Reflections for Lent 3 – Exodus 17:1-7; John 4:4-42
Samaritan Woman at the Well. Roman catacomb, early 4 th century.
“It is precisely in this that God proves his love for us: that while we were still sinners, Christ died
for us” (Romans 5:8). While we were still sinners! That is not some distant age far away and
long ago — back in Moses’ day, in Jesus’s day. That was last week, last night: all the bitter
infighting at work, the cruel recriminations of spouses and best friends, the people young and
old who fell asleep quite senseless from drugs or drink at 3:00 o’clock this morning. Sins of
weakness, sins of power, sins of pride. It is certain we shall be saved by Christ from God’s wrath
if we have faith. Christ, the holy one, died for us in our godlessness. That is an archaic word,
“godlessness”, meaning something very familiar like stubbornness, pettiness, mean
spiritedness, all three being the determined will to live our lives without God, leaving a very
human self in command. But, says Saint Paul, it is still possible to realize our hope, because the
love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who is given to us. His
love is like a river, a cooling stream poured into a desert of selfishness.
That is the message of Lent: that although life is dull and wintry and drab, although sin is as real
as any reality we know, there is hope.
The biblical figure for that hope is water. During the exodus, at Rephidim deep down in the
Sinai Peninsula, there was no water. The people grumbled. The place names Massah and
Meribah mean “the testing” and “the quarreling” respectively. “What should I do with these
people?” asks the despairing Moses. “A little more and they will stone me.” This is where
John’s gospel gets its threat by the Jerusalem crowds at the end of chapter 8 to stone Jesus. He
is portrayed as a prophet, a Moses-figure throughout the gospel. No hardship that Moses
injured can Jesus escape.
He is that very same Moses-figure at Jacob’s well in the hostile territory of Samaria. “Sir,” says
the woman, “I can see you are a prophet.” He is at least that for us Christians. We might even
say, he is above all that. He is the teacher or spokesman for God, someone we can trust
completely about sin, about death, about the conduct of our life this week.
The problem in John’s gospel is one of water rights, just as in an old western on late-night
television. The well of the patriarch Jacob, who gave his nephew his new name Israel to the
Jewish people, is in Jesus’s day in the hands of those kinsfolk they have declared non-Jews. That
was a stunning humiliation, and the rivalry with Samaria was intense. To a member of this
hated people, a woman even, Jesus promises not Jacob’s well but a well that will never run dry.
Like Moses of old he strikes the rock of Samaritan hearts and Jewish hearts — name your people
and you have named sinners — “and the water will flow from it for the people to drink” (Exodus
Today’s readings have a long history as the scriptures proclaimed on this mid-Lenten Sunday.
They hold out a promise, a promise of water and new life for those who are craving baptism
and have only four weeks to go. They hold out the promise to us, the long-baptized, finally
living the life we were committed to in infancy. I mean living it now, which is what Jesus meant.
Jesus being a good Jew was not much for heaven or the afterlife, though being in the Pharisee
tradition he was committed to the resurrection of the dead. The development of a bodiless life
in bliss came later. His eternal life was the life of the final age of earth — here, now. Jesus told a
story in Luke’s gospel of a poor beggar comforted in Abraham’s bosom. Matthew describes
Jesus as saying at the judgment to those who fed and clothed and visited others, “Come, you
blessed of my father.” But the eternal life of John’s gospel is a present reality, even though it
has future reference. It is the life of the baptized, a fountain, a torrent within: their parched
lives or slaked by the cooling waters of grace, by a God who loves us.
Is Jesus, then, in John 4 with the Samaritan woman as in John 3 with Nicodemus, speaking of
the rebirth of “born-again Christians,” a much later breed? He is, to be sure, in the ancient
catholic sense, the ancient orthodox sense. Faith in Christ has always meant new life for the
Christian. Faith, a personal relation with God, made manifest by the symbol of a bath in water is
new life, it is being born again, or it is nothing. The water baptized Catholic or Orthodox or
Anglican or Protestant of iinfancy may have an adult or an adolescent conversion. Many do —
during courtship, when the first child comes, in war, at the time of religious profession, at a
crisis time in conscious life. Most Christians ratify the sacrament of infancy by conscious choice
at some time although, tragically, perhaps some never do. Hence, to know that you are reborn,
to will it, choose it, embrace it, is a possibility for the Christian at anytime. It could happen this
Lent for the first time to you. There is a born-again Christian, however, of whom the New
Testament knows nothing. It is the person who, once saved, can never be condemned; who
looks on fellow Christians and fellow humans with a superiority that is contempt disguised as
concern: poor creatures, they have not been saved. They may be Lutherans or Presbyterians or
Catholics but they are not Christians because they have not been born again, on our terms, on
our narrow and exclusive reading — misreading, actually — of holy scriptures which with a
marvelous docility turn out to see exactly what we want them to say.
The Eastern Church never abandons the Samaritan woman to obscurity in her city. As St. John
Chrysostom points out, she did not bring one or two disciples to Jesus like Andrew and Philip,
but she brought a whole city. And not through empty superlatives but with the cleverness and
conviction of her personal narrative.
The Orthodox give her a name, Photini (“the enlightened one”), a feast day (February 26), a title
(Evangelist and Apostle), and a story. Photini was present at the very origin of the church when
the Holy Spirit empowered the company of believers at Pentecost. She brought along her family
of five sisters, Anatole, Photo, Photis, Paraskeve, Kyriake, and her two sons, Photeinos and
Joseph. Like the apostles, she traveled, proclaiming the Good News “to the ends of the earth.”
While she was on a preaching mission in Carthage, Jesus came to her in a dream and at his
urging she left for Rome to preach where Christian persecution was most severe. About to be
arrested herself, she anticipates the soldiers and approaches Nero’s palace on her own.
Nero tortures Photini, her sisters, her youngest son and the other North Africans who
accompanied her. When that failed, Nero placed the women in a room full of gold, thinking the
temptation of riches would drive away their love for Jesus. Nero brought his daughter Domnina
to persuade them, but instead, Photini and Domnina admired one another and became friends.
Domnina was baptized and then distributed the room full of gold to the poor.
Furious, Nero ordered prison and further torture for Photini and her company. During the next
three years the prison-house became a “house of God” drawing many Romans to worship, to
conversion, and baptism. Her son, her sisters, and the rest of Photini’s friends were beheaded.
She also longed for the crown of martyrdom, and she finally died of the results of torture and
released her soul to God.
Illuminated by the Holy Spirit, All-Glorious One,
from Christ the Saviour 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.
Troparion (Tone 3)