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Four Waters of Prayer

If you consider yourself somewhat of a “beginner” with prayer, St. Teresa of Avila has some incredible words of wisdom! In her essay Four Waters of Prayer, she encourages us to cultivate our prayer life and compares prayer to watering a garden:

"It seems to me that the garden may be watered in four different ways. Either the water must be drawn from a well, which is very laborious; or by a water wheel and buckets, worked by a windlass … Or it may flow from a stream or spring, which waters the ground much better, for the soil then retains more moisture and needs watering less often, which entails far less work for the gardener. Or by heavy rain, when the Lord waters it Himself without any labor of ours, and this is an incomparably better method than the rest.”

These days, we aren’t too familiar with drawing water from a well. When we’re thirsty, bottled water is readily available at most stores. Water fountains are everywhere. Sinks distribute water with a quick turn of the faucet. Even some refrigerators dispense cold water on demand with the touch of a button. But the Samaritan woman at the well in this weekend’s Gospel reading (John 4:4-42) must travel a great distance with heavy jugs to Jacob’s well just to provide a daily water supply for her family.

At the beginning of this Gospel story, she struggles in the heat of midday to fill her containers with water – which is extremely hard labor. (Most women would visit this well in the early morning hours, when the weather was cooler; however, society doesn’t accept this Samaritan woman because of her past and ridicules her. So, she comes to the well when it’s sweltering outside and no people are around.) St. Teresa might say that when we begin our prayer journey, we put in lots of hard labor, too. We might struggle to find the words to say. We might feel that we are required to pray a certain way, or at a specific time of day. We might work hard to learn different prayers (and even try to memorize them). We also might have trouble concentrating while we’re praying. And we might have difficulty finding a moment to pray. Like the woman drawing water from the well, we might be consumed by the “process” of praying.

But then, Jesus’s conversation with the woman progresses. He tells her, “Whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” She thinks that Jesus has a quicker, easier, and more practical solution to obtaining water from the well. She asks him to give her this water so that she won’t have to keep coming back to the well day after day and expend so much effort. She thinks that a different system – perhaps like St. Teresa’s “water wheel and buckets” – might make drawing water from the well much easier. Of course, we know that the woman didn’t fully understand what Jesus was saying. When we are starting to become more familiar and comfortable with prayer, we might seek an easier or quicker way to do it – a shortcut, if you will.

As their conversation continues, though, Jesus says that he knows her current living situation – how she has had five husbands, and the man she’s currently living with is not her husband. Her demeanor quickly changes, and she now addresses him as “Sir” – assuming that he is a prophet. She begins to listen to Jesus’s words more earnestly and patiently. If we think about our prayer life as “stages,” perhaps when we quiet ourselves and rest in God’s presence – and truly open our hearts and just listen to God – we are like a stream or spring which “waters the ground much better.”

Finally, Jesus reveals publicly to this woman that he is the Messiah. Joy immediately fills her. She now knows that God is “spirit and truth.” She simply allows herself to be fully consumed by the presence of God in her life … and her joy is so complete that she must run and share it with others. As far as prayer, this “stage” could be our goal! “… the Lord waters it Himself without any labor of ours.” Jesus wants an intimate relationship with us. Rather than rules and barriers and boundaries, the Samaritan woman instead feels God’s pure love watering the garden of her heart. And, as she did, may we always immediately run to tell others and share our joy, too!

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