Rev. Fr. Dimitrios J. Antokas is the Presiding Priest at St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Bethesda, Maryland.
Continuing the post-Paschal themes of healing, transformation and belief in the risen Christ, this Sunday we visit John 4:5-42, wherein we hear of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman (St. Photini) at the well. In this passage, Jesus talks more to this one woman than in any other individual conversation He has anywhere In the New Testament. This is amazing since He was speaking to her as an unrelated, unaccompanied woman, violating the religious and cultural norms of His day.
She was an outsider, a Samaritan, an outcast/heretic with whom no self-respecting Jew would talk or even acknowledge. She apparently had a reputation for immoral sexual behavior as well—having had five husbands and was currently living with a man who was not her spouse. St. John’s is the only Gospel that contains this powerful story, and its power comes not from Jesus uncovering her past or exposing her immorality. It comes, rather, from His response to her: not chastening her or calling her to account, not scolding her, or blaming her, however much He may have been within His rights as a Jewish Rabbi to do so.
Rather, Jesus names and understands her circumstances. He knows her in some mysterious intimate way that causes her to respond positively and moves her to call Jesus a “prophet” and ultimately to change her life. In the book Mark, Mutuality, and Mental Health: Encounters with Jesus, theologian Simon Mainwaring writes of the power of “mutual encounters.” He notes: “Encounters of relational power are truly mutual encounters, where each person is affected by the relational power of the other.”
In making the Samaritan woman feel safe enough to admit and own her past, Jesus sows the seeds of transformation in her and inspires her to leave her empty jug behind to go and proclaim “the man who told me everything I have ever done.” St. John Chrysostom notes in his commentary on the passage: “See how the Samaritan woman is led, step by step, to a higher understanding of life and of Christ.”
For his part in this mutual exchange, Jesus is so drawn into her plight and undoubtedly feels her spiritual and internal anguish, that He responds in kind. The woman says: “I know that the Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when He comes, he will show us all things.” Jesus responds “I, who speak to you, am He.”
The Lord reveals the most intimate part of who He is—His anointment, His identity as the eternal deliverer, the very essence of His heart. St. Chrysostom continues: “O great and paradoxical wonder! He did not reveal Himself to many of the Apostles, but to this woman He reveals Himself most clearly. He who is worshipped by the Angels, converses with a harlot. He who rules together with the Father eternally, speaks one-on-one with this wayward woman and changes her.”
This is power of the Divine encounter—we meet God, God meets us, we see and sense in each other safety, vulnerability, goodness and love. As a result, each reaches out to the other in trust and surrender – the first movements in the “praxis of mutuality.” While there are many lessons in todays Gospel passage, three come to mind relating to the above mutual relationship between ourselves the Christ of God.
Being Fully Known is Uncomfortable
The prospect of being totally open with others frightens us. Revealing ourselves, even to someone we trust, is unnerving. It feels unsafe. It feels like a great risk. Fr. Steven Domienik describes this perfectly: “We like to keep our secrets and fantasies hidden—whether harmful or not. We can so easily feel exposed and shamed if we reveal or share that inner hiding place. We even prefer to hold our past in private memory and only disclose it at our personal discretion.”
John’s Gospel passage regarding the Samaritan woman tells us that, although God’s knowledge of us is perfect and complete, its purpose is different than what we fear most. The mutuality that Jesus offered to the woman was not intended to condemn but to hold open the potential for deeper self-awareness and change.
There is an outsider in all of us, a Samaritan woman, a secret-keeper, even, perhaps, an outcast. Like the woman, we are not what we should be and not what we wish we were. Jesus pierces that unknown self, calls us out of hiding and does it all through his great mercy. This means that we, like the woman from Samaria, need to enter that mutuality, face to face, truth to truth, and not fear that the Lord will judge or condemn us.
Yes, He will challenge us, but not scold us. He will teach us, but not dismiss us. She revealed her life and “owned” her sins and mistakes. Despite the obstacles, with her checkered past, she became a glorious saint, Equal-to-the-Apostles, and ultimately a martyr, all because she engaged Jesus, entered into that mutual giving and taking—yes with risk but without fear. Her secrets lost their power over her and Jesus revealed Himself as the Messiah-Deliverer. Have you ever had that kind of relationship with Jesus? Have you ever totally opened up your heart to Him? Honestly? What kind of face do you see when you look at Jesus?
We Have to Feel the Thirst
In order to enter into that mutuality with Jesus, you and I need to feel our thirst for Him. It was that thirst in his heart and the emptiness in his life that moved St. Augustine to pen those inspirational words: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” (The Confessions) The initial dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman begins by Jesus asking for a drink of water.
He was thirsty. Thirst is a craving for something we need in order to live—water. Yet when He begins to talk about “living water” and water that will forever quench thirst, the woman becomes confused but intrigued. She asks for this living water not only because she doesn’t want to keep going to that well everyday, but because she admits her spiritual thirst while not understanding it. When she opens herself up to Jesus in this Divine dialogue, she realizes that what she has been craving all her life was now sitting there before her, the one who sets free, the thirst-quencher, the man who, against all cultural norms, risked talking to her, a sinful woman.
St. Augustine, once again, describes the “living water”: “Water issuing from a spring is called living water. Water collected from rain in pools and cisterns is not living water. Water that 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, is not living water. Water is living as it is taken as it flows. This is the kind of water Christ offered to the Samaritan woman.” For who or what are you thirsty? What will satisfy your deepest yearning? Like Augustine, is your heart restless, insecure, uncertain? Have you cast yourself upon the Lord, truly and genuinely, to slake that parched thirst? Why are you waiting?
We Cannot Keep It a Secret
St. Maximos of Tours, a 4th century Orthodox bishop and outstanding preacher, points out that the Samaritan woman was so excited by her encounter with Jesus that she leaves behind her water pitcher by the well (John 4:28), then “she brings not water but grace back to the city…sanctified then by Christ, the woman goes back home.” The gift of mutuality that Jesus bestowed, that face-encounter and revelation of soul that she experienced, compelled her to proclaim to any who would listen the soul-changing words of the one “who told me everything I have ever done.”
It became the basis for her transformation, that simple act of mutual revelation and trust. She invited others to come and see for themselves. She told them of the great awakening she had. She witnessed the “power of the Name” of Jesus to heal and satisfy every human yearning and desire. She thus became the first evangelist for Christ in the Gospel of John. There are those in our lives who, like us, thirst for Christ, unbeknown to themselves. They silently wish that someone would enter their lives as did Jesus to the Samaritan woman, to lift that curtain of hiding, confusion, and isolation, and to bring the living water of hope and healing.
If you and I don’t do it, who will bring that water to them? It is not the exclusive task of the clergy. Before the Apostles bore the message, common, ordinary disciples and believers told the story. I challenge you to speak Jesus, to speak your love for Jesus, and what Jesus has done in your life. Even if your only witness is that you too still thirst and still hide behind the veils, speak Jesus to someone in your life. You may, in that mystic moment, satisfy the life-long yearning they have had for Christ and, in effect, say to them, “The rest and peace for which you have been searching, it is Jesus. It is Jesus!”