Acts 11:19-30; John 4:5-42
Christ is Risen!
The good news of our Lord’s resurrection was entirely unexpected and challenges many of our deepest assumptions about life in this world. If the God-Man has entered fully into death and conquered it, making even the grave an entrance into eternal life, then reality is radically different from what we typically assume. If death is not an inevitable and complete loss from which we need constant distraction, then the basis for anxiety and misery driven by fear of the grave has been destroyed. Life is no longer a zero-sum struggle of this group over against that for the fleeting and scarce resource of power and status. By leading us back to Paradise through His resurrection, the Savior has destroyed the foundation upon which rest the enmity and resentment between people that first appeared when Cain murdered his brother Abel.
Today we commemorate how our Lord’s salvation extended to someone who was on the wrong side of many such divisions in first-century Palestine: a Samaritan woman who became the Great Martyr Photini. In that time and place, she would have seemed a very unlikely candidate to become a great evangelist of Christ’s salvation. Most obviously, she was a Samaritan. 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. As well, 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. Moreover, 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 scene is truly shocking and scandalous according to the sensibilities of the day.
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, a man and a law-abiding Jew, in his conversation with Christ in the previous chapter of the gospel according to John. And unlike most people, Photini had the humility to make 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 leave due to hurt pride. Instead, she confronted the hard truths about herself as she received the Lord’s healing. She refused to give in to the temptation to think that because she was a woman, a sinner, and a Samaritan that she could not or should not open her heart to the good news brought by the unusual Jewish man who spoke to her not as a hated foreigner or a bundle of impurity, but as a beloved daughter. Photini was deeply transformed by this encounter with Christ to the point that she even preached to her fellow Samaritans, which must have taken tremendous courage, for her neighbors surely did not think of her as a worthy spiritual teacher. Photini found healing for her soul, becoming an evangelist and ultimately a martyr together with her sons and sisters.
We cannot tell the story of our Lord’s resurrection without mentioning the uniquely blessed role of the women who were the very first witnesses of the empty tomb. Mary Magdalene was 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. Absolutely nothing in the biological differences between males and females excludes or excuses anyone from the calling to become radiant with the divine energies as a living icon of God, for we all bear His image equally. We must not allow differences in the roles fulfilled by the sexes in any time or place, 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 other divisions between groups of people the determining factor in whether we treat them as living icons of Christ who are called to enter into the joy of His resurrection. The differences between races, ethnicities, and other groupings that we assume to be so important have no spiritual significance at all in our Lord’s Kingdom.
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 subverts the categories of our fallen world and calls our social assumptions into question. 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. There is no ethnic or national test for sharing in His life. He empowered the Myrrh-Bearing Women to behold and proclaim His resurrection and enabled a Samaritan woman with a broken personal history 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 peoples. 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 our pathetic inclination to view and treat people according to worldly divisions that contradict to the good news of our salvation.
Christ said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32) No one else would have looked at Photini and seen a future saint who would shine with the light of holiness. Her transformation shows that there truly is hope for us all in the mercy of Christ. Nothing but our own pride can keep us from humbly opening our souls to the Lord for healing, as she did. Even as we must entrust ourselves to the Lord’s mercy as “the chief of sinners,” we must not view anyone else as a lost cause before God. 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 pray for His blessings 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. If we do so, then we will have failed to appreciate the radically good news of the resurrection, which extends literally to all, calling us to embrace our restoration and fulfillment as human persons in the image and likeness of God who are not blinded by the divisions of our world of corruption. St. Photini has shown us what that looks like, and she invites us to follow her into the life of a Kingdom that remains not of this world, for “Christ is Risen!”