A Reflection On Christ’s Encounter With The Samaritan Woman At Jacob’s Well

A Reflection On Christ’s Encounter With The Samaritan Woman At Jacob’s Well May 10, 2020

Manuel Panselinos: St Photina / Wikimedia Commons

In the Byzantine Calendar, the fifth Sunday of the Paschal Season (or the fourth Sunday after Easter) commemorates St. Photina, the Samaritan woman who encountered Jesus at Jacob’s well. On it, we are reminded once again of the way Jesus acted contrary to the expectations of his time, showing us that his followers, likewise, must transcend social conventions if and when they hinder the kingdom of God.

Eva Catafygiotu Topping expresses quite well one of the important elements of this meeting:

Her great surprise notwithstanding, the Samaritan woman responds. Soon the two at the well are engaged in conversation, discussing Jewish and Samaritan theology. This is even ore extraordinary. Jewish men did not talk to women in public, especially Jewish teachers our rabbis. Rabbis, moreover, never talked theology with a woman, either publicly or privately.[1]

Jesus originally engaged Photina by asking her for some water. She was startled by this: a Jewish man, a teacher, willingly talked to her and asked for her help:

The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, `Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water”  (Jn. 4:9-10 RSV).

Jesus initiated a theological discussion with Photina, and she willingly listened and found herself amazed with what he had to tell her. His engagement with her was critical and yet uplifting. He treated her, not as a woman of little worth, nor as a Samaritan hated by the Jews, but as one God loved. He knew her and her imperfections, but he also knew her and all the good she possessed. She accepted his correction, and doing so, she was also able to accept his affirmation. We all need to follow her example and learn how to accept both from Christ. We need metanoia, constantly reforming ourselves and changing our ways whenever they have led us away from the path God has established for us. We also need to see and understand that within all of us is much which God sees that is good. This is what he desires to lift up and affirm. God will not do it if we resist him, if we try to keep all that is good hidden deep within the mire of sin, but if we willingly acknowledge his correction, if we do not resist his criticism, we shall find our affirmation and our greater good, just like Photina did.

Indeed, Photina’s reaction to him demonstrated that such goodness was close to the surface in her; she was well informed and clearly was devoted to God. She was able to speak and talk theologically with Christ, and far from suppressing her desire to do so, Christ affirmed it and promoted it. “Christ accepted her knowledge and her intelligent meditation on divinely inspired Scripture as sweet savour, and gladly continued His conversation with her.”[2] Her voice was not silenced by Christ, even though, like all of us, her knowledge and understanding was limited and came as a result of her own religious background.  Jesus, responding to what she said, explained to her that both the Samaritans and Jews would find their affirmation in the transcendence of the kingdom of God

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.  You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.  But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn. 4:21-24 RSV).

Truly, there is much we can learn from this event. We must always keep in mind the relative value of human culture and the ways society embraces what it receives from God. Truth is found in it, but when that cultural norm is absolutized and used to discount and reject other cultural traditions, then it becomes problematic as the transcendence of the kingdom of God is lost. But if we keep in mind the relative value of any culture which develops out of divine inspiration, we feel free to learn from every culture, discerning something of the grandeur of the kingdom of God within each of them. Jesus affirmed the truths which the Samaritan woman knew and understood and used them to point to the greater, transcendent truth which he came to reveal. The same, then, can and should be done with other cultures, other forms of religious faith which demonstrate the rays of truth which God spread throughout the world. Truth does not contradict truth; wherever truth is found, we can find something which points to and connects with the greater truth of the Gospel.

Likewise, we must remember Christ came to the Samaritan woman. Though he came to her as one who was weary and in need of refreshment, he also came to her as she was one who was spiritually weary and in need of spiritual refreshment. St. Caesarius of Arles suggest that Christ’s weary nature came, not just from his physical burden, but his spiritual one, because the unfaithful nature of his people:

When He was in the midst of the apostle He rejoiced in spirit; when He was situated on the mountain He not only consoled them, but even revealed to them His own glory; when He was located in Samaria, wearied as He was from His journey, He was sitting at the well. Could the power of God be exhausted? Certainly not. But he was wearied because He could not find the people faithful. Christ was wearied, then, because He recognized no virtue in His people. Today, too, our disobedience wearies Him, as does also our weakness. For we are weak when we do not pursue the things which are strong and enduring, but follow what is temporal and fleeting.[3]

If this is the case, then Jesus, coming to the Samaritan woman, asking her for refreshment (while also planning to give her his own refreshment) suggests that he knew he she would be faithful once she came to know him. That is, he knew she could and would be able to refresh him by becoming one of his disciples. Her theological talk, her faith, was refreshing to him, and so he was able to lift her up and appoint her as his messenger, his “apostle” to the Samaritans (similar to St. Mary Magdalene being said to be the “apostle to the apostles”). Far from restricting her voice, Jesus only strengthened it with the living water of the Holy Spirit.

The encounter between St Photina and Jesus at Jacob’s well fits the Paschal season because it shows us how Jesus works with us as he saves us. He is at once critical, giving criticism when necessary, as he is affirming, working to lift us up, using the goodness within us as the foundation for his restorative work. But then he does something more. He gives us a share with the Holy Spirit, so that we find ourselves experiencing the glory of the kingdom of God.

[1] Eva Catafygiotu Topping, Holy Mothers of Orthodoxy (Minneapolis, MN: Light and Life Publishing Company, 1987), 56.

[2] St. Gregory Palamas, “On the Gospel About the Samaritan Woman” in Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies. trans. Christopher Veniamin and the Monastery of St. John the Baptist Essex, England (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009), 156.

[3] St. Caesarius of Arles, Sermons 81 – 186. Trans. Mary Magdeleine Mueller (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1963), 420 [Sermon 170*].


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