Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Woman at the Well

I like hymns that tell stories from the Bible. Even though, in churches that follow the liturgical year, like most I've ever attended, they're only sung on the Sundays when that particular scripture passage is read (so sometimes, only once every three years).

The story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well is told in John 4:4-42. There are some contemporary hymns that draw from this story, such as Edith Sinclair Downing's When, like the woman at the well (1992) which appears in some newer hymnals. The broader theme of living water is used even more widely in other hymns, even without the accompanying story.

So a few months ago, in a nineteenth-century hymnal, I happened on a hymn which told this story that I had not seen before. The language was quite dated and negative in places, and I knew it would not likely be sung anywhere in its original form. The text doesn't appear in any of the usual online hymn sites, either. So why not make some changes and adapt it for contemporary use? I haven't done this kind of adaptation in quite a while (any changes made so far on my blog hymns were either very minor or were done several years ago with input from others) so I was a little rusty, but I think it's now ready for public display.

O Jesus, once along the road,
At Jacob's lonely well,
An outcast woman heard thee there
Thy great salvation tell.

Samaria's unnamed daughter found
Those streams unknown before,
The water-brooks of life that make
The weary thirst no more.

Today, to us, assembled here,
Thy gracious words have told
That mystery of love, revealed
Beside that well of old.

She told the tale to all she knew,
As we declare it now --
Our deep, divine, unfailing spring
Of grace and glory thou.

In spirit, Christ, we've sat with thee
Around the springing well
Of joy and life, and heard thee there
Its healing virtues tell.

That living water may we drink,
From fear and strife set free,
And like that faithful woman, seek
And find our peace in thee.

Edward Denny, c. 1848; adapt. C.W.S.
Tune: ST. BOTOLPH (C.M.)
Gordon Slater, c. 1930

So what was changed? Two of the original verses are gone (six is probably enough) and one is moved. Several lines are completely new (one replaced was "And Lord, to us, as vile as she"). I wanted to acknowledge that the names of many women in the Bible, unlike those of most men, are not recorded (verse 2). You may still find some of the language outdated, though I don't have a problem with "thee" and "thou" -- the poetic language of hymns is a great part of their history and their appeal.

Going back to read the original passage, I also found an aspect of the story that the original hymnwriter did not include. This woman did not just listen to Jesus talk about salvation -- she went home and told others what she had heard. Nowadays, we (well, many of us) don't even think twice about women preaching. We'll never know, but was that why Edward Denny left out that part of the story? I wanted to get that in, and also that we here today should also go out and tell the story ourselves (verse 4).

Well, the best lines are still Denny's, which is why I wanted to polish up this hymn and maybe bring it back for a few people who wouldn't have seen it otherwise. I think the many, many hymn singers that have gone before us would still recognize this text and I hope that Edward Denny would agree.

P.S. - the drawing above is by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, (roughly) a contemporary of Sir Edward Denny


Leland Bryant Ross said...

That's a good hymn. I haven't seen Denny's original, to judge the details of the adaptation, but the language seems appropriate, and the additions pretty much seamless. I completely agree on the desirability of Bible-story hymns, and this is a good addition to the corpus. I might change "faithful" in the last stanza to "faith-filled", if I were to suggest an emendation. But it's a good hymn as it stands.

Leland aka Haruo

Dorothy said...

I really like it! I've never seen the original either but I especially like your addition of the message that we are to share the story of Jesus and His promised salvation as the woman at the well did.

C.W.S. said...

Thanks for the applause ; )

I am probably not "done" with it; there's always a word or 2 that you want to change later. I think "faith-filled" is a bit of a tongue-twister with the th and f sounds adjacent, but I agree that "faithful" may not be exactly the right word in that place (but it's such a hymn-ly word!).

Can Bass 1 said...

Well, well, well. St Botolph's. I was once what is know as Choral Bedesman at St Botolph's Church, Boston (that's the original - in England) where Gordan Slater was organist before moving to Lincoln Cathedral. Do you know his setting of the Mag and Nunc?

C.W.S. said...

I do not know Slater's canticles but would like to, as I like this tune very much. Here in the US we use it for Alford's We walk bby faith and not by sight and Brian Wren's When Christ was lifted from the earth.

Barnby also has a tune by the same name, though I don't know if that's connected with an actual church or if he just pulled it out of a book of saints' names, like he and many of his contemporaries seemed to do.

Thanks for stopping by.

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