The Lord is in this place and I did not know it!


Sermon preached on Sunday, May 22, 2022 on the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman by Dn. James Wilcox

John 4:5-42
May 22nd, 2022

Today, on this fifth Sunday of Pascha, we come to a very familiar text, which, as it turns out, happens to be the longest interaction between Jesus and any another other character presented to us in the Gospels. The extended dialogue in this passage has been subject to a variety of interpretations over time by numerous pastors and theologians alike, many of whom have differing conclusions on its meaning. For us, in the context of the Orthodox Church today, it’s good for us to understand how and why this text is given to us in our tradition.

In the first place, it is good for us to know that the Gospel of John is the primary text we carry with us through the Paschal Season. We first heard it read aloud on the night of Pascha beginning with Chapter 1, and barring a few exceptions, is the prescribed Gospel text for the remainder of our daily readings through Pentecost. Modern archeological evidence available to us today even suggests that the Church has likely been using this specific Gospel as part of its Paschal lectionary from the very beginning. And the reason for this is that John’s Gospel was seen in the early Church as a text for those already baptized. From a thematic perspective, then, it should comes as no surprise to see that our readings from John’s Gospel during this Paschal season, are often imbibed with baptismal imagery.

Last week we read about the paralytic lying near the pool of Bethesda. His ultimate desire was to undergo immersion in the waters, for the sake of being healed. The symbolic nature of baptism in this case should be readily apparent to us. But, as we learned, the paralytic never actually entered the water, but instead had a direct encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ. Today’s Gospel lesson with the Samaritan woman is no different. But before we arrive at her encounter with Jesus, it’s good for us to briefly unpack certain aspects of the text itself. 

To start, her encounter with Jesus takes place in the region of Samaria where the residents are considered outcasts. The religious leaders and the people of Judea, did not consider Samaritans to be legitimately descended through the Jewish lineage. If you recall from a few months back, we noted in a previous homily that the Kingdom of Israel was a divided Kingdom at the time of Jesus’ ministry. And it had been so for hundreds of years prior to that. The people group which emerged out of the Northern Kingdom were the Samaritans, and these were seen as a people of mixed origin, or of defiled ancestry, in the eyes those in Judea. Because of this, Jews were forbidden from associating with Samaritans. Still, both the Judeans in the South and the Samaritans in the North shared a common ancestry, among whom the Patriarch Jacob figures quite prominently.

What gets interesting is that Samaria is also home to a location where it is believed Jacob famously wrestled the angel — upon Mt Gerazim to be exact. It is for this reason, among others, that the Northern Kingdom chose Mt Gerazim as its site for worship. And it just so happens that Jacob’s Well sits just over a mile’s walk from Mt Gerazim. Now, because Jacob’s ancestry is shared between these two people groups, this region where Jacob’s Well sits, is considered disputed territory. This context certainly raises the stakes when the Gospel story opens for us, and we see Jesus — a Jew from the South — sitting atop Jacob’s Well in a contested region, and initiating conversation with a Samaritan woman.

Now, as Jesus begins the conversation with the Samaritan woman it is obvious she has no idea who sits before her. This is not unlike Jacob before her, who, had his own direct mystical encounter with the living God near this very spot, but failed to recognize God’s presence before him. You might recall that Jacob, in addition, to wrestling the angel, also had a vision of a ladder upon which, “the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” And according to Genesis 24, Jacob woke the following day and said, “The Lord is in this place—yet I did not know it!” Similarly the Lord, in today’s Gospel lesson, stands before the Samaritan woman, yet she does not know it.

Now as the opening dialogue begins, it cannot be ignored that the language of the original text points toward a given social awkwardness between these two. We lose a little of this in translation. It carries a slight undercurrent of “boy meets girl,” because meetings at wells as presented to us in the Old Testament typically lead to a betrothal. Genesis 29 tells us that Jacob himself saw Rachel, and then “rolled the stone from the well’s mouth and watered the flock of his mother’s brother … Then Jacob kissed Rachel.” Jacob’s own Father, Isaac, was also given water to drink from his love interest Rebekah, after which she “ran again to the well to draw water.” And shortly thereafter they were married.  Seeing that Jesus and the Samaritan woman are meeting alone, this type of imagery shouldn’t be lost on us, even with the knowledge that nothing untoward, or inappropriate, is about to take place. The disciples themselves are even taken aback when they are appear “astonished” or “startled,” as certain translations have it, to discover the Jesus has been conversing with a foreign woman, all alone in the heat of the day. And the Samaritan woman, herself, even responds to Jesus’ initial statement of “Give me a drink,” by asking, “How come you who are a Judean ask for a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?

And here begins a beautiful moment. The woman undergoes no ritual purity ceremony, exerts no ascetical effort, or spiritual exercise otherwise, to meet Jesus in this moment. But Jesus engages the woman so as to lead her toward the truth of His divinity, by drawing her toward a desire for water, so that she develops a genuine thirst for the divine. “Give me a drink,” He says. She chooses to continue the dialogue. Soon, Jesus offers her ‘Living Water,’ allowing her to become even more inquisitive in the moment. And she continues…

“Are you greater than our Father Jacob?”
“The water that I give will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” "Sir, give me this water,” 

But now comes the difficult part. To come into contact with the light of the divine means the darker side of our own characteristic passions are exposed in the process. Walk into any dark room, switch on the light and you will immediately see all the dark corners left unattended; the cobwebs, the dust, the mold, the cracks… But we would not know these were there had we not chosen to allow the illumination of that space — to allow the light to enter in. It is no different for the Samaritan woman, in this case, and it is no different for us today.

And here is where the baptismal imagery of our lectionary comes back into focus. Last week the Paralytic was lying near the pool of Bethesda. He encountered Christ and was healed. Today, we read of the possibility of “Living Water” rising up not merely with the Samaritan woman, but within each of us as well, as part of our own journey toward our salvation. But like that light exposing the dark spaces of that room, what happens when fresh living water is mixed into a still pool? Father John Behr states this best:

“…encountering Christ and receiving the spring of living water may not be what we expect it to be. You can’t introduce a stream of running water into a still pool without all the silt and sediment in the pool being stirred up; the immediate result will be that the pool is much more murky and turbulent than it was before. So we hear how when the Samaritan woman thirsts for living water, then she has to face the reality of her life, regarding her many husbands, and much more… Encountering the truth of God in the person of Christ by receiving his Spirit is at the same time being faced with the truth about ourselves, and we simply fool ourselves if we think that this is going to be easy… it is impossible to come to know God without at the same time coming to see ourselves as we really are.”

The Lord ultimately revealed His divinity to the Samaritan woman, and her heart was awakened! She is, in fact, the first person in John’s Gospel to call Him “Lord!” But to get there, she had to face the difficult reality of who she was. And this was no different for Jacob before her, when he met the Lord near this same spot. And so we, too, must not be afraid to face who we are, as we work toward our salvation — to look inward at the heart, and to face those difficult aspects of being imperfectly human. For in doing so, and by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit — symbolized in this ‘Living Water’ we just read about — we may have our hearts awakened to the divine, that we, too, may look inward and discover that: “The Lord is in this place—yet I did not know it!”