Sunday of the Samaritan Woman
May 22, 2011
Brothers and Sisters,
The Samaritan woman was in a bad way – wasn’t she?
First of all, she was a Samaritan. As their contemporary Jews saw them, the Samaritans had stayed behind when the Jews were driven into exile to Babylon. On the Jews’ return from exile, they found the Samaritans living on their land, having mixed with the pagans and adulterated Judaism with paganism. Jews and Samaritans each claimed to be the true descendants of Abraham, and they despised each other; their mutual hatred persisted across centuries. All this lies behind the Evangelist John’s remark that “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” Sharing drinking vessels, as Jesus does here, would be about the last thing they would do; to do so risked ritual defilement.
Second, this woman’s personal life violated God’s Law. Our hymnography calls her “the Samaritan adulteress.” Even in our far more tolerant age, many of us would shun a person who switched husbands every few years. She seems to have been incapable of forming a permanent attachment with another person. Her life, as we would say, “was a mess.” Jesus finds her alone at the well around the sixth hour, or about noontime. This was not how women usually went to draw water! They would go together in a group, sharing gossip and friendship, at a cooler hour. This woman goes by herself and in the heat of the day. She knows that at this time she will encounter no one; she fears the ridicule of those in her community and knows that they would not tolerate her companionship. She is alone and despised.
Finally, she is a woman – a second-class person. A devout Jew would not allow himself to speak alone with a woman, for fear of causing scandal or falling into temptation. Not to mention risking ritual defilement by sharing drinking vessels with a Samaritan. And the woman also places herself at risk, talking alone with a man in a desolate place, and a Jew at that – although at this point perhaps she had nothing to lose.
Why then, knowing her situation as he did, did Jesus speak to her? Why did he choose her as Apostle to the Samaritans? As the Gospels teach us, and as the woman herself testified (“Come see a man who told me everything I ever did”), Jesus knew the hearts of men. He knew that, in all her weakness, she would be open to his Word. And indeed she was. One has to smile, reading in this Gospel how she mistakes his meaning, arguing with him. (And by the way, John makes it crystal clear that Jesus’ disciples equally misunderstood him.) But when He touches her wound (“You have said well, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands …”) she does not draw back. And it is she who first mentions the Christ. Jesus replies, “I who speak to you am He,” using the “I am” – the name by which God calls Himself.
The Lord has revealed Himself to her. And now the woman no longer argues: she falls silent, abandons her task, and returns to her village to preach Christ to her neighbors. At this point we are presented with a puzzle. How did this woman, alone and ostracized from her community, find the courage to face her compatriots and, reminding them just why they have rejected her (“Come see a man who told me everything I ever did”), suggest to them that she has found the Messiah?
The answer is that her encounter with the Lord had loosed the bonds of her sin, which had kept her alone and in this degraded state. In Christ her alienation was overcome, and the people of her community listened to her and accepted her word. But Jesus not only healed the division between her and her people. He healed the ancient enmity between the Samaritans and the Jews, since these Samaritans accepted him, a Jew who had proclaimed “Salvation is from the Jews,” as the Christ. And finally, he healed the division between man and woman, since both he himself and the Samaritans accepted her, a woman, as his Apostle.
So, brothers and sisters, let us imitate the Samaritan woman and her fellows. Let us, in Christ, cast aside all alienation that separates us one from another, and that is caused by sin, so that like them we can in unity of mind and heart enter the New Kingdom which the Lord has prepared for us.
© Deacon Theodore Feldman 2011