34 The Samaritan Woman - May 6, 2007

Acts 11:19-26, 29-30

John 4:5-42

St Maximus the Confessor (d. 662) writes. “When a man sticks to the mere letter of Scripture, he lives according to the flesh, spiritually dying each day the death of sin.”[1] We can attain to a spiritual reading of the bible by reading it in the setting of the Church’s liturgical worship.

For example, there are eight Sundays in the liturgical season of Pascha, and this morning we have come to the fifth Sunday. Liturgically, we are in the period of Christ’s resurrection. This morning’s Gospel of the Samaritan woman actually happened before Christ’s crucifixion, but when read in its liturgical setting on the Fifth Sunday of Pascha it is the risen Christ we see meeting the Samaritan woman at the well. By means of its liturgical setting, then, we pass over from the literal sense of this morning’s Gospel to its spiritual or theological sense.

In this morning’s hymnography we hear this: “At the sixth hour the Well-spring of miracles came to the well to capture the fruit of Eve, for Eve at this same hour departed from Paradise through the deceit of the serpent.”[2] This hymn shows us the Samaritan woman as an icon of Eve; and it reveals to us that Eve was cast out of Paradise at the sixth hour. This is the hour when Christ was crucified on the Cross.

We have hardly turned the doorknob onto the spiritual meaning of this morning’s Gospel; yet, already the Church has set us before the gates outside the Garden of Eden and at Golgotha outside the walls of Jerusalem. We are at the well of Jacob in Samaria, but in its spiritual meaning, we are at the tomb of Christ and we are standing in the garden beside it. We look at the Samaritan woman speaking to what she thinks is a stranger and we see Mary Magdalene falling at the feet of the risen Lord in the garden, mistaking him for the gardener. Looking more closely, we see Eve weeping outside the gates of Paradise looking up to see her Heavenly Bridegroom, but not recognizing him because of the tears in her eyes. Look more deeply yet, and I think we may begin to see ourselves, for we are children of Eve.

In the Church’s liturgical setting, this Gospel leads us into a mystical place. In the flesh, of course, we are standing on the corner of 54th and 38th in south Minneapolis. But in the Church, this Gospel has placed us outside the gates of Paradise, beside the well of Jacob, standing in the garden beside the tomb of Christ. Liturgical texts reveal all of these as so many spiritual images of the baptismal font. We are given to understand, then, that this mystical place is where our baptism has brought us.

The liturgical setting of this Gospel leads us also to a mystical moment, the moment of the sixth hour. In the flesh we are still, of course, in calendar time, and it is about 10:30 am. But in the waters of our baptism, we passed over into the Spirit of the Church and were brought to stand in the mystical moment of the sixth hour when Eve was cast out of Paradise. This is clearly a timeless moment hiding in every moment of calendar time. It is the moment when you and I, children of Eve, reach out our hand to taste the forbidden fruit – when we choose to scorn our brother, when we choose sensuality over the Spirit; when we choose to indulge ourselves in greed or vanity, envy, conceit, lust or pride; when we submit to the wisdom of our own opinions and follow after the values of the world.

In this mystical place and moment, the five husbands of the Samaritan woman – lovers to whom she had united herself – are revealed as the passions to which we have united ourselves: the passions of gluttony, lust, anger, greed, envy, vanity and pride. Uniting ourselves to these passions, the seeds of the evil one are sown in us and there springs up from the ground of our souls the thistles and thorns of loneliness and despair. We taste the bitter fruit of feeling that we have no husband; we have lost our true lover.

The Church’s spiritual Tradition teaches us that these passions, these lovers who are no husband, are “against our nature.” They are sons of the false gods to which Israel gave herself like an adulterous wife who gives herself to many lovers. Through the prophet Ezekiel, the Lord speaks to Israel in the tone of an injured and angry husband:

Behold I shall gather against you all your lovers with whom you took pleasure. Thus I shall judge you, like women who commit adultery or shed blood are judged; and I shall bring on you the blood of wrath and jealousy. I shall also give you into the hands of your lovers, and they will strip you of your clothing, take away your jewels, and will leave you naked and bare. So I shall calm my fury against you and I shall be pacified and angry no more.[3]

Consider Ezekiel’s prophecy in its spiritual sense as a description of what you have experienced when you have united yourself to any one of the passions. What happens when we give ourselves to the sweetness of anger or envy, gluttony or lust, vanity or pride? How do these lovers treat us? What was the fruit they sired on us? Was it the promised fruit of joy and gladness? Was it not in the end a stripping away of joy and gladness?

Here in the Church, we are at this moment the Samaritan woman standing beside the well at the sixth hour, that timeless moment when we choose whom we will serve, whom we will love, to whom we will unite ourselves. We are therefore standing, mystically, in that moment of our baptism when we face the west. And as we look to the setting sun we see the crucified Lord Jesus Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, dying on the Cross at the sixth hour, at this very moment when we are faced in our heart with the choice of whom we will serve, to whom we will give our love. 

What is the meaning of this God coming to us even at this moment on the Cross at the sixth hour? What is the meaning of the divine Judge of all submitting himself to the murderous judgment of the very lovers who have seduced his bride and stripped her of her clothing, her jewels and her royal garments? Stand in this mystical moment and listen to the voice of the prophet: “He was pierced through for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on him.”[4]

God the Word loves Eve as a husband loves his wife. In his descent from heaven and his birth from the Second Eve, his holy Virgin Mother, he became the Second Adam who leaves his father and mother to cleave to his wife, the human soul, and to become one flesh with her.[5] He has united himself to us out of his great love for us, even to the point of taking the judgment of our sins upon himself and putting it to death in his death on the Cross.

In the voice of the Church, the Savior greets us and he speaks to us in this moment of decision at the sixth hour: “Do you renounce Satan? Do you unite yourself to me? Have you united yourself to me? Give me to drink.”

How do you answer the Bridegroom?

Look again at the icon of the Samaritan woman. Note that the well is in the form of a cross, and that it is situated at an incline. Note that the Savior raises his hand in greeting with his fingers spelling IC XC (Jesus Christ conquers). The arrangement of the well recalls the Crucifixion (shape of the cross), the tomb (a hole in the ground), the baptismal font (filled with water) and the icon of the resurrection (at an incline, it looks like the gates of hell that have been shattered as depicted in the icon of the resurrection.) The Savior’s hand raised in greeting brings to mind his hand reaching out to Adam and Eve in the icon of the resurrection. However, whereas in the icon of the resurrection he is grasping the hands of Adam and Eve, here he is not touching the Samaritan woman. His hand raised in greeting, spelling IC XC, seems to be inviting her in this moment of the sixth hour, the moment of decision, to enter into his holy resurrection – or into the bridal chamber…

We know from the Gospel how she answered. It is the answer we gave in our baptism when we turned to face the East and we said: “I do unite myself to Christ; I have united myself to Christ.” In this moment of the sixth hour, we can again renew our baptismal vow by turning in our heart to the East to behold the risen Christ standing before us as he stands this morning before the Samaritan woman. See how the sixth hour opens onto the Midnight of Pascha. Hear the voice of the Spirit calling out with his Bride, the Church: “Come. Let him who is thirsty come; let him come to the baptismal font, and let him who desires it take the water of life without cost.”[6]

These are spiritual words whose meaning was given last night at Great Vespers in a verse taken from the Song of Solomon addressed to the King’s daughter – i.e. to those who wish to receive Christ as the bride receives her Bridegroom: “Hearken, O daughter, and see, and incline thine ear. Forget thine own people and thy father’s house; and the King shall greatly desire thy beauty.”[7] This is the voice of the angels calling the bride to leave her father and mother in order to unite herself to Christ, to answer, with her own freely chosen ascent to the feet of her Savior on the Cross, his freely chosen descent to her even to the point of death on the Cross out of his great love for her; to leave her own people and her father’s house as Christ left his Father and Mother, that they might cleave to one another in the nuptial mystery of his Cross. This verse from the Song of Solomon, placed in the liturgical setting of this Fifth Sunday of Pascha, tells us that those who unite themselves to Christ in holy baptism are united to his death at the sixth hour and pass over to his holy resurrection at the Midnight hour, in order to ascend with him in the likeness of his Ascension into the mystery of the Eighth Day, the First Day of the new creation. Give me to drink, he says to us. Give me your love in the sixth hour, that I may give you to drink the living waters of the Holy Spirit, that you may become partakers of my divinity, that we may become one body in the spiritual marriage of my beloved bride, the Church.

The Bride of Christ, his holy Church, tells us how we can unite ourselves to him and begin to drink the living waters of his Holy Spirit. In the prayers for this morning, we hear: “Let us cleanse the secret places of our minds and illumine the lamps of our souls, and we shall behold Christ our Life coming to the temple in his exceeding goodness, that he might triumph over the enemy and save us.”[8] This is directing us to the sacrament of confession as to that process of self-examination that is illumined by the Holy Spirit under the guidance of the Church, by which we descend into the secret places of our mind as into the baptismal font in the likeness of Christ’s death. The Church gives us a prayer that we can say as we make this descent into the secret places of our heart: “Deliver me from my many passions and from the gloom of my offences, O undivided Trinity, and enlighten me by thy deifying illuminations, that I may contemplate thy beauty and praise thee, the Lord of glory. My whole heart and mind and all the inclinations of my soul and body do I now direct unto thee, their fashioner and deliverer, O thrice-radiant and single Sovereignty and I cry to Thee: Save me, thy servant from all temptations and afflictions.”[9] The Church gives us prayers like this that we can make our own, showing that she is with us, helping us and guiding us even in the process of confessing our sins.

“Let my heart be lifted unto Thee, O Word, so that none of the pleasures of the world will draw me to the love of base things.”[10] With the help of prayers like this, the Church helps us to lay hold of our desire that we may give it to Christ, the Heavenly Bridegroom. It is in this prayerful mind of the Church that we walk, like the paralytic of last Sunday, in the way of Christ’s commandments. When angry, for example, we do not give ourselves to the sweetness of anger; we choose instead to give our love to the Lord by practicing his command to bless those who revile us. When beset by lustful desires, we do not give ourselves to the sweetness of indulgence, but we call on the Lord to help us to direct our desire instead to whatever is noble, good, and holy. In ways like these, we betake ourselves to the well of Jacob at the mystical moment of the sixth hour and, facing the west, renounce the Evil One. When in that moment we choose to take up the commandments of Christ, we are taking up our cross and turning in our heart to the East, drawing nigh again in our heart to the baptismal font to unite ourselves to Christ, the Heavenly Bridegroom. In this way, our whole life becomes the baptismal font of our dying with him in a death like his in order to be raised with him in a resurrection like his in preparation for our ascent in an ascension like his.

In the midst of this spiritual warfare, as you have been reading in the Gospel lessons assigned for each day of this last week, Christ commands us to eat his body and drink his blood. In this, he shows his great love for us. He is granting us to retreat again and again into the mystical place and time of his Holy Church, to come again and again to the sixth hour, the moment of decision; and however well or poorly we may be faring against the seductions of the Evil One out there in the world, here in the Church, we can give physical expression to our heart’s desire to be united with Christ by partaking of his body and blood in the mystery of holy Eucharist. In the holy sacrament, he takes the judgment of our failures and our sins upon himself and nails them to his Cross and grants us in holy Eucharist to become partakers of his divinity in the joy of Pascha and to make us ready to ascend with him in the likeness of his Ascension.


O Lord, bring us to the well at the sixth hour with the Samaritan woman. Like her, we want to unite ourselves to Thee, O only compassionate One and lover of mankind. Let our heart be lifted unto Thee and let none of the pleasures of the world draw us to the love of base things. Raise us up with Thee and grant that we may be found worthy to drink your living waters.

[1] 4th C. Various Texts §76, Philo II 254.

[2] Pent 217

[3] Eze 16:37-40

[4] Isa 53

[5] Gn 3:24

[6] Rev 22:17

[7] Pent 216a

[8] Pent 209b – 210a

[9] Pent 222b

[10] Pent 224b