The Harvest

Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well is common in art. The window at St. John’s however offers an unusual perspective on the story. Rather than depict Jesus’ initial encounter with the woman, as is usual, the image shows the later moment when she returns to hear more of the Lord’s teaching. In the left-hand side of the window we see her advancing upon Christ and his disciples in the company of a small boy, perhaps her child, and two elderly men. Her speech is evident in her animated hand gesture. The group proceeds along a winding road that connects the watering hole with a nearby town by way of a meadow. Jesus sits on the rim of the well eagerly awaiting them and pointing them out to his companions. Equally he might be motioning to the lush fields through which they have just emerged. The quote at the bottom of the window suggests this interpretation, “Lift up your eyes and see the countries for they are white already to harvest.” (John 4: 35)  Next to Christ stands St. John, identifiable by his halo, and another disciple who both turn to observe the newcomers. Unaware of events taking place around them, two other disciples assiduously draw water from the well. St. John alone receives a halo, most likely because he is the patron saint of the Chapel. At the side of the well rests the water jug and basket that the woman has left in her haste to return to town to herald the presence of Jesus. The quote at the bottom of the window continues the theme of harvest. Jesus speaks it immediately after he says the words at the top of the window, “He that repeath receiveth wages and gathereth fruit until life everlasting.” (John 4: 36)
The harvest that Jesus speaks of is not an agrarian but a spiritual one, a distinction reinforced in the Gospel passage and the window’s design. Describing this harvest, Jesus employs a constellation of agricultural terms. He uses the metaphor of spiritual food when he offers to quench eternally the Samaritan woman’s thirst with the waters of everlasting life. We see in her discarded water container, her acceptance of the Lord’s offer: she no longer needs physical water, for she has spiritual water. Jesus speaks of spiritual food again when he responds to the disciple’s insistence that he partake of the bounty they procured for him in town, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work.” Christ does not need sustenance because his conversion of the Samaritan woman has satiated his appetite. By renouncing food he reminds his disciples to hunger for souls more than food. Christ’s conception of a spiritual harvest also includes the concepts of sowing and reaping. He converts the Samaritan woman by planting the seeds of eternal truth in her. When she returns accompanied by her fellow citizens, he reaps what he has sown, as expressed in the quote at the top of the window. The countries ready for harvest that Jesus speaks of and points to are mostly likely not the fields beyond the town but the Samaritan woman and her friends. The artist chose to portray the fields in shades of vivid green glass so that we would interpret them literally, not symbolically.
The window does not just depict a conversion that happened long ago but also calls for ongoing evangelization. Jesus’ raised hand could also be interpreted as a signal to his followers to go out and share the good news with the “countries.” His words and gesture imply, “Go and continue the sowing and reaping begun by the apostles?” The Samaritan woman’s act of bringing people to Jesus and her animated discussion of him, evident in her gesture of pointing to him while speaking, makes her a perfect role model for us.
The theme of the harvest is particularly apt for Saint John’s Catholic Chapel, as agriculture is an important subject at the University of Illinois and a means of livelihood for many in the surrounding communities. The window’s references to spiritual harvest, however, remind us to look beyond the concerns of this world to those of God. The window also reflects the important evangelization that goes on at St. John’s through the Divine Liturgy as well as other venues, such as the Chapel’s rich and diverse programs. Before leaving this beautiful window with its message of a sacred harvest of souls, we must ponder why the artist has rendered two of the apostles drawing water from the well and not listening to the master, especially as he is commissioning them to speak to the nations. Should we see in them the artist’s desire to show Biblical figures engaged in mundane daily activities? Or is there perhaps a deeper meaning to be drawn (pun intended)? The water that the apostles draw from the well is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, whose action makes conversion possible, and of the sacrament of baptism, through which Christians are purified of all sins so that they can enter anew into life with Jesus. The power of the Holy Spirit disposes the Samaritan woman to hear Jesus’ message and enables his disciples to go into the world to preach the good news. The artist’s decision to show the apostles fetching water rather than listening to the Lord’s teaching was surely prompted by a wish to connect the themes of conversion and baptism and to promote the role of the Holy Spirit in them, for it is the Holy Spirit who makes Christ known to us and helps us welcome him into our hearts.