Dear Brothers and Sisters, Christ is Risen!
The Samaritan woman in today’s Gospel is exposed as a very immoral person, isn’t she? The Gospel shows that it was Jesus Himself Who exposed her sinfulness when He “said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and return here.’ The woman answered and said, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You have well said, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that you spoke truly.’” Now notice that he didn’t expose her publicly. He didn’t reveal her sins in front of others. He was careful not to humiliate or embarrass her that way. Her boyfriend wasn’t there. Her children were not there. The disciples of Jesus were not there. The townspeople were not there. Notice too how he didn’t speak harshly or angrily with her. St. Paul, in our Bible Study chapter this week, admonished the Galatians to behave in a similar way: “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any misstep, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1).
Jesus does not condemn the woman, and doesn’t judge her. He simply points out her sins. Why? In order to teach us to learn from His example. Each person, even if they appear to be immersed in their sins and fixed in their position, is nonetheless a child of God and is potentially a faithful member of the Church. This is, by the way, why many priests, including myself, will gladly offer prayers, moliebens, etc. for non-Orthodox, non-Christians, and even atheists. We are taught to view each person in hope, and to meet each person with love. This is what the Gospel demands. And why not? Notice the woman was not obstreperous, she did not react defiantly, but her heart drank in that “living water” of the Spirit like parched earth, didn’t she? Because her heart was open, because she allowed that “yearning for God” which every single human being is born with; because she allowed that yearning to bubble-up within her soul, she was able to receive Christ’s word of salvation, and was able to recognize Him as the Messiah, the Christ.
Even a word of correction, if it is delivered with love, can be received as a positive word, as a healing word. St. Paul said that we will know that we are maturing as Christians when we are “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). With these things in mind, I’d like to share with you two stories from my own life-experience. (If you’ve heard them before, as always, I beg your indulgence and your pardon.)
The first took place many years ago at Philotheou monastery on Mount Athos. Our small group of pilgrims were hoping to receive Holy Communion there at the Liturgy the next morning. The guest-master told us that the rule there was Confession before Communion, which we assumed would be the case. In the middle of the night, during the Kathisma of Matins I was tapped on the shoulder by a young hierodeacon who escorted me to a side chapel. I was shown a chair in the near total darkness. Seated across from me, barely visible in the dim candle light, was a small elderly monk wearing his priestly stole, epitachilion. The young hierodeacon, in perfect unaccented English, told me I could begin my confession. I asked him, “Does Father speak English?” He answered “No, but I will translate for you.” Well, I thought, this will be a first! So, I commenced my translated confession. The old monk listened, head tilted slightly, but didn’t say a word. When I was finished, it turned out...I wasn’t. The old man finally spoke, and through the hierodeacon, asked me about the sins I had forgotten to confess, listing them one by one, about ten or fifteen in all. I was dumbfounded, but not defensive. They were all true. All were accurate. But I did not feel condemned, I did not feel judged. I felt only peace and calm, like a spiritual warm embrace, and that’s exactly what it was, the forgiving and saving embrace of Christ. My sins were exposed, but my joy remained. This is speaking the truth in love. This is correction in the Holy Spirit. And of course later in the stay at Philotheou monastery it was revealed that the elderly monk who heard my confession was none other than Elder Ephraim himself, and the young hieromonk who helped me, is now the Abbot of St. Anthony’s in Arizona, Archimandrite Paisios.
The last story takes place on the Russian island named Talabsk (“Zalit” in Soviet times) in the middle of Lake Pskov, on the Estonian border. We were a small group of pilgrims, so we hired a fishing boat to take us out there, hopefully in time for Divine Liturgy, and hopefully to meet a renowned elder, a staretz, named Father Nikolay Gurianov.
I didn’t know much about this elder. I knew that he was a very aged parish priest and that he had suffered at the hands of the communists for years. He had been exiled, he had been sent to a work camps where his feet were ruined. I also knew that he was a church poet and a writer of ecclesiastical songs and hymns. So, we were going to meet him. But in my mind I asked myself, “Does one simply go to “meet” a Confessor for the faith? A staretz? I thought that I should at least have a question for him. But what question? It mustn’t be a stupid question, I thought. It must be profound yet humble. I don’t want to embarrass myself! So the Liturgy ended. Elder Nikolay was unvesting in a room off of the altar. It had a double curtain rather than a door, and I could see the elder looking out at me, or was it “us?” I couldn’t really tell. Suddenly, he bee-lined out of the little room right at me. He grabbed me in his arms and as he held me, he began to sing. I didn’t know what the song was, and I never did get to ask him a question. But later I was told by our Russian fellow-traveler what he was singing: “My soul, my soul, arise! Why art thou sleeping? The end is drawing near, and thou shalt be confounded. Awake, then, and be watchful, that Christ our God may spare thee, Who is everywhere present and fills all things.” I asked no question, but I got my answer. I was corrected while I was being embraced; my sins were exposed, yet I felt nothing but love. This is what the Samaritan woman experienced on that day. That’s why she repented. That’s why she changed her whole life around, and that’s why she’s a saint on our calendar – St. Photini, the Samaritan Woman.
So dear ones, when we are tempted to react with angry words, or harsh and vengeful criticisms, whether directed at spouses or children, or co-workers, or the cashier, or the driver on the road, or your fellow parishioner or your relatives...stop. Remember the example of Christ with Photini. Remember the example of God’s holy ones. Stop. Take a breath. Let grace return to your soul, and when the time is right, speak the truth in love. Amen.
Christ is Risen!