“Who do you think you are? The Messiah?”
Acts 11:19-26, 29-30; John 4:5-42.
The Fifth Paschal Sunday, known as The Sunday of the Samaritan Woman.
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12:09 PM 5/22/2011 — This passage, about the woman at the well in Samaria, is so rich in meaning and so full of hidden innuendoes that it’s no wonder the Fathers of the Church never seem to tire of talking about it. It has everything in it, if you only know where to look: it has religion, it has politics, it has morality, it has history. We can’t touch on all or even half of what this passage means. But we can say a few things, and they require us to know something about the place and the time.
Samaria is part of the old upper kingdom of Israel. The original twelve tribes of Israel suffered a kind of civil war, with the largest and most powerful of them, the tribe of Judah, separating from the rest and moving south, and building a capitol at the old village of Jerusalem. The remaining tribes stayed in the North; they had no capitol, they had no government; they called themselves the kingdom of Israel, but had no unity, and it wasn’t too long before they were conqured—by the Syrians, by the Babylonians, by all kinds of people—the result being that their religion and culture became polluted. They considered themselves Jews; but the Judeans did not recognize them as such. The Judeans had built a Temple in Jerusalem, but they wouldn’t let the Israelites of the old upper kingdom go there; so they built their own temple on the mountain of Gerizim, near the ancient city of Sychar, in the region known as Samaria; and before too long, they started referring to themselves as Samaritans, at which point the Judeans co-opted the title of Israelite for themselves alone. And while the Samaritans never stopped thinking of themselves as true Jews, the Judeans regarded them as little more than pious pagans. Remember that Jesus, himself, in Matthew’s Gospel, when he first sends the disciples out to preach, tells them not to preach to the Samaritans.
How he ends up in Samaria is not entirely clear. It may have been nothing more than the fact that passing through Samaria was the quickest path for them to get to Jerusalem from where they were. In any case, they end up stopping at a very holy place to the Samaritans—and to the Jews as well—near the city of Sychar. It was a plot of land that Jacob had given to his son, the patriarch Joseph, whose exploits we can read about in the book of Genesis. Jacob had dug a well there with his own hands. Jesus sends the disciples into town to buy some food, and is sitting on the wall of the well when this woman comes by to get some water. We don’t know why he’s interested in her, especially since he’s already told his own disciples not to the bother with the Samaritans; but for some reason he’s interested, and he asks her for some water. He can already see that she is steeped in sin. How? Simple. He’s God. He can see everything. And you can almost hear in her words the political and religious animosity that existed at the time between the Jews and the Samaritans. She wants to know what he’s doing there, and why she should bother herself to draw water from the holy well of Jacob to give a drink to a Jew. It’s the very first instance of anti-Semitism in the Gospel. But Jesus is not about to be distracted from what really interests him here, which is the state of her wretched soul. He asks to see her husband, knowing full well that, not only has she married and subsequently dumped five husbands, but is now living with someone to whom she isn’t married. She’s been a busy girl. Jesus exposes all this right to her face; and when she realizes this, she tires to derail him by engaging him in a theological debate about temple worship. And she starts talking about how the Jews have their temple in Jerusalem and the Samaritans have theirs on Mt. Gerizim, blah, blah, blah, as if to say, “OK, holy man, let’s see how much you really know.” But Jesus doesn’t fall for it. He’s seen this before. He’s seen this kind of behavior in the Pharisees: always nit-picking about theological details while their souls are blackened with sin. Now, here’s this woman, thinking that she’s so clever engaging our Lord in a discussion of liturgical minutiae, without making an attempt to even pretend to live a good, decent, moral life. Of course, our Lord doesn’t buy this; and when she asks him directly in which temple is the right one to worship, he’s had enough. And he tells her that it’s not a question of where one worships—Jerusalem or Gerizim or Disneyland, it doesn’t matter—what’s important is that you worship in spirit and in truth. And I can almost picture our Lord pointing his finger right at her face when he says the word “truth,” as if to say, “Look into yourself, honey, because you’re not worthy to worship God anywhere.”
Finally, this woman realizes that she’s being lectured to, and she doesn’t like it. So, she lashes out at him with this line about the Messiah: “...we know that he is coming, and when he does he will reveal all things....” Unfortunately, our English translation doesn't transmit the sarcasm of her words. What she’s really saying to him is, “Who do you think you are? The Messiah?” And he looks at her and says, “Yes!” And the only reason she doesn’t burst out laughing is because she knows it’s true, otherwise how would he have known about the revolving door into her bedroom. And here, at this point, is where her conversion begins. He slaps her hard: he exposes before her own eyes the ugliness of her sins, and it makes her very angry. Guilty people are like that. They spend 80% of their energy trying to convince everyone how innocent they are, and the remaining 20% trying to convince themselves. And when someone doesn’t let them get away with it, they get angry. She’s angry. But she gets over it. She has to, because our Lord doesn’t leave her any escape. And once she gets over it she begins to realize that it’s time to make some changes in her life.
Now, we don’t know what happened to the Samaritan woman. Our Byzantine Tradition gives her a name, Photina, and we have a feast dedicated to her on our calendar; but we don’t really know for sure. We would like to think that her conversion was complete and that she became a disciple of Jesus, but we don’t know that. We do know—because we just read it in the Gospel—that she went and told others about him, and that some of them did become disciples, and that’s a good sign. But the important question is not what happened ultimately to her, but what’s happening to us. We’re not likely to meet Jesus sitting next to a water fountain. But we do meet him every day in the Scriptures, in the Holy Mysteries (the Sacraments), in our own daily prayers. He may not confront us as forcefully as he confronted the Samaritan woman; his confrontation of us is much more subtle. Sometimes it’s through a sermon, or something we read, or through the example of another, or maybe just some little pang of guilt that we try to dismiss but can’t. But whatever it is, we shouldn’t try to fight it. It may just be our Lord trying to make a point.
Father Michael Venditti