Holy Desire – The Samaritan Woman

John 4:5-42: The Samaritan Woman

One would expect that if  Jesus was trying to convert the world and make everyone be His followers, His disciples, that He would aim to meet with the most influential people around.  When he went into a town, you would think He would try to talk to the village chief, the mayor the town, the high priest or someone of some influence and importance.

Yet, the Gospels tell us that Jesus meeting with important people – The Governor Pontius Pilate, King Herod, and the High Priest – did not go so well for Jesus.

It seems Jesus was not much of a top – down thinker, but rather was  one to move from the bottom up.  Or maybe for Jesus there are no real important people contrasted with unimportant people.  For Christ, all people, whatever their age, gender, social rank, skin color, nationality or language are simple people – God’s creatures all of equal value, yet of infinite importance to God.

When Jesus begins talking to the Samaritan woman , according to history her name is Photini,  as he sits by the well in the village of Sychar, He is not being distracted from His true mission.  Christ is there to unite all humans to God.  It’s just as significant to start with one woman, and a sinner at that, as with some man of influence.   Christ redeems us personally as we all form a relationship with Him.

Jesus engages in a serious theological discussion with this “sinful” woman.  She is a  a social outcast.   First of course she is a Samaritan, a kind of people whom the Jews despised.  But then even within the Samaritan people she is an outcast:  Married multiple times, living with a man who is not her husband – coming to the well at Noon instead of in the morning when all the rest of the women of the town were there.

Yet, strangely, and God does work in mysterious ways, by avoiding the crowd, by avoiding the social life, she finds God.

But still, if Jesus wants to convert the world, why is He wasting His time with this social failure and misfit?   She’s not exactly His poster child, nor a good PR spokesperson, nor a person who respectable people would trust.

Jesus Himself is quite willing to speak with her, He is not distracted or annoyed.  He is on task, fully engaged, fulfilling His mission.   Speaking with this woman is not beneath His dignity.  He is not amusing Himself, or her.   He doesn’t leave this task of talking to this insignificant woman to His disciples.  He is fully engaged with her, and wants to give her what He has to offer.  No sense whatsoever that talking with this woman is less important to Him than talking to Jews or to His disciples.

He helps her become a disciple.  And in fact in the Orthodox Church Photini is given the title, “Equal to the Apostles”.  She is a martyr in our church.  A saint, an evangelizer.

Photini comes seeking well water to drink, goes away thirsting for living water.   She comes looking with her body, her feelings, her physical needs, her eyes.  She leaves looking for living water for her soul, seeing Jesus no longer as a Man, Jewish male, but as the Messiah.  Her heart, soul, mind have been awakened – given life.

She realizes that when it comes to the spiritual life, we cannot take every discussion at face value.  The discussion on water, on living water, is not about H2O  but about the Holy Spirit.

Living water.”    Not water having living things in it (like fish), but having life in the water itself, having the power of life, life-giving.  It is flowing, moving water from a spring – the source can’t be seen, it is deep and hidden, yet the water is flowing from it.  It is an image of God.

It is not pond water, or puddles of rain water.  Not even the purest bottled water.  But water that is forcefully moving, has vitality to it.  It moves and can move things.  Like all gushing water it makes sound – it is seen and heard.

Photini comes to know what each of us here has to come to know, a relationship with God is a spiritual relationship which requires me to think in a spiritual way about spiritual things.   Even words like heart, mind, eyes, ears, hands have a spiritual meaning, and we have to be able to move beyond the physical to understand the spiritual.

The Gospel lesson about Photini is about you and me and our relationship to Jesus Christ and to God.

And so we see in the Scriptures that God describes Himself as the fountain of living water:

O LORD, the hope of Israel, all who forsake You shall be put to shame; those who turn away from You shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water. Heal me, O LORD, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved; for You are my praise.  (Jeremiah 17:13-14)

If we want living water, we have to find God in our lives.  We cannot buy this living water, it’s not a commodity for sale,  for Christ gives it to us freely as a gift.  Our task is to know how to receive it.

And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the fountain of the water of life without payment.  (Revelation 21:6)

The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let him who hears say, “Come.” And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price.  (Revelation 22:17)

St. Ignatius of Antioch says this: “My love has been crucified and there is no burning love within me for material things; instead there is living water, which also is speaking in me, saying to me from within: “Come to the Father.”  I have no pleasure in the food that perishes nor in the pleasures of this life.  I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, from the seed of David; and for drink I desire his blood, which is imperishable love.”

The living water is tangible, yet completely spiritual!  Women and men, everyone is offered this gift by Christ.  Receive it!  Christ offers this gift to sinners, misfits, failures, people of any race or color, female or male, young or old.  He offers this to all people – to each of us, without exception.

As Isaiah the Prophet proclaimed:

You will say in that day:

I will give thanks to you, O LORD,

for though you were angry with me,

your anger turned away,

and you comforted me.

Surely God is my salvation;

I will trust, and will not be afraid,

for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might;

he has become my salvation.

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

And you will say in that day:

Give thanks to the LORD,

call on his name;

make known his deeds among the nations;

proclaim that his name is exalted.

Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously;

let this be known in all the earth.

Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,

for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.  

(Isaiah 12:1-6)


The Blessing of Water (2016)

Tertullian (d. 225AD) wishing, in the De Baptismo, to justify the use of water in Baptism from the unbroken witness of the Bible, turned first to the story of Creation in Genesis. In this narrative, the waters have two characteristics which Baptism reproduces: it is the primordial element in which life appears, and it is sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Tertullian develops this first aspect:

‘First of all, O man, you should have reverence for the antiquity of the waters as a primordial element’ (Bapt. 2).

It was in the midst of the waters that the earth appeared:

‘Once the elements of the world were set in order, when it was to be given inhabitants, it was the primordial waters which were commanded to produce living creatures. The primordial water brought forth life, so that no one should be astonished that in Baptism the waters are able to give life.’ (Bapt. 2).

And to this characteristic, another is added: the fact that the

‘Spirit of God was carried over the waters, He Who was to recreate the baptized. The Holy One was carried over that which was holy, or, rather, over that which could receive holiness from Him Who was carried. It is thus that the nature of water, sanctified by the Spirit, received the capability of itself becoming sanctifying. This is why all waters, by reason of their ancient original prerogative, may obtain the sacrament of sanctification by the invocation of God’ (Bapt. 2).

What is taught here is the consecration of the baptismal water, to which ancient Christianity attached great importance:

‘You have seen water. But all water does not heal, if the Spirit has not descended and consecrated that water.’ (Ambrose, De Sacr. 1, 15; Botte; 58).”

(Jean Danielou, S.J, The Bible and the Liturgy, pp 72-73)

Hymns of Theophany: In His Baptism Christ Washes Away our Sin

The Orthodox hymns surrounding the Baptism of Christ (Matt 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:29-34) are an abundant source of theology (dogmatic and poetic) as well as biblical commentary.   The Jordan River, mentioned more than 180 times in English Bibles, is not only a geographical reality but it is a mystical location involved with numerous Old Testament theophanies.

The Troparion of the Eve of Theophany says:

“Of old, the River Jordan turned back before Elisha’s mantle at Elijah’s ascension.  The waters were made to part in two so the wet surface became a dry path.  This was truly a symbol of baptism in which we cross through mortal life.  Christ has come in the Jordan to sanctify the waters!”

In the above hymn we get a sense of an Orthodox reading of scripture.  The events of 2 Kings 2:13-14 (Elisha parting the River Jordan with Elijah’s mantle) are referenced, but the significance of the story is not that it proved that Elijah’s power had passed on to Elisha but the story is read as “a symbol of baptism.”  The meaning of the story is not merely God acting in history or the charismatic office of the prophet, but rather is found in Christ.  Without Christ, the story’s most important meaning remains hidden.  The events in the story are understood as a symbol of baptism, meaning they help us to understand what baptism is.  Thus the events of 2 Kings 2 are significant not so much as ancient history telling us about something God did long ago, but because they help us to understand Christ and our life in Him.

 The hymn specifically connects baptism to crossing “through mortal life.”   This is also an interesting interpretation of baptism itself which is not a one time ritual we experience, but rather is a passage through this life into the life of the world to come.  Baptism is something we live – as we pray in the liturgy that we might spend the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance.  We pray that we might live out our baptismal experience.

Additionally in the hymn we encounter in the last line an idea that is pervasive in Orthodox hymns – Christ in His baptism is sanctifying water.  The idea is that the water is not washing away His sin (He is proclaimed to be sinless!) but rather water is receiving a sanctification from contact with the Lord in which the water of the Jordan becomes the spiritually cleansing force that it was always intended by the Creator to be.  Water which only washes dirt away is the water of the fallen world.  In Christ’s baptism, water is recreated and thus receives from the Lord of creation a sanctification that it has been missing since the fall of Adam and Eve.  The water in which Christ is baptized becomes the water in which we are baptized – as we pray at each baptismal service when we bless the water before the baptism asking God to give the water in the font the grace of Jordan.

Here is an interesting idea:  at the Great Flood (Genesis 6-9) God is said to drown the wickedness, violence and all sin of humanity.  Is it possible that the waters which washed the world of sin through the Great Flood are at Christ’s baptism themselves being purified of sin?   Is this the restoration which the incarnate Word of God brings about on earth?

While Christ is understood to be sanctifying the waters of the River Jordan, simultaneously He is using those waters to rid us and the world of sin.  Consider the following hymns from the Prefeast of Theophany and from the Eve of Theophany:

1)      “Christ comes to baptism; Christ approaches Jordan!  Christ now buries our sins in the waters. Let us sing His praises with exceeding joy: He is the good One For He has been glorified!”

2)     “Let the clouds rejoice! Let them drop down eternal gladness. Jesus Christ comes forth to drown the rivers of sin in the streams of Jordan, Granting enlightenment to all.”

The words of the hymns offer these vivid images:  Christ burying our sins in the waters and drowning the rivers of sin in the streams of the Jordan.  Long before His crucifixion Christ is ridding the world of our sin.  This is a rich theology of salvation, not opposed to the Cross, but enriching our thoughts about redemption.  Salvation is not merely a juridical dealing with sin, but is also a cleansing from sin.  Perhaps the Christian West too narrowly focuses on one aspect of salvation, the Cross, and so loses the wealth of images offered to us by Scripture as to how God deals with the sin of the world.   Christ takes on the sin of the world in order to forgive our sins: not only on the Cross but also in the River Jordan at His baptism.  And this is true because He took on our sin at the incarnation when divinity united itself to the flesh of fallen, sinful humanity.   This is ancient Christian theology, far richer and more diverse in the imagery used to understand the salvation of the world in Jesus Christ than many Christians imagine.

“Wishing to bury our sins with water in the streams of Jordan, Christ our God comes forth in His compassionate mercy, and us who had grown corrupt He forms anew through baptism.

The above hymn from the Eve of Theophany reiterates that the very reason Christ the Incarnate God desired to come into the world was “to bury our sins with water in the steams of the Jordan.”  Thus the events of Theophany are done for us and for our salvation.  In Christ’s baptism, Christ who took on the sins of humanity when He became incarnate and united divinity to our sinful flesh, our sins are washed away.  Thus in the incarnation and in His baptism, Christ is restoring fallen human nature by doing away with sin.  Every aspect of Christ’s life, not just His crucifixion is about the salvation of all the people of the world. We then participate in this cleansing of sin when we are baptized in those holy waters over which the Church prays calling God to make the waters in the baptismal font those of the River Jordan.

Next:  Hymns of Theophany: The Jordan Fleeing God

Theophany: Blessing Water and the New Creation

Lost worldThe blessing of water is a prayerful statement about what water is and what God created water to be.  The blessing water, the notion of Holy Water, is that  we are reclaiming and transfiguring creation for it to have the spiritual characteristics God intended creation to have from the beginning.   Author John H. Walton in his book, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, calls upon us to not only embrace the notion of the new creation in Christ but to change our thinking about what it means to be “created.”  He writes:

“Since in our culture we believe that existence is material, we consequently believe that to create something means to bring its material properties into existence. Thus our discussions of origins tend to focus on material origins. . . .

Most of us never consider alternative ontologies.   Our culture has given us our beliefs about what it means for the cosmos to exist (material ontology; existence is material; creation is a material act) and many of us would not realize that these beliefs are the result of a choice. It is a testimony to the pervasive influence of culture that this material ontology seems so obvious as to prevent any thought that it is open to discussion. . . .  however, there are alternatives. If we are going to understand a creation account from the ancient world we must understand what they meant by ‘creation,’   and to do that we must consider their cosmic ontology instead of supplying our own. It is less important what we might think about ontology. If we are dealing with an ancient account we must ask questions about the world of that text: What did it mean to someone in the ancient world to say that the world existed?   What sort of activity brought the world into that state of existence and meaning? What constituted a creative act?

In this book I propose that people in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system. Here I do not refer to an ordered system in scientific terms, but an ordered system in human terms, that is, in relation to society and culture. In this sort of functional ontology, the sun does not exist by virtue of its material properties, or even by its function as a burning ball of gas. Rather it exists by virtue of the role that it has in its sphere of existence, particularly in the way that it functions for humankind and human society. In theory, this way of thinking could result in something being included in the “existent” category in a material way, but still considered in the “nonexistent”   category in functional terms …. In a functional ontology, to bring something into existence would require giving it a function or a role in an ordered system, rather than giving it material properties.   Consequently, something could be manufactured physically but still not ‘exist’ if it has not become functional.”  (Kindle Loc. 210-12, 219-22, 222-32)

If we follow the argument and thinking of Dr. Walton, we can understand how sacramental prayer bestows upon the things of the earth – water, bread, wine marriage – the blessing of functionality.  The sacramental prayers bestow on the things which are being sanctified a holy and godly function.   Thus they become (come into existence)  the mystery of creation which God intended them to be.  We in the church in the sacramental and prayer life become what God intended us a humans to be in His creation:  co-creators with Him of reality.  When we bestow proper functionality on things that exist, we working with God to create the world as God would have it be.  In the fall of humans, our sinfulness took away from us this functionality, and thus creation suffered and has groaned itself because its function had been taken away from it.

The Blessing of Waters at Theophany

 According to Nicholas E. Denysenko in his book, The Blessing of Waters and Epiphany, it is in the 4th Century that we first see references in the Patristic authors to the practice of blessing waters.

“John Chrysostom, in his homily De Baptismo Christi preached in Antioch in AD 387, testifies to the practice of drawing sanctified water:

‘For this is the day on which he was baptized and sanctified the nature of the waters. Therefore also on this solemnity in the middle of the night all who are gathered, having drawn the water, set the liquid aside in their houses and preserve it throughout the year, for today the waters are sanctified.’”  (Kindle   Loc. 612-16)

However the first reference to the blessing of waters from texts dealing with liturgical rubrics comes from the 8th Century.

“The earliest occurrence of the ritual for the blessing of waters in the Eastern liturgical tradition is in the Euchologion Barberini 336 (BAR), which dates to the eighth century.”  (Kindle Loc. 603-5)

Denysenko reports that the rubrics mention an order for the services which we have followed in our own parish when the Feast of Theophany falls on weekday:

“… beginning with the arrival at the Church at the ninth hour on January 6, immediately followed by Vespers and a Eucharistic liturgy.  After the liturgy, the assembly departs for the blessing of waters…”  (Kindle Loc. 694-97)

The 9th Hour is about 3pm.  The services done were Vespers, the Divine Liturgy and then the blessing of water.  One of the prayers listed for the service is the following beautiful prayer which recounts the deeds which God has done using water for the salvation of humankind:

“For you are our God, who have renewed through water and the Spirit our nature grown old through sin (John 3);  You are our God who drowned sin through water [in the days of] Noah (Genesis 7, 8);  

You are our God, who in the days of Moses set free the Hebrew nation through the sea from the bondage of Pharaoh. (Exodus 14);  You are our God who cleft the rock in the wilderness: the waters gushed out, the streams overflowed, and You satisfied Your thirsty people (Exodus 17);  

You are our God Who by water and fire through Elijah brought back Israel from the error of Baal (2 Kings 10:18–28);  Our God, who healed the bitter and barren waters by the salt of Elisha (2 Kings 2:19–22); Our God, who received the inseparable concord of the Trinity in the Jordan and who manifested the single paternal essence of your Godhead to us in it.”   (Kindle Loc. 2572-79)

Holy Water

“Thus, for example, to bless water, making it ‘holy water,’ may have two entirely different meanings. It may mean, on the one hand, the transformation of something profane, and thus religiously void or neutral, into something sacred, in which case the main religious meaning of ‘holy water’ is precisely that it is no longer ‘mere’ water, and is in fact opposed to it – as the sacred is to the profane. Here the act of blessing reveals nothing about water, and thus about matter or world, but on the contrary makes them irrelevant to the new function of water as ‘holy water.’ The sacred posits the profane as precisely profane, i.e. religiously meaningless. On the other hand,  the same act of blessing may mean the revelation of the true ‘nature’ and ‘destiny’ of water, and thus of the world – it may be the epiphany and the fulfillment of their ‘sacramentality’. By being restored through the blessing to its proper function, the ‘holy water’ is revealed as the true, full, adequate water, and matter becomes again means of communion with and knowledge of God. Now anyone who is acquainted with the content and the text of the great prayer of blessing of water – at Baptism and Epiphany – knows without any doubt that they belong to the second of two meanings mentioned above. ” (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, pg. 132)