Feast of the Annunciation at St. Mary the Virgin, New York City

April 1, 2008

I was in the Holy Land ten days ago, and on Holy Saturday we visited several sites in the Galilee. When we were in Nazareth, we were taken to several places that are associated with the feast we keep this day. One is the large and imposing Basilica of the Annunciation, built over the traditional site of Mary’s house. Joseph’s house is just down the street, and it has its church as well. Both of them have significant archaeological sites underneath the churches. A few minutes walk away is a tiny 18th century Orthodox church that shelters Miriam’s well, still pouring forth an abundant spring of water. Instead of the angel visiting Mary at home, this church of St. Gabriel remembers the angel’s approach when she was drawing water from that lively spring. The church is spectacular, covered inside with vivid blue and red icons painted on the domed ceiling, a much adorned iconostasis, a pulpit at least 20’ above contradiction, and graffiti from the 1800s outside the door.

That well-drawing situation for annunciation is virtually unknown in the western tradition, but the more I’ve meditated on it, the more sense it makes. Mary goes regularly to the town’s water source – and Joseph’s probably been staring at her out the door of his carpentry shop for years. Like women of her day throughout that land, and in most parts of the developing world today, fetching water is a regular daily chore. She knows that surprising things often happen at the well – it’s a place where both shocking and silly news is shared. If you find yourself alone, a stranger might turn up looking for water, too – remember when Jacob meets Rachel? Maybe an unrecognized and unnamed stranger isn’t so odd after all, even if he does start out with a bold and ambiguous greeting, “hail favored one, the Lord is with you!” or, as The Message puts it in a rather more vernacular tone, “Good morning! You’re beautiful with God’s beauty, beautiful inside and out! God be with you.”

What’s going on here? This stranger is definitely pushing the bounds of polite behavior. He might even be flirting. Any self-respecting young woman in that culture would have good reason to be worried. Any reasonably streetwise teenager out there in Times Square would get her back up, too.

But no, this message-bearer begins again, “you don’t have anything to fear. God has something surprising in mind.” I’m not sure that would be terribly reassuring if that teenager heard it from someone sitting across the table at Starbucks. Yet while the tale unfolds as though there is no doubt she will say yes, the work does not begin until she does affirm her willing participation – I will, with God’s help.

And there is the water again – that wellspring that becomes the water of new birth, the watery vessel of incarnation, nurturing this holy child until Mary brings it to light nine months later, or as the Spanish idiom for birth puts it, gives this child to the light.

Incarnation begins here at the well, in a wise and willing maid. Yes, Wisdom’s child is brought forth from watery chaos and the terror of Mary’s “yes.” Wisdom’s child, present from the beginning of creation. Wisdom’s child, born that we might all have life abundant. That connection with wisdom is there in the gospels; Jesus is called Wisdom’s prophet and Wisdom’s child, but it’s not a strand much emphasized in Western theology.

Yet you and I, and followers of Jesus throughout the ages have found life abundant in another fountain of wisdom – the one that flows from the side of the crucified one – which becomes birth fluid for the late-born children of wisdom’s prophet. In baptism, we too become children of wisdom. Mary’s “yes” at the fountain begins a new building of Wisdom’s earthly human house, and when he’s grown, Wisdom in Jesus bids us turn in and feast, “come eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.” Will you turn in here and join Wisdom’s feast?

The Orthodox have remembered the ancient understanding of Jesus as wisdom incarnate, conceived by a fountain of wisdom – and you can play with whether that means physical proximity or divine source. That ancient understanding is echoed in John’s prologue, the word present in the beginning, through whom all things came into being – wisdom, God’s master builder, present from before creation and working to bring creation into being – the dabar, the logos, the effective word which God speaks, the word that goes forth from God’s mouth, and does not return empty, but accomplishes the purpose for which God sent it.

The sign that God gives, the word that God offers, is a child, God with us, and as Proverbs puts it, “the words of his mouth are deep waters, the fountain of wisdom is a gushing stream” (Proverbs 18:4).

When we draw water from that fountain, when we drink deep and eat our fill of wisdom’s feast, we share in Mary’s “yes,” we begin to participate in that word of God, accomplishing what God intends. “Let it be with us according to your will.” Let us become your willing servants, vessels ready to be filled with God incarnate, that we may do your will. Let your word be spoken in us, that it may go forth and do your will. May your kingdom come, O lord, and may it begin again here.

The angel turns up right here, today, too, to lure us into pregnancy of God. It’s equal opportunity, my brothers and sisters – God’s fountain bathes us equally, without regard for gender. The word of God is waiting to be born of each one of us – that effective word, that wisdom of God that will create a new heaven and a new earth. Will you say yes? Will you nurture that word, and bring it to light?

You’re beautiful, too, with God’s beauty, inside and out. May God be with each one of you.