As we continue to celebrate the new life that Jesus Christ’s resurrection has brought to the world, we are reminded today that His mercy and blessing extend to all, even the most unlikely people, like the Samaritans and those who are despised and rejected by respectable society.
The Jews hated the Samaritans as religious and ethnic half-breeds because they had mixed the ethnic heritage and the religion of Israel with that of other peoples. No self-respecting Jew would have anything to do with a Samaritan, much less ask one for a drink of water. But Jesus Christ did, and a Samaritan woman came to recognize Him as the Messiah, to believe in Him, and to lead many other Samaritans to the faith. She ultimately becomes Saint Photini, an evangelist and martyr with the title “equal to the apostles.”
All the more remarkable is the fact that she was not only a Samaritan, but she was a woman. Jewish men simply did not strike up conversations with women in public. Women had low status in that time and place and were not expected to have deep theological conversations with rabbis. But this Messiah operated differently. He saw in her one made in the image and likeness of God who, like every one of us, is called to a life of holiness, regardless of where we stand in worldly hierarchies.
The Samaritan woman also seemed an unlikely candidate for holiness because of her history with men. She had been married five times and was then living with a man outside of marriage. Some have suggested that she went to the well at noon, an unusual time to do so, in order to avoid encountering the other women of her village due to her bad reputation. The Lord knew about her history, but did not condemn, judge, or ignore her as a result. Perhaps because she appreciated His respect and genuine concern, she acknowledged to Him the truth about her life and their conversation continued. Quite possibly, she had never encountered a man who had treated her in this way before as a beloved child of God.
And very soon, she told the men of her village that Jesus Christ is the Messiah. Can you imagine how surprised they probably were to hear this woman speaking to them of God, for they surely were not used to thinking of her as an especially religious person? Think of how brave Photini was, how radically her life was changed through her encounter with Jesus Christ.
We will make a mistake this Pascha if we think that the good news of Christ’s resurrection is only for people who live what we consider to be admirable lives, those who measure up to our standards, or who are members of groups that we admire. We must not exclude anyone from the possibility of embracing the new life brought into the world by the empty tomb, even if they presently order their lives in less than ideal ways—as is true of us all in some respects. Jesus Christ Himself brought the blessing of His kingdom to a Samaritan woman with an immoral lifestyle. She was changed by His mercy and changed her ways. Who knows how many came to share in His eternal life through her witness and ministry?
We learn from the story of St. Photini that we must not write off anyone as a hopeless case. We must not isolate ourselves from those whose lives seem especially broken and off course—or even perverse and godless. If we respond with hatred, judgment, or stony silence to those we deem unworthy, we turn away from Christ’s ministry of bringing new life to the whole world. For which of us has the right to cast the first stone at a sinner? Our Saviour never condoned sin of any kind and neither should we; but He came not to condemn, but to save. He came to bring sinners to repentance, to heal the sick, to give sight to the blind. He died and rose again for the salvation of all created in His image and likeness, of the entire world. He has made great saints of murderers, adulterers, and evildoers of every kind who have called on His mercy and changed their lives.
When we have the opportunity to show compassion or friendship or encouragement to someone whose life is off course and who seems very far from following Jesus Christ, we should do so. Whenever anyone who bears the image of God is treated as less than human, we should show them the love of Christ. When we have the chance to draw into our church community someone whose life has been noticeably less than perfect, we should not hesitate. Yes, we should treat them as our Lord treated the Samaritan woman who became a great saint. To do anything less is to place our own limits on the power of the Risen Lord to bring salvation to the world—and it is to refuse to follow in the way of the One who conquered death.
St. Photini is also a powerful example for each of us as we struggle with our own sins, passions, bad habits, and weaknesses. Sometimes the burden of our sinfulness is great and we are tempted to despair of ever finding peace and healing in our lives. The standards of Christ are so high and we are so low. We can become obsessed with our unworthiness; and if we are not careful, this way of thinking can lead us away from the Church, for the guilt and frustration of spiritual failure are hard to bear, and we often would simply rather not think about it.
St. Photini was no stranger to such failures, but she learned to keep her eyes on the prize of the new life in Christ. Perhaps her experiences had taught her humility. She knew she was a sinner and must have been thrilled finally to be on a path that would take her in a different direction. We do not know the details, but she surely faced struggles, temptations, and reminders of the mess that she had made of her life. Some of those difficulties probably occurred in her own thoughts. Some people probably continued to view her in a judgmental light, for there are always those who appoint themselves as self-righteous judges of their neighbours and like to look down on them.
Despite these obstacles, the Samaritan woman with a checkered past became a glorious saint, an evangelist equal to the apostles and ultimately a martyr. If she could pass over from sin to righteousness, from death to life, in Christ Jesus, then we can, too. The great blessing of Pascha comes to us all, and we have countless opportunities in our families, our marriages, our parish, our friendships, our workplace, our use of time, money, and energy, in all our thoughts, words, and deeds, to participate more fully in the Lord’s victory over sin and death.
No matter what we have done in the past, no matter our present weaknesses and challenges, no matter what anyone thinks or says about us, we must remember that the Son of God has conquered death in order to bring us into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity, to make us partakers of the divine nature. Like the Samaritan woman, we must acknowledge our corruption and turn to Christ with faith, love, and hope for a new life, and then continue on the journey of discipleship, even when we stumble or are tempted to give up.
Just as we ask for the Lord’s mercy on our sins, we must extend the same mercy to others. The Saviour spoke the truth with love and respect for the Samaritan woman, but he did not condemn or judge her. And He has surely not appointed any of us to judge others either.
St. Photini did not earn the new life given her by Christ, and Pascha is not a reward given to us for our good behavior. During this season of Pascha, we know that life eternal has sprung from an empty tomb purely as the result of our Lord’s love and mercy. The good news of Pascha extends to the Samaritan women of our day and even to us. So let us embrace our Risen Lord and become participants in His life. He raised up St. Photini and brought her from darkness into light; and He will do the same for us when we respond with faith and repentance: that is the gloriously good news of this season of resurrection. Let us embrace Him by living a holy life that draws others into the new day of the Heavenly Kingdom, even as did St. Photini the Great Martyr and Equal to the Apostles.
Fr. Philip LeMasters
The original name of the Samaritan woman is not known, but the church knows her as Photini, “Equal to the Apostles”. She was baptized after the resurrection, and in a continuation of her zealous apostolic ministry begun on the day she met the Lord, preached in many areas, including Carthage and Smyrna in Asia Minor, where she was martyred. She had five daughters and two sons, all of whom became martyrs. She is commemorated February 28th, and, of course, on the fifth Sunday of Pascha.