To Love and the Lord Loves Us


Sermon preached by Dn. James Wilcox on Sunday, June 2, 2024

Acts 11:19-30; John 4:5-42

Today, on this fifth Sunday of Pascha, we come to a text — as you just heard —which happens to be the longest interaction between Jesus and any other character presented to us in Scripture. And the extended dialogue we just heard between Jesus and the Samaritan woman all takes place in what can be considered sacred territory. Long before this episode, Jacob, and his father Isaac before him — Patriarchs of the Jewish faith — all made use of this well that is central to our Gospel story. To raise the stakes a bit further, Samaria happens to be the location where it is believed Jacob famously wrestled the angel and had a mystical encounter with the living God. For this reason, the land surrounding this well in Samaria is deeply meaningful to both Samaritans and Jews alike — both of whom are a people descended from Jacob and the Patriarchs.

By the time we come to this episode at Jacob’s Well, however, the Jews have come to despise the Samaritans for their mixed cultural ancestry, and the Samaritans likewise had little love for the Jews. Because of this, Jews were forbidden from associating with Samaritans. This is why we hear the Samaritan woman ask: "‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans."

The Jewish people also held further contempt for the Samaritans, because Samaritans didn’t share their belief that the Jerusalem Temple was the proper place of worship. Samaritans, for their part, believed the correct location for worship was, in fact, right under their feet — the area where Jesus has come to converse with the Samaritan Woman — near Jacob’s Well. This is why we hear the woman state: “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.”

But beyond these religious and cultural divisions that separate these two in practice, something more beautiful takes place in this passage that I believe Orthodoxy would do well to recognize. Because we are so determined to draw fixed lines around who is in and who is out, much like we see in today’s Gospel, we often forget that the Lord Jesus Christ has asked us to love our fellow humans in the same manner that we love ourselves. Perhaps this is why we have so much difficulty loving, accepting, and welcoming others into the fold — because deep down we have little love for ourselves. How can we love our neighbor if we cannot love ourselves? Admittedly, Christianity — at least as it’s practiced here in America — doesn’t do a great job at emphasizing this latter point. More common for us in the West is to hear that someone else is threatening our well-being and therefore we need to be on our guard — we need to be afraid, perhaps even filled with righteous indignation over the “other.” It is easier, after all, to cast our uncertainties and insecurities onto someone or something that doesn’t think, believe, or act the way we do, because in the end, this keeps us from doing the hard work of looking within to face the reality of who we truly are.

Metropolitan Antony Bloom once asked:

"What is our attitude as Christians [toward] those who are the enemies of Christ … [toward] those who are Godless not only because they have not yet met God, but because they have met [only] a caricature of God, whom we have presented them with in the name of God Himself? … realize that we stand before the judgment of those who reject God because of us, and that Christ is not alien to them, and they are not outside Him." (Anthony Bloom, God and Man. 56-57)

And so, here is where the example of Jesus Christ in today’s Gospel passage can help us readjust our attitudes and open our hearts beyond the focus and satisfaction of our egos. Jesus drew no cultural boundaries. He boxed no one out. He had no ego to satisfy, and therefore had no use for religious rules which exclude others from the truth of who they are as children of God. “God is love” as the Apostle John reminds us. And “…everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8 (NRSV)) Likewise in today’s Gospel text, the Samaritan woman, despite her cultural origins, is welcomed into Christ’s presence without a theological litmus test, and without any rite of purification otherwise. Jesus simply engaged the woman as she was through a line of questioning and in doing so led her toward the truth of His divinity.

Had Jesus acted in accordance with the religious rules of his day, the Samaritan woman might never have known the reality of Jesus as Messiah in her midst. And so, this is where we should pause to ask ourselves: what lines have we drawn, what actions do we take, what rhetoric do we espouse, say, even in good conscience hoping to be an example of the Orthodox faith, that winds up keeping others out rather than welcoming them in? Of course, some might say in response to this question that the Christian faith itself is already an offense to people no matter what we might say. And to this I would agree. For the Gospel itself IS an offense… because no matter who you are — young, old, male, female, Palestinian, Jew, Russian or Ukrainian, or whatever skin you were born into — the Gospel IS for you. And no matter who we prefer to keep outside of our fold, Jesus Christ loves them and has commanded us to do likewise.

But there is even more to the text than this — If we have come to know the Lord in his divinity as the Samaritan woman did, we still have to face the reality of who WE are. The Lord ultimately revealed His divinity to the Samaritan woman, and her heart was awakened! But to get there, she too had to face the difficult reality of who she was. And this was no different for Jacob before her, when he wrestled the Lord near this same spot. Likewise 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. And it’s ok for us to give ourselves a little grace, and to have compassion on ourselves the way our Lord shows us compassion. For in doing so, by the love of the Lord Jesus Christ, and through the work of the Holy Spirit, we too may have our hearts awakened to the divine!