Joy of All Who Sorrow

Homily on the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman

Gospel: John 4:5-42

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Christ is Risen!

My dear Father, brothers and sisters in Christ, I greet you on this Fourth Sunday of Holy Pascha, the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman. In today’s Gospel, as with last week’s Gospel we hear of another meeting between Christ and a person beside a pool of water. And this repeated reference to the healing and illumining powers of water is a common theme connecting the church commemorations at this point of Feast. Indeed, on this Wednesday just passed, we celebrated the feast of Mid-Pentecost this mid-point between the Feast of Pascha and Pentecost. The troparion of the Feast, which we have just heard as we are now in the afterfeast – clearly points forward to our Gospel reading today –

In the midst of the feast, give Thou my thirsty soul to drink of the waters of piety;

for Thou, O Savior, didst cry out to all:

Whosoever is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink.

Wherefore, O Well-spring of life, Christ our God, glory be to Thee.

As is traditional, on the evening of Mid-Pentecost this past Wednesday, I served a lesser blessing of water which is now available here in the church for you to drink and to bless your crops and gardens with.

In Last week’s watery Gospel we were with our Saviour at the pools of Bethseda where he met the man known in holy tradition as Jairus, whose paralysis and profound disability had left him isolated and helpless beside the healing waters of the Sheep Pool in the shadow of the Temple Mount. In today’s Gospel, by contrast, Christ is in a very different place with a very different person. This week we have travelled about 30miles north of Jerusalem into the region of Samaria, where he meets, at the Midpoint of the day, in the full heat of the sun, with a Samaritan woman, whose life was, up to that point, far from virtuous. In terms of the pool of water where he meets with this woman, who in holy tradition is called Photini or Svitlana, this is identified at the beginning of our reading as a parcel of land outside is also known as Sychar in New Testament times, but before that in the OT is known as Shechem and today as Tel Balata and Nablus. This land of Shechem or Sychar, lying in the valley between the mountains of Gerizim and Ebal was an important and historic place for the people of Israel.

Now Jacob’s well was there. Jesus therefore, being wearied with his journey, sat thus on the well: and it was about the sixth hour.

St Gregory Palamas, in his homily for this Sunday begins by recalling that Jacob had given this land of Shechem to Joseph on his death in Egypt, which he had won in battle with the Amorites. He then goes on to compare how Jacob differed from Christ in his approach to the people of Shechem –

Jacob, however, … achieved this with his sword and his power, resulting in the annihilation and destruction of the former inhabitants, whereas Christ used His words and His teaching, and the outcome was their salvation.

Moreover, St Gregory draws our attention to the full humanity of the Lord. As a man he experienced weariness and fatigue and at this hottest point of the day, in the full glare of the sun, needed to sit and rest.

There cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water: Jesus saith unto her, Give me to drink. (For his disciples were gone away unto the city to buy meat.)

As man, the Lord was thirsty, and saw that someone who was naturally thirsty was coming to quench her thirst. As God, however, He also saw that her heart was athirst for the water of salvation, although she did not know Him who could give it to her.

The Samaritan woman is plucky, intelligent and perceptive. She is no shrinking violet or wall flower but engages and answers this foreigner.

Then saith the woman of Samaria unto him, How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans.

She could tell by his dress, accent and appearance that He was a Jew, hence her astonishment that he would ask anything of her at all, lest He should become defiled by the association. By this remark we can also see how tribalist and etiolated the love of the Jews had become that the Samaritan woman was amazed at the very idea that they could share water together.

Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.

St Gregory clarifies that the Gift of God, that Christ speaks of here, is His very self, His very Person is the ultimate gift to the Samaritans and, indeed, all the world –

For He offered Himself and made believers acceptable vessels of His divinity, since there is no other way they could have within them a well of water springing up into eternal life … Whose mind is capable of apprehending this? What words can express the excellence of this gift?

The woman saith unto him, Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from whence then hast thou that living water? Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle?

As is so common with many of our Lord’s encounters in St John’s Gospel especially, we see that there is this initial period of confusion where our Saviour’s interlocutor tends towards a literal interpretation and miss the deeper, spiritual interpretation that Christ points to. 

Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.

In His reply, therefore, Christ points beyond the base, beyond the material, beyond this world to what is spiritual. St Gregory notes the yearning that is in her reply, one that was truly heartfelt –

With a soul full of longing and on her way towards faith, through, not yet able to look directly up at the light

And she then replies –

Sir, give me this water, that I thirst not, neither come hither to draw.

We see here her eagerness, she is desiring something that will truly quench her thirst.

Jesus saith unto her, Go, call thy husband, and come hither. The woman answered and said, I have no husband. Jesus said unto her, Thou hast well said, I have no husband: For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly.

This represents a significant change in the mood, pitch and tone of the conversation, one that our Lord clearly calculated, given that He of course knew her heart. It could all have gone so terribly wrong at exactly this point. Many women would no doubt be instantly offended by having their marital status, or, rather lack of it, so bluntly exposed. Yet, in his homily, St Gregory marvels at the Samaritan woman’s humility –

She was not annoyed by this criticism, but realized immediately that the one speaking to her was a prophet, and turned to greater subjects.

The woman saith unto him, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet.

Again, many people hearing such accusation and implied criticism, may have used this juncture of the conversation to end it, to turn away. Yet, despite the shame, this woman shows that she does indeed seek the Truth above all else, even her reputation, her dignity and pride. Seizing on the fact that this Man must be someone truly special, truly extraordinary and with her interest piqued she thus asks him a question. One wonders whether this question has been on her heart for some time. Maybe she has turned this question over in her heart during those many times when she was patiently putting her water-pot down into the well.

Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.

St Gregory picks up on her clear religious and theological interest. How she wishes to address a central theological matter right at the heart of the fundamental religious divide between the Jews and the Samaritans – where is the place of God’s house? Where is the place where He should be worshipped? Is it here in Samaria, on the nearby mountain at Bethel? Or, is it on Mount Zion in the Holy City of Jerusalem?

Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews.

In his initial response to the woman’s earnest question, our Lord affirms that the Jews were correct, ‘for salvation is of the Jews’ and yet with the coming of Christ from the Faithful House of Israel, there is also an end to any limitation whether geographical or racial of the scope of Divine Grace, Mercy and Salvation. 

But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.

Here we can see something of a paradigm-shift from the mindset of all Ancient religions which tended to limit or locate or domesticate God within an idol, a material object, or within one particular place or one particular people – to a far greater and expanded understanding of God. This is summed up in that one pithy and profound phrase – ‘God is a Spirit’. He is not a body, limited in space or time and bounded. As St Gregory explains –

As God is a Spirit He has no body, and being without a body He is not in any one place or circumscribed by spatial boundaries. Accordingly, anyone who says that God must be worshipped only within the confines of Jerusalem, or the mountain of Samaria, or anywhere else at all on earth or in heaven is not speaking or worshipping truly.

Then, our Samaritan woman, goes from asking a question and identifying herself entirely with her Samaritan ancestors to making a significant shift towards the Christ and the Truth.

The woman saith unto him, I know that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things.

This is particularly extraordinary for the Samaritans only regarded the Pentateuch, the Five initial books of the OT as authoritative and rejected the other books, that is all the books of the Prophets which spoke of the coming of the Messiah. We can thus see in the Samaritan Woman’s graced reply, that the Divine Logos, the Word was inspiring and working in the hearts of those outside the Fold of the People of Israel.

I see her as though she were emerging from the baptismal font of the well where she was standing, having been instructed by Christ, looking forth as the much-loved morning …

Jesus saith unto her, I that speak unto thee am he … The woman then left her waterpot, and went her way into the city, and saith to the men, Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ? Then they went out of the city, and came unto him.

This image of the Samaritan Woman’s redundant waterpot thrown down in her hurry and haste by the well, is such a beautiful one for the transformative power of the Gospel which alone brings us up from the material concerns of this world, of the physical water that we all need for our bodily health, to something greater, a water which quenches a deeper spiritual thirst within us, that no well could ever satisfy. And, a final thing about our Samaritan woman is how she is a woman of action. When she knows the Truth, and has spoken to the Truth, she doesn’t hesitate, but she leaves everything and preaches Christ as an equal-to-the-apostles. As St Gregory says –

She recognized Christ as true God and proclaimed Him with perfect Theology.  

And by Church Tradition, the Samaritan Woman, would leave not only her waterpot, but also her home to preach Christ in Carthage, where under the Neronian persecution she was martyred.

Dear Father, brothers and sisters, let us also like St Svetlana Photini, leave our waterpots behind with which we scoop up the barren water of this world, which can never quench our thirst, and rather drink of the True, Living Water of our Risen Lord. Let us – like her – be people of action and conviction and follow Christ, follow the Truth wherever He leads. As we sing throughout this Paschal season in the words of the third irmos of the canon –

Come, let us drink a new beverage, not miraculously drawn from a barren rock, but the Fountain of Incorruption springing from the tomb of Christ, in Whom we are strengthened.

Christ is Risen!