Sunday, May 17, 2009

Archbishop Averky on the Samaritan Woman

I am posting here my thorough revision and correction of a provisional English translation found online of Archbishop Averky's commentary on John 4:1-42, the Gospel reading for the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman:
The Conversation with the Samaritan Woman

(Mt 4:12; Mk 1:14; Jn 4:1-42)

All four Gospels speak of the Lord’s departure to Galilee. Sts Matthew and Mark note that this took place after John had been imprisoned, while St John adds that the reason for this was the rumor that Jesus was receiving and baptizing more disciples than John the Baptist, although the Evangelist explains that it was not He Himself Who was baptizing, but His disciples. After John’s imprisonment, the Pharisees’ entire hatred focused on Jesus, Who bean to seem to them more dangerous than the Baptist. As the time of His suffering had not yet arrived, Jesus leaves Judea and goes to Galilee, in order to avoid persecution by His envious enemies. Only one Evangelist, St John, relates Christ’s conversation with the Samaritan woman that took place on the way to Galilee.

The Lord’s way lay through Samaria — the district located to the north of Judea and formerly belonging to three tribes of Israelites: Dan, Ephraim, and Manasseh. There was a city in this district called Samaria, the former capital of the Israelite government. The Assyrian king Salmanassar had conquered the Israelites and led them into captivity, replacing the population with heathens from Babylon and other places. It was from the mixing of these settlers with the remaining Jews that the Samaritans originated. They accepted the Five Books of Moses, worshipping Yahweh — but did not forget their own gods. When the Jews returned from the Babylonian captivity and began to restore the temple of Jerusalem, the Samaritans also wanted to take part. However, the Jews rejected them, so they erected their own temple on Mount Gerizim. While accepting the Books of Moses, the Samaritans, however, rejected the writings of the Prophets and the entire tradition. Because of this, the Jews’ attitude towards them was worse than to heathens, avoiding any contact with them whatsoever, loathing and despising them.

Passing through Samaria, the Lord and His disciples stopped to rest near a well that, according to tradition, had been dug by Jacob near a town named Sychema, which Saint John calls Sychera. It is possible that the Evangelist employed this name in mockery, restructuring it from the word "shikar" — "ply with wine," into "sheker" — "lie." Saint John points out that it was "about the sixth hour" (noon, according to our time), the time of the maximum heat, which was most likely necessitated taking a rest. "There cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water." While the disciples of Jesus had gone to town to buy food, He turned to the Samaritan woman with a request: "Give Me to drink." Seeing, probably, by clothing or manner of speech that the one addressing her was a Jew, the Samaritan woman expressed her surprise that He, being a Jew, would ask her, a Samaritan, for water, having in mind the hatred and contempt the Jews had towards the Samaritans. But Jesus, having come to the world to save all, and not only the Jews, explains to the woman that she would not have posed such questions if she had known with Whom she was speaking and what good fortune ("the gift of God") God had sent her through this meeting. If she only had known Who was asking her for a drink, then she herself would be asking Him to quench her spiritual thirst and to reveal to her the truth that all people seek to know; and He would have given her "living water," which should be understood as the grace of the Holy Spirit (c.f., Jn 7:38).

The Samaritan woman did not understand the Lord: she thought the living water meant the water found at the bottom of the well. That was why she asked Jesus how He could get the living water if He did not have anything to draw it up with, for the well was deep. "Art Thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle?" (Jn 4:12). She recalls the Patriarch Jacob with pride and love, as the one who left use of this well to his offspring. Then the Lord raises her mind to the highest understanding of His words: "Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst: but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life" (Jn 4:13-14). In the spiritual life, the grace-filled water has a different effect than that of physical water in earthly life. He who is filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit will never experience spiritual thirst, inasmuch as all his spiritual needs have already been satisfied; meanwhile, he who drinks physical water, just as when he satisfies some other earthly needs, quenches his thirst for some time only, and soon after "shall thirst again."

Moreover, the grace-filled water will remain in man, establishing a source within him, springing up (skipping — the literal translation from Greek) into eternal life, that is, making that person a communicant of eternal life. Still not understanding the Lord, thinking that He is speaking about ordinary water — only some special type that quenches thirst forever — she asks the Lord for some of this water, so as to avoid the need of coming to the well for water. In order to make her realize, finally, that she is speaking with no ordinary man, the Lord initially orders her to call her husband, and then directly accuses her that, while she had had five husbands, she was now, too, living in an adulterous union.

Seeing that before her was a Prophet Who knows everything that is concealed, the Samaritan woman turns to Him for the resolution of the problem that greatly troubled the Samaritans in their relations with the Jews: who is correct in the argument about the place for worshipping God? The Samaritans who, following their fathers, built a temple on Mount Gerizim, and worshiped God there? Or the Jews, who affirmed that one could worship God only in Jerusalem? Basing themselves on Moses’ order to deliver a blessing on this mountain, the Samaritans chose Mount Gerizim for their worship. Although John Hyrcanus destroyed their temple that was erected there in the year 130 BC, they continued to offer their sacrifices on the location of the ruined temple. Responding to the woman’s question, the Lord explains that it would be wrong to think that one can worship God only in one specific place, and that the disputed question between the Samaritans and the Jews will soon lose its meaning by itself, because both types of Divine service — both the Jewish and the Samaritan — will cease in the nearest future. This prophecy was fulfilled when the Samaritans, decimated by soldiers, became disillusioned with the importance of their mountain, while the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the temple was burnt in the year 70 AD.

Nonetheless, the Lord gives His preference for Jewish worship, having in mind, of course, the fact that the Samaritans accepted only the Five Books of Moses, rejecting the Prophetic writings, which contained the detailed description of the Person and Kingdom of the Messiah. For "salvation is of (will come from) the Jews," inasmuch as the Redeemer of mankind will come from the Jewish people. Further, the Lord, elaborating His previous thought, points out that the "hour cometh, and now is" (since the Messiah had already appeared), the time of the new, highest worship of God, which will not be limited to any one location, but will be everywhere, for it will be in spirit and in truth. Only this type of worship is genuine, inasmuch as it corresponds to the nature of God Himself, Who is Spirit. To worship God in spirit and in truth means to strive to please God, not in outward form alone, but by the means of true and openhearted striving for God as Spirit with all the strength of one’s spiritual being; that is, not by means of sacrificial offerings, which both the Jews and Samaritans made, supposing that this was the only way to honor God, but to know and love God, genuinely and un-hypocritically wishing to please Him through the fulfillment of His commandments. Worshiping God in "in Spirit and in truth" by no means excludes the outward, ritual side of honoring God, like some false teachers and sectarians attempt to affirm, but the main force is not contained in this outward side of honoring God. The actual order of honoring God should not be seen as anything prejudicial: it is both essential and unavoidable, for a human consists not only of the soul, but of the body. Jesus Christ Himself worshiped God the Father physically, kneeling and prostrating Himself to the ground, not rejecting similar worshiping of Himself from various people during His earthly life (c.f., for example: Mt 2:11, 14:33, 15:25; Jn 11:32, 12:3; and many other examples in the Gospels).

The Samaritan woman begins as it were to understand the meaning of Jesus’ words, saying in her deliberation: "I know that Messiah commeth, Which is called Christ: when He is come, He will tell us all things." The Samaritans were also awaiting the Messiah, calling Him, in their own way, Gashageb, basing this expectation on the words of Genesis 49:10, and especially on Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 18:18. The Samaritans’ understanding of the Messiah was not as corrupted as that of the Jews, inasmuch as they awaited Him as a prophet and not as a political leader. That was why Jesus, not calling Himself the Messiah among the Jews for a long time, says directly to this simple Samaritan woman that He is the Messiah-Christ promised by Moses: “I that speak unto thee am He” [the Messiah]. Elated with joy from having seeing the Messiah, the woman drops her water-pot at the well and hurries to the city to announce to everybody about the coming of the Messiah, Who, as the Seer-of-hearts, revealed to her everything she had done. His disciples, arriving just then, were surprised that their Teacher was talking to a woman, inasmuch as this was condemned by the rules of the Jewish rabbis, who instructed: "Do not speak for long with a woman" and "nobody should converse with a woman on the road, even with one’s lawful wife" and likewise: "It is better to burn the words of the law, than to teach them to a woman." However, being reverent before their Teacher, the disciples did not in any way express their amazement and simply asked Him to try the food they had brought.

Although Jesus the Man’s natural feeling of hunger stifled His joy about the Samaritan people’s conversion to Him and their salvation, He was joyful that the seeds sown by Him had begun to produce a crop. Therefore He refused to satisfy His hunger, replying to His disciples that the true food for Him was fulfilling the task of people’s salvation conferred upon Him by God the Father. The Samaritan inhabitants that came to Him seemed to Jesus like a cornfield, ripe for the harvest — while in the fields, the harvest is ready only in four months. Ordinarily, the one who sows the seeds reaps the harvest; with the sowing of seeds into souls, the spiritual harvest more often than not is left to others, but together with that, the sower himself rejoices with the harvester, inasmuch as he did not sow for himself but for others. Therefore Christ says that He is sending the Apostles to reap the harvest in the spiritual field, which initially was not prepared and sown by them, but by the others — the Old Testament Prophets and by He Himself. During these explanations, the Samaritans approached the Lord. While many believed in Him "for the saying of the woman," many more of them believed "because of His own word," when, by their invitation, He stayed with them in the city for two days. Listening to the Lord’s teachings, they were convinced, according to their own acknowledgment, that "this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world."
Icon: Fresco by Theophanes the Cretan, Monastery of Stavronikita, Mt Athos, 16th century.

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