Christ is Risen!
It is strangely appealing to define ourselves by our failures, especially when others know that we have stumbled and treat us poorly as a result. As well, our own pride often causes us to lose perspective such that we obsess about how we do not measure up to whatever illusion of perfection we have accepted. People are often their own harshest critics in ways that are not healthy at all.
On this Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, we celebrate that our Lord’s great victory over death enables us to be free from defining ourselves by our sins or by how other people may view us. He rises in glory not only over the tomb and Hades, but over all the distortions of the beauty of the human person created in His image and likeness. Today we commemorate that His salvation extends to our most painful failings and to the harsh judgments of others upon us. Even such difficult circumstances may become points of entry into the joy of the empty tomb.
The woman at the well certainly knew what it was like to be defined by others as someone who did not measure up. She was a Samaritan, and therefore rejected by the Jews as a heretic and a member of a despised group that had intermarried with Gentiles. She herself had been married five times and was now with a man to whom she was not married, which may have been why she went to draw water at the unlikely time of high noon. Perhaps she went to the well in the heat of the day in order to avoid the other Samaritan women who wanted nothing to do with someone like her.
Imagine her surprise, then, when the Savior asked her for a drink of water and then engaged in a conversation about spiritual matters with her. Jewish men simply did not strike up conversations with women in that time and place, and consuming food or drink from a Samaritan was out of the question. How even more shocking it is that Jesus Christ’s conversation with her is the longest recorded between Him and any one person in the four gospels. He spoke straightforwardly to her and did not shy away from uncomfortable truths that hit her where she lived. But instead of shutting down the conversation or running away in fear, this Samaritan woman told the people of her village about Christ. As a result, many of her neighbors came to believe in the Lord.
This Samaritan woman is known in the Church as St. Photini, which means “the enlightened one.” Through the Savior’s conversation with her, Photini became an evangelist who boldly shared the good news, even to her Samaritan neighbors who were surely used to viewing her in anything but spiritual terms. That took tremendous courage. Photini was not only brave in preaching to them, but ultimately in responding to the persecution of the pagan Roman emperor Nero, to whom she said “O most impious of the blind, you profligate and stupid man! Do you think me so deluded that I would consent to renounce my Lord Christ and instead offer sacrifice to idols as blind as you?” The Great Martyr Photini refused to back down and gave the ultimate witness to Christ’s victory over death by laying down her life for Him. The Savior had set her free even from fear of the grave.
Too many of us today flee in shame from uncomfortable truths, whether we encounter them in our own thoughts or in the opinions of others. Too many of us define ourselves by our failings, weaknesses, and temptations. Too many of us accept some unrealistic cultural standard of “the good life” as the norm we must meet in order to be worthwhile. Thank God, St. Photini the Great Martyr did none of that. In response to her shocking encounter with the Savior, she humbly acknowledged the truth about her brokenness; she did not react defensively or make excuses. She did not end the conversation or run away in shame. Instead, she was open to the healing of her soul, to the possibility of a new and restored life through the mercy of the Lord. This was such a great blessing to her that she immediately shared the good news with the people of her village and refused to stop, even to the point of laying down her life.
In this joyous season of Pascha, we celebrate that Christ’s victory over death delivers us from all the corrupting effects of sin, including our deeply ingrained habits of thought and action that distract us from facing the truth about ourselves. By setting us free from bondage to the fear of death, our Risen Lord enables us to make even our most bitter failures points of entry into the new day of His eternal life. He has conquered death, the wages of sin, which means that our sins now have only the power over us that we allow them to have. When, like St. Photini, we acknowledge them straightforwardly and turn away from them, we participate personally in the good news of Pascha. We rise from death to life as we enter into the joy of the empty tomb. But when we proudly refuse to confess or repent of our sins, we remain in slavery to our self-centered illusions of perfection, to our sense of shame that we do not live up to the standards that we think we must meet in order to be worthwhile.
In other words, we insist on being our own saviors. But since we cannot conquer death or heal our own souls, that is nothing but foolish pride that keeps us bound to the fear of death, to the terror of realizing how weak we are before the challenges we encounter both within our own minds and in relation to others. Our failures and weaknesses are not good in and of themselves, but we put them to good use when we let them open our eyes to the truth of who we are, of where we stand before the Lord. If we will use them as ways to humble ourselves without making excuses or otherwise blinding ourselves to what they reveal about us, then we will put ourselves in the blessed place of St. Photini, who was thirsty for strength and healing that she knew she could not give herself, for “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” from the depths of her soul.
Like her, we must refuse to be paralyzed by guilt and shame before others and in our own minds. Then we will take our attention off whether we measure up to some self-imposed standard and instead focus on receiving the healing mercy of Jesus Christ. No matter what we have done, no matter how distorted and corrupt any dimension of our life may be, no matter how anyone else treats or views us, Christ is able to raise us up with Him from death to life. That is not only a future promise, but a present reality. He rose in glory with His wounds still visible, and no wound that we or others have inflicted puts us beyond the good news of His resurrection. In this glorious season of Pascha, let us all become like the Great Martyr Photini by embracing enthusiastically the new life that the Savior has brought to the world, for Christ is Risen!