The Power of Conversation with Enemies and Strangers

Homily for the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman in the Orthodox Church

Christ is Risen!

The world today has more than a little in common with the time and place in which Jesus Christ ministered. Both in the first and the twenty-first century, people easily divide up into groups that hate one another and view their enemies as less than human.  If someone is of the wrong religion, political party, or ethnic group or stands on the opposite side of some issue, too many respond simply with condemnation.

We may wonder, then, how to demonstrate the new life of our Savior’s resurrection in a time when severe disagreements and divisions are so common—both in our own country and around the world.  Christ’s conversation with the Samaritan woman provides a challenging example of how to interact with even the most unlikely people, of how to overcome the barriers that exist between those who consider themselves simply enemies.

Remember that the Jews hated the Samaritans as religious and ethnic half-breeds because they had mixed the ethnic heritage and the religion of Israel with that of other peoples.  No self-respecting Jew would have anything to do with a Samaritan, much less ask one for a drink of water.  The Samaritans knew that, but Christ did the unthinkable by striking up a conversation and asking the woman for a favor.   As a result of this unlikely conversation, a Samaritan woman came to recognize Him as the Messiah, to believe in Him, and to lead many of her own people to the faith.  She ultimately became Saint Photini, an evangelist and martyr with the title “Equal to the Apostles.”

Not only did the Jews look down on the Samaritans, but the gender roles of the day meant that Jewish men simply did not speak with women in public.  But this Messiah did not allow cultural divisions to shut off the Samaritan woman from His saving presence or her calling as an evangelist.

To make things even more complicated, this particular woman had been married five times and was then living with a man outside of marriage.  She may have gone to the well at noon, an unusual time to do so, because the other women of her village did not want to associate with her.  The Lord knew these details, but did not condemn, judge, or ignore her as a result.  Perhaps because He treated her as a beloved child of God, she acknowledged to Him the truth about her life and they continued speaking about spiritual matters.

Photini showed bravery in telling the men of her village that Jesus Christ is the Messiah.  Not only would they have been shocked for a woman, especially one of her reputation, to speak to them about God, they would probably also be astounded to hear that a Jewish rabbi was a Messiah for them as Samaritans.  Being inspired by the shocking ways in which Christ had reached out to her, she reached out in surprising ways to her own people.

We will miss the good news of Pascha if we think that the blessing of Christ’s resurrection is only for people we think of as being on “our side” of any religious, moral, or political divide.    As sinners ourselves whose only hope is in the abundant mercy of Jesus Christ, we have no right to exclude anyone from the possibility of embracing the new life of the empty tomb, even if they presently believe and act in ways contrary to God’s purposes.

St. Paul urged the Corinthians to hold the members of their church accountable for grave sin, but said that it was no concern of his to judge those outside. (1 Cor. 5:12)  It is one thing to acknowledge the truth about the behavior of people who are outside the life of the church, but another to appoint ourselves as the judges of their souls or to treat anyone as though they are beyond redemption. Remember that Paul himself was a persecutor of Christians before the Risen Lord appeared to Him and made him an apostle.

Jesus Christ Himself took the initiative in bringing the blessing of His kingdom to a Samaritan woman with an immoral lifestyle.  We learn from the Lord’s conversation with St. Photini that we must not treat anyone as a hopeless case or as  somehow unworthy of Christ-like love, no matter what they have done or what they currently think, say, or do.   Though it is business as usual in our corrupt world, it is not genuinely Christian to isolate ourselves from those whose lives seem especially broken and off course—or even perverse and godless.   If we respond with hatred, judgment, or stony silence to those we deem unworthy, we turn away from Christ’s ministry of bringing new life to the whole world.    For which of us has the right to cast the first stone of self-righteous condemnation at another?  Our Savior never condoned sin of any kind and neither should we.  He told the truth even when it was uncomfortable, as He did with Photini about her marital problems. But He did so not to condemn, but to save.  He came to bring sinners to repentance, to heal the sick, to give sight to the blind.  He died and rose again for the salvation of all created in His image and likeness, of the entire world.  He has made great saints of murderers, adulterers, and idol- worshipers who have called on His mercy and ultimately changed their lives.

So when we have the opportunity to show compassion or friendship or encouragement to someone who seems very far from following Jesus Christ, we should do so.  We should treat them as Christ treated the Samaritan woman.  To do anything less is to place our own limits on the power of the Risen Lord to bring salvation to the world—and it is to refuse to follow in the way of the One Who conquered death.

St. Photini is also a powerful example for each of us as we struggle with our own sins, passions, bad habits, and weaknesses.  Sometimes the burden of our sinfulness is great and we are tempted to despair of ever finding peace and healing in our lives.  We can become obsessed with our own unworthiness, perhaps viewing ourselves more as those condemned by a harsh law than as the broken and weak whom Christ’s mercy can heal.  If we are not careful, this way of thinking can lead us away from the Church, for the guilt and frustration of failure are hard to bear, and we often would simply rather not be reminded of it.

St. Photini was no stranger to such failures, but she learned to keep her eyes on the prize of the new life in Christ.   Perhaps her experiences had taught her humility. She knew she was a sinner and must have been thrilled finally to be on a path that would take her in a different direction.   We do not know the details, but she surely faced struggles, temptations, and reminders of the scandal that she had made of her life.  Some people probably continued to view her in a very judgmental light.  Perhaps her own thoughts and memories threatened to condemn her at times.  For all of us, some things are hard to forget.

Despite these obstacles, this Samaritan woman became a glorious saint, an evangelist equal to the apostles and ultimately a martyr.  If she could pass over from sin to righteousness, from death to life, in Christ Jesus, then we can, too.  The great blessing of Pascha comes to us all, and we have countless opportunities in our families, our marriages, our parish, our friendships, and our workplace or school to participate more fully in the Lord’s victory over sin and death.

No matter what we have done in the past, no matter our present weaknesses and challenges, no matter what anyone thinks or says about us, we must remember that the Son of God has conquered death in order to bless, heal, and save us. Like the Samaritan woman, we must acknowledge our brokenness and turn to Christ with faith, love, and hope for a new life, and then continue on the journey of discipleship, even when we stumble or are tempted to give up.

During this season of Pascha, we know that life eternal has sprung from an empty tomb purely as the result of our Lord’s love and mercy.   The good news of Pascha extends to the Samaritan women of our day and even to you and me. So let us treat them as He treated her and, together with them, come to participate more fully in the brilliant light of the Resurrection.

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