Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Samaritan Woman encounters Christ at the Well of Jacob

The 3rd Sunday of Lent

When Christ asked the woman of Samaria for water to drink

He had already prepared for her the gift of faith.

In his thirst to receive her faith

He awakened in her heart the fire of the Father’s love.

(Preface for the Third Sunday of Lent)

For those who may have grown up being told to 

never discuss politics, sex, or religion, had 

obviously never heard today’s Gospel. 

And I guess Jesus didn't get the memo either!

The Samaritan Woman

Her world was one of utter grief. She knew no one loved her. No one needed to remind her. She could hear the wicked tongues. She had heard the words slung at her for years now: Unwanted, abandoned, worthless, discard, disgrace, disordered, sinner, strumpet. And others. She had been shunned. She saw the hard stares and judgmental glances, she heard the whisper campaign (often spoken loudly!) And she became rough and tough in her self-preservation as she learned to keep all her pain inside.

Everybody knew her story. That was the problem. They thought they knew her story. But even she didn't know who she was, so how could the strangers and so-called friends and neighbors who judged her so harshly know her?

Every day she came for water – alone. She wasn't welcome at the well in her own village. No. She couldn't go there in the cool of the day. The beautiful women had that well covered. 

Instead she had to trudge her way out to Jacob’s well – every day, and at the hottest time of the day. She had no companions for camaraderie or safety either. A permanent outcast, like a broken water jar, cast out.

The Samaritans were half-breeds; half Jew and half something else. She also was a WOMAN, a second class citizen if that. She already had two strikes against her: half breed and a woman. Then add to the mix her marital status, and you have a despised woman.

Who knows what kind of family life she had. And her understanding of theology or faith is based on hearsay, not even knowing if her prayers were being heard by a God she did not really know.   

Her life had taken a sad turn through a series of unfortunate, broken relationships. And after five marriages – and who knows if one or more of her husbands had died – or if they all ended in divorce – she was now living with a new lover, not even bothering with marriage this time – not knowing not how to make sense of her life – or if she should even care.

What was she thinking as she trudged up the hill to fetch water like she did so many times before? Was she thinking of her hungry children and how they were the butt of jokes because of her mistakes and misfortune? Oh, the angst in her heart as she made her way in the burning heat.

And her thirst – a thirst very real – her mind turned to the psalms that she had heard Jewish pilgrims praying as they made their way to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover: 
O God, you are my God, for you I long; for you my soul is thirsting. My body pines for you like a dry, weary land without water” (Ps 63:2-3).
Like the deer that yearns for running streams, so my soul is yearnign for you, my God. My soul is thirsting for God...O when can I enter and see the face of God?" (Ps 42:2-3).
One may well wonder if she had prayed such a prayer.

[Little did she know that she would soon be entering the presence of Christ Jesus and behold the face of God].

All of her earthly pursuits still left her thirsting.

Whether it was her love of worldly pleasures:  donning the finest clothes; listening to the best music, seeking entertainment; enjoying a lover’s embrace; tasting the finest foods and choicest wines, or charming others with her sweet aromatic nard, thrilling to with the sense of smell—all the sensual delights still left her longing for still more – something – or someone.

Yet here she stood.

An empty water jar.

Ready to be filled.

But deep down, she knew she had ONE HOPE remaining. There is one belief she has clung to among all of her personal failures, rejection and loneliness and shame, through her darkest hours of the darkest of days, the hope that God had not abandoned her: She says: “I know there is a Messiah coming.”

This one belief has sustained her.

It is the one truth that had not abandoned her.

“If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (Psalm 95.7b-8a).

Then she sees a man. She may have thought, “That’s all I need. Another man.”

And he asks her a favor. “Give me a 

That’s what they all say.

She snaps back. 

“You’re a Jew. And a Man. I’m a Samaritan. And a Woman. Don’t you get it? There are societal and political rules!

“Did you come down from heaven or what? You don’t even have a bucket. What are you doing here in the middle of the day?”

Christ sees a way to her heart.

Jesus took the woman where she was; 

he did not judge her even though she comes on a little strong, doesn't she?

Jesus was in need. He allowed her to be generous by asking for a drink.

It was noon.

He said: "I thirst."

Jesus listened to her. He sensed her frustration with life, unlike
the others of her village who had ostracized her. He sought her generosity.

Perhaps this was the first time in a very long 
time that anyone—especially a stranger—a 
Jewish stranger—showed her some semblance of respect and compassion for her!

Jesus asked her for a favor. This is not to be 

confused with someone barking orders at her. “Woman, get me my dinner! Get me my drink!” Or even her children who were constantly tugging at her apron or challenging her as a single mother.


This was a voice of love.

A voice of compassion.

A voice of grace.

“If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” 

This was a one on one encounter, one human person to another.

He did not condemn.

He listened.

He gave her room to act generously – for she still had that capacity for kindness buried deep within her tough outer shell.

“Give me a drink,” He says.

“Don’t you know what kind of a person I am?” she says. “You’ll be contaminated.”

“I’ll take that risk. Besides, if you knew the gift of God, and who it is speaking to you, then you would have asked him for a drink.”

“Ha! Sir, you don’t even have a bucket.”

“The water I will give will become a living spring of eternal life!”

“Sir, give me some of that water.”

Jesus is creating a relationship.

He is breaking down the walls of division.

“If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (Psalm 95.7b-8a).

"Christ and the Samaritan woman at the well" by Angelica Kauffman, 1796.

Then Jesus changes the tone of the conversation.

He says: “Go, call your husband.”

At these words that she is stunned.

She experiences an epiphany.

She suddenly caught sight of herself!

Were these failed human relationships a pathetic attempt to fill her life with what only God could provide?

She admits: “I have no husband. I have no one.”

The woman suddenly saw herself as she was.
Jesus replies: “What you have said is true. You have answered honestly.”

To which she exclaims: “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet!”

Is this a distraction, a clever way to change the subject?

I wouldn't be so quick to judge.

This woman is no dummy.

Notice that she didn't lash out at Christ or make any excuses when He told her she had five husbands and a current live-in lover.

In her moment of recognition that Jesus identifies her broken human relationships, she changes the subject to her broken relationship with God.

She then asks where she is to worship God. Was she trying to find the true God? Seeking a way to offer a sacrifice of praise in the messiness of her tangled life?

She says, “We Samaritans worship here, but you Jews in Jerusalem. Which is true?”

Where can I find God? Where can I faithfully offer a sacrifice of praise?”

Yes, she is thirsty, thirsting for truth.  

“Where can I offer right worship and get right with God?”

“I know there is a Messiah coming. When he comes, he will tell us everything.”

Jesus replied, “I who am speaking to you; I am he.”

“If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (Psalm 95.7b-8a).

Jesus is the true Temple of God.

Christ Jesus touched upon the real source of all her heartache.

He knew her through and through.

Perhaps he was the first man in her life who truly loved her. Not asking her to be someone she was not, but accepting her as she was, taking her where she was, sin and all, yet inviting her to grow in grace and faith.

"Christ and the Samaritan Woman" by Stefano Erardi; National Museum of Fine Arts; Valletta; Malta

The disciples show up at this point and she leaves her water jar and runs to her village.

She then tells everyone: “Come see the one who told me everything I ever did.”

The townspeople likely said, “So what? Everybody knows what you’ve done. Big deal! Who cares if one more man knows it?”

The townsfolk had never given her an opportunity for conversion; they had never held out love that was unconditional and unearned.

They couldn’t see beyond mere physical appearances or the twitter of gossip.

They never took the time welcomed her in a dialogue that would open her heart or quench her thirst for belonging.

To them she was always the Bad Samaritan.

But Jesus the Christ saw through all of that false compassion of gossip and asked for a drink of water.

“I thirst.”

“If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”

Jesus’ willingness to talk to her made her want to open up.

By Jesus accepting her, He revealed her deeper self to herself. He loved her for who she was and all that she could be.

She then received the waters of life, the life of Christ!
In His thirst to receive her faith

He awakened in her heart the fire of the Father’s love.
And now she was giving LIFE to others – to her community – the very community that had shunned her. 

Because it didn't matter anymore; her life was an open book anyway. Now it was written with the Grace of God and the Waters of Life!

Therefore what started out as a one on one encounter ends up as an entire community celebration of saint and sinner, men and women, Samaritan and Jew breaking bread together, and sharing the good news of Christ’s love.

What if we were to approach each person we encounter with such care and kindness and compassion and patience?

Each one of us is the woman at the well. Christ has encountered us and given us freely of the life-giving waters!  

Will we drop our water jars and seek out others, sharing what Christ has done for each of us here?

If she can do it, then so can you and I.

“If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (Psalm 95.7b-8a).

Samaritan Woman by Paolo Veronese 

Saint Photini / Photina 

Apostle (one who is sent) 
Evangelist (messenger of Good News)

Additional Note

According to Greek tradition, Photiona / Photina / Photini  was the Samaritan woman with whom Jesus spoke at the well as was recounted in the Gospel of St. John, chapter four. Deeply moved by the experience, she took to preaching the Gospel, received imprisonment, and was finally martyred at Carthage. Another tradition states that Photina was put to death in Rome after converting the daughter of Emperor Nero and one hundred of her servants. She supposedly died in Rome with her sons Joseph and Victor, along with several other Christians, including Sebastian, Photius, Parasceve, Photis, Cyriaca, and Victor. They were perhaps included in the Roman Martyrology by Cardinal Cesare Baronius owing to the widely held view that the head of Photina was preserved in the church of St. Paul's Outside the Walls in Rome.

Here is an article on her life from SAINT LOUIS ABBEY


You may not have heard that the Samaritan woman whom Jesus encountered at Jacob’s well is venerated as a saint in the Christian East by both Catholics and Orthodox. She is called St. Photina by the Greeks and Svetlana by the Russians. So I will refer to this famous woman of Samaria as Photina. Why Photina? Because phos in Greek means “light”, and Photina was one whom Christ enlightened and to whom he promised the gift of the Holy Spirit. Remember that one of the names of baptism is enlightenment or 
illumination because in the baptismal water we have received Christ who is the Light of the World (Jn 8.12) and who said, “he who follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (Jn 8.12). And so St. Paul says to the Ephesians, “once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light” (Eph. 5.8). Photina  at the well is an icon of each of us, thirsting for the living water and finding it at last in Christ.

But then, what precisely is this living water that we receive in baptism? The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that the Holy Spirit is the living water “welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4.14) in the heart that prays. It is he who teaches us to accept it [the living water] at its source: Christ. Indeed, in the Christian life, there are several wellsprings where Christ awaits us to enable us to drink of the Holy Spirit (CCC 2652).

But Photina, as of yet, knows nothing of this. She goes to the well in the heat of the day, seeking ordinary water for drinking and washing. Her timing is unusual: the women would generally have gone to fetch water in the cool of the morning or the evening, so as to avoid the heat. From what our Lord tells of Photina’s life, perhaps her company would not have been welcomed among respectable Samaritan women, so she went at a time when she would be unlikely to have any awkward encounters. Little did she know! 

When she went there to draw water from Jacob’s well, Jesus was sitting there; his disciples had gone to the city to buy food. Jesus asked her for a drink of water. The Catechism says that this exchange is a living icon of mystery of divine grace, for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, is revealed beside the well where we come seeking water: there, Christ comes to meet every human being. It is he who first seeks us and asks us for a drink. Jesus thirsts; his asking arises from the depths of God’s desire for us. Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him. “You would have asked him, and he would have given you living water (Jn 4.10) (CCC 2560)… Prayer is the response of faith to the free promise of salvation and also a response of love to the thirst of the only Son of God (CCC 2561).

Photina initially misunderstands the distinction that Jesus has made between the well water and the living water that he offers her: she supposes that Jesus means the running water of some stream. Her Samaritan pride is roused by the claim on the part of an unknown Jew that he could produce flowing water when even the patriarch Jacob had been obliged to dig a deep well to provide water for his family. And yet, one senses a thaw in her attitude toward Jesus: instead of calling him merely “you, a Jew,” she recalls that she and Jesus are alike descended from Jacob, and she addresses him respectfully as “sir”—in Greek, kurios, the word that when addressed to God we translate as “Lord.” 

Now for a thirsty man to ask a drink of water seems ordinary enough to us, but it was not so to Jesus or to Photina. Jews and Samaritans regarded exchanges of this sort as ritually unclean and as a breach of communal taboos. And yet, the Jews and the Samaritans were related: the Samaritans were a mixed race, descended from both northern Israelites and Assyrian colonists (2 Kings 17). The Jews consequently regarded the Samaritans as halfbreeds and heretics. When the Jews returned from their exile in Babylon, they rebuilt their Temple; the Samaritans had offered to help rebuild it, and had been rebuffed (Ezra 4.1-6). So the Samaritans built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim. The schism between Jew and Samaritan had all the bitterness of a family quarrel.

Jesus deliberately ignores this separation because there is a deeper issue at the root of the estrangement between Jew and Samaritan: for then, as now, there can only be social and structural sin because there is first personal sin. The separation that matters is the separation between the all-holy God and sinful humanity, reflected in the encounter between Jesus and this woman in particular. Jesus then lays bare the disorder of her personal life and her need for redemption. Photina is awestruck that Jesus knows things that he could not possibly have known by any merely human means. Notice that she has gone from calling Jesus “you, a Jew,” to addressing him as “Sir,” and now to honoring him as a prophet of God. The direction of the conversation begins to un-nerve her, and she tries to change the subject to the religious controversy between the Jews and the Samaritans.

And what does Jesus say? He minces no words in rejecting the error of the Samaritans and says that “you worship what you do not know, for salvation is from the Jews” (Jn 4.22): our Savior’s love is universal and yet his love inevitably excludes and condemns error, for there is salvation only in the truth; error impedes grace and therefore impedes salvation. Right doctrine, right worship, and right relations with our neighbor are ultimately inseparable. Photina has actually come to the heart of the matter. In the face of our need for redemption from the captivity of sin and error, we really do need to know how God is rightly to be worshiped and glorified; for in Christ Jesus, the glorification of the Father and our own salvation are ultimately one and the same thing. 

As St. Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” Photina then expresses her hope in the Messiah, who will put all the pieces together. Jesus replies to her, “I who speak to you am he” (Jn 4.27). This is the crucial moment, the breakthrough. Christ reveals himself as the one in whom the worship of the Father in spirit and truth is accomplished: for Christ is the Truth, and he gives the Spirit. The early Church Father St. Basil explains it this way: By truth, Christ clearly meant himself. If we say that worship offered in the Son (the Truth) is worship in the Father’s image, we can say the same about worship offered in the Spirit since the Spirit in himself reveals the divinity of the Lord….Light cannot be separated from what it makes visible, and it is impossible for you to recognize Christ, the image of the invisible God unless the Holy Spirit enlightens you… It is fitting that when we see Christ, the brightness of God’s glory, it is always through the illumination of the Spirit (St. Basil, On the Holy Spirit, 97).

Already, amid the bitter religious and political antagonism between Jew and Samaritan, there is the beginning of reconciliation through Christ’s mediation. Photina spreads the news of Jesus to her countrymen; and many of them come to believe in Jesus and welcome him, the Jewish messiah, into their homes: no longer an enemy and a stranger but a Savior.

According to a pious tradition, St. Photina continued her missionary work after the Lord’s death and resurrection and was said to have died a martyr’s death in Rome: and this seems eminently fitting and likely. Once she had known the gift of God and who it was that spoke to her at the well, how could she be content to leave others to worship in error what they did not know, or to languish in the darkness of sin, as she had once done? How could she not want all people to receive the living water? That also should be our own attitude—we who by baptism have received the grace to worship in Spirit and in Truth in this Eucharistic Sacrifice. Hear, then, the Savior’s words: “Freely you have received, freely give” (Mt 10.8): the missionary spirit flows out of our adoration of the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit.

In the Byzantine liturgy, the faithful pray in these words that express the gift of God that St. Photina and all of us have received:

We have seen the true light;
We have received the heavenly Spirit;
We have found the true faith,
worshiping the undivided Trinity,
for the Trinity has saved us.

Illuminated by the Holy Spirit, All-Glorious One,
from Christ the Savior you drank the water of salvation,
With open hand you give it to those who thirst.
Great-Martyr Photini, Equal-to-the-Apostles,
pray to Christ for the salvation of our souls.

O Almighty Saviour, 
Who did pour forth water for the Hebrews from a solid rock:
You did come to the Land of Samaria, and addressed a woman,
whom You did attract to faith in You,
and she has now attained life in the heavens everlastingly.