Ancient Answers


Conversation at the Core of Life


A Gospel reading of contrasts

Jesus in John’s Gospel is identified as Creator and life-giver – The Logos: All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. In him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:1-5).

Jesus’ thirst was the incentive for the conversation! Was he only thirsty for water? Wasn’t he also thirsty for human interaction, conversation? Isn’t that God’s basic longing? Isn’t that part of why Jesus is the Logos? Why the Bible is the word of God, but also the word of man?

  • Jesus speaks of spiritual thirst – the woman speaks of literal thirst. Another contrast? Or, rather just two sides of the same basic human craving. The well was a place of conversation in that part of the world – especially for women. Water is essential to life. So is conversation! And I don’t mean texting. 

The woman switches the subject to religion. Who is right? We Samaritans or you Jews? Where is the proper place to worship God? Here on our mountain or in Jerusalem? Jesus’ answer is shocking: No place – not yours, not ours. We must worship God in spirit and truth.

The woman is not convinced – this is too advanced for her, too radical, so she finds a way out: “When Messiah comes, he will reveal all things to us.” Which draws a momentous self-revelation from Jesus: I AM, εγώ ειμι. Jesus habitually resisted identifying himself as Messiah – but he does to this Samaritan woman, a woman not of his own religion.

A story in yesterday’s Guardian newspaper told of two native-American teenagers signed up for a tour of Colorado State University. One mother called the police because they looked like “they don’t belong.” She said they were quiet and “creepy” and “really stand out.” “They don’t belong” – that’s what Jews thought of Samaritans, and vice versa. That’s what many Christians today think of people who don’t look like us. 

What was that line by Rabbi Sacks last week? God asks us to see His image in one who is not in my image. If we worship God in spirit and truth, we don’t see differences. We see the image of God. We see the life-giver Christ, we see the Logos who gave life to all people.

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Spirit and Truth

It seems I’m not the only one who read carefully the article about millennials and the church in the Washington Post. It obviously created significant buzz in some circles. A friend of mine sent me an article by David French in a certain magazine, without endorsing its content. It was a rather hateful attack on the same Post article that I referred to last week.

He accuses that millennials will destroy the church because:
  • They want an end to the culture wars. They want a truce between science and faith.
  • They want to be known for what they stand for, not what they are against.
  • They want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.
  • They want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.
  • They want their LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.
  • They want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.

When I combine this list with what I read in that Washington Post article – authenticity, inclusivity, sacraments, faith, community – I don’t see much difference from what Jesus preached and did. And yet, this David French, asserts that if you want to destroy your church, do what these millennials are asking!

Jesus and the Samaritan woman1

Let’s see what Jesus says and does in the Gospel reading of the Samaritan woman. It’s not far from what the millennials look for in a church.

  • He broke down barriers – he spoke with a woman; a Samaritan; and a sinner by the definitions of religion!
  • He is inclusive. He treats the woman as anyone else, no distinction of nationality and religion.
  • His vision of salvation is universal.
  • His vision of worship is spiritual, not tied to any tradition. “In spirit and in truth” – that’s what millennials call authenticity!

Do you think Jesus would have treated her differently if she were lesbian? Or conservative? Or liberal? Or Chinese? Or Cuban? We label people AND ideas too easily. And have you noticed? We usually label people we don’t like or we disagree with. So labeling is primarily negative, not positive!

Our Gospel reading is a powerful reminder of what was most important to Jesus: People, not labels or categories! This woman was by herself at the well in the hottest part of the day because she was labeled and everyone gossiped about her. When others gossip about you the last thing you want to do is go to the well in the morning when all the other women are there – who will look at you and whisper about you. Jesus does exactly the opposite. And he brought this woman right into the kingdom.


The first thing the Samaritan woman did after her encounter with the kingdom of God was to preach to the people who had shamed her!


The church has given her a name – a Greek name, as was customary in that unique form of Byzantine cultural imperialism. She obviously was not Greek; but it’s a good name, nevertheless: Photini. The name means shining with light! According to church tradition, she became an evangelist and was martyred in Rome with her two sons and five sisters during the persecutions of Emperor Nero. She brought the light of Christ to many, starting with some of her own townspeople, maybe even some of the women who used to shun her!

st-photine-the-samaritan-womanHere’s what her Apolytikion (Feb 26) says: Illumined by the Holy Spirit, you drank with great and ardent longing the water that Christ the Savior gave to you. With the streams of salvation you were refreshed, and you abundantly gave to those who were thirsty. O Great Martyr and equal of the Apostles, Photine!

She was labeled, she was judged – but not by Jesus. He brought her into the kingdom of God and the church wisely elevated her to the status of apostle. We are all called to be full of light and light-givers to others. Just like the Samaritan woman!


The story of the Samaritan woman at the well was one of the first gospel scenes to receive iconographic representation, as in one of the catacombs of Rome in the late 2nd or early 3rd centuries, illustrated here. (click to enlarge)

The story of the Samaritan woman at the well was one of the first gospel scenes to receive iconographic representation, as in one of the catacombs of Rome in the late 2nd or early 3rd centuries, illustrated here. (click to enlarge)