On Loss and Change


Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, May 29, 2016
Acts 11:19-30; John 4:5-42
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen. Christ is risen!

Five hundred sixty-three years ago today, the great city of Constantinople fell, marking the end of an empire that had endured from a generation before the birth of Christ until the year 1453. The Roman Empire fell that day amidst the blast of Ottoman Turkish cannons and with a last defense of the walls led by the Emperor of New Rome himself, Constantine XI Palaiologos.

Within less than a year of the fall of that last great Christian imperial city, a French composer named Guillaume Dufay wrote a chanson-motet in Middle French lamenting the downfall of the city. In the text, Dufay imagines the voice of the great Mother Church of Constantinople weeping to God for her “son,” who may be imagined as perhaps the emperor or the city itself. We may also hear an echo of the weeping of the Virgin Mary for her Son on the Cross. Here is the text in English translation:

O most merciful fount of all hope,
Father of the son whose weeping mother I am:
I come to complain before your sovereign court,
about your power and about human nature,
which have allowed such grievous harm
to be done to my son, who has honored me so much.

For that I am bereft of all good and joy,
without anyone alive to hear my laments.
To you, the only God, I submit my complaints,
about the grievous torment and sorrowful outrage,
which I see the most beautiful of men suffer
without any comfort for the whole human race.

Dufay wrote the piece to try to inspire a crusade from the West to retake the city, a crusade that was of course never mounted. And that great center of Roman and Byzantine culture and Church life, which had itself stood for more than a millennium as the capital of that empire, over time passed into relative obscurity, no longer the center of the greatest power in the world. The sadness of Dufay’s motet remains.

His text was based somewhat on a text composed more than 2,000 years before, from the Book of Lamentations (1:2) by the Prophet Jeremiah, where the prophet weeps over the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, which took place in 597 BC. It was at this time that the Jews began to be deported from Israel and sent into exile.

It is with these sorrowful echoes of loss and the change of the world in mind that we come today to this Gospel of the Samaritan Woman, the Woman at the Well. Jesus has come to this well for a drink of water, and He meets this woman here. She does not know it yet, but her whole world is about to change.

This woman is a Samaritan, who were a sort of religious and ethnic hybrid between the Jews and other peoples in the area. The Samaritans had several things in common with the Jews, though the Jews saw them as heretics and unclean. No good Jew would be seen talking with a Samaritan. Nevertheless, they had their own religious world, including a mountain which was the center of their worship, while of course Jewish worship was focused on the Temple in Jerusalem.

As part of her encounter with Jesus, the Samaritan Woman not only hears prophetic words from Him about her sketchy marital life but also an introduction to something much more important. Jesus says this:

Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship Him. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.

In other words, the worship that you know and love is coming to an end, and so is that of the Jews. No longer will there be the sacrifices that you’re used to. The old way is coming to an end. Now, there is going to be a new way of worshiping the Father, a worship that is in spirit and in truth.

And historically, this is exactly what happened. The Samaritans’ way of worship died out, and so did the Jews’ with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans about forty years later. Everything changed, and the sacrifice to the one true God came to be made in a new way—the Holy Eucharist celebrated by Christians, a participation in the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.

Another, more immediate change happened, as well. The Samaritan Woman was converted by her encounter with Jesus, and she took this experience back to her town and became a missionary to her friends and neighbors, who were also converted to Christ. Nothing was ever going to be the same after that.

As we are still living within the light of Pascha, we are also experiencing in various ways a sense of change and loss. I often remark during Holy Week that I will miss this service or that service—the Presanctified Liturgy or the Akathist to the Theotokos, for instance. These things are passing away for this year.

But even more deeply, the whole point of Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha is to bring us on a spiritual journey in which we put to death what the Scripture calls “the old man,” which is our old way of thinking and living and ordering our lives. There are things about our life before becoming serious about Christ that we may miss or feel nostalgic about—our old friendships, our old ways of having a good time, our old ways of spending our time. But if we are really going to be Christians, then all those things will change.

Yes, there are some things from life before conversion that we can hold onto (though our relationship to them has to change), but there are also things we have to give up. We move on.

Sometimes, God allows us to experience a great loss—perhaps we have not lost an empire or lost the city of Jerusalem, but we have our own losses. This loss may be death or loss of health or finances, or it may be changes in life. These are not permitted by God to punish us. Nor are they simply meaningless suffering. They are opportunities for us to find a new way of living, a newly ordered set of priorities, of thinking, of committing our time.

Some people try to keep living the way they did before conversion. They want to be Christian, but they also want to hold on to all their old ways of doing things. But you can’t live a double life. If you go back to the ruins of the “old man,” then you are actually abandoning the “new man” given in Christ. There is no double life. You have to pick one of the two ways. There is a life aimed at Jesus Christ, always getting closer to Him and more like Him. And there is a life aimed at things that are going to pass away, things that will fail and disappoint you.

We are still freshly emerged from the sense of both loss and change that we bring with us from Great Lent and Holy Week. We may also be emerging from other kinds of loss and change. Let’s take advantage of this and build something new, something that is everlasting. Let’s follow what Jesus said and worship the Father in spirit and in truth.

Yes, our Orthodox Christian faith is ancient and unchanging. But if we as Christians act ancient and unchanging, then that means we’re not following the faith. The faith doesn’t change. It changes us. And God gives us opportunities to change.

To our Lord Jesus Christ therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen. Christ is risen!

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