Saint Photini: Homily for the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman in the Orthodox Church
As we continue to celebrate the new life that Jesus Christ’s resurrection has brought to the world, we are reminded today that His mercy and blessing extend to all, even the most unlikely people, such as the Samaritans.
The Jews hated the Samaritans as religious and ethnic half-breeds. 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. But Jesus Christ does, and a Samaritan woman comes to recognize Him as the Messiah, to believe in Him, and lead many other Samaritans to faith. She ultimately becomes Saint Photini, an evangelist and martyr.
All the more remarkable is the fact that she was not only a Samaritan, but she was a she, a woman. Jewish men didn’t strike up conversations with women in public. Women didn’t have much status in that time and place, and certainly weren’t expected to have deep theological conversations with rabbis. But this rabbi, this Messiah, didn’t operate according to social convention. He saw in her one made in the image and likeness of God who, like everyone of us, is called to a life of holiness.
And she also seemed an unlikely candidate for holiness in light of her history with men. She had been married five times and was now living with a man outside of marriage. Yes, her life was a scandal. Some have suggested that she went to the well at noon, an unusual time to do so, in order to avoid encountering the other women of her village due to her bad reputation. The Lord knew about her lifestyle, but He did not condemn, judge, or ignore her as a result. Perhaps because she appreciated His respect and genuine concern, she acknowledged to Him the truth about her life and their conversation continued. Quite possibly, she had never encountered a man who treated her in this way before as a beloved child of God.
And very soon, she told the men of her village that Jesus Christ is the Messiah. Can you imagine how surprised the men of her village probably were to hear this woman speaking to them of God? They surely weren’t used to thinking of her as an especially religious person. Think of how brave Photini was, how radically her life was changed, how she became a new person in her encounter with Jesus Christ.
We will make a mistake this Pascha if we think that the good news of Christ’s resurrection is only for people who live what we consider to be admirable lives, those who measure up to our standards. We will be wrong if we try to exclude any group of people or particular people from the possibility of embracing the new life brought into the world by the empty tomb—even if we disagree may with them on important religious and moral issues and do not condone their behavior. Jesus Christ Himself brought the blessing of His kingdom to a Samaritan woman with an immoral lifestyle; her life was changed by His mercy; and who knows how many came to share in His eternal life through her witness and ministry.
We learn from the story of St. Photini that we must not write off anyone as a hopeless case. We must not isolate ourselves from those whose lives seem especially broken and off course—or even obviously immoral 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—and to sinners like you and me. No, our Savior never condoned sin of any kind and neither should we; but He came 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 evildoers of every kind who have called on His mercy and changed their ways.
So when we have the opportunity to show compassion or friendship or encouragement to someone who has made bad choices in life, and who may even seem very far from a faithful Christian life, we should do so. Whenever anyone who bears the image of God is treated as less than human, we should reach out and show them the love of Christ. When we have the chance to draw into our church community someone whose life has been noticeably less than perfect, we should not hesitate. Yes, we should treat them as our Lord treated the Samaritan woman who became a great saint. 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. The standards of Christ are so high and we are so low. We can become obsessed with our unworthiness; and if we aren’t careful, this way of thinking can lead us away from the Church, for the guilt and frustration of spiritual failure are hard to bear, and we would rather not think about 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 about 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 don’t know the details, but she surely faced struggles, temptations, and reminders of the mess she had made of her life. Some of those probably occurred in her own thoughts. And some people probably continued to view her in a judgmental light, for there are always those who appoint themselves as self-righteous judges of their neighbors and like to look down on them.
Despite these obstacles, the Samaritan woman with a checkered past became a glorious saint, an evangelist 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, our workplace, our use of time, money, and energy, in all our thoughts, words, and deeds, 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 bring us into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity, to make us partakers of the divine nature. Like the Samaritan woman, we must acknowledge our corruption 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.
And just as we ask for the Lord’s mercy on our sins, we must extend the same mercy to others. The Savior spoke the truth with love and respect for the Samaritan woman, but he did not condemn or judge her. And He has surely not appointed any of us to judge others.
St. Photini did not earn the new life given her by Christ and Pascha is not a reward given to us for our good behavior. We must stop thinking in terms of who deserves what from God. 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 woman, to the evildoers of our day, and even to us. So let us embrace our Risen Lord and become participants in His life. He raised up Photini and brought her from darkness into light; and He will do the same for us when we respond with faith and repentance: that is the gloriously good news of this season of resurrection. Thanks be to God.