The Powerful Witness of the Great Martyr Photini: Homily for the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman and After-Feast of Mid-Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

Acts 11:19-30; John 4:5-42

Christ is Risen!

Today we continue to celebrate our Lord’s great victory over death by remembering the Great Martyr Photini, also known as the Samaritan woman at the well.  At first glance, she would  seem an unlikely saint and evangelist.  The Jews had nothing to do with Samaritans, whom they considered heretics.  She had had five husbands and was then with a man to whom she was not married.  Perhaps she went to the well at noon in order to avoid other women in her community who looked down on her. A Jewish man would not strike up a conversation with a woman in public, much less ask a Samaritan woman for a drink of water. Photini was the last person the Jewish Messiah would engage in conversation, according to the standards of that time and place.

How shocking, then, that the Lord’s conversation with her is the longest recorded in any of the gospels.  Photini showed a greater spiritual understanding than had the Pharisee Nicodemus in his conversation with Christ, and she made no excuses about the brokenness of her life.  When the Lord told her that He knew about her five former husbands and current relationship, she said, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet” and simply continued the conversation.  She had the humility not to become defensive or end the conversation due to hurt pride.  Instead, she acknowledged the difficult truth about herself and did what it took to find healing. 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. That must have taken great courage, for the people of her village certainly did not view her as a spiritual teacher. Photini turned away from how she had lived previously to become an evangelist.  Ultimately, her sons and sisters joined her in becoming martyrs for Christ at the hands of the Roman emperor Nero.

Photini’s encounter with the Lord was truly transformative.  He did not merely give her ideas about religion. He gave her the “Living Water” of the Holy Spirit which made her a participant in eternal life by grace.  That is how she found the strength to reorient her life so profoundly to the Kingdom and to bear powerful witness for the Savior.  Especially during this Paschal season, we must remember the profound change in the ability of women to give credible testimony to God’s salvation. Women were not considered valid witnesses in Jewish law.  Nonetheless, they are the first witnesses to the resurrection of Christ.  Mary Magdalene, who in John’s gospel is the first person to encounter the Risen Lord, is also the first preacher of the resurrection, for she proclaimed the good news to the apostles.  Photini bore witness to her neighbors about this unusual Jewish Messiah in so powerful a fashion that many Samaritans believed and the Lord actually stayed with them for two days. The Church honors both Mary Magdalene and Photini as being “equal to the apostles” in proclaiming the good news.

As St. Paul famously taught, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  (Gal. 3:28)  He rose in victory over all the corrupting influences of sin, including the domination and strife characteristic of the troubled relationship between men and women. In Christ, the spiritual status of the sexes is the same; the differences between men and women concern the body, not the soul.  Both bear the image and likeness of God.  Male or female, the saints are examples for us all and call us to follow them into the life of the Kingdom.

Of course, the biological distinctions between male and female remain; that is how God has created us as embodied persons. In the world as we know it, there are Jews and Gentiles, as well as people who are enslaved or imprisoned and those who are not.  In the brilliant light of Christ’s resurrection, however, we gain the spiritual clarity to see that such characteristics do not define the worth and dignity of persons who bear the image and likeness of God.  We must no longer worship them as false gods which the powerful may use to control the weak.  In a culture that at least claims to recognize the basic equality of all people, we may find it hard to see how profoundly shocking these truths were in first-century Palestine.

Those who rejected Christ as a blasphemer did so because they 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 agendas, 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. In such a world, proclaiming the spiritual equality of men, women, Jews, Gentiles, slaves, and free people was unbelievably radical and shocking.

Remember that there was no small controversy in the early Church about whether Gentiles could become Christians without first becoming Jews. 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, ethnic group, or ideological faction.  We must not corrupt it to serve any worldly agenda, for Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world.  He died and rose up in order to fulfill His gracious purposes for all He created to become like God in holiness as “partakers of the divine nature” by grace.  He empowered the myrrh-bearing women to bear witness to His resurrection and enabled a Samaritan woman with a checkered past to become a powerful evangelist and martyr.  We must bear witness to His great victory by refusing to think, speak, and act as though any merely human distinction destroys the divine image in anyone or makes it impossible to become more like God in holiness.   Doing so amounts to living as though Christ were not risen and we were still held captive to the fear of death.

Another lesson that we must learn from the Great Martyr Photini is the power of our Risen Lord to set us free from our self-imposed captivity to corruption. Christ said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32) Hardly anyone else at the time would have looked at her and seen someone who would shine with the light of holiness. Her transformation shows that, regardless of our sins, there is hope for us all in the mercy of Christ.  Like Photini, we must humbly acknowledge our sins in Confession as we turn away from them in true repentance.  We must not allow the perverse form of pride called shame to keep us from honestly opening our souls to the Lord for healing.

Likewise, we must not view anyone as a lost cause before God due to our perception of his or her sins.  We do not know other people’s hearts, and we each confess ourselves to be the chief of sinners in preparation to receive Communion.  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)  We do not want those stark words spoken about us.  Even as we pray for the Lord’s mercy on our corrupt souls, we must do the same for others, especially for those we are inclined to view as the very worst cases.  If our Risen Lord can make a great saint out of the Samaritan woman at the well, there is hope for us all to be set free from the enslaving ravages of sin.   The good news of Pascha extends to all, calling us to embrace our restoration and fulfillment as human persons in the image and likeness of God.  Photini has shown us what that looks like and invites us to follow her into a Kingdom that remains not of this world.  For “Christ is Risen!”



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