On John 4:5-42. Sunday of the Samaritan Woman
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“The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24).
“The hour is coming, and now is.” This is the first Sunday after Mid-Pentecost, the mid-point between Pascha and Pentecost, between that day when the Lord breathed the Holy Spirit upon his apostles for the forgiveness of sins and that day when the Holy Spirit will descend upon the apostles like tongues of fire so that the good news will be preached to all nations.
As we await the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we have not been singing our hymn to the Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who is everywhere present and who fills all things, who is the treasury of blessings and the giver of life, who is the gracious one who dwells within us, cleanses us of all stain, and saves our souls. This hymn is omitted until Pentecost. In its place, we sing, “Christ is risen.”
But we are now more than halfway to that feast of the Spirit’s coming, and on this day our Lord reminds us that the hour is coming when we will worship in the Spirit. We have not been praying “Heavenly King…,” but the Spirit of Truth is nonetheless among us and animates our worship. “The hour is coming, and now is.”
Even as the Lord Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman – not only before Pentecost but even before his own death and resurrection – he says that the hour is coming, and that the hour now is. Even then, the Spirit is already present everywhere and filling everything. Wherever there are blessings, there is the Holy Spirit, the treasury of blessings. Wherever there is life, there is the Holy Spirit, the giver of life. Wherever there is mercy and grace, there is the Holy Spirit, the gracious one, dwelling within us.
The Samaritan woman – called by tradition in various languages Photini, Svetlana, Fiona, or Claire – all names which mean “light” – is blessed and enlighted by the presence of Christ, the Light and by the unseen Holy Spirit, whose grace is the living water Christ promises. She is blessed, and so the treasury of blessings, the Holy Spirit, is with her.
Mercy and grace are present also to the Samaritan woman. The Lord shows her mercy and does not condemn her even as he reveals her illicit union saying “you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband” (4:18). Origen observes that her words – “I have no husband” – may be understood as a confession rather than an obfuscation. He writes, “She already had, as it were, something of the water that leaps into eternal life since she had said ... ‘I have no husband,’ having condemned herself on the basis of her association with such a husband.”[i]
She could have been admitting to Jesus that her union was not lawful – which would not have been an easy thing to admit in that culture to a strange man. Regardless, when the Lord rebukes her and reveals the full nature of her wrongs, she does not deny but admits that what he says is true because she calls him a prophet, which is to say that his words are the words of God. Clearly, mercy and grace are with her, and so the Holy Spirit, the gracious one, is with her.
The humble confession of wrongs always springs from the grace of the Holy Spirit as from a spring of living water. She says “Lord, give me this water,” and immediately the Lord provokes her confession – thus giving her the water she asks for. Immediately, she begins her entrance into eternal life.
It always begins with confession and repentance – the baptism of repentance – the baptism in living water – baptism into the death of Christ that we may rise with Christ. First, by baptism, comes death to the old self, the crucifixion of the old body of sin. Then comes life in Christ, free from sin, never more to die. (cf. Rom 6:3-12).
Baptism is our initiation into the Church. It makes sense, then, that after their talk of living water that gives eternal life, and after her moment of confession, the Samaritan woman asks about right worship – whether it is to be offered on Mount Gerizim as the Samaritans say or in Jerusalem as the Jews say – because worship is the life of the Church. Jesus of course answers that “true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth.” We are baptized and chrismated once so that our life of true worship in the Spirit may begin.
Above all, the true worship in Spirit and in Truth that the Lord prophesies is the Divine Liturgy. Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes that our Divine Liturgy “is entirely, from beginning to end, an epiclesis, an invocation of the Holy Spirit” (222). And so, even though we are only halfway to Pentecost, in a way, it is Pentecost at every Divine Liturgy.
Fr. Alkiviadis Calivas conceives of the Eucharist as a “continuous Pentecost” and writes that, in the Divine Liturgy, “the Holy Spirit, who is ever present in the Church, [is] animating and vivifying the Church, transforming the assembly into the Body of Christ” (181). The Holy Spirit, who is already and always with us, comes upon us before the gifts to prepare us to receive and become the body of Christ, the Son of God, in the Eucharist. “In the Eucharist,” Calivas writes, “we become Spirit-bearers so that we may receive Christ” (182).
Every blessing offered in the Liturgy only blesses inasmuch as the Holy Spirit – the treasury of blessings – gives the blessing. Without the grace of the gracious one dwelling within us, our ceremony would be empty. It would not cleanse us of our stains and it would not save our souls. “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps 127:1). Unless the Holy Spirit comes upon us in the Divine Liturgy, those who offer it labor in vain. Thanks (εὐχαριστία ) be to God the Father, who does hear the prayer of his priests and so does send his Holy Spirit first upon us and then upon our gifts of bread and wine making them the precious body and blood of his Son that we may partake of them for the remission of our sins and for life everlasting (Liturgikon 75-77, 92).