Today’s reading, considered one of the longest dialogues in this gospel, is from John 4:5-42.
As a preface, we should reflect on the verse that precedes the biblical passage specified for reading, which says: “He (Jesus) needed to go through Samaria,” (John 4: 4). Here, the phrase “He needed” does not translate to coercion, but occurred because of His “divine providence” which we will witness towards the end of the evangelical passage when Jesus fulfilled this “divine mission”.
Jesus was heading north from Judea to Galilee, and there he passed by Samaria to a city called Sychar where Jacob’s well was. And the gospel says, “Jesus therefore, being wearied from His journey, sat thus by the well. It was about the sixth hour,” (4: 6). Here we read that Jesus was tired, thirsty, and hungry. For this reason, “His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food,” (4: 8). This mention of hunger bears as conclusive evidence that the Lord Jesus was indeed man, as man often hungers and thirsts in the face of heat and hard labour.
“It was about the sixth hour” when “a woman of Samaria came to draw water” (4: 6-7). The sixth hour in the Eastern reckoning is midday. This hour has biblical significance; Eve was expelled from Paradise at the sixth hour because of the seduction of the serpent. We read in the Vespers: “At the sixth hour Thou didst come to the well, O Fountain of wonder, to ensnare the fruit of Eve; for that one, at the very same hour, had been driven from paradise by the serpent’s temptation. Then the Samaritan woman came to draw water.”
This is when Jesus saw the Samaritan woman and requested that she give him a drink. Here we see the Creator asking His creature to give Him water to drink. He, who has created the seas and rivers, and suspended the land on the water and “gathered the waters into the places where they are gathered, and Who is of one throne with the Father and the Spirit;” was asking a sinful woman to give him a drink.
This represents the beginning of the dialogue that Jesus initiated. The Samaritan woman knew Him to be a Jew from His appearance and His accent, and she said: “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman? For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans?”. At that time, we know there was great animosity between Jews and the Samaritans, based on religious disputes mainly about where God must be worshipped, in Jerusalem, or in the temple built on a mountain called Gerizim.
Despite this known animosity, the Samaritan woman did not keep silent, but out of her concern that the Lord was doing something unlawful, she attempted to correct Him. But Christ, who “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” (1 Tim 2:4) broke this custom, as it was He who initiated the dialogue first. By this simple request and initial contact, He broke down the barriers of hatred between Jews and Samaritans, seeking the salvation of this woman and the people of her city.
The woman’s repulsion towards the Lord Jesus did not prevent Him from continuing His conversation with her, and therefore taking her to a higher level of divine understanding and revelation, He said to her: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water,” (4:10).
Here it appears that the woman did not understand the words of Jesus about “living water,” just as His disciples later did not understand His words about “food and eating” when He said to them: “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to complete His work,” (4:34). We see the woman still remains confined within her understanding, still thinking of earthly spring water. She answers Him: “Sir, You have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep. Where then do You get that living water?”
Jesus’ response sparked an arousal of curiosity within her and made her notice that she was lacking something. He said to her: “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life,” (4:14).
Here, it must be made clear that the Lord Jesus calls the grace of the Holy Spirit “living water” and elsewhere, the Holy Spirit is “fire” (Matthew 3:11). St. John Chrysostom explains that “scripture calls the grace of the Spirit sometimes Fire, sometimes Water, showing that these names are not descriptive of its essence, but of its operation; for the Spirit, being invisible and simple, cannot be made up of different substances”. The nature of both water and fire purifies, therefore, they were used to refer to the action of the Holy Spirit in the human soul (purification). St. Maximos the Confessor writes, “for the single identical Spirit takes His different names from the different ways in which He acts on each person”.
The Samaritan woman’s response to Jesus was earthly, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.” Up until this point, the Samaritan woman had viewed Jesus as an ordinary Jewish man, calling Him “Sir”. But throughout the dialogue, we witness a shift in her attitude towards Him as Christ gives her the opportunity to attain self-knowledge before later revealing Himself to her.
The Lord Jesus asked her to call her husband and bring him here, to which she confesses that the man she lives with is not her husband, and comes to the enlightened realisation that this ‘Jewish man’s’ knowledge of her past can only mean that she was not standing in front of an ordinary Jewish person, but rather a Prophet, who knows the hidden parts of the heart. She asks, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet?” and is further prompted to ask Him a doctrinal question that represents the essence of the doctrinal dispute between the Jews and the Samaritans. St. John Chrysostom comments, “Do you see how much more elevated in mind she has become? She who was anxious that she might not be troubled for thirst, now questions concerning doctrines.”
Jesus then avoids a direct answer to her question: “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship?” In the same way he avoided answering her previous question: “Are You greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, as well as his sons and his livestock?” Jesus’ goal was not to compare the worship of the Jews with that of the Samaritans as much as it was to lead the woman to true worship in “spirit and truth”.
There are several references in the Old Testament which indicate that God was not pleased with a particular kind of worship. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart, These, O God, You will not despise,” says the prophet David in Psalm 50. Also, we read successively from the prophet Isaiah “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams. And the fat of fed cattle. I do not delight in the blood of bulls, Or of lambs or goats,” (Isaiah 1: 11-19). In the New Testament, Jesus rebukes the customs of the Pharisees and Scribes when He said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘These people honour Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men,” (Mark 7: 6).
The Lord’s answer about worship in “spirit and truth” led the Samaritan woman to a higher level of divine revelation, to the point of inquiring about the coming of the Messiah. “I know that Messiah is coming (who is called Christ). When He comes, He will tell us all things.” And as the final divine revelation, Jesus says to her: “I who speak to you am He. And here I am telling you everything you need in order to save yourself.” Christ does not show Who He is until the woman’s virtue, humility, and repentance have been revealed. Then He begins to speak to her of more profound matters.
The arrival of the disciples coincides with the departure of the Samaritan woman from the well “where she left her waterpot,” meaning that she had forgotten the initial reason for coming to the well. The encounter with Jesus altered her priorities and her life, and He became the centre and the goal, the “living water” that quenched her thirst. The woman returned to her hometown and revealed to her people, saying: “Come, see a Man who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?”
Afterward, the lord conversed with His disciples about sowing and harvesting. “I sent you to reap that for which you have not laboured; others have laboured, and you have entered into their labours,” (38: 4). The Prophets undertook the harder work, He says, while you are sent out merely to complete what has already been prepared. But in the end, “both he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together” when they see the fruits of Eternal Life.
Jesus stayed with the Samaritans for two days. They came to believe in Him, but their faith was not based only on the words and experience of the Samaritan woman, but on their personal experience with Him, after their personal encounter with Him and hearing His words. “Now we believe, not because of what you said, for we ourselves have heard Him and we know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world.”
This Biblical passage represents the model of dialogue with God and how it leads to self-knowledge and to the knowledge of God. Evagrius of Pontus writes: “Do you want to know God? Learn first to know yourself.” Saint Nilus also writes: “When you know yourself, you are able to know God.”
The life of this Samaritan woman after encountering Jesus has been transformed. She showed repentance and acceptance of Him as a “Messiah” in her life, and after conversing with the Saviour, a ray of divine light illuminated her soul; she was baptised with her five sisters and two sons on the day of Pentecost and she became known as “Photini”, the illumined one. She travelled to many places and preached about Christ with a fire in her heart that drew people to her faith. She proclaimed the good news, the Gospel, to her people even before the Apostles did. In the end, she suffered martyrdom in Rome after she had been thrown into a well for several weeks. The Orthodox Church commemorates St. Photini on February 26.
Every one of us, after his or her Baptism, becomes a Photios or Photini, illuminated by the divine rays of the Holy Trinity. If your life has been transformed, don’t deprive your family, friend, or the people around you from encountering Christ and accepting Him as Saviour. Amen.