Christ is risen! The Sunday gospel reading from two weeks ago presented us with the narrative concerning the Myrrh-bearing women who became the first people ever to witness Christ after His glorious resurrection. These women have come down to us as examples for us to live our lives with acts of love as well as witnessing Christ to others. Todays Gospel reading again presents us with another female example, a person that our tradition refers to as equal to the Apostles, and evangelist. Her name is St. Photini, and she is also referred to as the Samaritan woman or the woman at the well.
The Gospel states that Christ momentarily rested at Jacobs Well on His travels with the disciples and it was there that He conversed with a woman from Samaria. Before we understand the narrative in its fullness and its importance, first we must understand who these Samaritan people are. In Old Testament times, the Assyrian armies captured the northern Israelites and exiled them back to Assyria as trophies of their conquest of northern Israel (and at the same time- transplanted their own people into the region of Samaria). While in exile, these Israelites were forced to inter-marry with the pagan Assyrians- something that contravened the law that God had given Moses. They were also forced to adopt certain pagan Assyrian practices into the Jewish religion. When they were allowed to return to the region of Samaria, not only had the religion of their forefathers been desecrated, but also their pure Hebrew blood had been defiled by pagan blood. As a consequence, the inhabitants of Samaria (known as Samaritans) were considered by the Jews as traitors toward the faith, as well as being ritually unclean. Jews were not allowed to touch or even converse with Samaritans. Even the name Samaritan was used as a derogatory term aimed at those Jews who were shunned from society.
So this is what is so strange about the setting of todays Gospel reading. Christ, a Jewish teacher or rabbi, is seen here striking up a conversation with someone who is an outcast of Jewish society, someone who is considered unclean, someone who is looked upon as being the lowest and most despised out of all the nations on the earth. And this is where the beauty of todays Gospel narrative lies. CHRIST TRANSCENDS PREJUDICE. It was because of Christs conversation with this outcast of society and because of His transcendence of racial barriers, that thousands of people were converted to faith in the one true God. According to Holy Tradition, the Samaritan woman- St. Photini, went and preached Christ with her two sons and five sisters firstly to the inhabitants of Samaria, then to those in Northern Africa, and finally when they were all captured by the Romans for proclaiming the teachings of Christ, they preached to and converted those in the Roman prisons. Even the daughter of the Emperor Nero- Domnina converted from paganism to Christianity after she came into contact with Photini. Inevitably, they were all put to death under the charge of proclaiming and practicing an illegal religion. But St. Photini for us became known as equal to the Apostles and evangelist due to her great missionary activities and her desire to spread the Gospel, something that we can all emulate, and by this I mean being a missionary to those around us, even if it is through a simple brief conversation with a stranger, in the same way that Christ spoke to that stranger at the well nearly 2000 years ago.
Another important lesson that we can learn from Christ in todays gospel is the breaking down of the barriers that divide humanity. Im talking about one of the greatest evils that has pervaded the entire history of humanity. It is the evil of racism, and I mean exactly what I say when I call it an evil. It is evil because it is against God; it is evil because it separates us from God, because it is an un-Christian disposition. And yet, even within our own Church, most of us are guilty of it.
How many times have we had an Aboriginal person walk into our place of business and think they are going to steal something- the evil of stereotyping someone because of the colour of their skin? How many times have we said things against the Turks because of political events of the past or present? How many times have I heard people in our community say derogatory things against the Jews out of sheer ignorance? When I hear that, I take it as a personal attack on my faith, because the Holy Apostles were Jews, the Panagia was a Jew, Jesus Christ the incarnate God lived His life on earth as a Jew- a Jew who gave us the New Covenant and called us the New Israel. And the more that we continue to think like this, the more that we choose to separate or to think ourselves superior to people of different races, of different religions, of different cultures- the more we separate ourselves from God. In fact racism could be the one thing that will stop you from entering the Kingdom of Heaven.
When each and every one of us are born, whether black, white, Greek, Turk- whoever, we are born with the image of God in all of us as it states in the Old Testament book of Genesis. This seed that God has implanted in us all gives us the ability to love one another, it gives us the ability to see good in one another, it gives us the ability to see God within one another. Its almost like carrying around a tiny icon of Christ in our hearts. If we cant see this image of God in others around us regardless of race, religion, or politics, then we hinder our own efforts toward salvation; we tarnish that tiny icon of Christ within our hearts with the sins of pride and selfishness.
Brothers and sisters, Christ exhorts us- begs us to treat each person that we come across in our lives as if we were dealing with Him personally. The next time that you have ill feelings toward someone because of the way they look, because of their race, because they are a different religion to you- try and imagine that the person in front of you is Christ and remember that they too have the ability to be saved. In fact it may be through you personally, through a conversation with someone who is an unbeliever that that person may be saved. Never underestimate the extent of salvation. Who out of the Greeks during the Turkish Ottoman Empire would ever have thought that a Turk could convert to Orthodoxy and be saved? But it has happened many times. We have an example in St. Ahmet who is celebrated on the 3rd of May in our Church calendar, and who was martyred by his own people for choosing Christ over the religion of his nation. And the same is said for St. Photini in todays Gospel reading. No one in her time would ever have thought that a Samaritan would be seen conversing with a Jewish teacher, let alone converting to His way. And yet she became one of the greatest examples of an apostle in New Testament times.
The bottom line is that Christ transcends all barriers in this world that separate us, and we are all called to do the same. We are all one people on this earth- the race of humanity, under one Father- God. Our salvation will depend on the two great commandments that Christ gave us- to love God, and to love one another. Through the prayers of St. Photini the Samaritan woman, may we all come to the realisation of this and to salvation through Gods grace.
from Voice in the wilderness,
July-Sept. 2000, v. 8(3),
Greek Orthodox Church of Saint George, Brisbane QLD