The Light of the Christ Illumines Even Samaritans and Gentiles: Homily for the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman in the Orthodox Church

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

Christ is Risen!

There is a lot of truth in the saying that familiarity breeds contempt. It is possible for even the best things in life to become so familiar that we become blind to their true importance. We can do that even with our celebration of the Savior’s victory over death, as though the Paschal season were simply about singing joyful hymns and enjoying rich food. It is certainly possible to reduce any dimension of the life of Church to a mere cultural observance that we assume is only for some people, usually those we think are like us in some particular way. Both today’s gospel and epistle readings challenge us, however, to consider how the good news of the resurrection impacts the world in a way that is so unfamiliar as to be unsettling, and which challenges our assumptions about who God’s people are.

The Samaritan woman certainly took nothing for granted about Jesus Christ. The Jews viewed the Samaritans as heretics who had intermarried with Gentiles, and they had nothing to do with them; as well, men did not strike up conversations with women in public in that time and place. So when the Lord asked her for a drink of water and engaged her in an extended theological discussion, she was completely surprised. He knew the details of her broken personal history and obviously related to her very differently than had the men in her community. This encounter made such an impression that “she 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?’” She did something quite shocking herself in that moment, proclaiming to her fellow Samaritans that this Jewish rabbi was the Messiah. “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.’”

A Samaritan woman with an immoral lifestyle became the Great Martyr Photini, an unlikely evangelist whose testimony led many in her village to belief in Christ. Her transformation occurred because she received by faith the living water of which the Savior spoke, “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”   Here is a foreshadowing of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, for she is empowered from the depths of her soul to participate in the healing of the human person that our Risen Lord has brought to the world. As we chanted at Great Vespers last night about Photini after her encounter with Christ, “that chaste woman hastened at once to the city and said to the crowds: Come and see Christ the Lord, the Savior of our souls.” Yes, she was truly restored to the dignity of a beloved child of God in the divine image and likeness.

Remember that in the chapter of John’s gospel right before the Lord’s conversation with Photini, He spoke with the Pharisee Nicodemus, an expert in the Jewish law. At that point, Nicodemus could not understand even the most basic points of the Lord’s teaching. How shocking, then, that a Samaritan woman with a notorious past came to faith so quickly and even preached to others. Through her witness, the Lord Himself spent two days in a Samaritan village, which must have been the last thing that anyone expected the Jewish Messiah to do. His salvation does not operate according to the conventional categories of this world, but transcends and subverts them. How odd: Great religious teachers miss the point, while disgraced women from despised communities become glorious saints.

Our reading from Acts describes the foundation of the first Gentile church in Antioch, where the disciples were first called Christians. It took a good bit of debate and discernment for the Church to determine how to respond to Gentiles who wanted to become Christians, for the origins of the faith are so clearly in Judaism. At the council held by the apostles in Acts 15: 8-9, St. Peter said of the Gentile Christians, “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as He did to us.  He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.” That, of course, is a very good description of what the Lord had done with St. Photini. The letter to the Gentile Christians from that council did not require them to become circumcised or convert to Judaism, but “to abstain from food sacrificed to idols…and from sexual immorality.” (Acts 15:20) It is not surprising that the Jewish Christian leaders of the Church made a point of reminding Gentile converts to distance themselves from forms of spiritual and moral corruption so common in their culture.

The inclusion of Samaritans like Photini and Gentiles like the original Antiochian believers provides a powerful sign that the resurrection of Christ is not about business as usual in a world where people divide up according to all kinds of human characteristics. When we do that, we define ourselves over against enemies, real and imagined, and tend to think that all the evil and wickedness are on the side of those we oppose. Among the many dangers of such ways of thinking is that we easily become the self-righteous judges of others and inflame our own passions to the point that we see neither ourselves nor our neighbors clearly. A Jew of the first century would typically have viewed Photini as a terrible sinner who did the wretched kinds of things expected of Samaritans. The apostles could have easily put up almost insurmountable roadblocks to keep the Gentiles at arm’s length. That the Church developed very differently is an indication that it is not simply another human institution of a world enslaved to the fear of death, but truly the Body of our Risen Lord in Whom “strangers and foreigners” become “fellow citizens of the saints and members of the household of God” by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Eph. 2:19) 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 offers living water to all people who come to Him in humble faith as did St. Photini, the Samaritan woman.

Like her, we all encounter Christ as people with a history of personal brokenness in thought, word, and deed. We may doubt, however, whether the Savior’s victory over death, the wages of sin, may truly become active in us. The Church highlights the example of so many notorious sinners who have become great saints by receiving the Lord’s mercy through repentance. Perhaps we have heard their stories so many times that we take them for granted and assume that, after their conversion, they were no longer troubled by temptations, doubts, and sorrow for their failings. That would be an unrealistic assumption, of course. Remember that St. Mary of Egypt spent her first seventeen years in the desert in fierce struggle with passions for all that she had left behind. She said of this period, “Darkness after darkness, misery after misery stood about me, a sinner.” If we are genuinely embracing the new life our Risen Lord, we will face battles in our own souls as we turn away from the darkness of the tomb and toward the brilliant light of His kingdom.

As the eyes of our souls gain the focus to behold His radiant glory more fully, the darkness within us will become all the more apparent. We will then be like Photini when the Savior mentioned her history with men. Instead of shutting down in shame or making excuses, she simply said, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet” as she continued to open herself to the healing mercy of the Lord through faith. If we truly believe that Christ has conquered death, the wages of sin, then we must become as courageous as she was in offering even the most painfully broken dimensions of lives to the Savior for healing. Like her, let us do so with the confident hope of those who know that something worth living and dying for has come into the world, for Christ is Risen!

Used with permission.
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