Images of feminine holiness. The Samaritan woman from the Gospel

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Paul’s words on the universal unity and equality of all in Christ remain axiomatic

Augustine Sokolowski, Doctor of Theology, Priest

“We live dressed in the new people, renewed in knowledge in the image of our Creator, where there is neither Greek nor Jew nor Judean, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free, but everything and in everything is Christ,” writes the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Colossians (Col.3:10-11). Thereby, the Apostle confirms the truth that in spite of the rules and traditions of the ancient world, where all kinds and all kinds of divisions reigned, they have been overcome in Christ Jesus. Therefore, in the Church, where there are certainly men and women, people of different ages and positions, none of the oppositions are fundamentally decisive.

Therefore, even in topics that are particularly important to the Church, and the veneration of saints is such a topic, Paul’s words on the universal unity and equality of all in Christ remain axiomatic. And yet, in honouring the saints, men and women, the Church always tries to ensure that what is important, which is the essence of their particular vocation, is manifested and made manifest in their male or female vocation.

In the same way, the individual great Churches, countries and peoples were as it were personified by the name of those holy wives with whom history had associated them. Such was the case for France with the great Parisian Saint Genevieve (420-500), and for Russia such was the Equal-apostles Princess Saint Olga (920-969). It is surprising that Genevieve is older than Olga by exactly 500 years. About as much time separates the French saint from the times of the Gospels, where in addition to Mary Magdalene and the myrrh-bearing women, another special image of feminine sainthood has been preserved for us, which is very important not to forget.

Fountain with Matteo Bottiglieri’s 17th-century Christ and the Samaritan Woman statues. The church of San Gregorio Armeno (St. Gregory the Armenian), with its monastery in Naples

This is of course the Samaritan woman, a woman whom the Lord Jesus had the opportunity to meet on his journey through Palestine. The Church calls one of the last, the fifth Sunday after Easter, the Sunday of the Samaritan woman. At the Liturgy, a long passage is read, covering almost the entire fourth chapter of the Gospel of John (John 4:5-42). This means that the Evangelist was attempting to put a special biblical holistic theological message into this text. A great deal can be said about the content of this Gospel reading. Like every gospel passage in the Gospel of John, it has a beginning, a continuation and a conclusion, and, in essence, is itself as if it is already a gospel in its own right.

According to what the text says, the Lord Jesus was to pass into Galilee through Samaria (Jn.4:4). According to Flavius, Galilean pilgrims passed through Samaria to Jerusalem. This territory was also under Roman rule and the journey took three days. “So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of land given by Jacob to his son Joseph. There was a well of Jacob’s. And Jesus was weary after the journey and sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour” (John 4:5-6).

Most of the narrative, verses 5-30 and 39-42, is devoted to Christ’s conversation with the Samaritan woman. This conversation, as the evangelist stresses, is unusual in two ways, because, firstly, according to the customs of the time, it was not proper for a woman to speak to a man on her own, and secondly, the Jews were not in communication with the Samaritans.

“A woman comes from Samaria to draw water. Jesus says to her, ‘Give me something to drink’” (John 5:7). The Lord comes to the well around the sixth hour of the day, that is, at noon. This was the beginning of the hottest and most agonising time of the day. “His disciples had withdrawn into the city to buy food. A Samaritan woman said to Him, ‘How is it that you, being a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a Samaritan woman? for Jews have no fellowship with Samaritans’. Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who says to you, ‘Give me water to drink’, you would ask Him yourself, and He would give you living water”. The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw on, and the well is deep; where will you get living water from?” (John 4:7-11).

The Lord’s request for water leads to an immediate contrast which, like the very fact of speaking to the Samaritan woman, is ambivalent. The living water of the spring – which in the language of the day meant flowing water (5:11) –- is contrasted with the “living water” which the Lord Jesus gives. The Lord’s water is called living water because it leads to eternal life. It is important to note that from the very beginning of John’s gospel this is the fourth narrative that speaks specifically of water. For in the second chapter, the Lord turns the water, which stood according to Jewish custom of purification (2:6), into wine at the marriage in Cana of Galilee, and in the third chapter, in conversation with Nicodemus, proclaims the entrance into the Kingdom of God through the birth of the Water and the Spirit (3:5). In turn, the very beginning of chapter four speaks of the baptism performed on those who came by His disciples (4:2). Another part of this dual opposition in the request for water becomes the image of the biblical patriarch Jacob who “gave us this well” (12). The purchase by Jacob of a plot of land and the burial there of the biblical patriarch Joseph is narrated in the Book of Genesis.

Based on the biblical tradition of perceiving places and symbols, the interpretation speaks of the well, the source of fresh water, as the meeting place. At the well “Abraham’s servant, the eldest in his house, who controlled all that he had” (Genesis 24:2), sent to take a wife for Abraham’s son Isaac “from his land, and not from the daughters of the Canaanites” (24:3-4), met Rebekah. Rebekah became Isaac’s wife. At the well Jacob met his future wife Rachel (Gen 29:10). At the well in the land of exile Moses found himself (Exodus 2:15-17), and there he met his future wife Zipporah (2:21).

“Are you greater than our father Jacob?” asks the Samaritan woman. Perhaps this question would have remained merely rhetorical if the Lord Himself had not commanded her to call her husband. (4,16). Thus the well, as a place of human contact in the Bible, in the Gospel of John, becomes the topos of a conversation between man and God.

In the dialogue between the Lord and the Samaritan woman there are interesting, important, and probably the most quoted words in pastoral, edifying sermons: “Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband and come here’. The woman said in reply, ‘I have no husband’. Jesus says to her, ‘It is true that you have said, you have no husband, for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband; it is right that you say so’” (John 4:16-18).

So what does this mysterious “five husbands and that sixth one who is not really your husband” mean? Biblical exegetics offers us different interpretations of these words.

At the very beginning of this narrative it says that the Lord came to the well at the sixth hour, i.e. noon. The patriarchal customs of the society of that time presupposed a strict distribution of the time of access to water. The fact that the Samaritan woman came to the well at the most inappropriate, hot time of day could mean that she was neglected by her fellow tribesmen. Therefore, it is possible that the man who was with her simply did not think it necessary to seal his union with her by a marriage contract. A very different, contrary interpretation sees the Samaritan woman as a wealthy, self-confident woman who chose her own time to fetch water. She did not want to burden herself at all with an unnecessary legal relationship with a man who, in God’s words, “was not her husband”.

It is important to remember who the Samaritans are. The Samaritans are a biblical people, who originated in Palestine as a result of the partial relocation of the residents of the Kingdom of Israel to Assyria in 722 BC. The fate of the Israelites who left is unknown, but in their place the Assyrians brought the inhabitants of other, subordinate territories. They called the new province of their empire Samaria, and the new nation was called Samaritan.

As it was supposed to be in the religious traditions of those times, the Samaritans worshipped the local God, Yahweh, but they also worshipped other, introduced gods. At the end of the fourth century when, after the Babylonian Captivity, the walls of Jerusalem had already been erected again, some of the priests of God’s people withdrew to the Samaritans.

Another alternative temple was erected on Mount Garizim, which was later repeatedly destroyed by zealous Jewish rulers. The relationship between Jews and Samaritans was very tense and hostile. Communicating and in any way coming into contact with the Samaritans was considered shameful for the Jews. “For even the Jews do not associate with the Samaritans” (4:9).

The decisive question in the relationship between Jews and Samaritans was which sanctuary, the place of God’s worship, should be given preference, Jerusalem or Harizim. The Evangelist puts it in the mouth of the Samaritan woman: “”Our fathers worshipped on this mountain; but you say that the place where we should worship is in Jerusalem” (4,20).

“Destroy this temple, and I will build it up in three days” (John 2:19). “To this the Jews said, ‘This temple has been built for forty-six years, and you will erect it in three days’” (20). These words, spoken by the Lord Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem on the eve of the Jewish Passover, and placed by the evangelist at the beginning of the Gospel, are paradoxically revealed exactly in the conversation with the woman of Samaria.

Christ left the Jews unanswered but gave the answer to their question to the Samaritans. The Lord Jesus brings about the fulfillment of all that the Old Testament tried but failed to give in ritual, liturgical, cultic terms. This dialectic of impossibility inherent in Old Testament revelation is extremely important. But it remains inaccessible outside the presence of Christ. The Evangelist put this confession into the mouth of the woman of Samaria: “The woman said to him, ‘I know that the Messiah is coming, that is, the Christ; when he comes, he will tell us everything’” (John 4:25).

Only the Lord Jesus gives living water, which becomes the source of eternal life. “Jesus answered her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will not thirst forever; but the water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water flowing into everlasting life’” (John 4:13-14).

The week about the Samaritan woman is the second “women’s remembrance” during the Easter season. If during the third week after Easter the Church remembered the myrrh-bearing women, who gave an example of faithfulness, constancy and active service to the Lord Jesus for all time, then during the fifth week it is the memory of the Samaritan woman. In turn, the second Sunday is dedicated to Apostle Thomas, the fourth to the paralytic, and the sixth to the healing of the man born blind. Thus, whereas the men, remembered by the Church and favoured by the Lord, originally suffered from unbelief, debility and blindness respectively, the women, to whom these alternate Sundays are dedicated, on the contrary, by the power of grace, set an example of service in deed, as myrrh-bearers, or in teaching, as it is clearly in the example of the woman of Samaria. She not only learns from the Lord the truth of His Messiahship, but also proclaims, that is in effect, teaches about Him, to her fellow-citizens. “Come, see the Man who has told me all that I have done: is He not the Christ?” (Jn.4:29).

In our time there is a tendency to turn the celebration of the Day of the Myrrh-bearing Women into a kind of women’s festival of the Church. This tradition has its own particular beauty and pious meaning, but it should not overshadow the true, biblical, theological and theological meaning of remembering the Lord’s disciples. Such a disciple of the Lord, according to both Scripture and Tradition, was the woman of Samaria: “And many Samaritans from that city believed in Him at the word of the woman who testified that He had told her all that she had done. But they said to the woman, ‘It is no longer by your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and know that he is indeed the Saviour of the world, the Christ’” (4:39,42).

All of them, the women who served the Lord in word and deed, the myrrh-bearers and the Samaritan woman, belonged to the circle of the Lord’s fellowship which He Himself had chosen, and from which He built up the Church. As Chesterton once called one of his novels “The Man Who Was Thursday”, so they can be called “People of the Resurrection”.

The conversation with the Samaritan woman proclaims the call to faith in Christ the Messiah, not only to Jews, but to all nations. The impeccable orthodox faith of the Old Testament is set aside in opposition to the faith of the common and small people. The abolition by the Lord Jesus of the ritual impurity that previously manifested itself in the principled refusal of Jews to come into contact, much less speak to the Samaritans, is revealed. Paul’s proclamation that in Christ there is no longer male or female is anticipated, which of course was not invented by Paul, but, as an expression of New Testament faith, has as its source the Lord Jesus Himself. Finally, the living water of many biblical texts, from flowing and thirst-quenching wells, becomes the water of life of the Words of Christ, the Spirit of the Lord and Baptism, so that, at the Second Coming of the King of Glory Jesus will mark the Heavenly Jerusalem and the end of history. “And the Spirit and the Bride say, Come, and he who hears let him say, Come! He who thirsts let him come, and he who desires let him take the water of life freely. He who bears witness to these things says, ‘Hey, I am coming soon! Amen. Yea, come, Lord Jesus!’” (Apoc.22;17,20).

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