The account of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, which we read on the fifth Sunday after Pascha, brought to mind something I often forget, and maybe others do as well.
It’s the fact that authentic prayer is not really a human endeavor. We can probably say it is not even a human possibility. In Romans 8, the apostle Paul declares, “we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” The prayer I offer, whether before an icon or in a liturgical celebration, often isn’t prayer at all. It’s an expression of my own meandering thoughts, a monologue of perceived needs, complaints and musings on the general state of things, leavened at times with a few words and feelings of thanksgiving and intercession for others.
But on the whole, there’s a tragic gap between what I think and say in such times, and the kind of genuine prayer St Paul speaks about, a prayer animated by the Spirit of God, who speaks a language “too deep for words.” This prayer, at its most sublime, is what the Fathers call “pure prayer,” prayer of the heart. It is a gift, accorded to a few for reasons God alone knows. For the rest of us, any prayer that achieves real communion with its blessed Object is also a gift, freely granted by the indwelling Spirit.
As Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman, they seem at first glance to be talking on two entirely different levels, earthly and heavenly. She understands water to be water; he proclaims it to be a wellspring of eternal life. She finds him intruding into her personal affairs; he reveals in her five plus husbands something more than a moral issue. He surprises and embarrasses her, so she launches into a strategy of evasion: “Ah, I perceive you are a prophet!” This she follows immediately with an intentionally distracting theological question: “Where is the proper place to adore God, on this mountain (Gerizim) where our Samaritan fathers worshiped? or in Jerusalem, according to Jewish tradition?”
At this point Jesus again leads her from mundane experience to spiritual depth. By her question she has set the stage for a further revelation, perhaps the most important of the entire dialogue. “Neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” as points on the map. True worship of the Father, he declares, can only be “in spirit and in truth.”
Or so read our translations. Jesus’ message, though, which accords with the theology of the entire Gospel, is essentially and profoundly Trinitarian. His reply can only mean “in the Spirit and in the Truth”: in the power of the Spirit of God, and by the mediation of him who is the Truth. “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” he will declare to his disciples in the Upper Room. Well before that tragic night, he declares to the Samaritan woman the message St Paul conveyed to the Romans. Authentic prayer, true worship, is only possible by the intervention of the “two hands” of the Father: the Son and the Spirit (St Irenaeus). From a human perspective, we offer worship to God in a particular form and in a particular place. In reality, the depth, beauty and genuineness of that worship depend on our openness to the work of the Father’s two hands within us, whenever and wherever it may be.
There is extraordinary delight and relief in that realization. It means that authentic prayer does not depend on our mood, or our formulations, or the fullness of its content. It does not depend either on our location. Certainly our prayer in general can and should reflect the content of the Church’s traditional prayers, and the geographic locus of the Church and its Liturgy provides us with a concrete sharing in the gathered Body of Christ. The building, however, is not “the Church.” We are, as members one of another. Therefore our prayer can be offered when we have neither the words nor the will to pray. Our life in the communion of saints can be sustained, even when we feel we need to be alone, or when we suffer from loneliness. Our life can be marked, even transfigured by prayer, at any time and in any place: at the office or in the ER, in a war zone across the globe or in our own kitchen. And this, again, because prayer is a gift, freely granted by God to those who desire it. Whether we are aware of it or not, prayer can and does continue unbroken in the temple of the heart. Of course there needs to be conscious and willing acceptance of it, at least in particular moments and particular circumstances of our daily life. But we can rejoice in the fact that prayer is not the imposition of some responsibility (“I still have to say my prayers…”), nor is it an “experience” we can conjure up artificially. It is a gift that comes with the working of the Spirit and the Truth in the inner depths of our being.
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple,” the apostle asks the Corinthians, “and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor 6) Jesus’ response to the Samaritan woman’s question affirms the same thing: each of us who lives “in Christ” is a temple, a sacred space, in which Spirit and Truth work together to enable us—with joy, freedom and thanksgiving—to offer true worship to the Father.