The Gospel for today from the fourth chapter of the Gospel of St John is full of surprises for the Samaritan woman at the well. Let’s try to understand those surprises and see if they have any meaning for us today.
In Church Tradition, the Samaritan woman at the well was baptised after the resurrection as Photini, meaning “the enlightened one.” Her life was quite remarkable both before she met Jesus Christ and afterwards. When she met Jesus Christ, and He asked her for a drink of water, she immediately challenged Him with the words in the Gospel reading: “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” Her surprise was caused by the cultural practice that Jews did not speak with Samaritans, who believed in the God of Israel, but only accepted the first five books of the Old Testament and worshipped on Mount Gerazim in Samaria (not in Jerusalem). What is striking is that the apostles when they returned to the well to find Jesus Christ talking with a Samaritan woman were afraid to ask Him anything, but St Photini immediately questioned Jesus Christ and sought to understand Him.
St Photini was not only honest, but she was a person who made big decisions very quickly. Having been surprised that Jesus Christ would chat with her, St Photini was even more surprised when He told her important events from her past life, and that He had the power to give her “living water.” Immediately, she asks for this “living water,” and then goes back to the near-by city and says to the men, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?”
Later, after the Resurrection, St Photini draws to Christ her five sisters, two sons, the Emperor Nero’s daughter, Domnina, and many others. She is one of the outstanding evangelists of the first century, destined to be martyred by the Roman emperor Nero about 66 AD. St Augustine points out that St Photini “comes from strangers,”—that is, from Samaritans, just as the Church will be built up by strangers—Gentiles, non-Jews. Therefore, writes St Augustine, “In that woman [St Photini] let us hear ourselves, and in her acknowledge ourselves and in her give thanks to God for ourselves.”
To me, that’s quite a challenge—to hear myself, to acknowledge myself and to give thanks to God for myself. I think I hear myself—I certainly talk enough; and I hope I have learned to listen to myself and to others. I hope that I acknowledge myself—that is, I accept myself as I am, with various strengths and weaknesses, as well as the ability to experience change in my ideas and feelings. But to give thanks to God for myself? That is not something I practice every day. Should I? Should you hear yourself, acknowledge yourself and give thanks to God for yourself? That’s up to you, but I think I see what St Augustine is saying about the Samaritan woman. She is not only honest and open, but she knows who she is, what her strengths and weaknesses are; and she is grateful for this opportunity to meet this strange man whom she immediately recognises as Christ.
St Ephrem the Syrian says of both Our Lord and St Photini, “whoever stands in the truth will not be upset.” I think that’s what St Augustine is urging us to do in relation to ourselves—“to stand in the truth,” to hear ourselves, to acknowledge ourselves—that is, to know ourselves—and especially to know that God has created each of us. Therefore, it is right for each of us to give thanks to Him for our presence today on earth.
Now, this experience of “standing in the truth” is not a sudden inspiration, a flash of light, a new way of living that is suddenly thrust upon us. St John Chrysostom reminds us, and I quote: “See how the [Samaritan] woman is led step by step to a higher understanding [of life and of Christ]. First, she thought Jesus was some lax Jew who was [disobeying] the law [by talking to her]…. Then, when she heard about the living water, she thought it meant material water. Afterwards, she understands it as spoken spiritually and believes that it can take away thirst. However, she does not yet know what it is, only understanding that it was superior to material things” [end of quote]. If we wish to “stand in the truth,” we too have to grow slowly in our understanding of our own lives and of our understanding of Christ. We can still see “material things” and make them part of our lives, but we also need to learn to see and live with spiritual things.
St Maximus of Turin, a fourth century Orthodox bishop and outstanding preacher, points out that the Samaritan woman is so excited by meeting Jesus Christ that she leaves behind her “material thing”—her water pitcher by the well—as set out in John, chapter 4, verse 28, Then, as St Maximus phrases it, “she brings not water but grace back to the city… Sanctified then by Christ, the woman goes back home.” That’s a possibility for each of us. We can begin now to consider the importance of our “Time and Talents Sunday” in September, when we will pray about how to use our time and talents for the Church. To identify and exercise those talents, we may well have to leave behind certain activities, certain possessions, certain ideas that we have at present. Yet as we respond more and more to God’s grace in our lives—more blessings from the Lord—we too, just like St Photini can be “sanctified then by Christ” and go “back home.”
The final words in this sermon should go to St Augustine. He explains precisely what is “the living water” that Christ is urging St Photini to drink. St Augustine preached, and I quote: “Water issuing from a spring is what is commonly called living water. Water collected from rain in pools and cisterns is not called living water. It may have originally flowed from a spring, yet if it collects in some place and is left to stand without any connection to its source, separated, as it were, from the channel of the spring, it is not called ‘living water.’ Water is designated as ‘living’ when it is taken as it flows. This is the kind of water that [Christ offered to the Samaritan woman]” [end of quote]. In our lives today, we too can each “stand in the truth” and then drink this “living water” that Christ offered to St Photini—the experience of a living, growing relationship with Christ.