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May 17, 2020

Homily on the Gospel About the Samaritan Woman (St. Gregory Palamas)

Homily Nineteen

On the Gospel About the Samaritan Woman

And That We Must Despise the Things of the Present

By St. Gregory Palamas

1. Throughout the current season of fifty days we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ from the dead, proving by the length of this feast its superiority over the others. For if these fifty days also include the yearly commemoration of the ascension into heaven, it too shows the distinction between the risen Master and those of His servants who have from time to time been brought back to life. All who were raised from the dead were raised by other people, and when they died again, returned to the earth. But when Christ rose from the dead, death no longer had any power over Him (Rom. 6:9). He alone resurrected Himself on the third day and, instead of returning again to the earth, He ascended into heaven, making our human substance share the same throne as the Father, being equally divine. He alone became the beginning of the coming resurrection of all (Col. 1:18), the first-fruits of them that slept (1 Cor. 15:20), the firstborn from the dead (Col. 1:18), and the Father of the world to come (Is. 9:6 Lxx). "As in Adam all," sinners and the just, "die, so in Christ shall all," both sinners and the just, "be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the first-fruits; afterwards they that are Christ's at His coming. Then comes the end, when He shall have put down all rule and all authority and power and put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death" (1 Cor. 15:22-26), at the time of the General Resurrection, "at the last trump" (1 Cor. 15:52). "For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality" (1 Cor. 15:53).

2. The Lord's resurrection has procured this bounty for us, and that is why it is the only feast we keep for so many days, seeing that it is immortal, indestructible and eternal, and thus prefigures the future blessedness of the saints, whence pain, sorrow and sighing shall flee away (Is. 35:10 Lxx). In that place inspired, unchanging joy and celebration will be unceasing, for it is the dwelling place of those who truly rejoice. For this reason the grace of the Spirit ordained that before this present season we should pass the holy forty days in fasting, vigil, prayer and all kinds of training in the virtues. Through those forty days He shows that in this world the life of those being saved consists only of repentance and a way of life pleasing to God. By means of these fifty days through which we are now passing, however, He demonstrates the ease and enjoyment which await those who have lived here and now in struggles for God's sake.

3. This is why Lent lasts for forty days and is closely linked with the commemoration of the Lord's saving passion, and fasting comes to an end after seven weeks. This season, on the other hand, is for fifty days, and includes the Lord's ascension from earth to heaven and the descent and distribution of the divine Spirit. This present age is divided into weeks of seven days, is made up of four seasons, four parts and four elements, and upon those who make themselves sharer's in Christ's sufferings through their deeds here and now, it bestows the feast of Pentecost, which begins in the eighth week and ends in the eighth week, going beyond the honorable numbers seven and four. This feast bears witness, through the Lord's resurrection and His subsequent ascension, to the future resurrection of the human race, when those who are worthy will be raised up in the clouds to meet the Lord, and thereafter shall be ever at rest with God (cf. 1 Thess. 4:17).

4. All this will come in due course. Meanwhile the Lord, before His passion and resurrection, was preaching the Good News of the kingdom and showing His disciples that those worthy of faith and of the eternal inheritance offered by Him would not be chosen just from among the Jews but from the Gentiles as well. "Then," according to the Gospel reading we have heard today (John 4:5-42), "cometh he to a city of Samaria, which is called Sychar, near to the parcel of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Now Jacob's well was there." He calls the well "a spring", because it was a source of running water, as will become clear from what follows. It was Jacob's well because he dug it. The place which Jacob gave Joseph was called Shechem. As he was breathing his last in Egypt and disposing of his property he said to Joseph, "Behold I die: but God will bring you again unto the land of your fathers. Moreover I have given to thee Shechem as a special portion above thy brethren, which I took out of the hand of the Amorite with my sword and with my bow" (Gen. 48:21-22 Lxx). So Shechem was later inhabited by the tribe of Ephraim, Joseph's firstborn son, and the Ten Tribes of Israel, ruled by the apostate Jeroboam, settled the surrounding area.

5. Because they frequently offended against God and were often abandoned by Him, their whole nation was later enslaved, and the rule of Assyria brought together various nations to live there instead of them, calling the settlers Samaritans after the hill Somor. History tells us that Jacob subdued Shechem as he passed by (Gen. 34:25-31), and in the same way Christ won over Samaria now as He journeyed through. Jacob, however, as he tells us himself, achieved this with his sword and his power, resulting in the annihilation and destruction of the former inhabitants, whereas Christ used His words and His teaching, and the outcome was their salvation. "Jesus therefore," it says, "being wearied with his journey, sat thus on the well: and it was about the sixth hour" (John 4:6).

6. The time of day, the effort required and the place would make anyone with a body like ours sit down. So, confirming that He had a human body, and foreseeing the good that would result from His action, "He sat," it says, "thus on the well." He simply sat down on His own like any other traveller, "For his disciples were gone away unto the city to buy meat" (John 4:8). While He was sitting alone by the well, "There cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water" (John 4:7). As man, the Lord was thirsty, and saw that someone who was naturally thirsty was coming to quench her thirst. As God, however, He also saw that her heart was athirst for the water of salvation, although she did not know Him Who could give it to her. So He hastened to reveal Himself to her longing soul for, as it is written, He Himself longs for those who long for Him (cf. Ps. 9:10; Prov. 7:15). He started from a point where He would be well received and said to her, "Give me water to drink" (John 4:7). Being intelligent, and understanding just from His clothes, His appearance and His outward behavior that He was a Jew who kept the law, she replied that she was amazed that He should ask a Samaritan woman for a drink, since the Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans because they were Gentiles. Using this as a starting-point, the Lord began to disclose Himself by saying to her, "If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me water to drink,; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water" (John 4:10).

7. It is evident that had she known who He was, she would have asked at once and would have partaken of the true living water, as later, once she had found out, she did to her benefit. The council of the Jews, by contrast, crucified the Lord of glory after they had questioned Him and clearly heard who He was (1 Cor. 2:8). But what is God's gift? For He said, "If thou knewest the gift of God" (John 4:10). If we ignore everything else, was it not a great gift and grace that God did not find abhorrent people whom the Jews loathed and with whom they would not share even a drink of water? But who can comprehend the fact that He held them so dear that He not only received what they gave Him, but shared with them His divine gifts of grace? (But why do I say gifts of grace? For He offered Himself and made believers acceptable vessels of His divinity, since there is no other way they could have within them a well of water springing up into eternal life, as He proclaimed with foresight.) Whose mind is capable of apprehending this? What words can express the excellence of this gift?

8. Since the Samaritan woman did not yet understand how great this living water was, she was puzzled initially as to how He who was addressing her could find the water He was promising, since He had nothing to draw with and the well was deep. Then she endeavored to compare Him with Jacob, whom she referred to as their father, attributing honour to her nation on account of their place, and praised the water from the well, as if no better could be found. When she heard the Lord saying that the water that He would give would become for the one who received it a well springing up into life, with a soul full of longing and on her way towards faith, though not yet able to look directly up at the light, she uttered the words, "Sir, give me this water, that I thirst not, neither come hither to draw" (John 4:15). The Lord, who still wished to uncover His identity gradually, told her to call her husband. When the woman, concealing her circumstances and eager to receive the gift, said that she had no husband, she heard how many husbands she had had since her girlhood and was accused of not now having a husband. However, she was not annoyed by this criticism, but realized immediately that the one speaking to her was a prophet and turned to greater subjects.

9. Do you see how forbearing and keen to learn the woman was? “Our Fathers,” she said, “worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the pace where men ought to worship” (John 4:20). Notice what occupies her thoughts, and how well she knows the Scriptures. How many believers nowadays, born and brought up in the Church, are ignorant of what the Samaritan woman knew, that our fathers, namely Jacob and his sons the patriarchs, worshipped God on that mountain (cf. Deut. 11:29;27:12; Josh. 8:33)? Christ accepted her knowledge and her intelligent meditation on divinely inspired Scripture as sweet savour, and gladly continued His conversation with her. If you put something fragrant on to burning coals, you motivate those who approach to come back again and to stay near, but if instead you put on something with an unpleasant, oppressive smell, you repel them and drive them away. It is the same with the mind. If your attention is occupied with what is holy, you make yourself worthy of being visited by God, since this is the sweet savour which God catches scent of. On the other hand, if you nurture evil, foul and earthly thoughts within you, you remove yourself from God’s supervision and unfortunately make yourself worthy of His aversion. "The lawless shall not stand in thy sight", says the psalmist and prophet of God (Ps. 5:5 Lxx). Given that the law commands, "Thou shalt remember the Lord thy God" (Deut. 8:18) at all times, "when thou sittest, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up" (cf. Deut. 6:7), while the Gospel says, "Search the scriptures" (John 5:39), and in them you will find eternal life, and the apostle exhorts us, "Pray without ceasing" (1 Thess. 5:17), anyone who dwells on earthly thoughts is obviously lawless. And how much more so is someone absorbed in evil and filthy thoughts?

10. But when was it that our fathers worshipped God in this mountain? When the patriarch Jacob was fleeing from his envious brother Esau and, heeding the advice of his father Isaac, departed for Mesopotamia, and when he returned thence with his wives and children. On the return journey, after the incident concerning Dinah and the destruction of the Shechemites, when Jacob pitched his tents at about the place where the Lord spoke to the Samaritan woman, the Lord said to Jacob, as is written in Genesis, “Arise, go up to Bethel: and make there an altar unto God, that appeared unto thee when thou fleddest from the face of Esau thy brother” (Gen.35:1). After these words, Jacob arose and went up to the nearby mountain and built there, it says, an altar, and named the place Bethel, since God appeared to him there (Gen. 35:67). That is why the Samaritan woman said, “Our fathers worshipped in this mountain” (John 4:20), identifying herself with the forefathers. For all the ordinances concerning the Temple in Jerusalem came later. Since that place had been called God’s house by Jacob, for that is what Bethel means, the Samaritan woman was puzzled, wanting to know why the Jews said that the house of God, where it was their custom to make sacrifice to God and worship Him, was in Jerusalem rather than Bethel. The Lord, already reaching the conclusion of His discourse and prophesying that the woman was to be the sort of person God sought and accepted, said in answer to her words, “Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father” (John 4:21). Then a little later He added, “For the Father seeketh such to worship him” (John 4:23).

11. Do you see that He confirmed in regard to her that she would be such as God sought and that she would worship the heavenly Father not in any particular place, but according to the Gospel — for the words, “Ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father,” were addressed to her — while at the same time openly announcing to her that the law would be altered? Because changing the place of worship by necessity also means changing the law.

12. The intervening passage, “Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22), is both a reply to her words and a continuation of His own discourse. “We the Jews,” He said (for He counted Himself as one of them, being of their race according to the flesh), “those of us who are not unworthy to be called Jews, but who observe our religious duties, worship differently from you Samaritans, because we know that it is laid down that worship should be performed in Judaea for the reason that the salvation of the world, that is, the Christ, will come from the Jews.” Since Christ was not to come in the future, but was He Himself, He did not say, “Salvation will be,” but “Salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22). “But the hour cometh,” He went on, “and now is.” In this too He was speaking prophetically. He said, “The hour cometh” because it was not yet accomplished but would be, whereas He added, “and now is,” because He saw that she was about to believe and worship in spirit and in truth. “But the hour cometh and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23). The heavenly Father whom we worship is the Father of the Truth, namely, of the only-begotten Son, and has the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit; and those who worship Him in these Two do so because they believe in these persons and act through Them. For the apostle tells us that it is through the Spirit that we worship and pray, and God’s only-begotten Son says, “no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).

13. The true worshippers are those who worship the heavenly Father in spirit and in truth. He had rejected both Jerusalem and Samaria, and lest anyone should think that He was going to substitute some other place, He went on once more to lead His listener away from any physical concept of place and worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24), meaning that He who has no body is entirely outside everything physical. For in this way the worshippers shall truly see Him everywhere in His Spirit and His Truth. As God is a Spirit He has no body, and being without a body He is not in any one place or circumscribed by spatial boundaries. Accordingly, anyone who says that God must be worshipped only within the confines of Jerusalem, or the mountain of Samaria, or anywhere else at all on earth or in heaven is not speaking or worshipping truly. Being bodiless, God is nowhere, but as God He is everywhere. If there were a mountain, a place or any part of creation where God was not, then He would be found to be in some way circumscribed. So He is everywhere and in everything. In what way is this so? Is He contained not by each part but by the whole? No, because then that would be a body. He embraces and encompasses everything, and is in Himself everywhere and also above everything, worshipped by true worshippers in His Spirit and His Truth.

14. Everywhere, not just on earth but above the earth, God will be worshipped by those whose faith is true and worthy of Him, as the incorporeal Father who is invisible in time and space, in the holy, pre-eternal Spirit, and in the Son and Word who together with the Father is without beginning, and who is the Father’s Truth in His very person. Souls and angels too are bodiless, and are not in any one place, but they are not everywhere. They do not encompass everything, but themselves need the all-encompassing God, and are in Him who embraces and contains all things, with their limits suitably set by Him. However, the soul does encompass the body with which it was created, and is everywhere within it, not in spatial terms nor as being contained in the body, but as enclosing and containing it, since it is in God's image in this respect as well.

15. When the Samaritan woman heard these extraordinary and divine words from Christ, that God can be truly worshipped in His Spirt and His Truth, she, like the soul betrothed to God in the Song of Songs, was stirred up by the voice of the immortal bridegroom and made mention of Him for whom she waited and longed, and whose presence was still concealed (S. of S. 2:8). “I know,” she said, “that Messias cometh, which is called Christ: when he is come, he will tell us all things” (John 4:25). Do you see how ready she was to believe that the awaited one was already at hand, and how hopeful she was? Surely David’s words apply also to her, “My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready: I will sing and give praise in my glory” (Ps. 57:7 Lxx).

16. How could she have known this with such certainty or had such a disposition in her soul, had she not studied the prophetic books with the utmost understanding? This is why she had her mind on such high matters, filled with divine inspiration. When I look with admiration at this Samaritan woman’s great spiritual longing for Christ, it occurs to me to apply to her once more words from that song, ‘Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, chosen as the sun’ (Song of Songs 6:10 Lxx). For when she proclaimed that soon Christ, the spiritual Sun of righteousness (Mal.4:2), would appear through her, I see her as though she were emerging from the baptismal font of the well where she was standing, having been instructed by Christ, looking forth as the much-loved morning. She was fair as the noon, because she gave light even though the night of ungodliness still reigned. She was chosen as the sun since she was given the name Photini by the Savior and was enrolled in the list of those who were to shine forth as the sun, according to the Gospel (Matt. 13:43), since she was to set the seal of a blessed martyr’s death on her subsequent radiant life. Even now she recognized Christ as true God and proclaimed Him with perfect theology. That which He later told His disciples about the Spirit who shared His own divine nature and honour, that, when He comes, He would teach all the truth (cf. John 16:13), she anticipated by saying of Christ, "When he is come, he will tell us all things" (John 4:25).

17. When Christ the spiritual bridegroom saw what she was like, He said to her, "I that speak unto thee am he." She immediately became a chosen bearer of the Good Tidings, left her water pot, ran to the city, drew everyone's attention with her words, and led them towards faith in Him whom she had seen, saying, "Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?" (John 4:29). She did not speak in this way because she harboured any doubts, but because she believed that others too would find fuller assurance by seeing the Lord and would be more easily convinced by speaking to Him, as in fact happened.

18. I have dealt very briefly with the subject so far, and I shall now pass over the rest of the Gospel passage, for I see that time is pressing you to attend to physical needs and the business of daily life. But think about this Samaritan woman. As soon as she heard the words of the Gospel, which we too proclaim to your charity, she immediately despised her body's necessities. Straight way she left her water pot and her house, , ran to the city and, having persuaded the Samaritans, returned with them to Christ. The words, "Come, see", actually mean, "Follow me and I shall lead you and show you the Saviour who has come into the world."

19. At that time she urged people in this manner and brought them to Christ. However, by abandoning her water pot and her house, she teaches is to value the benefit of the Lord's teaching more highly even than absolute necessities. The Lord too referred to His teaching as the "good part" when He spoke to Martha in defence of Mary, who was listening to His word (Luke 10:42). If we have to despise necessary things, how much more must we hold unnecessary things in contempt? What forces you away from listening to words beneficial to your soul? Your care for your home, you children or your wife? Your own or your family's grief and joy? Buying or selling property? The use, or rather misuse, of your possessions? But listen intelligently to the apostolic teaching, "Brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives behave as though they had none; and they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; and they that use this world, as not abusing it: for the fashion of this world passeth away" (1 Cor. 7:29-31).

20. What does it mean that "the time is short"? Life is brief, death is near, this world is passing away, and there is another one that lasts for ever. The things that convey us with certainty into that world are: despising this present world, preparing for the one to come, as far as possible living here according to the order of that world, and fleeing as far as we can from what is harmful in this present life. When enemies make frequent attacks on the lands outside our city, it is as if we did not possess our own fields, and most of the time we abandon them and sit safely inside. Then when the enemies temporarily withdraw, for a little while we make use of the paths in front of the town, without misusing them, for we see that time is short. In the same way, the apostle rightly exhorts us to use this world but not abuse it, for he sees our invisible enemies' harmful influence and our imminent destruction. "For the fashion of this world", he says, "passeth away". The things of the present have no actual existence but are, as it were, just outward forms, which come to pass but have no real being, as they are short-lived, fleeting phenomena. Anyone who wants to possess them will never be able to, for they are like the shadow of a waterless summer cloud scudding by driven along by the wind. So the aim of the apostle's counsel is to reveal the intention of each one of us and to give a token whereby we can recognize teaching that comes from God. As I have said already, even if someone wishes to possess the things of the present, they are impossible to acquire, for two reasons. Not only is this world passing away, but so is each one of us who uses this world, and sometimes we depart before our worldly possessions pass away. Everyone passes through life along a road which is affected by many different factors and which will leave him. One of two things happens. Either the road reaches its end before he does and he can no longer keep what he has acquired, or else he reaches his final end before this road of life, and can no longer hold on to any of this life's goods. Man is mortal, and he is bound up with the concerns of this life, which are themselves subject to change. Anyone united with what is changeable either suffers all manner of reverses and loses what he has, such as riches, splendour and pleasure, or else he dies and brings upon himself the greatest change of all, departing naked and abandoning all the goods of this present life and his hopes for them. He may leave them to his children, but what joy does that bring him? He is no longer aware of what happens here, and his children, too, fall in one way or the other.

21. The end of those who are devoted to this world is always misfortune, since they are eventually carried away naked, leaving everything they loved here. By contrast, for those who despise this world's goods and seek to learn about the world to come and hasten to do what serves to attain it, death does not inflict loss when it comes, but rather it conveys them away from what is vain and unstable to the day without evening, undying life, inexhaustible riches, unfading joy, eternal glory, and things that truly exist and remain for ever unchanged.

22. May we all attain to this, by the grace and love for mankind of Him who bowed the heavens and came down for our sake, not just down as far as us but as far as the souls shut up in the depths. He quickly came up from that place by His resurrection and the restoration of all things to life, and bestowed on us through Himself enlightenment, knowledge, and the hope of heavenly, eternal things, in which He is glorified unto the ages of ages. Amen.

From Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies, "Homily Nineteen: On the Gospel About the Samaritan Woman", Thabor Publishing, pp. 152-162.