By Dr. Rob Sellers
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?
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.
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!
Featured image courtesy of Wikipedia
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.