Sunday of the Samaritan Woman
Today’s Gospel reading is unique within the entire Paschal season, in that there is no miracle here related to our Lord’s resurrection; there’s nothing in this episode to link it, directly or indirectly, with Pascha. The reason for this Sunday being placed at this time—and for this gospel being read—is one of remarkable liturgical subtlety: this past Wednesday on our church calendar is that very unusual feast which we call Mid-Pentecost, which marks the exact halfway point between Pascha and Pentecost, and it’s more than just marking time. In Chapter 7 of John’s Gospel, we read about Jesus going up to the Temple in Jerusalem “in the middle of the feast.” The feast being referred to is the Feast of Tabernacles, which was a Jewish agricultural feast. In this same chapter, we are told that “Jesus, on the last and greatest day of the feast, stood up in the Temple and cried out, ‘If any man thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the Scripture says, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.’ But he spoke of the Spirit which those who believe in him were to receive.” And here is where the link to the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman occurs, because our Lord says the exact same thing to her: “He who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks of the water I shall give, will never thirst again; for the water I shall give will become in him a fountain, springing up into everlasting life.”
This week of Mid-Pentecost, culminating in the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, leads us to Jacob’s Well, where Jesus announces for the first time the doctrine of Baptism, the sacrament of Water and the Spirit; which, incidentally, is what the whole Paschal cycle is about. Our Lord’s resurrection from the dead and his ascension into heaven—which we will celebrate less than two weeks—opened the gates of heaven and made salvation possible for us; and the feast of Pentecost, which ends the Paschal season, commemorates our Lord sending his Holy Spirit, which makes this sacrament of Baptism work in the first place. By receiving the Holy Mysteries of Baptism and Chrismation, we receive the same Spirit that Jesus gave to the Apostles in the upper room in the form of tongues of fire. Hence, we become a part of the body of Christ and heirs to the Kingdom of Heaven.
This Gospel reading is probably the earliest version of the whole concept of the water cooler at work – the place where people gather, talk, gossip, laugh, and cry. This well outside of the town was the source of life, socially and physically.
As this reading unfolds today, we get the impression that the Samaritan Woman is an interesting character. She’s a feisty and self confidant woman, and you can hear it in her conversation with Jesus. She had no idea who she was addressing, and frankly, it didn’t matter to her.
To set the scene, it was about noon in the hot middle-east sun. Jesus and his Disciples were traveling on their way to Galilee, ministering to the people, working miracles of healing the sick, the blind, and the lame. Jesus, sitting at the well, thirsty, hot and tired, noticed this particular woman approaching the well, and tells her, “Give me a drink.” This is unusual, for even today, observant Jews wouldn’t speak to any woman who was a stranger to them. That Jesus said anything to her is extraordinary, considering the animosity between Samaritans and Jews.
You can just feel the tension as the woman responds, “You talkin’ to me? Who are you to tell me anything? You’re a Jew. Jews don’t deal with Samaritans.” Indeed she was right, for Jews and Samaritans were like the early Hatfields and McCoys – they mixed like oil and water.
Jesus remained unfazed by this woman’s small tirade. He calmly responded that if she only knew who was asking, she would instead be asking for living water. Her response back to Him was incredulous: “Sir, you have no bucket and short arms; how then do you have living water to give me? Are you greater than our father Jacob who created this well ages ago and drank, and supplied to all of his family and his flocks?” In other words, she’s asking him, “Just who are you, and who do you think you are?”
Jesus still remains amused by her bristling reaction and ranting, and tells her, “The water from this well will keep you thirsty; the water I give will be the water of life” – mayim chayim in Hebrew.
Now this has piqued her curiosity, and she politely requests Jesus to, “Give me this living water so I won’t need to draw from this well ever again.” She is starting to grasp the concept that Jesus is not some ordinary shmoe sitting by the well. You can hear how her tone is changing with Jesus in each exchange of words: she starts with righteous indignation, and has calmed down to a more polite and respectful tone towards Jesus.
Jesus understood all of this as it was taking place; remember, in His divinity, he knew all about this woman from the very moment she approached the well. He saw all of her wretched sinfulness in his capacity as the Saviour, and used this opportunity to teach her a valuable lesson. He tells her, “Go get your husband and bring him back if you want this living water.” Once again, she shot back at him, “I don’t have a husband,” and Jesus seized this moment to reel her in for good by telling her, “I know you don’t have a husband. I’ll tell you what else I know – you’ve had five husbands, and the guy you’re shacking up with now isn’t your husband either.” And in true argument form, she immediately changes the subject. She then tells Jesus, “You must be a prophet! Our fathers have worshipped on this mountain for ages, but you Jews say Jerusalem is the place to worship.” Now Jesus responds to her by frankly telling her, “The time is coming when you will worship the Father, but it will be neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You don’t know anything about salvation – that’s our business. Now is the time for worship of the Father in Spirit and Truth, for that is who God chooses to serve Him, for God is Spirit and Truth.”
Now the Samaritan woman shows herself to be somewhat knowledgeable about the concept of salvation, for she tells Jesus, “This Messiah to come, the one they the Christ, the anointed one, He will tell us everything.” Jesus then gives her the big payoff by telling her, “That person is me.”
Such perfect timing! At that very moment, the Disciples show up and see Jesus in the midst of this conversation with the woman, and ask him bluntly, “Why are you even talking to her?” This gives the woman the opportunity to head back to town to tell everyone “Come see a man who told me my life story! A stranger who knows everything – certainly he must be the Christ!?”
The Samaritan Woman is now talking like a religious zealot – a far cry from her lifestyle that the townspeople all know about. They all know her past, and her current living situation; that is no surprise to them. For her to tell them that a stranger relayed everything about her, warts and all, was of interest to the people, and so they indeed followed her back to meet Jesus. In meeting him, they knew in their hearts that Jesus truly is the Messiah. And in their new found communion with Him, they begged Him to stay with them for an additional two days.
What can we learn from this Gospel lesson today, my brothers and sisters? The Samaritan Woman had a gradual entrance into the Kingdom of God. She began her journey away from her sinful ways as an arrogant and seemingly uninformed person. Her arrogance soon turned into politeness and respectfulness, even though she didn’t totally agree with what she was hearing. However, she allowed her heart to open and let the Holy Spirit enlighten her towards an understanding of salvation. The joy in her heart from realizing that the Messiah was truly present, just as promised, caused her to run to share the Good News with others, who, in turn, were also enlightened by the same Spirit to seek out Jesus, and chose to follow him.
So there’s a lot of theological depth in this Sunday of the Samaritan Woman which goes a lot deeper than the scolding that our Lord gives the woman at the well because of her immoral life. Normally, our Lord tells his own disciples not to preach to the Samaritans because they’re not worthy of it – going back to the religious tensions between them – the Hatfields and McCoys. It would be like Yankee fans and Red Sox fans peacefully co existing. Our Lord breaks his own rule here; as a result, the woman goes and tells other Samaritans about him; and the Gospel ends with many of them becoming converts to the faith. And when we celebrate the Ascension, we will hear our Lord say what? “Go forth and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” thus giving our blessed Orthodox Church its missionary mandate. And this is where that rather awkward middle section of this Gospel comes into play that I didn’t mention earlier: when the Apostles return from their shopping trip in town, they offer our Lord something to eat; and he refuses, saying that his food is to do the will of his Father. What’s the will of his Father? To teach all the nations. They don’t understand what he’s talking about, as usual, so he gives them this beautiful speech about how they will reap the bounties of what they did not sew, and gather a harvest they did not plant. They couldn’t have planted it because they didn’t die on the cross and rise from the dead; but they will, as the first bishops of the Church, gather the harvest of the countless souls who will be baptized and saved as a result.
What does all this mean? It means that what we have received as Orthodox Christians we must pass on to everyone we meet. Spreading the Gospel is not a choice, and baptism is not an option. The Church exists to spread the Gospel and extend itself to every nation on earth, because without the Gospel one does not know the truth, and without baptism one cannot be saved. That is very easy to forget in today’s so called modern age of celebrating diversity and respecting everyone’s religious sensibilities; and it seems, sometimes, that even priests and bishops and other leaders in the Church are just a little too anxious about not offending people who don’t share our faith. But the Gospel is quite clear; and our duty is quite plain. If we do not teach all nations—if we do not baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit—then we have failed to bring them the salvation that our Lord died on the cross to provide. We, then, become guilty of making our Lord’s death and resurrection irrelevant.
Did our Lord insult the woman at the well and scold her for her immoral life because he wanted to offend her? No. Jesus did what He did because he wanted to save her. Whether he succeeded we don’t know for sure. Probably he did; because we know she brought others to meet him, and they were converted; and we can be sure that counted in her favor. The question is, how many others have we brought to our Lord? It’s never too late to bring someone else to church; your act of kindness just may be the inroads towards their salvation. That, my brothers and sisters, is something to think about, and is my prayer for all of us this day as we journey on as Disciples of Christ. Amen.