The Joy of the Resurrection Extends Even to Samaritans, Gentiles, and Us: Homily for the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman in the Orthodox Church

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

Christ is Risen!

The good news of our Lord’s resurrection extends to everyone and the entire world. The Church directs our attention during the Paschal season to how some very different people came to share in the life of our Lord, such as the disciple Thomas, the Myrrh-Bearing Women, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, and the paralyzed man.  Today we focus on someone who was different from all of them by worldly standards, for they were Jews and she was a Samaritan.  We know her in the Church as the Great Martyr Photini, but in that time and place she would have seemed a very unlikely candidate to become a great evangelist of Christ’s salvation.

The Jews viewed the Samaritans as heretics who had corrupted the faith and heritage of Israel, and they had nothing at all to do with them.  Photini’s conversation with the Savior reveals that 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 encountering other women in her community who looked down on her. As well, a Jewish man would not strike up a conversation with a woman in public and certainly would not ask a Samaritan woman for a drink of water.  This is a most unlikely scene.

How interesting, then, that the Lord’s talk with Photini is His longest conversation in any of the gospels. In it she showed far greater spiritual understanding than had the Pharisee Nicodemus in his conversation with Christ.  She also had the humility to 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 then continued the conversation.  She did not become defensive or end the conversation due to hurt pride.  Instead, she confronted the hard truths about herself and received the Lord’s 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 even dared to tell her fellow Samaritans about Him. That must have taken tremendous courage, for the people of her village could not have thought her worthy of teaching them about spiritual matters.  After this encounter with the Lord, Photini reoriented her life and become an evangelist.  Ultimately, her sons and sisters joined her in becoming martyrs for Christ at the hands of the Roman emperor Nero.

Photini was transformed when the Lord gave her the “Living Water” of the Holy Spirit and she became a participant in eternal life by grace.  That is how she found the strength to change so profoundly and to bear powerful witness for the Savior.  It is easy for us to forget how our Lord’s resurrection changed the status of women in giving testimony to God’s salvation, for they were not considered valid witnesses in Jewish law.  Nonetheless, they are the very 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 so powerfully that many Samaritans believed and the Lord 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 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 often-troubled relationship between men and women. In Him, the spiritual status of the sexes is the same; the differences between men and women concern the body, not the soul.  Male or female, the saints are examples for us all of how to share fully in the life of our Savior.

That does not mean, however, that we can transcend a basic truth of historic Christian teaching about the sexes:  The distinctions between male and female reflect God’s purposes for us as embodied persons.  They are not arbitrary social constructs or merely matters of individual definition. As the Lord taught in Matthew 19: 4-5, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and: the two shall become one flesh’?” In the brilliant light of Christ’s resurrection, we must gain the spiritual clarity to see that men and women bear equally the image and likeness of God.  We must not allow differences in the roles fulfilled by the sexes in various times and places, or in the life of the Church, to obscure that fundamental truth.  Even as that is true of the God-given distinction between male and female, we must be on guard against the temptation to make any distinction between types of people the determining factor in whether we treat them as living icons of Christ who are called to share in His life.

There was no small controversy in the early Church about whether Gentiles could become Christians without first becoming Jews. Today’s 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 property or servant of any nation, ethnic group, or ideological faction.  Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world and does not serve any worldly agenda. 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 behold and proclaim His resurrection and enabled a Samaritan woman with a checkered past to become a powerful evangelist and martyr.  He has drawn Gentiles into His Body, the Church, as a sign of His fulfillment of the ancient promises to Abraham for the salvation of all people.  His great victory over sin and death destroys the basis of judging the spiritual prospects of anyone according to the conventional standards of this world.  In order to enter into the joy of Christ’s resurrection, we must refuse to think, speak, and act as though we were still held captive to the fear of death, which is at the root of the pathetic divisions between people that still lead to so much misery.

The Great Martyr Photini also embodies the power of the Risen Lord to deliver us from our self-imposed captivity to corruption. Christ said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32) No one else would have looked at her and seen a future saint 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 not allow the perverse form of pride called shame to keep us from honestly opening our souls to the Lord for healing through repentance.   She provides us all with a great sign of hope.

Even as we must entrust ourselves to the Lord’s mercy, we must not view anyone else as a lost cause before God.  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 obviously do not want to become like them.  Even as we pray for the Lord’s mercy on our sick souls, we must do the same for our neighbors, especially those we think are 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.  We must place no limits on the saving power of the One Who conquered death itself for our salvation.   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!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bless the Lord, O my soul!

The Reading from the Acts of the Saintly and Pure Apostles. (11:19-30)

In those days, the Disciples, who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen, traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the Word to none except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who, upon coming to Antioch, spoke to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number that believed turned to the Lord. News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad; and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a large company was added to the Lord. So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul; and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church, and taught a large company of people; and in Antioch the Disciples were for the first time called Christians. Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world; and this took place in the days of Claudius. And the Disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brethren who lived in Judea; and they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.

 

 

 

THE GOSPEL

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (4:5-42)

At that time, Jesus came to a city of Samaria, called Sychar, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph.  Jacob’s well was there, and so Jesus, wearied as He was with his journey, sat down beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.  There came a woman of Samaria to draw water.  Jesus said to her, “Give Me a drink.”  For His Disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.  The Samaritan woman said to Him, “How is it that Thou, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”  For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.  Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and Who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.”  The woman said to Him, “Sir, Thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water?  Art Thou greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?”  Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst forever; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”  The woman said to Him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.”  Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.”  The woman answered Him, “I have no husband.”  Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.”  The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that Thou art a prophet.  Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and Thou sayest that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.”  Jesus said to her, “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.”  The woman said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming [He Who is called Christ]; when He comes, He will tell us all things.”  Jesus said to her, “I Who speak to you am He.”  Just then His Disciples came.  They marveled that He was talking with a woman, but none said, “What dost Thou wish?” or, “Why art Thou talking with her?”  So the woman left her water jar, and went away into the city, and said to the people, “Come, see a man Who told me all that I ever did.  Can this be the Christ?”  They went out of the city and were coming to Him.  Meanwhile the Disciples besought Him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.”  But He said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.”  So the Disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought Him food?”  Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of Him Who sent Me, and to accomplish His work.  Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’?  I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest.  He who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together.  For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’  I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor; others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”  Many Samaritans from that city believed in Him because of the woman’s testimony, “He said to me all that I ever did.”  So when the Samaritans came to Him, they asked Him to stay with them; and He stayed there two days.  And many more believed because of His words.  They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”

 

 

 

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