Names and Labels of the Pentecostarian: The Samaritan Woman
John 4, 5-42.
We find people commemorated on Sundays of the Pentecostarion who are no longer what they once were, yet we still seem to label them according to their former state or deeds. St. Thomas quickly stopped doubting when he met with the risen Lord, but his name has, within our culture, become irrevocably synonymous with uncertainty in one’s convictions. The myrrh-bearing women were actually made redundant from their task of myrrh-bearing as there was no longer a corpse to tend to. Furthermore, it’s not as if they had never done anything else. But they happened to be myrrh-bearing at the moment of the resurrection, so the name has stuck. Then there’s the paralysed man, whose name eludes us, but we know he received healing at a place called the Sheep Gate pool at Bethseda. He’d certainly been disabled for 38 years – and had become defined by his disability. But shouldn’t we now be defining him by his healing? Shouldn’t we call it the Sunday of the Healed Paralytic? Or is it more appropriate to dwell on the helplessness of the human state before it finds Christ?
Now we arrive at the fifth Sunday and find this person has a label too: Samaritan…and yet another: woman. Both are enough to push her to the margins of society, but her situation clearly isn’t one of physical disability - she’s the victim of what the sociologists would call a ‘social construct’: her ethnicity/religion and gender exclude her from ‘polite company’ due to the constraints imposed by social conventions.
Midday ('the sixth hour', v. 6) isn’t a normal time to be out collecting water, so it is by coming alone to Jacob’s Well (a name believed to have been bestowed because Jacob had owned land nearby), that the Samaritan woman has an unexpected encounter with Christ. Minding her own business, she was most probably surprised to see someone else there at that time of day and even more surprised that, as He was a Jew and male, He engaged in conversation with her. Notice that her two labels mean nothing to him, whereas she makes an assessment of Him ('You, being a Jew', v. 9) and observes that He's not behaving according to expected social norms, her focus landing more on her being a Samaritan than a woman: ‘For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans’ (v. 9). On the other hand, when the disciples arrive later, their focus was on her gender: ‘…they marvelled that he talked to a woman’ (v. 27). Nonetheless, they didn't challenge Him about His unconventional behaviour.
Christ didn’t need to perform a physical healing here, but it is His clairvoyance that marks him out to the woman as a holy man, or a ‘prophet’ (v. 19). She soon learns from Him that He is the Messiah; ‘I who speak to you am He’. (v.29), or ‘I am’, being the name of God: Christ reveals Himself as the Son of God, echoing the words spoken to Moses in Exodus 3:14: ‘I am the Existing One’.
In this way, St. Thomas, the Myrrhbearers, the paralysed man, and the Samaritan woman at the well are all presented with their own particular theophanies. In this case, it is appropriate that Christ reveals His true identity, because the Samaritan woman’s ethnic and gender identity both restrict her status in society. Yet Christ shows that he will not remain a stranger to her. He isn’t constrained by the norms of the world; He is God and ultimately concerns Himself with the salvation of all.
Although she isn’t named in the Bible, traditionally the Samaritan woman is known as Photini in Greek, Svetlana in Russian, Fiona in Celtic languages and Claire and its variants in other western European languages. All of these names speak of light; here she is at the well, newly illumined by Christ as one in Baptism: ‘for with You is the fountain of life; In Your light we see light’. (Psalm 36, 9-10, also forming part of the Great Doxology sung a the close of Sunday Matins).
There's one small but fascinating detail that marks her enlightenment: 'she left her waterpot' (v. 28) to go and tell others about her meeting. Was this due to excitement, bursting to break the news of her encounter? Was it due to negligence of her original task because it was no longer important at that moment? Certainly, the waterpot would have hampered her as she made her way into the city; she had already expressed her desire not to have to draw water at the well in future through partaking of the water 'springing up into everlasting life' (v.14). The waterpot represents a burden, like the burden of sin. It's not as if that in future she would be literally exempt from the necessary chore of drawing water, but liberated from the idea that this job (in those days, a woman's job, incidentally) and any other earthly tasks she undertook would be her only or most important jobs. In short, she, a Samaritan woman (an outsider), was endowed with a ministry, and thus became the first evangelist.
Unlike the paralysed man who is now released from his disability, we don’t need to consider that the Samaritan woman’s situation in terms of her identity has been changed by her experience. We can continue to call her the Samaritan woman with accuracy as she never stopped being a Samaritan in terms of her ethnicity, of course. Yet we should also be aware that none of the geography matters: ‘the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father’ (v. 21). ‘But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth’ (v. 23). This idea is echoed in Galatians 3:28, which also shows that her gender is of no concern either: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free; there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus’. Through her names, different in various languages yet with the same meaning, the identity of the Samaritan woman is transformed - and extends well beyond the one that was hers in this world.