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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

10 August 2018

Malcolm Guite reflects on the dedication of an icon depicting Jesus and the woman at the well

I WAS present at the service in which the new icon that “Ikon John” Coleman has given the Retreat Association was hallowed. It was featured in the Church Times in May, and readers may remember that it shows the encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well (Features, 11 May).

She stands, mantled in green, her empty water jar in one hand, the other gesturing away from her — perhaps toward the well, perhaps towards Christ himself; for he is numinously present just on the other side of the well, seated, in an earth-brown robe and a mantle as blue as the heavens, one hand held towards his heart and set already in the sign of blessing. The other, extended gently, almost playfully towards the well, just touches and swirls the water itself, gently, with the fingertips.

Behind Christ, on the edge of the icon, we can see his disconcerted and disapproving disciples, returning from their shopping trip, shocked to see Jesus welcoming so tainted and marginal a person as a Samaritan woman; but, behind the woman, we see, emerging from the city, a crowd who will become, through her ministry, a new Christian community.

I was with members of the Retreat Association as poet-in-residence for their triennial retreat in Swanwick, and the dedication of the icon was the conclusion of three days on the theme of “sounding the silence” — a paradoxical challenge for a poet, but I did my best to follow Wendell Berry’s advice and make a poem that does not disturb the silence from which it came.

As the icon was brought into our midst in that final service, I reflected on how appropriate this particular image was was for the Retreat Association. The story begins with exhaustion, stress, and rejection, and ends with a series of wonderful, paradoxical transformations and renewals: Jesus is exhausted at the well, sharing the exhaustion of the world and all the frustration and futility of our living; yet he is also the fons et origo, the well and spring of all renewal, and is able to offer this stranger the fountain of his own eternal life welling up within her.

The woman is isolated and shunned by her community, which is why she comes to the well at noon and not in the cool of the morning or evening with the other women. She sees nothing but problems and barriers at first: the divisions of race and religion, the practical problem of the deep well, of having no buckets — and then the living presence of Jesus changes everything.

We see him through the icon, with one hand on his heart, the other on the water, himself the living connection between the two. Gazing at the icon, we see that the living water is already at the brim of the well. Has his presence drawn it up from the depths, or is it in fact flowing from him into the well, and not the other way round? Certainly, everything is reversed for the woman, and she who had to walk away from her village to find an outer source of refreshment will soon herself be a centre of renewal and be spreading good news in community.

After the service, I sat by the little lake at Swanwick, dragonflies darted over above it like tiny threads of the blue sky itself come down to bless us, and I knelt to touch the water.

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