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How Drinking from Alien Spiritual Wells Has Enriched My Life

By Dr. Rob Sellers
Parliament Trustee

For more than a decade, my life as a Christian has been enriched and my commitment to the Christ Way deepened through my study of the world’s great religions and my relationships with many followers of other faiths.  To use a biblical metaphor, there have been times when my soul was parched and I drew water—thirst-quenching and invigorating—from these “alien wells.”

Someone might ask why a Christ follower would willingly seek spiritual refreshment from “foreign” wells.  I’ve thought about that theological question and discovered several good answers.  The biblical passage which informs me is found in John 4 in the story of Jesus’s journey through Samaria, where he stopped to rest at the ancient well Jacob had built in alien, Canaanite territory, near Sychar.  It astonished his disciples that he would drink from a Samaritan well and, moreover, that he would befriend a Samaritan woman, especially one with a bad reputation.  But Jesus had not hesitated to stop beside that alien well, to quench his thirst from it, and to engage one who regularly drank that water.  I believe that it is appropriate to suggest that the story of Jesus at the well in Sychar serves as a biblical model for his disciples, including each of us.

Why indeed shall we seek to quench our thirst with water from alien wells?

Abandoned Well. Via Flickr User Norm Lanier

Of course, if I were simply talking about literal wells and actual water, we could easily conclude the matter by saying that when we are thirsty, it doesn’t matter where in the world we might be.  If we have a way to draw from the well in a foreign place and the water will not make us sick, we will readily drink from it to quench our thirst.  But speaking metaphorically and not literally, the issues become more complex.  Whether or not we drink from this alien well does not simply depend upon access to it or the purity of its water.

Jesus used water metaphorically in his conversation with the Samaritan woman, speaking of “living water” that “springs up to eternal life.”  He clearly takes the literal well and actual water and uses them to shift the conversation to spiritual thirst.  And so the question becomes whether or not “life-giving resources” can be drawn from other spiritual wells.

Here are some convincing reasons from several Christian scholars and writers who argue that other religions and their adherents may indeed provide us with spiritually stimulating and energizing water.

Joan Chittister

The first reason is expressed by Benedictine abbess, popular lecturer, and prolific spirituality writer Joan Chittister, who suggests that our common humanity justifies our drawing from other wells.  She writes:

Whatever the distinctions of time, place, and culture, whatever the time and place in which we have lived, we are all human beings—just human beings, wherever and whenever we live, subject to the same emotional limits, dealing with the same range of emotional responses. . . .  We have at our fingertips . . . a reservoir of wisdom as broad as the sky, as deep as history.  [For e]ach great spiritual tradition, in its own way, suggests a model of what it means to be a holy person (Chittister, xi, xiv).

A second reason for drawing from “alien wells” comes from one of the world’s foremost ecotheologians, Jay McDaniel, a Christian pluralist who teaches at Hendrix College, not so far from us in Conway, Arkansas.  McDaniel suggests that we should drink from other wells because our own water may be less than pure.  He says,

Many people in different religions are realizing that the water is polluted, and that in order to cease polluting it, they need not only to dig within their own heritages for help but also to learn from other religions (McDaniel, 140).

Is it any wonder that an ecotheologian would advocate the benefit of searching for new sources of “water”?  Simply looking at Christian history, or at the questionable beliefs of some contemporary Christian groups, leads me to agree with McDaniel that our own spiritual water is not always healthy.

A third reason for drawing water from other spiritual wells comes from ordained Methodist minister and professor, Martin Forward.  His observation is not original, yet certainly bears repeating.  Forward says that our fractured world desperately yearns for religious people to share with one another.  He notes:

Although people of distinct religions have lived alongside each other for centuries, the modern world has added a special urgency to the need to do so respectfully and knowledgeably, since we now possess the means of destroying the whole created order.  [Thus,] one hopes that respect for and knowledge of the “other” will lead humankind away from the abyss (Forward, 1).

Cardinal Newman—the 19th-century Anglican Oxford don who became a Roman Catholic and was nominated for sainthood by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010—famously exclaimed: “Oh, how we hate one another for the love of God” (Quoted in Smith, 250).

A fourth reason for drawing water from alien spiritual wells comes from Matthew Fox, Dominican priest and writer “silenced” by the Vatican for his Creation Spirituality, and who now serves as an Episcopal priest.  In one of his 20 books, One River, Many Wells, Fox argues that the source of water in all the wells is the very same Divine River.  James 1:17 calls this common “River” the “Father of Lights,” who—according to John 1:9—“gives light to everyone.”  In response to this common source of spiritual water, Fox proposes that we practice “Deep Ecumenism.”  To explain what he means by the term, he says:

I begin with an observation from Meister Eckhart, who says that “Divinity is an Underground river that no one can stop and no one can dam up.”  There is one underground river—but there are many wells into that river: an African well, a Taoist well, a Buddhist well, a Jewish well, a Muslim well, a goddess well, a Christian well, and aboriginal wells.  Many wells but one river.  To go down a well is to practice a tradition, but we would make a grave mistake (an idolatrous one) if we confused the well itself with the flowing waters of the underground river.  Many wells, one river.  That is Deep Ecumenism (Fox, 4-5).

A final reason I mention for drawing from alien wells comes from a retired Presbyterian professor, W. Eugene March, who has spoken at one of the programs of the Abilene Interfaith Council.  Marsh not only thinks we Christians should draw from diverse spiritual wells, but believes that the multiplicity of wells may actually be God’s good idea.  He provocatively writes:

The diversity within our world is something most of us take for granted.  There are in the neighborhood of fifty million species of plants and animal life currently to be found, and it is estimated that perhaps as many as fifty billion have existed at one time or another across the long lifespan of our world. . . .So why should there not be different religions?  Why should we be surprised or troubled by the reality of different ways to express spirituality?  Since diversity seems to be the norm in creation, by analogy a pluralism of religious responses among the people of the world is reasonable to expect (March, 18-19).

Now, what has so profoundly touched my own life in these recent years has not simply been the academic awareness of the good reasons to draw from alien wells and to develop relationships with those who drink those waters, but the actual spiritual practice of doing that interfaith engagement.  And, no place has been more fulfilling—or filling—than the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, on whose Board of Trustees and Executive Committee I am privileged to work.  May I mention just a few of the spiritual wells and those who draw water from them that have made me a better Christian?

First, I think of my friend Andras Arthen, a Spanish-born immigrant American who is director of the EarthSpirit Community, representing particularly the indigenous European pagan traditions.   Andras (pictured on my right, in a meeting this past year in Guadalajara), with his “earth-centered” religious beliefs, has helped to deepen my conscious gratitude for the earth and has strengthened my resolve to care for it as a steward of our gracious Creator God.

I am grateful, also, for Kirit Daftary (pictured on my left), a Jain and president of Anuvibha of North America—a United Nations NGO dedicated to working for non-violence and following the teachings of its spiritual master, Acharya Mahapragya Ji.  I’ve noted how Kirit, the extremely busy owner of his own manufacturing company, frequently goes on pilgrimage or retreat in India to serve and learn from his teacher whenever he can.  His dedication to being with his spiritual master challenges my busyness and too frequent excuse-making whenever I am given opportunity to retreat with my Lord.

I have learned from Phyllis Curott, Wiccan priestess, author, and attorney from New York City. The commitment of Wiccans to women—especially to those who have been marginalized, abused, and forgotten—has led Phyllis to leadership in the Women’s Task Force of the Parliament.

Whether speaking at Rockefeller Chapel of the University of Chicago (pictured here) or arranging women’s conferences at the United Nations, she works voluntarily on behalf of others in a way that inspires and instructs me about believing in and championing the rights of women as God’s beloved children.

Finally I mention Imam Malik Mujahid, my Muslim brother in Chicago, who chairs the Parliament Board and is constantly working for peace among the religions.  Recently chosen as one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world, Malik juggles his global travels and peace-making missions with his own enterprise in Chicago and with his leadership of our Board.  Yet, wherever I’ve been with him, he always excuses himself from discussions when it is time to pray (pictured here, several months ago in Salt Lake City). His dedication to communicating with God, no matter the circumstance, teaches me what it means to be thirsty for God.

“Alien Wells and Those Who Draw from Them”—these are such important resources for our own spiritual growth.  Yes, we too have vibrant, living water to share from our own well with these friends of ours.  And we must certainly do that whenever appropriate or invited.  But I cannot think of any reason why we shouldn’t also be willing to linger at their wells.  It just might be that when we are especially parched and impoverished in spirit, that their cup of cold water may refresh our souls!


Chittister, Joan.  Welcome to the Wisdom of the World and its Meaning for You: Universal Spiritual Insights Distilled from Five Religious Traditions.  Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007.

Forward, Martin.  Inter-religious Dialogue: A Short Introduction.  Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2001.

Fox, Matthew.  One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths.  New York: Penguin Group, inc., 2004.

March, W. Eugene.  The Wide, Wide Circle of Divine Love: A Biblical Case for Religious Diversity. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.

McDaniel, Jay B.  With Roots and Wings: Christianity in an Age of Ecology and Dialogue.  Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1995.

Smith, Huston.  “The Ecumenical Movement: What are we Seeking?”  In Essays on World Religions. Ed. M. Darrol Bryant.  New York: Paragon House. 1992.

Women of Spirit and Faith

by Kathleen Hurty, PhD

One of the many creative fruits of the 2009 Parliament of World Religions held in Melbourne, Australia, is a newly minted nonprofit network called Women of Spirit and Faith.  The birth of this group is a fast-paced, wondrous story of connection and collaboration growing out of chance meetings in Melbourne and at follow-up events!

Four of us from the U.S. west coast—Kathe Schaaf, Kay Lindahl, Reverend Guo Cheen and myself—were drawn by the spirit of the Divine Feminine, so alive at the Parliament and especially stimulated by Sr. Joan Chittister, to come together and explore what it means to be women leaders in today’s chaotic world from a spiritual and/or faith-centered perspective.  Women’s leadership is a popular topic, but often missing is any conversation about the importance of spiritual grounding to anchor, deepen and empower women’s authentic leadership.

We started with many questions—in fact, questions are at the heart of our work.  What does it mean to be empowered women of spirit and faith?  What is the divine feminine calling us to do/be?

In the course of 2010 we four met in person, connected on numerous conference calls, started a group on, held a retreat, became a 501(c)3 organization, developed a website, and began work on a major interactive networking conference titled The Alchemy of our Spiritual Leadership: Women Re-defining Power, which was held in April of 2011 with 150 women in attendance.

That event led to yet another connection—an invitation to edit a book on the event’s theme!  In early 2011, we “gave birth” to the collaborative venture—a book entitled Women, Spirituality and Transformative Leadership: Where Grace Meets Power. We are deeply grateful for the 26 authors who chose to participate, to the talented team at SkyLight Paths Publishing Company, and to all who have purchased books to make us a No. 1 best seller in our category on Amazon!

Our approach is circular. We have fostered a group of young leaders to expand the effectiveness of our core circle, we encourage the development of local self-organizing circles, and we hold book events in which we model the circle approach to the discussion of key questions.  We are looking forward to sharing what we have learned at the 2014 Parliament of World Religions in Brussels.  The impact of that chance meeting at the last Parliament will continue—for me, for my colleague co-founders of Women of Spirit and Faith, and for all who participate in the amazing, challenging and richly rewarding work of transformative leadership—where grace meets power and makes a profound difference.

Religious and Spiritual Leaders Reflect on 9/11

Beyond 9/11 to a Broader View of the World by Sister Joan Chittister, OSB

Healing, Hope and Humanity: A Sikh Reflection by Dr. Tarunjit Singh Butalia

It Is Time to Invoke Historys Other 9/11 of Nonviolence and Global Interfaith Dialogue by Anju Bhargava

9/11: Ten Years On by Eboo Patel

From Memory to Hope by Rev. Dr. Katharine Rhodes Henderson

Lessons from the Kaddish a Decade Later by Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen

WATCH: The Future Of Christian-Muslim Relations In The West

For A More Unified, Understanding New York by Georgette Bennett, Ph.D.

Did 9/11 Make Us Morally Better? by Miroslav Volf

Hate and Hope by Serene Jones

Reaching for Hope After 9/11 — Together by The Interfaith Amigos

WATCH: Finding Hope And Healing At Ground Zero

The Sukkah and the World Trade Center by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

An Opportunity For Reflection by Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori

Our post-9/11 failures by Desmond Tutu

Unite through compassion by Karen Armstrong

Remaking the world after 9/11 by Tony Blair

Radical Islam on its way out by Feisal Abdul Rauf

9/11 demands intellectual honesty by Sam Harris

Rebuilding our souls by Thomas Monson

Spirituality after the attack by T.D. Jakes

Peace begins internally by Donald Wuerl

Live the memorial by Katharine Jefferts Schori

Death and the hope of resurrection by Mark Driscoll

Divided world, divided hearts by Deepak Chopra

We grasped our brokenness anew by David Wolpe

Americans still dont know Islam by Yasir Qadhi

A prayer for America by Sally Quinn

From Ground Zero to the State Dept by Suzan Cook

10 Years Later, We Must Do Better by Rabbi Michael M. Cohen

The Alchemy of Our Spiritual Leadership: Women Redefining Power

Women of Spirit and Faith are invited to gather in San Francisco April 28- May 1, 2011 for The Alchemy of Our Spiritual Leadership: Women Redefining Power. Imagine the energy of 300 women ready for inspiration, deep wisdom and potent co-creation. Keynote speakers Sister Joan Chittister, Valarie Kaur and Naomi Tutu. Stimulating Leadership Conversations, practical workshops, creative Open Space offerings and more. Information and registration available at

Alchemy Highlights

  • Inspiring Keynote wisdom from Sister Joan Chittister, Valarie Kaur and Naomi Tutu
  • Stimulating Leadership Conversations featuring the wisdom and experience of a dozen diverse women leaders
  • Informative workshops with a focus on building practical skills and new models for collaborative leadership
  • Many opportunities for circle dialogue and structured conversation
  • Optional activities such as Open Space Offerings, Morning Meditations, Yoga, Movement, Labyrinth Walks and more
  • The Alchemy Marketplace where you can shop for books, jewelry, art and music
  • A Beautiful Meditation and Prayer Room for silence and reflection
  • Art, music, poetry, laughter and lots of right-brain fun and stimulation

Click here for more information

Sister Joan Chittister and the Holiness of Women


By Katherine Marshall

“Women are the boldest and most unmanageable of revolutionaries,” Sister Joan Chittister said last week.

Especially religious women. Set against the sorry sagas of errant priests and male church leaders reluctant to confront past and present misdeeds, stories about the courage and st

Joan Chittister

Joan Chittister

amina of women religious leaders offer a breath of fresh air.

Religious women are rarely seen as ardent feminists. Many religions have worked to keep women in the background. Today, however, many of the most thoughtful and determined advocates for women’s rights and empowerment come with strong religious links.

The same is true where peace is concerned. A quiet, often invisible group of women with strong religious ties is working relentlessly for peace in many corners of the world. There are some efforts to link them so their voices and impact are amplified, including the Global Peace Initiative for Women, which Sister Joan co-chairs. But these networks are still fragile and limited.

Sister Joan acknowledges that religion can put moats between women, with a “theological acid” that makes religions puny and dangerous. Many feminist groups look askance at religion, including women who lead with a spiritual face or voice. But women’s quests can be seen as profoundly spiritual, whether or not they are labeled that way. Bridging the moats needs first and foremost some better knowledge and understanding.

It’s interesting to look at the deep roots some women’s religious communities bring to their work for peace. The Benedictines, for example, worked over the centuries of the Middle Ages to reclaim Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. That was a time of great insecurity. People were not safe on the roads or in their towns. Soldiers and policy offered no safety. Benedictine monasteries served as safe havens, or hospices, each one no more than a day’s ride from the next. In the chaotic Europe of the time, the monasteries were the anchor and the sign of peace at every level.

So, “if you are a Benedictine, peace is on your mind”, Sister Joan asserts. Benedictines take a vow of stability, not of chastity and poverty. They have a life long commitment to a particular community in a particular place. That sense of community is how Benedictine nuns see themselves and their social and civic responsibilities: it is in their DNA.

Click here to read the full article.

A Conversation with Sister Joan Chittister

Joan Chittister

Joan Chittister

From The Huffington Post

By Janet Haag

The word “prayer” is frequently used among believers and non-believers, but what exactly does it mean? Most of us have a concept of prayer that is limited to supplication for our needs with the expectation that a Higher Power will intervene in our lives and do for us what we are unable to do for ourselves. Yes, this is one way of understanding prayer, but it is not all that prayer is. Like many other values, our understanding of prayer is filtered and shaped by our experiences. Sister Joan Chittister, a visionary spiritual voice in our times and an advocate for peace and justice around the world, offers a full and rich perspective on prayer. Sister Joan is a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania, founder and executive director of BenetVision, and an internationally renowned speaker and the author. The text of the following interview first appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of Sacred Journey, the quarterly multi-faith journal of Fellowship In Prayer. Sister Joan will also be presenting at Fellowship In Prayer’s 60th Anniversary Conference, June 24 to 27, 2010 at Princeton University. To subscribe to the journal or to register for what promises to be a landmark event, visit

Fellowship in Prayer: How do you define prayer in your life?

Sister Joan Chittister: After more than 55 years of growing into a life of prayer through a lifestyle based on it, my definition of prayer is consciousness, immersion, and relationship. Prayer makes us aware of the elements of the divine in human life, bringing us into contact with the God-life in and around us. Prayer is not personal devotion; it is personal growth. Prayer brings us to the ultimate and the eternal, the daily and the regular, the total consciousness of God now. Prayer enables us to be immersed in what is fundamentally and truly divine in life right now. It is not meant to be a bridge to somewhere else because God is not somewhere else. God is here. Prayer is the act of beginning the process of becoming one with the One we seek — eventually, melting into God completely. This can be accomplished through immersion in the Sacred Scriptures. As Christians, what drives us is not has Jesus died but who Jesus is and why Jesus died. How he defines life and death will become our own understanding if we live prayerful lives.

Did you feel this way about prayer from early on in your life or is this something you have slowly developed over time?

Well, there was certainly a time in my very young life, when prayer was an exercise. However I wasn’t long in monastic life when I realized, like a teabag, I was being steeped in an environment that spoke to me of another layer and level of life. In this environment the notion that prayer is somehow or other an exercise in words simply dissolved very quickly. You know, in the Catholic tradition, around the 15th or 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church began to talk about prayer in different forms — prayers of adoration, prayers of contrition, prayers of thanksgiving, and prayers of supplication. These are types of formal prayers, based on words, but they are not prayer. Prayer moves us from the level of personal consciousness to God-consciousness, union with God or what we call the mystical life.

The Sufis tell a wonderful story about a seeker who one night hears a voice saying, “Who’s there?” and the Sufi seeker answers with great excitement, “It is I, it is I, Lord! I am right here!” And the voice disappears. Years later, the Sufi again hears the voice calling, “Who’s there?” The Sufi thinks, “Here’s that voice again!” and he gets very excited at yet another opportunity, and responds, “It is I, Lord, and I seek you with all my heart!” Once again, the voice disappears. Some years later he again hears the voice calling, “Who’s there?” This time, the Sufi replies, “Thou Lord, only Thou!” This story clearly describes the process of moving oneself into the mind, heart, and consciousness of God. It comes, yes, little by little, but it also comes instantaneously, once we move into what the ancient mystics call “prayer without words.” This prayer is the prayer of consciousness. This prayer is the very breath of life. Consciousness that the breath I breathe is the breath of God is the sum total of an attitude of prayer.

Click here to read the full article

Sr. Joan Chittister calls for dialogue and self-critique

Benedictine nun, Sr. Joan Chittister, speaks on the urgency for interreligious dialogue, the status of women, and the need for religions to be self-critical.

“We are spiritual resources for one another,”  says Chittister.  Speaking of how she learns from other traditions while being firmly grounded in her own, she says, “Every one of those ideas is embedded in the Christian scriptures itself, as far as I’m concerned.  But when I see them emphasized, underlined, lived-out with a more startling awareness in others, then I’m brought back to the fulfillment of my own.”

Insider Exclusive Interviews from the 2009 Parliament

Sakeena Yacoobi

Sakeena Yacoobi

This partnership between Spiritual Resources and the Interfaith Center at the Presidio has brought a series of interviews with world-class speakers from the 2009 Parliament, Melbourne.  Hosted by Bettina Gray, these interviews provide an in depth look at the substance of the conversations that took place at the Parliament.

Speakers include Swami Chidananda Saraswati, Dr Paul Knitter, Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, Dr. Allison Stokes, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bukari, Sr. Joan Chittister, Ralph Singh, Sarah Talcott, and Dr. William Lesher.

Breakthrough Summit on Women’s Rights in Melbourne

The International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA) has organized a Breakthrough summit in Melbourne 2-3 Dec. which will coincide with the opening of the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions, writes The Age newspaper. Among the summit’s presenters, Sister Joan Chittister, a major speaker at the Parliament, will argue that “if the faith communities brought their faith to bear on public policy we would change the world overnight,” and the article broadly discusses the role of faiths in addressing injustices. The Parliament welcomes the IWDA’s efforts, with Executive Director Dirk Ficca praising the summit as model parliaments present and future.

To read the full article, click here.