There is a painting at the National Gallery in Ottawa called Squally Weather, Georgian Bay, painted in 1920 by F. H. Varley. (I’d love to share this image here on the blog, but I need Gallery permission first. I’ll update here when I can. In the meantime, I’ll use a photo of our local sea here and you can click the link to the Gallery page where you can visit Squally Weather.) It is small – only 30x40cm – and painted quickly. Varley was a member of the Group of Seven and they often painted on these small wooden boards when they were out of the studio. Later, they recreated these images on larger canvases, considering, changing and adapting colours and contrast as they went. Squally Weather is one of these quick-sketch board paintings, which later inspired Varley’s more famous work, Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay, painted the following year. But it is the smaller version that captures my attention. I love the immediacy of this work. The speed of rough brush strokes evoke the feeling of the wind, and the warmer colours capture the quick and changing light on the windy waves.
It was described in the Ottawa Citizen in May 1943 as having “vigorous rhythm,” and that, too, is part of what captures me. The waves keep coming. You can feel their power and their perpetual return is shaped by the constant wind. This is a land of wind, a stark northern place where the wind will blow forever.
In the centre of the painting, a solitary tree stands. It, too, bears witness to the wind. Wind-swept. Wind-shaped, perhaps. Varley was primarily a portrait painter, and there is something portrait-like about this image of the tree. It stands as a character and, when you look into this image, there is a moment of encounter.
The lectionary reading this week, like last week, centres on encounter. Last week, Nicodemus came to see Jesus by night, and this week, we have the noon-time image of Jesus sitting by the well and speaking with the Samaritan woman.
We can get distracted when we read this story. Five husbands? And now living with a man who isn’t her husband? You can see why there is often a moral slant given to interpretations of this passage. But there is no condemnation from Jesus. This doesn’t seem to be the point of the story for him. It is possible that her situation results from tragedy rather than choice. We just don’t know. She is quick to point out that it should be awkward for Jesus to speak with her, but her unsuitability stems from her gender (and his) and her ethnicity, not from her moral character.
The point of the story isn’t a damaged woman, just as the point of Varley’s painting isn’t a damaged tree. We are presented with facts quite plainly. And Jesus tells the woman the facts of her life to show her that he sees her. In that moment, she sees him clearly, too.
“I see that you are a prophet.”
In Eastern Orthodox Church tradition, the woman at the well is known as Photine, the luminous one. Her confession gives her this honour. She catches the light and returns home to share it. She is a storyteller. She is the city on a hill. A tree lit by northern light. She stands tall and is strong, her thirsty roots push deep to find nourishment in the living water.
There is a vigorous rhythm in this story, too. A daring back-and-forth, part-dancing, part-debate as the woman questions Jesus, getting to the heart of the question that separates them as Samaritans and Jews.
“Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”
And he tells her that the hour is coming when worship will cease to be a cultural practice within ethnic boundaries, but will flow among all people like the constant wind.
“God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
As in his encounter with Nicodemus, Jesus again teases out the meanings of words, playing with wind and spirit, and finding the space between words. He finds rich, natural images that can work their way into our imaginations and shape how we see the world.
Water, thirst, and wind.
Like birth, bread, salt and light.
None of these images can ever been culturally specific. These are open images from every daily life. Once we have glimpsed God in these daily things, we start to see these daily things in God, and then we, too, become shaped by the constant wind, filled with living water and encountered by the Christ.