The Sunday of the Samaritan Woman

I don’t normally do this but I was so struck by the richness of today’s Gospel reading – “a Gospel within the Gospel”, I wanted to share it and a few things which came to me during the reading of it in Liturgy and on the train, as I travelled to Dunblane this morning. First, the reading (a substantial one, detailing the longest recorded conversation between Christ and another person in the New Testament – clearly he spoke at length with many people but this is the one best recorded). 

John 4:5-42

At that time, Jesus came to a city of Samaria, called Sychar, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Jacob’s Well was there, and so Jesus, wearied as He was with his journey, sat down beside the well. It was about the sixth hour.

There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. The Samaritan woman said to Him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked Him and He would have given you living water.” The woman said to Him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to Him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.”

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered Him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.” The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship Him. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to Him, “I know that the Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when He comes, He will show us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am He.”

Just then his disciples came. They marveled that He was talking with a woman, but none said, “What do you wish?” or, “Why are you talking with her?” So the woman left her water jar, and went away into the city and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” They went out of the city and were coming to Him.

Meanwhile the disciples besought Him, saying “Rabbi, eat.” But He said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” So the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought Him food?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me, and to accomplish His work. Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest. He who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour; others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.”

Many Samaritans from that city believed in Him because of the woman’s testimony. “He told me all that I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to Him, they asked Him to stay with them; and He stayed there two days. And many more believed because of His word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard ourselves, and we know that this is indeed Christ the Savior of the world.”

The first paragraph puts the story into context for the largely Jewish audience – this well belongs to Jacob, it is a setting that all would be familiar with: a hot day, a dusty journey and Christ’s humanity is noted: He was weary. We can all picture how a tired, dehydrated traveller on sore feet would relish the opportunity to rest a while and hope to drink some cool water drawn from the depths of a well, where the water would be shaded and fresh.

Christ asks the woman for a drink: she doesn’t give an immediate ‘yes’, the submissive response of a traditional ‘good’ woman. She is shocked – how can a man, a Jew no less, acknowledge her presence and ask her, of all people, for a drink of water? I noted this morning that St Photini was thrice unclean: a woman (and therefore ritually impure at certain times), a Samaritan (to be ignored by the Jews) and even worse, a serial adulteress (Christ certainly knew of her way of life even at this point in their meeting). She is only interested when Christ offers her water which would prevent her thirsting again – I was struck that what she perhaps sees is the opportunity to avoid the daily trudging to and fro from the well, the carrying of a heavy container of water, possibly even the social interaction with others who may have suspected her of immoral behaviour?  This ‘living water’ which Christ promised has been compared to the waters of baptism, of our rebirth. It struck me however that it is much more: it is also the universal water, that encircled the deep and the heavens in the beginning of Creation; it is the waters of the Jordan, where Christ was baptised; it is the sea where Leviathan lurks; it is the water mixed with vinegar on the sponge held to the mouth of crucified Christ. All water is symbolically one, an element of Creation which is, as created by God, essentially good and therefore capable of man’s use in our doxological, eucharistic life. Christ offers her the waters of Baptism as well as (I suspect) the sense of fullness and completion which we experience during Communion, as we take the water mixed with wine.

When she says ‘yes’ (as the Theotokos did before, as we must all do for Christ to live in and transform us), He reveals to her that her cohabitation and previous marriages are known to Him – that indeed He has known of them from the start of their conversation. She describes Christ as a prophet at this point but very soon understands that he is more: He is the Messiah, and she goes to call others to come and meet Him who “told me all I had ever done”. This is truly remarkable. Jesus does not condemn her; He does not cast her off, He does not call for her to be stoned or punished. Confronting her with the truth of her life is enough for her to realise who she is talking to. In the context of that time and place, He must have seemed revolutionary.  Astonishingly, she recognised that the Messiah is coming, who will know ‘all things’ – and the Lord Himself confirms that it is He. At this, she leaves her jar and runs to the city, to call others to come and see Him. Not only do they come, but Christ stays with them for two more days and many others recognise Him as the Messiah. Let’s repeat again, that the Samaritans were regarded as lower than dogs in the cultural context of Judaism at this time and yet the Messiah, the God Incarnate Christ, remained with them. They recognised Him as their Saviour. (and let that sink in). 

The moment when Jesus says

the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship Him. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.

He is not just arguing the traditional Jewish/Samaritan disagreement over where the correct place is to worship God. He points out that the time is here where God shall be worshipped in all places and “in spirit and truth” – it is no longer important where we are, or who our forefathers were, but that we worship in spirit and truth. We have a reference from Jesus Himself to the Holy Trinity: God the Father, the Holy Spirit (of Truth) and the Messiah, the Christ and so this story contains not only Christ’s revelation of Himself as the promised Saviour, but also the entirety of the Trinity and Godhead in three persons.

This tied in very well with the discussion with Metropolitan Kallistos yesterday on the Jesus Prayer and St Paul’s injunction to ‘pray without ceasing’. If we can pray in all places, invoking the name of Christ and with the Grace of the Holy Spirit, then we are indeed worshipping Him in both our spirit and that of the Paraclete, keeping our prayer simple and true, focused on Christ rather than seeking some mindful blankness. He is indeed, as recognised by the Samaritans, “the Saviour of the World”.