Acts 11:19-30; John 4:5-42
Christ is risen!
Sometimes we think that it is always good to be religious. The problem with that assumption, however, is that human beings tend to make false gods out of whatever they want in this world. When that happens, it is all too easy to identify ourselves with all that is right and good, and to condemn others as hated sinners for whom there is no hope. Such distortions of religion do everyone concerned much more harm than good.
Today we celebrate that our Lord’s great victory over death is also a victory over corrupt forms of religion that would identify His Kingdom with any nation, people, or worldly agenda. On this Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, the Church reminds us that the good news of our Risen Lord is not reserved for people of any particular ethnic heritage, for males, or for people with good reputations in their communities. For His longest recorded conversation in the gospels was with a Samaritan woman who had had five husbands and was then with a man to whom she was not married. Simply based on that description, she would have been the ultimate outsider, the perfect example of a wicked heretic with whom righteous Jews would have had nothing to do.
Christ, however, had nothing to do with self-righteous religious ideologies that made false gods out of worldly agendas. That, of course, is why He was rejected by those who had distorted faith in the God of Israel into a way of gaining power for themselves over others. Both the leaders of the Jews at that time and the Romans who crucified Him used religion for the sake of their own rule, and viewed those who were not members of their groups as enemies to be conquered. The Romans were certainly much more successful in gaining power, but the Jews looked down upon the Gentiles, and especially the Samaritans, as being unworthy of God’s concern.
Such distorted forms of religion lead only to the grave. They led to Christ’s crucifixion and to the deaths of the martyrs who refused to worship the gods of Rome. They lead today to the deaths of those killed in the name of any religion as infidels or heretics. The Savior took upon Himself the full force of such idolatrous religiosity, Himself being executed as One guilty of blasphemy. When He rose triumphant over the grave and Hades, He ushered in the new day of a Kingdom in which the pathetic divisions of this world are overcome and made irrelevant. As the God-Man, He shares His great victory with all who bear His image and likeness, regardless of any other human characteristic. He calls us all to embrace the healing of our souls through faith in Him and to shine with the brilliant light of His eternal glory.
That is how the Samaritan woman at the well became Saint Photini, an evangelist who died as a great martyr for refusing to worship the false gods of Rome. She stands as a shining example of how to enter into the joy of the resurrection. In her conversation with Christ, she made no excuses about the brokenness of her life. She genuinely sought to understand Who this unusual Jewish man was Who had asked her for a drink of water. She opened her mind and her heart to Christ and then dared to tell her fellow Samaritans about Him. She turned away from how she had lived previously to embrace a holy life focused on drawing others to the Lord. Her sons and sisters joined her in making the ultimate witness for Christ at the hands of the Roman emperor Nero.
By the standards of religions that serve earthly goals for a select group of people, our Lord’s conversation with St. Photini makes no sense at all. She was of the wrong ethnic and religious heritage, as well as a woman, but as St. Paul taught, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) Her personal life was scandalous, which may be why she went to the well at noon in the heat of the day; perhaps the other Samaritan women wanted nothing to do with her. But Christ said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32) Her martyrdom, and that of her family members, gained them nothing in this world and served no nation or empire. Yet by offering themselves to Christ even to the point of death, they opened themselves to the life of a Kingdom that overcomes even the worst that the corrupt powers of this world can accomplish.
It would be tragic for any of us not to follow the example of St. Photini into the joy of Pascha. If we have sinned gravely and have deep sorrow for how we have fallen short of God’s purposes for us, we must not use that awareness as an excuse to refuse Christ’s healing mercy. When the Lord told her that he knew all about her five former husbands and current relationship, she said, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet” and continued the conversation. She did not make excuses or run away due to hurt pride. She acknowledged the difficult truth about herself and did what it took to find healing. We must do the same in the holy mystery of Confession, honestly naming our sins as we turn away from them through repentance. That is how we will all enter more fully in to the joy of the resurrection, into the Lord’s victory over the corrosive power of sin in our lives.
Perhaps we have accepted ways of thinking that lead us to view others, whether we know them personally or not, as somehow absolutely cut off from God for whatever reason. Maybe we have allowed anything from disagreement about politics to a history of past wrongs to shape our attitudes towards our neighbors, as though they are beyond hope for redemption. If we think of them in that way, then we are the ones at risk of shutting ourselves out of the Kingdom. As Christ warned the self-righteous religious leaders who rejected Him, “Tax-collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God before you.” (Matt. 21:31) Today we commemorate a Samaritan woman with a checkered past who has gone before us into the Kingdom. Her witness shows that we must exclude no one—no member of any nation or group, no matter what they have done—from the possibility of salvation by embracing our Risen Lord through faith and repentance.
Today’s epistle reading from Acts describes the establishment of the first Gentile church in Antioch, where the disciples were first called Christians. Especially as Antiochian Orthodox Christians, we must remember that our faith is not the possession of any nation or ethnic group. It is not in the service of any worldly agenda. If we are looking for a religion simply to help us get what we want in life on our own terms, we had better look elsewhere. But if we want to join Jews, Gentiles, and Samaritans and repentant adulterers, prostitutes, thieves, and murderers in the new day of a Kingdom in which slavery to the death-dealing ways of those who seek domination in this world is overcome through a cross and an empty tomb, then we are in exactly the right place. Our Risen Lord has made Photini a glorious saint, and He will conquer all the corrupting forces of sin and death in our own souls if we will only respond to Him as she did. That is what means to celebrate this glorious season of Pascha, for Christ is risen!