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May 26, 2019

Meeting with the Samaritan Woman

By Prof. George Mantzaridis

Any encounter with Christ astonishes people. If you’re not astonished, you should ask yourself whether you actually encountered Christ, if you really felt His presence. This astonishment isn’t inexplicable, nor absurd, but rather it’s understandable and rational. It’s something that occurs when the natural meets the supernatural, the relative meets the absolute and the transitory meets the eternal.

When people who are overcome with the fear of death meet the Lord of Life, when the creature gazes upon its Creator, the relationship is incommensurate, unexpected surprises occur. And these surprises become all the more moving when the Lord humbles Himself before His creation, in order to serve it. Indeed, the surprises here aren’t restricted to the general nature of things, but also extend to their particular details.

In the encounter with the Samaritan woman, the first surprise is the dialogue itself which develops between them. Christ addresses the Samaritan woman and asks for some water to drink. She’s surprised and asks, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, are asking me for water to drink, when I’m a Samaritan woman. Jews have no dealings with Samaritans’.

The surprise is twofold, or rather manifold. How is it that a Jew, Jesus, should address a person from Samaria? Even more so, why should he be conversing with a woman, particularly one who has a chequered past, as He knows full well. And finally, how is it that this woman uncovers the most profound truth of the Messianic message?

Any surprise we experience is always due to an encounter with something new, to the manifestation of some reality, some person, some truth that we hadn’t known till then. In other words, it’s due to some sort of revelation. This is also what we notice in the case of the meeting we’re examining.

The Samaritan woman is surprised at the presence of a Jew, who breaks down the barriers of non-communication with her people and begins a conversation with her. He asks her for some water to drink. Before she can recover from this surprise, she’s faced with another one, even greater. She hears that the person who’s asked for water is in the position of offering ‘living water’ Himself. This surprise wasn’t caused by any new revelation, however, but by the fact that it puzzled her. ‘Sir’, she says, ‘you haven’t even got a bucket and the well’s very deep. Where will you got this living water from?’

‘Living water’ means running water. Water in a well isn’t running. Therefore it’s not ‘living water’. But this isn’t what puzzles the Samaritan woman; she’s still thinking about the water in the well. Her mind’s not on any running water. And it if it had been, she still wouldn’t have understood what Christ was talking about. On the other hand, when He said ‘living water’, Christ didn’t mean some running water that slakes bodily thirst for a short time, but water that creates within people a never-failing source of eternal life. Water that does away with death.

Thinking she’d understood Christ’s words, the Samaritan woman asks Him to give her this magic water, so as to free her from the wearisome task of fetching water. ‘Sir’, she says, ‘give me this water, so that I won’t be thirsty and won’t have to come here to carry water’. The woman thought she’d found an easy answer to her problem. Christ had spoken to her about water that welled up in people and became a source of eternal life. She imagined natural water, that she’d drink once and then would never feel thirsty again, nor need to go to the well for water.

As long as people restrict themselves to worldly affairs, they can’t comprehend eternal, transcendent truths. They can be surprised, be puzzled or amazed. They can even expect magical solutions. But they remain locked into the perceptible world, bound by direct physical contact. They deal with routine, everyday problems. Their minds go no further than that. Their spiritual senses don’t function. Even if they hear about something that transcends direct sensation, something beyond the things of this world, they conceive of it in terms of the senses and in a worldly manner. They do, indeed, have questions, they experience surprises and receive revelations, but they still function within space and time. They think, comprehend and live in subjection to the law of death and corruption.

The obstacle which hinders and halts people’s every thought and action, every surprise they experience or revelation they are granted, is the hurdle of death. No revelation, no invention, no art or philosophy can break through this barrier. Everything that is known or available to us lies ‘this side’ of the confines of death.

Death isn’t transcended by logic or argument, by science or magic. All of these serve worldly purposes. Death is transcended by a miracle, by the greatest miracle of all, the Resurrection. This is why Christ’s resurrection is the most profound revelation, or, to be more precise, the only true revelation, because it opens up an entirely new reality for us. This is why every one of Christ’s miracles is a sign, that is, an arrow pointing us ‘beyond’ the purlieus of death and corruption, to resurrection and eternity.

While the Samaritan woman was talking to Christ, she basically didn’t understand what he was saying. He was talking on the level of eternal life. She automatically transferred what she heard to the level of this transitory life. There was no meeting point. This point was created through a ‘sign’- a miracle- that Christ revealed to her. He said, ‘Go and fetch your husband and come back here’. She replied that she didn’t have a husband. Then Jesus said to her, ‘You’re quite right in saying that you don’t have a husband. You’ve had five and the one you have now isn’t your husband. It was true, what you said’.

The words of the Lord shifted the Samaritan woman onto another level. They presented her with new opportunity, one not defined by rational necessity. They offered her the prospect of perpendicular vision and reference. The woman then abandoned the existential problem of water, or rather forgot it completely, as is clear from the rest of the narrative, and asked for another problem to be solved, for another thirst to be slaked, her metaphysical thirst.

She says, ‘Sir, I see you’re a prophet. Our fathers worshipped God on this mountain, but you [the Jews] say that Jerusalem’s the place where God should be worshipped’. Then she’s granted a great revelation: ‘The time’s coming, and has already come, when those who truly worship the Father will do so “in spirit and truth”. God is Spirit and those who worship Him should worship in Spirit and Truth’. People become those who believe and worship. When they believe in and worship God ‘in Spirit and Truth’, they also become, to some extent like Him. They become spiritual and real.

The religious belief of the woman then comes to the fore and she says, ‘I know that the Messiah- that is Christ- will come and that when he comes he’ll explain everything to us’. And Christ tells her, ‘You’re speaking to him’.

This revelation which the Samaritan woman was given coincided with the surprise experienced by Christ’s disciples, who arrived there at that moment. They were puzzled as to why their Teacher was talking to this woman. And this surprise of theirs was a useful ‘sign’. It was a preparation that would help them understand that the Gospel they were to preach transcends strict racial, social and religious boundaries.

The more people devote themselves to the concerns of this life, the more they’re anchored in the things of this world and forget their more profound needs. But when, for whatever reason, their deeper spiritual disquiet is aroused and they recognize that there is an answer to the forgotten and often rejected existential question in their hearts, they then forget their everyday needs and reject their worldly cares.

‘The woman left her pitcher there, went into the city and told people: “Come and see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done in my life. Maybe he’s the Messiah”’. Obviously, the woman herself was convinced that He was the Messiah, because that’s what she’d come to tell the people in her town. She wanted to share her great joy with them. But, being human, she also perhaps wanted to have the fulfillment of their common expectation confirmed by others. And her confirmation came with the experience afforded to her fellow-citizens from their own encounter with Christ. A joy shared is twice a joy. Joy that belongs to everyone and each one. ‘We no longer believe because of what you said, since we’ve heard for ourselves and know that this is truly Christ, the Saviour of the world’.

Real faith doesn’t depend on report or information but on personal experience. ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good’ says the Psalmist. ‘Come and see’, says Philip to Nathaniel. Unless you see God in your life, say the Fathers of the Church, don’t expect to see Him after you die. It’s here that our spiritual receptors are tuned to receive God and to perceive the riches of His kingdom.

People today, in particular, have closed down their spiritual receptors and have nothing at all to do with spiritual reality. By and large, nothing surprises them anymore, nothing in their everyday lives, because they’ve computerized their lives and turned them into mind-numbing routine. In the same way as it would be a catastrophe for a priest to just get used to the Divine Liturgy and the services he performs, so for each person it’s a disaster if they get used to their everyday lives and become indifferent to the opportunities and surprises they’re being offered.

Human life is a function that lasts as long as we’re here. And it’s full of small and great surprises, positive and negative. The positive ones we often see negatively, and the negative ones we could view and experience positively. Anyone who retains the ‘living water’ which was poured into them at Baptism can experience their daily routine creatively, with all the positive and negative surprises, slaking their thirst with ‘the living water’, absorbing the truth of eternal life and giving meaning and substance to evanescence.

Ορθόδοξη Μαρτυρίa [Orthodox Witness], no. 98, February 2012, pp. 30-4.