Entering the church at Jacob’s Well, vibrant frescoes and sunlight streaming through colourful windows lend the spacious sanctuary an ethereal magical quality. The luminous architecture, colourful decoration, and quiet atmosphere provide a stark contrast to the busy streets of Balata Refugee camp just outside. The true miracle of the site, though, is not found in the building itself but in the story of the two men who renovated the site from ruins.
When Father Justinus Mamulus first saw the site of Jacob’s Well in 1980, the church wasn’t much to look at then, having lay in ruins for over 50 years. Though the site had been a place of Christian worship since 327, the church building had been destroyed and rebuilt many times, with the modern church built in 1860, but destroyed by an earthquake in 1927.
Father Justinus hired a local student from the Balata Refugee Camp, Jamaal Sarhain, originally just to work as his translator, but Jamaal proved to be equally dedicated to the task of renovating the old building. Together, the two men tackled a vast restoration project. They restored the church, rebuilding the walls and the majestic domed ceiling. When asked why he dedicated his life to the church, Jamaal said simply, “This place means everything for me.” Father Justinus himself, now 72, has painted vibrant frescoes on the walls and ceilings of the church, and the two men have planted a large garden on the grounds with fruit trees, flowers, and benches for visitors.
The two men funded their work entirely through donations, working when they had money and stopping when the donations ran out. Now that the church is nearly finished, Father Justinus and Jamaal have their sights set on their next project, the church of St. John the Baptist in Sebastia, a village on Abraham’s Path near Nablus.
In the bottom level of the restored church is a deep well, which Jewish, Samaritan, Christian and Islamic traditions associate with Jacob, Abraham’s grandson. The Bible recounts this as the place Jacob met Rachel, who would be come his wife after he worked 14 years for her father to earn the privilege (after being tricked into marrying her sister, Leah, first!) Christian tradition regards this as the site where Jesus talked with a Samaritan woman.