INNER CIRCLE: Standing Around The Well

INNER CIRCLE: Standing Around The Well September 15, 2023

IMAGE: Keith Giles/MidJourney

SAYING 74: He said, “Lord, there are many about the well, but no one in the well.”

This saying is problematic because we’re not sure who the “he” is in reference to. Is Jesus the one saying, “O Lord, there are many around the drinking trough but nothing in the cistern”? Or is this one of his un-named disciples – perhaps Thomas – speaking to Jesus?

It may not be a disciple since the phrase “O Lord” is used and Jesus has previously established – more than once – that he is not their Master or Lord. So, perhaps this is meant to reflect something that Jesus said to his disciples, and the “O Lord” reference is merely used for dramatic effect.

Several scholars have noted that this saying is also quoted elsewhere by other philosophers. For example, F.F. Bruce says:

“Celsus, the anti-Christian writer of the second century, quotes the saying (in Greek) from the Heavenly Dialogue of the Ophite Gnostics. [As quoted by Origen inAgainst Celsus viii. 16] For the general idea compare Saying 23 (p. 124). The form is similar to that of a Greek mystery-saying quoted by Plato: ‘The wand-bearers are many, but the initiates are few’ (Phaedo 69c).]”[1]

And Gerd Ludemann writes:

“This remarkable aphorism…has an equivalent in the anti-Christian philosopher Celsus (c. 180 CE), who read it in a writing with the title ‘Heavenly Dialogue’. It was in circulation among the Gnostic group of the Ophites (serpent worshippers). There it runs, ‘Why are there many around the well and no one in the well?’ Evidently the aphorism is meant to encourage the Gnostic to stop being a bystander and enter, in order also to be able to drink the water of knowledge.”[2]

So, perhaps to late First and early Second Century readers this saying was already well-known. It appears to suggest the idea that some merely sip from the well of truth while only a few dare to plunge into the depths.

It reminds me of another saying from Robert Anthony that goes, “Some drink from the fountain of knowledge, others just gargle.”

The meaning in both is the same: Only a small number of people are brave enough to dive into the well of Divine experience. Most are content to stand around and sip from the fountain without daring to immerse their whole selves into the river of life.

Our challenge is to search within to see what sort of person we are in this scenario. Are we afraid to dive into the fountain? Are we fearful of what we might find at the bottom of that well? Or are we consumed with joy to know that the Divine waters of life and truth are bubbling at our feet? Are we thirsty for the deeper mysteries of God?

I can’t help but feel that there’s a mimetic element to this saying. The people around the well are following their societal conventions. No one wants to appear foolish to the others and so, even in the presence of this fountain of Divine wisdom, they simply play along with the others and sip casually from their cups, as if this is ordinary water, or as if they are not all desperate for this water to quench the thirst within them. If only one of them would have the courage to express the joy they feel in the presence of God’s abundance the rest of them would feel free to do the same. But none of them is brave enough to defy the illusion or to break the power of their ego which demands they pretend to be indifferent to the miracle before them.

Our response to this saying should be to examine ourselves to see if we are pretending to be filled while, on the inside, we are empty and dry. If we are thirsty, we are invited to come and drink freely from this fountain of living water. But if we are desperate for God, we won’t stop with a sip from this tiny cup. We’ll dive headfirst into the endless depths of God’s infinite presence and fill our lungs with the crystal-clear waters of Divine love that flow from the center of God’s heart to ours.

[1]F.F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament, p. 141

[2]Gerd Ludemann, Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 627


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Keith Giles is the best-selling author of the Jesus Un series. He has appeared on CNN, USA Today, BuzzFeed, and John Fugelsang’s “Tell Me Everything.” He hosts the Second Cup with Keith podcast, and co-hosts the Apostates Anonymous podcast, and the Heretic Happy Hour Podcast.

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