The image in my mind was of an unwieldy bowl, brimming with water that might spill at any minute: a barely contained charge of grief and expectation, as these men and women borrowed faith for the evening.
The two lines of the prayer belong in a psalmic landscape which witnesses only God. “Your love . . . reaches to the heavens and your faithfulness to the clouds. Your righteousness stands like the strong mountains, your justice like the great deep” (Psalm 36.5-6). Are we meant to imagine that the real, indifferent sea is deep with justice — that sea that drowns homeless children — or that every real precipice speaks goodness?
This is not the everyday world. Depth is now nothing to do with drowning: it becomes a way to imagine profound justice, fathom below fathom of it, the everlasting arms that hold every dead child. Sheer rocky height expresses a goodness to which the fragile human dot, standing at its base, could not aspire. The vision shifts from majesty to protection: “All mortal flesh shall take refuge under the shadow of your wings” (Psalm 36.7b).
The astonishing thing is not that God should be. The astonishing thing is that the brightness of God should be mindful of man at all — man the trafficker, the profiteer, the idolator of the good things of the created world. The light is not indifferent, and the water is life itself. “With you, O God, is the well of life” (Psalm 36.9a).
Wells are running water turned towards human community use, the purest combination of raw materials and deliberate intention. If you do not have a source of pure clear water, you cannot have a village. When the psalmist imagines God as a well, the divine is placed not in the indifferent heights and depths, but at the basic, life-giving centre of human community. We are more than half way to the incarnation already.
Our landscape has a figure in the foreground. In St John’s Gospel, the well is called Jacob’s Well, and is associated with the camp that Jacob made before the city of Shechem. Jesus waits there both to ask for water, because he is a thirsty body in the ordinary world, and to offer something that he calls “living water” (John 4.10). Living water is not just running water, but water that fulfils mortal need; water that brings God and humanity together in the act of drinking.
So we look at him, here and now, in whatever place we happen to be: a place where the light falls just so on a puddle or a gutter, a stream or canal or ford or pool. And he looks back. In his light, we see something that we have never before taken notice of. It is just light, light on water; but it transforms the future that we are beginning to see, and draws us into the divine story. In your light shall we see light.
The Revd Dr Jessica Martin is Priest-in-Charge of Hinxton, Ickleton, Duxford, and Whittlesford, in the diocese of Ely.