After the encounter
Homily 359 – 5th Sunday of Pascha (Samaritan Woman)
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
May 26, 2019
Epistle: (23) – Acts 9:32-43
Gospel: (14) – John 5:1-15
Christ is risen! Xristos Voskrese! Xhristos Anesthi! In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God.
Saints are like friends – some move in and out of our lives, some stay with us, and some are best friends that are with us always.
The Samaritan Woman, who we know as Photini in Greek or Svetlana in Slavonic, is one of those saints who has stayed with me, ever since I first heard her story.
We encounter her here, meeting Christ, at an ancient well. There are several important points that allow us to infer things about Photini. First, Christ initiates the conversation.
Regardless of her past – and we’ll talk about that in a moment – regardless of her past, Christ reaches out to her. It is Christ that initiates the encounter. This act set aside the societal norms of that time.
Second, Christ makes statements that lead from the physical to the spiritual. They talk about water, and then Christ speaks of living water – spiritual water.
They talk about the place where they are, and then Christ talks about the place where God is to be worshiped – not at a place, but in spirit and in truth, wherever you might be.
In Jewish life, and even in Samaritan life, the temple was a fixed place. Nothing could replace it – there weren’t two temples. The places that weren’t temples were synagogues.
The worship of God by the priests, the sacrifices and offerings on behalf of the people, took place in the Temple, and no where else.
What Jesus tells Photini, and all of us, is that God is not constrained to a temple. And so, we worship Him now, in this place, joining with the others through the cosmos who worship the true God, and His Only begotten Son, and His Holy Spirit.
But what about her past? The statement about five husbands makes a really complicated case for those of us who live today. The “common wisdom” of our day is that Photini was an immoral woman, perhaps even a sex addict.
Before the 20th century, it was not uncommon for wives to have multiple husbands, and husbands have multiple wives, not because of divorce, but because of death. Many women died in childbirth. Many men died in fighting. Both succumbed to illness.
As you go further back in history, the more common this event became. While it is possible that divorce was there, it is significantly more likely that her husbands had died.
But what of that statement “the one you have now is not your husband?” We do well to recognize that in biblical times, there was an obligation to care for widows and orphans. And that likely, Photini was a widow.
We know she had sons, and sisters. It may in fact be that the “one (she) has now” was one of her sons, because “having” someone did not mean an intimate partner in all cases.
Having someone meant a protector, a patron. The one who cared for her, because as a woman of that day, she had zero ability to care for herself. She had zero standing and zero rights.
And that leads us to the most amazing part of Photini’s story. She isn’t defined by her past, but by the encounter and what she did with that encounter.
She first told her town about this man – and the townspeople thought enough of her to investigate for themselves.
She went on and followed Christ, and the Church’s account of her life tells us that she is called “Evangelist” and “Equal-to-the-Apostles.” The early Fathers spoke of her with admiration and respect.
She was prominent in St. John the Evangelist’s household, and so knew the Mother of God quite well.
She was a missionary after the resurrection. She went to Carthage, in North Africa with one of her sons, and preached Christ to them, as she had preached before to her townspeople in Samaria.
She preached again before Nero in Rome. She wanted to convert Nero, but he was not receptive. She did convert Nero’s daughter, and many in the prison where she and her sisters and sons were held.
Eventually all of them were martyred, lastly Photini herself.
In remembering her this day, in honoring her and holding her up as an example, we are brought to a place of decision for ourselves.
We too have encountered Christ, and we too have been offered the living water which Photini drank.
What will we decide? We can tell everyone what we have found – a man who knows all we have ever done, and yet still loves us.
We can tell everyone with words – and more importantly with actions, as we love everyone as Christ loved them.
That means without judgement, and without reservation, and without conditions.
The bottom line for St. Photini was that nothing else mattered. Nothing else even existed!
Only Christ, risen from the dead.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Christ is Risen!