Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Samaritan Woman

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

From today’s gospel lesson [John 4:5-42] we heard the beautiful story of the conversion of St. Photini, the famous “woman at the well”. Like many people who would eventually become saints, her former life was somewhat less than ideal. This woman was, shall we say, unlucky at love, though it certainly wasn’t from a lack of trying! She had gone through five husbands before finally giving up on marriage to live with a man to whom she was not married. She might not have seemed the most likely candidate to receive a private meeting with the Son of God on that warm day by Jacob’s well. Yet despite her many sins, she was greatly beloved by God, as indeed we all are. Thus Jesus reached out to her just as He has to us, providing the same opportunity for repentance and salvation.

According to tradition, sometime after the events recorded in John’s gospel she was baptized by the apostles and given the name Photini which means “the enlightened one”. Following her conversion, she became an enthusiastic evangelist, journeying as far as Carthage on the African continent with the message of salvation, bringing along her five daughters, Anatoli, Photo, Photes, Paraskevi and Kyriaki, and her two sons, Victor and Joseph.

Following the deaths of Ss. Peter and Paul at the hands of the Emperor Nero, Photini and her family traveled extensively, converting countless pagans to Christianity through her zealous faith in Christ. During the difficult days of Nero’s persecution, her son Victor became an officer in the Roman army. Eventually his Christian faith put him at odds with his duties. He was put in charge of a mission to seek out Roman citizens who dared to acknowledge Christ. Refusing to obey such an order, Victor was brought to trial not only for insubordination and treason, but also for his own bold confession of faith in Christ. He was subsequently imprisoned and tortured brutally.

Hearing the tragic news of her son’s imprisonment, Photini demanded and received an audience with Emperor Nero himself. I suppose once you’ve had an audience with the Son of God, mere Roman emperors are no big deal! In an impassioned plea for her son’s life, she boldly spoke for the cause of Christianity. She told the disbelieving tyrant how Jesus is worshiped by the world as the True King and the Son of God. The astounded Nero admired her courage, but his seething hatred for Christians could not be subdued and he sentenced Photini and her entire family to prison. For two years they endured terrible suffering and, after bearing great witness to Christ, Photini and her seven children were at last awarded the imperishable crown of martyrdom.

In God’s mercy, their deaths would not occur before they had been granted the opportunity to sow the seeds of faith in Jesus Christ throughout vast regions of the Roman Empire. Their actions literally changed the world and helped lay the very foundation of Christianity in the apostolic age. What an amazing outcome from such an unlikely woman!

St. Photini found the power to change the world because she first found the power to change herself. Had she remained mired in her adultery and simply told others to “do as I say, not as I do” she would not have found her own salvation nor would have been able to help so many others to find theirs. She realized that the meat of Christianity is found not in words but in transformed lives. Thus she purified herself in Christ that her witness for Him might become pure as well. In short, she put substance over symbolism.

We Americans tend toward doing the exact opposite, often placing illusion over reality in our priorities. Most families live in colossal debt trying to support an outward appearance of prosperity. With the divorce rate at just over 50% and “financial stress” being the number one cause reported, it seems that we are willing to maintain our facade even if it does truly destroy us. Is it any wonder then that so many of our churches have followed this same model, existing in deep spiritual poverty for casting out the sacraments and Holy Tradition of ancient Christianity, yet promoting themselves as exciting places of “spirit-filled” power? Apparently we all live in a dream world in which reality can be reshaped into whatever we prefer.

The Orthodox Church is effectively a spiritual hospital in which those who are terminally ill with the disease of sin can be admitted to begin the healing therapy of washing and regeneration and receive continuously the Medicine of Immortality that leads to eternal life. By contrast, most Americans see “church” as a kind of club where the already saved and the spiritually-gifted go to celebrate their salvation. In a hospital it’s OK to admit that you’re sick, and rather foolish to pretend otherwise. In a club for the rich and gifted, the last thing you want to admit to others is that you are deeply impoverished and truly suffering or bringing suffering to others.

There is a great deal of hypocrisy in so many of our churches, because people act more spiritual than they really are. Sometimes this even causes people who are honest about their sins to despair, because they accept the lie that everyone else is better than they are and feel as if they don’t belong in the company of such wonderful saints. Isn’t that terrible? Shouldn’t the Church be acknowledged as a place of healing for the sinful and the broken-hearted? Wouldn’t you hope that every single person coming through our doors would receive understanding and love from those of us who know that the best thing about Orthodoxy is not its “correctness” but its ability to destroy illusion and reveal the reality of our sins and heal us?

What concerns me is that there are probably many of us sitting here this morning who still haven’t quite grasped this idea that the Church is a spiritual hospital and that we are all patients under its care. We may be desperately trying to maintain the pretense, either to ourselves or others, that we are better than we truly are. Thus when sin is inevitably revealed in our lives, we may try to conceal or deny it, or claim that it is not as bad as it seems. The last thing we may to want to do is to come to confession and reveal what we see as shameful to the doctor of our souls.

How foolish is that? What is more important to us, illusion or reality? Where is the sense in spending so much of life denying any illness, only to discover at the end that we squandered every opportunity for repentance and healing? As Americans, are we simply too caught up in the fantasy of perfection and prosperity to face the truth about ourselves? It’s a sobering question.

St. Photini certainly felt shame when her sins were revealed to her by Jesus. But she did not allow that shame to mutate into denial. She changed her life to be found pleasing to God. May the same God help us to discover what is true about ourselves, and enter into the repentance that will bring us healing.

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


At 5/09/2007 12:17 PM , Blogger Nancy said...

You said:
St. Photini found the power to change the world because she first found the power to change herself. .... She realized that the meat of Christianity is found not in words but in transformed lives.

Beautifully said! That became my own "bottom line" last year when I left the Episcopal church. Did I or did I not want a God who had the power and the will to change me? Anything less is a waste of time.



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